Monday, March 14, 2016

Nothing to Confess: The Clear Conscience of a Still-Vegetarian

Posted By on Mon, Mar 14, 2016 at 8:47 AM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • Photo by Kelly Glueck
Last week, St. Louis scribe Thomas Crone spilled plenty of ink explaining his decision to chuck twenty years of vegetarianism ("Confessions of a Vegetarian" ran on the RFT cover March 9). He explained his reasoning and explored his attempts to be ethical about it.

Far from making a case for eating meat mindfully, however, his piece made me feel even more smug and insufferable about my own vegetarianism—which is no mean feat since I’m pretty damn insufferable already. He let himself off the hook too easily, and moved his standards around when they proved difficult to meet.

Mr. Crone and I don’t know one another, but I’ve been reading and enjoying his trenchant and heartfelt observations on this city since I moved here in 2010. I didn’t know he had been a vegetarian, but I wasn’t surprised to read as much. As a nearly-twenty-year vegetarian myself, I tend to assume that the smart and compassionate people I come across are vegetarians, and get bummed out if I find out they’re not.

Though his choices are truly none of my business, I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed on behalf of all the animals he’s going to consume. I’m disappointed that the good guys have one fewer ambassador, and I’m disappointed that there’s now another “former” for the meat-mouths to point out: “See, that smart, thoughtful guy tried for 20 years and even he couldn’t hang!” And the fact is, for all his hand-wringing, Crone’s decision defies both compassion and logic. It all seems to come down to the fact that he just feels like eating meat again.

Humans don’t need to consume flesh to thrive. That’s a fact. And to me, the ethics are pretty clear-cut. Eating animals involves violence, and choosing to eat meat means agreeing to complicity with that violence. You can decide to be okay with the violence and decide it’s a price you’re willing to pay, but you can never turn away from it or pretend it’s not happening.

Meat raised humanely on small farms involves significantly less violence, sure. But your pork chop, sustainably raised and artisanal though it may be, did not die of natural causes—someone ended a pig’s life violently so that you could chew it up.

And if you’re not consuming sustainable meat from a small farm (and if you’re not at a farm-to-table restaurant or consuming meat you bought from such a farm, you almost certainly aren’t), you’re participating in factory farming. That’s so ethically beyond the pale as to make torture-porn movies a la the Saw franchise look like a walk in the park.

(A quick and dirty primer on factory farming: the chickens, pigs and cows you eat are raised in miserably tiny, dirty, literally shitty enclosures called CAFOs, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. The animals are pumped full of drugs to combat the diseases they inevitably pick up during their short, grotesque lives, and then they’re killed on assembly lines of death by people who are often terribly underpaid. Google your way to some slaughterhouse and CAFO footage if you want. Your day will be ruined, I promise.)

In the story, we walk through a series of scenes: hanging out with vigorous, squirmy pigs; meeting chefs; partying with pork-noshing monks. Crone clearly shows that it is possible to spend an incredible amount of time and money to ensure that you eat animals who face only one shitty moment—the last one—in their otherwise bucolic lives.

Personally, I would never go that route, but I don’t condemn it like I condemn factory faming. But that’s not what happens in the story.

Even after our narrator leads us through all these ethical strictures he considers for his return to meat-eating, they all fall by the wayside in favor of economics, social graces or curiosity. Ultimately, he gives up what’s right for what’s convenient.

His taste for meat grows, even as his devotion to his ethical compromises wanes. He explains his failure at eating only animals he kills himself. So he moves to only eating humanely slaughtered meat, then to sandwiches made with any old meat, and finally to contemplating industrial bologna (which, dude, ew. Even committed carnivores can agree that stuff is foul).

“Part of the problem was that I didn’t have the stomach to do the slaughtering,” he writes.

Outsourcing morally reprehensible behavior doesn’t give you a pass. In fact, it’s worse. Crone knows—without a doubt, because he tried to do it—that killing an animal is a terrible, gut-wrenching thing to do. He can’t claim ignorance. He proves his own hypothesis about how morally troubling it is, and then goes on to keep eating meat anyway.

My sister was a vegetarian for about 15 minutes in her early 20s, but she chucked it. I don’t ever presume to speak for her or her choices, but I do know that the artists’ compound in New Orleans that she calls home is overrun by well-fed and truly free-range chickens she and her compatriots raise from eggs. I know she kills them with her own hands before turning them into dinner. I could never do that—so I don’t. Philosophically, I can’t afford to pay someone else to do something horrible for me and then pretend it’s okay.

I have more respect for hunters who eat their kills than I do for people who think some abstract substance called “meat” just appears, wrapped in cellophane in the grocery store. (These are often the people who can be found holding forth over hamburgers on how dog-fighting football dude Michael Vick should have probably been sentenced to life in prison, but I digress…) Food-hunters (the designation is important—trophy-hunters can just go piss up a rope) at least have the temerity to go track an animal and take its life themselves. They aren’t lying to themselves about where meat comes from.

In the story, we meet a chef who cops to the “discomfort” involved in boiling a lobster alive, and so he thanks the animal before killing it. That’s pretty absurd. A lobster can’t comprehend your hippie-woo-woo “thanks.” A pig doesn’t have any way to comprehend your murmured contrition. It sure as hell knows it objects to what’s happening when it screams before being slaughtered, though. “Thanking” the animal is mental masturbation, a whistle past the graveyard meant to inoculate you against the moral consequences of your own cavalier act.

So, after twenty years, Mr. Crone chooses to return to a system he recognizes as violent and often ethically dicey. He can’t claim ignorance of what it means to eat an animal—he tried and failed to do his own slaughtering, and after 20 years of being on Morrisey’s side of the meat debate he surely knows what happens on a factory farm. But here we are.

It’s not always convenient or cool to turn down someone’s home-cooked meal or load up on potato chips at a barbecue. But knowing what I know – and what he knows – I’m gonna stay here on Team Tofu. Even if, as Crone writes, pork steaks are apparently damned delicious.

Melissa Meinzer writes about arts, culture, food and ephemera around St. Louis. Recommend places to find vegetarian pho at @journomeinzer. The RFT welcomes well-reasoned essays on topics of local interest, even if you're rebutting our own staffers. Contact sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com if you've got a story to tell.


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