From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt:
The Culinary Cult
We’re all opposed to animal cruelty… until the definition of “animal cruelty” becomes so broad and far-reaching that it includes ordering McNuggets.
Matt Scully wrote on NRO earlier this week a defense of animal rights that included a de facto call for veganism — “you don’t really know your fellow man until you’ve pondered the fact that most people say they love animals, professing admiration and sympathy, and most people eat them” and a pretty harsh assessment of the world’s hunters, characterizing them as “the 5 or 6 percent of our population who still think it is normal, and indeed praiseworthy, to stalk, sneak up on, and dispatch animals for no better reason than the malicious thrill of it, memorializing these moments with their ‘trophies.’”
(I notice Scully never mentioned fish in his piece. Is it because fish just look more like food to us than cows or pigs? Is it because the fish on our plate can look more like a fish in the sea than a steak looks like a cow? Or is it that when fish is literally the main course on Jesus’ catering extravaganza, it’s harder to argue that eating a fish is inconsistent with Christian values?)
Scully’s moral argument against meat eating sounds great, as long as you don’t think about the mice, rabbits, squirrels, moles, groundhogs, and other creatures great and small killed by the combines in the cornfields and green spaces where our vegetables are grown. Anybody who lives in the country has seen turkey vultures circling and swooping down on the fields where the cornstalks have been reduced to stubble, or the murders of crows that gather to slowly hop and pick their way across the earth, taking sustenance in the animals killed in the raising of vegetables. There’s a hard truth in life that many of us either don’t think about or choose to ignore: We all eat to survive, and that means that something had to die in order for you to live. Chances are, even if you’re the most committed vegan you know, animals died in the making of your last, and next, meal.
Knowing this and recognizing this doesn’t make you a monster. It makes you mature. It gives you a greater understanding of your place in the world, and the responsibilities we all have to treat the creatures we eat with care and concern. Yes, we should be concerned about wanton cruelty to animals. We should actively work to stop it where we find it. But we shouldn’t define animal cruelty down to the point that eating free-range chicken is comparable to mass murder, nor should we casually condemn millions of Americans for being “trophy hunters” without considering the benefit that their hunting provides.
My friend Trent Marsh, who lives, hunts, farms, and writes in rural Indiana, thinks that Scully’s argument may make sense from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, or among those Americans who only view animals as a commodity, but it’s different for those raising and hunting these animals. To those Americans, these creatures aren’t abstract ideas or data points. “To the farmer the hog is a partner, both in life and death,” Marsh told me. “For the hunter, the hunted is the embodiment of the wild they seek to protect. These aren’t lives that can be read about in books. They can’t be studied, or made into role-player games for the masses to enjoy. These lives are earned through nights spent tending a laboring sow, or moving a herd of cattle into safer pastures ahead of a blizzard. Because for the farmer, large or small, reliance is a two-way street.”
Modern American society features many, many Americans choosing to embrace all kinds of dietary restrictions. Millions more have dietary restrictions imposed upon them by their health. Just contemplating holiday meals in the coming days, I’m realizing that at our house we’ll have at least two pescataraians (no meat, but eat fish), several lactose-intolerant folks, at least one gluten-free attendee and several kids who are picky eaters. Oh, and every once in a while I try to avoid carbs. (God bless my wife preparing Christmas dinner with this set of Byzantine culinary expectations. Also, I notice everybody drinks.) Everybody’s chosen the diet that makes the most sense for them. If everyone around the extended family dinner table tried to persuade everyone else to change what they choose to eat, we would have… well, an even more chaotic Christmas day than usual.
Why is it so hard to choose a dietary set of ethics that’s right for you… and just stop there? Why must everyone turn into an evangelist for the One True Dietary Faith? You’ve heard the joke: “A vegan, an atheist, and a cross-fitter walked into a bar… we all knew because they all chose to announce it to everyone else within the first two minutes.” Yes, we know, you’ve figured out which combination of super-foods will give you a better memory at age 98. I congratulate you on enjoying what will be, probably literally, the last laugh.
When it’s Lent, and I remember I’m not supposed to eat meat – which is usually 50-50 odds by dinnertime – I don’t run around the restaurant haranguing the other Catholics to order fish. If your set of food ethics satisfies you, go right ahead and enjoy that… and let everybody else eat in peace.