Popaganda: Will Veganism Save the World?

On this episode of the show, we’ll be talking all about veganism and the politics of eating plants and meat. Is it possible to reduce it to a diet or wellness thing, or is it inherently political? What is the connection between industrialized meat production and patriarchy? And why does Western culture conflate eating meat with masculinity, and what does that have to do with climate change?

I’ll talk to two folks about the place of veganism in politics. First, you’ll hear from Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat and a recent cookbook, Protest Kitchen, on masculine anxieties around meat-eating and the progressive case for veganism. Then, Alicia Kennedy, a food and spirits writer and host of the Meatless podcast, on the complex relationships all people have with their own food choices.

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TRANSCRIPT

SOLEIL HO: Hey there! You’re listening to Popaganda. This is Soleil Ho.  

Popaganda is produced by nonprofit, independent Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is entirely funded by our community. Love our work and wanna pitch in? Become a member! Join hundreds of fellow listeners as a member of The Rage. And when you do, you’ll receive a special mug, a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, and other snazzy benefits. Become a member today at bitchmedia.org/rage. 

On this episode of the show, we’ll be talking all about veganism and the politics of eating plants and meat. Is it possible to reduce it to a diet or wellness thing, or is it inherently political? What is the connection between industrialized meat production and patriarchy? And why does Western culture conflate eating meat with masculinity, and what does that have to do with climate change? Find out all that and more in this episode! 

And by the way, if you have any ideas for future topics for Popaganda, we have a great new way for you to submit them. Text “idea” to 734-577-7711. No matter how strange or niche the idea, I love hearing from you! Again, text “idea” to 734-577-7711. And save my number as Popaganda or “that weird lady,” so we can keep in touch. 

[theme music] 

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about climate change. A recent UN report has given humanity a deadline: if we don’t shift our natural resource consumption by 2030, things are… gonna get bad. How are you feeling about it? If you’re like most people, you’re probably overwhelmed and worried, but you probably also feel compelled to live your life and go about your day like everything’s normal. 

You might, like me, start thinking about the life choices you can make to allay climate change. Remember the lightbulbs? Like most American methods of political activism, our sense of environmentalism often comes down to consumer choice. But the truth is that 100 corporations are responsible for more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. And they’re making the same calculations you are: what slight adjustments can they make to look and feel better about this situation without losing their bottom line?  

[mellow music] 

And yes, it’s easy to fall into hedonism at this point. If the world’s ending and corporations are just gonna herald in the apocalypse whether we like it or not, you might as well enjoy it, right? We’ve seen this in a lot of lifestyle media already in the wake of this report, and it says stuff like, “The world is doomed, but at least we have cronuts!” 

But another report, published in the journal Nature, assessed the impact of food production on the planet. They found that, in order to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, we need to drastically change how we eat. Folks in the UK and US, who represent the heaviest loads on the world’s resources, need to consume 90% less beef and 60% less dairy and sugar while eating many more beans and lentils. Our governments, in turn, need to enact better environmental and farming regulations while subsidizing plant-based foods. And in case you were wondering, many of those aforementioned 100 corporations are part of the meat and dairy sectors: Cargill, Tyson, and others like them. 

 

At the same time, right wing people in power have convinced their base that there’s nothing to worry about, and they celebrate their resource-heavy lifestyles. For them, driving a car, eating hamburgers, and playing golf on pristine lawns is integral to freedom and true Americanness. Within this context, what you eat is inherently political and potentially a matter of humanity’s life or death. 

On this episode, I’ll talk to two folks about the place of veganism in politics. First, you’ll hear from Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat and a recent cookbook, Protest Kitchen, on masculine anxieties around meat eating and the progressive case for veganism. Then, Alicia Kennedy, a food and spirits writer and host of the Meatless podcast, on the complex relationships all vegans have with their own food choices. I hope you enjoy the show! 

[Mari Paz Crespo covers I’ll Stand By You by The Pretenders] 

♪ Oh, why you look so sad? 

Tears are in your eyes 

Come on and come to me now 

Don’t be ashamed to cry 

Let me see you through 

‘Cause I’ve seen the dark side too 

When the night falls on you 

You don’t know what to do 

Nothin’ you confess, could make me love you less 

I’ll stand by you, I’ll stand by you…. ♪ 

SOLEIL: I’ve heard a lot of rhetoric about like how veganism—at least in food media or lifestyle media—it’s not political; it’s just a choice. It’s just a thing that you do. But [chuckles] it’s very strange. White Castle has vegan food now. 

CAROL J. ADAMS: Well, I think there’s two things going on there. 

SOLEIL: That’s Carol J. Adams. 

CAROL: One is the way the mainstream media treats everything. 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

CAROL: You know, glamorizes it, celebritizes it so that even if the people they’re focusing on had a sorta political quality with their veganism, it might just get truncated or discarded. I also think that those who think veganism is only a lifestyle aren’t understanding what veganism is. It’s clearly compassion, and compassion is a way of living politically. I talk about radical compassion as a political engagement that refuses to participate or refuses to accept cultural norms about misogyny, white supremacy, and how we treat animals. 

That White Castle has the impossible burger is an incredible step forward. I’ve done another book this year called Burger that looked at the strange and sort of reprehensible history of the hamburger and what can replace it. And the fact that White Castle has a burger that, Beyond Burger, is stocked in food places because it’s so popular. There is a evolving recognition that what we are eating is a political choice, and if you substitute a hamburger for a plant-based meat burger, you are doing a world of good for the animals, the cows, the workers in slaughterhouses, and for the environment. So, it’s definitely political. 

SOLEIL: Who does it serve to cast veganism as apolitical or just a choice? Is there an agenda there, you think? Or who does that benefit? 

CAROL: The benefit to not say it that way? Well, first of all, within the vegan community, you’ve still got structural inequality. So, if you’ve got white male vegans who kinda like the power they’ve got in a movement that’s largely women, they might wanna suppress both feminists, feminists of all colors, and women of color who are articulating a different view of veganism. That veganism is something that’s rejecting a sort of white supremacist, colonialist food pattern of imposing meat and dairy on a variety of peoples and that veganism is a response to misogyny. So, within the vegan movement, there are probably some people who want to keep our kinds of analysis quiet. 

SOLEIL: In your book, Protest Kitchen, it’s pretty explicit: you talk a lot in the prose about just how veganism and just eating vegan foods is a form of political resistance and a form of action that people can take very easily. Which is really important in this time where people just feel really lost and disempowered and not sure of what possibly they can do to change the way things are. 

Is there some sort of utility in positioning veganism as a left thing? I guess what I’m wondering is, is it possible for someone to be right wing and vegan and for those politics to also gel? ‘Cause I think that’s a really strange and interesting idea too. 

CAROL: I’ve been trying to work on a blog that answers the question, can you support Trump and be a vegan? 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

CAROL: And I’ve been going around on it for about a month because how to articulate it clearly? Veganism is defined as a compassionate choice. Trump represents cruelty. His appeal is to people who want him to be cruel. The more he comes back and is angry and puts down sexual abuse survivors and attacks women of color by calling them animals, the more he’s loved. One of the analyses I’ve seen recently is why is everybody so angry? Trump has all three branches of the government, he’s pushing his agenda and the agenda of the right wing through, and yet he goes to these huge mass meetings, and he deals with anger. That is the anger of especially white men who are in a minority. And veganism is counter to everything Trump stands for. We’re against separating calves and cows! How can we not be against separating immigrant children from their parents? And now, it looks like some of them will be adoptable ‘cause the parents have been removed from the country? That violates vegan ethics. 

How can we be for anything having to do with hate politics or having to do with white supremacy, which is what the right wing is? Everything about veganism—I mean everything that a progressive vegan articulation of politics understands—is that animality is an imposed condition that is directly related to racism and misogyny. There’s a wonderful book by Syl and Aph Ko called Aphr-oisms, in which they’re looking at race and animality and make the case that racist attitudes, white supremacy in the 16th Century, and this concept of animality evolved at the same time, were co-constructed. And what I’m saying in The Sexual Politics of Meat is that how white men especially are supposed to act and be in our culture—white heteronormative men—is eating meat and having objectifying views of disenfranchised people: women, white women, and people of color. 

So, we have to recognize that once animality gets burdened by everything humans want to reject, it is a political thing. Veganism is always going to be political. And the failure to show compassion to human beings that is represented by this right wing fury about loss of privilege is antithetical to veganism. 

SOLEIL: It sort of seems like a lot of these guys are really threatened by veganism as well, you know. You have the sort of rhetoric around soy boys, which is just an awful word and says a lot more about the user than the actual target, right? The idea that a man will be feminized by eating lots of soy, which is ridiculous, but used as a pejorative, right, against men who aren’t as traditionally masculine or vegetarian or vegan. And then you have the Ted Cruz/Beto O’Rourke thing with bar-b-que, which was very strange and bizarre but also gels really well with what you’ve been saying about the sexual politics of meat and the sort of performance of meat eating and why that’s so politically relevant for these guys. Why is there so much anxiety here? 

CAROL: It’s a wonderful question, and it’s something, of course, I’ve been tracking for decades. When The Sexual Politics of Meat came out, I was saying there’s an equivalency between meat eating and masculinity. And shortly thereafter, I started noticing that there was a lot more anxiety. And so, the ads that were coming out after 1990—not because of my book but because of some of feminists’ success, I feel—suddenly, there was this anxiety: you’ve gotta recuperate your masculinity. You’ve gotta eat more meat. You’ve gotta eat two times the meat, three times the meat because something has been threatened. 

SOLEIL: Here’s one example, circa 2007. 

[old Burger King commercial plays: people mingling and dining in a restaurant, then a man breaks into song with schmaltzy orchestral music] 

MAN: ♪ I am man, hear me roar 

In numbers too big ignore 

And I’m way too hungry to settle for chick food 

‘Cause my stomach’s startin’ to growl 

And I’m goin’ on the prowl 

For a Cheesy Bacon XXL 

Man! That’s good! 

[hair metal rock guitar comes in] 

CHORUS OF DUDES HOLDING BURGERS AND MARCHING THROUGH the CITY: Oh, yes, I’m a guy! 

MAN: I’ll admit I’ve been fed quiche 

You ate tofu? Bye-bye 

Now it’s for flame-grilled beef I reach 

I will eat this meat till my innie turns into an outtie 

DUDE PARADE: I am star! Star! 

MAN: I am incorrigible 

BACKUP SINGERS: You’re incorrigible 

MAN: And I need to eat a big burger beef bacon super-cheesy good thing now! 

DUDE PARADE: YEAH! 

[crash of a minivan the dude parade has pushed off a bridge and into a dump truck] 

MAN: I am hungray! 

DUDE PARADE: Hungray! 

MAN: I am incorrigible! 

DUDE PARADE: I! AM! MAN! ♪ 

ANNOUNCER: The Cheesy Bacon XXL. Eat like a man, man. 

CAROL: What they’re doing is ceding the power sort of tofu eaters because it’s so threatening, you’ve gotta just keep eating meat. I like to say when I’m showing The Sexual Politics of Meat slideshow, all this emphasis on renewing your man card by eating meat? I’ve had the same library card for 30 years. It doesn’t get undone because I’ve gone to a different library. But this need that the minute you haven’t eaten meat, that your man card is somehow depleted, what it really shows is that masculinity itself is unstable at this time. That it’s grasping at this other instability that used to be able to just affirm automatically of meat eating. And that these two unstable identities are trying to intensify and solidify each other. But I take each of these ads as an announcement not just that confirms the sexual politics of meat but shows that they’re cracking. 

SOLEIL: Like do you think it’s because they’re flailing so hard, and it just sounds more and more ridiculous, like that’s a sign that it’s collapsing? 

CAROL: I think they’re partly trying to be humorous because it’s a post-modern thing. And if they’re ironic, then they don’t have to be taken seriously if they’re being critiqued. Like, “Oh, no, no. We’re not really being misogynist here. We’re just having fun.” So, I think some of the over-the-top way that they’re figuring this is precisely to disarm critique. But at its heart, what they’re trying to do is find a way to talk to their wedge group, which is say, 16-30 men, probably white men, because so many of these ads, the Hummer ad, the Burger King ads, and all, they all feature white men. White men whose anxiety is created because they’ve somehow been associated with quiche or tofu or whatever, and they’ve gotta reclaim it. So, I wish it were a sign that it’s all gonna topple tomorrow, but I don’t think it is. 

BOTH: [chuckle] 

SOLEIL: Damn. All right. [laughs] You know, I noticed too, with the recent news about climate change, just the sort of, I don’t know, the fact that we’re just hurtling towards a point of no return, and we have the solid deadline of 2040. And yet we have this cabal of climate change deniers in power right now, politically, and they’re very much tied to this lifestyle thing where like, “We don’t wanna change our lifestyle. We don’t wanna not eat meat. It’s all fake. I would much rather destroy the world than stop living the way I do.” So, what do you think will finally convince folks like that to come over to the light side? 

CAROL: I’m not sure I can talk to those folks, the right-wing cabal right now, but I can talk to progressives and liberals. And I can say if you’re upset about what the Trump administration is doing in denying climate facts, what you need to do is not withdraw yourself from climate accords. Every day you choose to eat meat, you are confirming Trump’s denial. Every day that you’re eating dairy, you’re confirming all these climate deniers, and you’re participating with them in climate denial. 

[mellow music] 

There is something each of us can be doing every day. I know there’s a lot that has to be done by corporations, and there’s a whole bunch we, ourselves, can’t change every day. But if each of us were to stop eating dairy and dead animals, we would be signaling we get it about climate. We would be helping to change the conversation. But we don’t want to personalize it, and by failing to personalize it, we give Trump further power. 

SOLEIL: Carol J. Adams’ new cookbook and call to action, Protest Kitchen, just came out in early October. You can get it at your local bookstore. 

[music winds down] 

SOLEIL: On Alicia Kennedy’s podcast, Meatless, she asks chefs, writers, and more about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. What she found out is that everyone, vegan or not, has their own reasons for eating the way they do. Alicia herself is a former vegan who turned vegetarian to broaden her own perspective. 

ALICIA KENNEDY: Food in both being political and being personal is just such a complicated space that there’s no way to just be a vegan or just be an omnivore if you’re a thoughtful person. I’ve had a butcher on who tries to get people to eat less meat. And I, as a person who doesn’t eat meat, I have to engage with that person thoughtfully and carefully. And I’ve learned that it’s very easy for me to do that actually, that I’m not coming from a vegan perspective that is closed off to the idea that maybe eating less meat is a fine solution to some problems in terms of the environment, in terms of animal welfare. You know, I’ve had a cheese writer on who’s a really amazing person, Tia Keenan, and she was able to talk so beautifully about the production of cheese in Europe versus the production of cheese in the United States and how there really is room for some farmers to have a very engaged and beautiful relationship to animals even when they are using their milk. And so, it’s really complicated my perspective on veganism. 

SOLEIL: I bet it takes a lot of, I don’t know, like humility or self-awareness to actually stand back and question the ways in which this set of principles that you live by or that you formerly lived by, to actually poke at its failures. I think that’s so hard. 

ALICIA: Yeah. And I think I’m so stringent in other ways about my politics, but for this, I just, yeah, food is just too personal, too cultural, too deep to say that one ideology is the right way to go. I mean I love poking at things, even at my own obsessions or things that people would think I’m really strict about. I mean I do get really annoyed when people, even though I’m not a strict vegan anymore, I do get really annoyed at people who use vegans as punching bags for the ills of the world, who like to say, “Well, vegans don’t care enough about this and this and this and this.” And it’s like, well, vegans are maybe .5% of the United States’ population, but you like to blame them for literally everything that’s wrong in food. It’s like, well, vegans care about animals, but do they care about people? And it’s like, are you asking this question of everyone else who still, who does eat animals? Why do you have this obsession with the perceived moral high ground that vegans are on that I don’t think most vegans even think that they’re on themselves. I mean I hope not. 

I don’t have any vegans on the show who are those super vegans who just can’t talk to other people or can’t got to other restaurants or can’t watch someone eat a meal. Those aren’t the vegans I wanna talk to because they don’t have a nuanced relationship to food. But yeah, I really like exploring it because I’ve just never, even when I was a strict vegan for so many years, I just, I never felt completely comfortable in it because I felt like it just naturally excluded so much of the world and did, by excluding these foods, say that it’s wrong to consume them. And it’s hard to tell the majority of the planet that they’re wrong. That seems deranged, so. 

SOLEIL: There’s been a lot of, I don’t know, especially in Portland, veganism to me has often been just another menu option. That’s kind of how people treat it. It’s a lifestyle choice. It’s just this thing that people do. But what you’ve taught me and what you’ve shown me a lot is that veganism is a set of principles. It is a politics and one that is, I mean, you can combat me on this, but my impression is that veganism is inherently anti-capitalistic. Is that right? 

ALICIA: I mean I hope so, and my veganism— I’m a political vegan I guess that this point because as a food writer it’s just too difficult to maintain that strict policy around food. But yeah, to me it is because you are saying that I just think the consumption of meat and the use of sentient animal labor as a commodity and using their bodies is inherently patriarchal and capitalist way of existing in the world. But there are a lot of anarchists, like I’ve been doing a lot of reading on anarchy and veganism, and that perspective is like oh, veganism is just a consumer choice, and so, it’s meaningless in the grand scheme of things. But to me, it is not just that because that perspective completely ignores that animals are alive and that they’re kind of— My boyfriend said this last night. He was like, “The only thing we know about a cow is that it doesn’t wanna die.” That’s the only thing we know about a cow’s inner life probably, is that it doesn’t actually wanna die. It probably doesn’t wanna be artificially inseminated and milked by machine and have its children taken from it and that sort of thing. We know that. So, to just kind of callously say that to not engage in that is simply a consumer choice, I think, lacks humanity, I guess. It lacks a real perspective on the labor that these animals do. 

And I mean the great book about eco-feminism The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams, she really draws this amazing connection between the way patriarchy and capitalism relates to women’s bodies, and it relates to animal bodies in the same way. And kind of that the way of negating, that we negate a woman’s autonomy and a woman’s capacity to do everything is the same way that we negate this in animals. And when I read a male anarchist saying that, you know, to not be a party to animal torture and slaughter is simply a consumer choice, I see them saying, I see misogyny there because I am so into this connection that Adams drew. So, I think these things are all connected and that to ignore that is to the detriment of both veganism and to any sort of anti-capitalist movement. 

SOLEIL: I feel like what you are putting forward also requires universal basic income and— 

ALICIA: [laughs] 

SOLEIL: —closing the racial wealth gap, all of these things that are involved in giving people the means to actually take control of their food rather than exercising their feeble political power through whatever few dollars they have to spend at White Castle or not, right? Would you argue then that veganism and political veganism requires choices or stances that are broader than just what is in front of you, than food? 

ALICIA: Yeah, absolutely. And I hate that we, there are some, there are vegans who get pressed—sorry; I’m stuttering because I get so angry about these people— 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

ALICIA: —but the [laughs]— You know, there is this New York Times wedding vows column about these capitalist, right wing vegans who got married. And it’s just like, why are you giving attention to these people? And they’re pro-life but then argue, like they have a quibble amongst themselves about whether the death penalty is OK. And it’s like, are you kidding me? How incoherent is this perspective? 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

ALICIA: Do I think that, in a completely just food system we don’t eat any meat or dairy or eggs? I don’t know. That’s a question I really have been asking myself. I don’t know if we eat none of those things, but I do know that we probably do not have factory farming and chicks being thrown through chutes and that sort of thing. So, it’s all part of one perspective, I think, logically. And luckily, on Meatless, my podcast, I do get to talk to people about this and about what their omnivore or vegan or vegetarian, like what is your vision for an actual just future? And part of me doing the podcast is ‘cause selfishly, I just want to, I’m trying to figure that out. So, I get people to talk to me about what they see so I can try and not figure it out myself. 

[chill music break] 

SOLEIL: Right after I interviewed Alicia, she flipped the script on me and interviewed me about entomophagy, or the eating of insects, for her show, Meatless. You can find that episode on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Thanks to her and Carol J. Adams for talking with me for this episode. 

[theme music] 

And thanks to you for listening. This episode was produced by Alex Ward. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Thanks to Mari Paz Crespo for her cover of I’ll Stand By You. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. If you have thoughts or feelings or feedback on the show, please feel encouraged to send me an email to soleil@b-word.org. Or as always, you can review us on iTunes. 

by Soleil Ho
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Soleil cooks for a living and writes sometimes. When she was in kindergarten, she reviewed a book for Reading Rainbow that she didn’t actually read. She cohosts Racist Sandwich, a podcast on food, race, class, and gender.

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