I’m bleary-eyed at my desk this morning. United flight 33 from JFK to LAX landed at midnight, but it was just five or six hours ago that I finally got into bed. And today is my long day, one which will see me on campus thirteen hours. On the other hand, I am entirely the architect of my own adversity in this regard, so there will be no whining.
We were in New York this weekend to participate in Farm Sanctuary’s annual gala. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about our visit to the Orland farm; we had a very different but nearly-as-enriching experience in Manhattan.
I like events like this, and it’s not because I enjoy running around in black tie and getting goodie bags. (Okay, I do like both of those things, but in moderation.) What I find so exciting and inspiring is the chance to spend an evening in the presence of people with whom I share the same passionate commitments. As any vegan will tell you, spending a lot of time in debate and argument with folks who don’t share those same values can be exhausting and dispiriting. It’s the same thing with feminism, or any other ideological commitment that involves a holistic transformation of how one lives, thinks, acts, and consumes. Being in the presence of those who do what you do, and have often done it longer and more publicly, is galvanizing.
At our table during the gala, we had an animated discussion about PETA. Most of the folks who show up at these sorts of things support many similar charities: we recognized a number of people from past benefits for other animal rights organizations like PCRM. Several in our dinner party were major PETA donors as well as supporters of Farm Sanctuary. Now, I’ve been clear that while I share PETA’s goals, I am often troubled by PETA’s methods, above all the willingness to use women’s bodies to attract attention. I’m discomfited by the commodification of women’s bodies, even if that commodification is part of an explicit campaign to draw a parallel between how we treat women and how we treat animals. We talked about this for quite some time at our table of ten, and I found that we were fairly close to being evenly divided on the merits of PETA’s tactics. In any event, it was a good chat about means and ends and congruence.
It’s odd: no fewer than five of my current or former students have spoken to me in recent weeks about their ongoing struggle against the apathy of the peers and their own private sense that their actions, in the end, count for little. While children are natural idealists, young adults are often natural cynics, mistaking — as the young often do — world-weariness for wisdom. And whether that cynicism is genuine or affected, it has a powerful influence on peers. A few of my students have spoken to me this semester, more than usual, about the sense that “nothing I (they) can do will matter”. I generally listen respectfully, understanding that doubt and despair and ennui are nothing if not developmentally appropriate. And I usually follow up with a pep talk, one that strikes what I hope will be a nice note of exhortation and comfort.
One of the great things — but not the greatest — about the vegan lifestyle is that it teaches the immediate and powerful lesson that individual choices matter. What I eat, what I wear, what I spend: no matter how modest my circumstances, I can send a message to my peers, family, and universe by changing how it is I approach food and clothing. One of the great attractions of vegetarianism and veganism for the young is precisely this sense that almost all of us have at least a small degree of sovereignty over what goes in our mouth. Each bite we take, and each bite we don’t take, either moves us closer to or further from a less violent world. Of course, activism ought to be about more than one’s own diet. But what we often forget is that food is the fuel for any sort of activism.
Ask around: it’s difficult to be both truly vegan and truly apathetic. Not only does a vegan diet provide a great deal of physical energy, it tends to have an empowering and stimulating effect on the consciousness. In other words, while I think some people become vegan because of their ideological commitments, I think many more are able to better live out their ideological commitments because they have become vegan. The diet is as much catalyst as consequence. Thus even those who are not willing to become vegan yet can experiment with making less-cruel choices, such as only buying cage-free eggs, and from that initial step, move “further up and further in”.
Let me be blunt: most folks who buy tickets for galas like this are the most fortunate of the fortunate. But on Saturday night, I detected no smug self-congratulation in the room. Our table of ten was as be-tuxed and be-gowned and be-jeweled as could be, and every single one of us couldn’t have cared less. (Most of us stained our finery with tears during some of the speeches and videos.) We each had the same question: what more can I do? Beyond writing checks and changing our own consumption patterns, what else can we do to change the world — not only for the ten billion farm animals slaughtered every year in America alone, but for all of creation? Cheered by very real triumphs and chastened by setbacks (we all bemoaned Chicago’s decision to allow foie gras back on the menu), we talked animatedly into the night about politics, about justice, and above all else, about the possibility for a better world.
Many of my students are too young to know the Dylan song about the rigid certainties of youth: “My Back Pages.” But the famous refrain is timeless: “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.” I wish many of my students who struggle with cynicism and apathy, and confuse these defects of character with profundity and insight, could have been with me on Saturday night. I wish they could have been with me two weeks ago at the Farm Sanctuary in Orland. The suffering of the sentient all over the world — in the stockyards of Chicago and the refugee camps in Darfur and a million other places — is immense, overwhelming, impossible to fully comprehend. But though the final redemption has not yet come, there is so much that each of us can do, do right now, to begin to alleviate that suffering. Starting perhaps with lunch.
So I may be on four hours of sleep with four classes to teach, but I’m wired and inspired and younger, so much younger, than I was when I was a sophomorically cynical twenty year-old.
And for the record, I’m wearing some really fun socks. My beloved and I got involved in a silent auction Saturday night, and I ended up with a case of Paul Smith socks. I’ll be rotating them into the line-up starting at once. Today’s pair mix harvest orange, pale pink, and sea-foam green — and they look pretty damn fine.