Hugo’s back pages: of charity galas, sophomoric cynicism, veganism, PETA, socks, and the very real sense that the world can be changed

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.

9 thoughts on “Hugo’s back pages: of charity galas, sophomoric cynicism, veganism, PETA, socks, and the very real sense that the world can be changed

  1. 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 always glad to hear animal rights activists admit that. PETA has a wonderful and desireable goal, but terrible, terrible ways of trying to reach it. It is vicious, rude, demeaning, and absolutely counter-productive (how often have you heard, after PETA publically shames someone, people saying things like, “PETA: People Eat Tastey Animals”?).

    I think part of that fits in with your post’s youthful cynicism. When groups like PETA do nothing but bemoan what hasn’t been done, it makes it difficult to feel like anything HAS been and can be done. Activism should highlight progress that has been made and make easy steps towards smaller goals (your “further up and further in”). If we’re constantly aware of the progress that has been made, we’ll feel like individuals CAN do something. Negativity will not get us where we want to be – it only inspires resentment and backlash.

  2. Hugo,

    Your rhetoric has entered the land of hyperbole when you place the practices of the meat packing industry in the same sentence with the human suffering (murder, rape, and torture) that has occured in Darfur.

    I think you would be more convincing in making vegan converts if don’t try to compare animal suffering with human suffering.

  3. Fred, suffering is suffering. We teach our children empathy by getting them to identify with stuffed animals and pets. Am I saying the life of a cow is equivalent to the life of a human? No. Am I saying that the pain they feel is equally intense? Yes, ask any neurologist about how the central nervous system works in vertebrates; ask any ethologist about the capacity of animals to feel fear, anxiety, and despair. Pain is pain is pain. Ingrid Newkirk said, and I stand by this:

    When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.

    That ain’t hyperbole, that’s neurology.

  4. Thank you for this! I am one of your students and you know I love love love Bob Dylan. It is frustrating being on the minority side of our society’s stance on meat consumption, and feminism too, but I’ve learned that my actions do make a difference. I’ve already convinced a few people to give vegetarianism a try or to at least consider–not by preaching and lecturing, but by simple conversations and by supporting my words with my actions. I look forward to getting younger as the years go by and I’ve already felt a sense of rebirth in my transformation into feminism and vegetarianism. So, thanks for reminding me that my single actions and choices do have a greater effect on society as a whole.

  5. This may or may not be the most apt of your vegan posts to raise this question but since it’s your most recent I’ll take it.

    Do you believe unequivocally, all wishful thinking aside, that all human beings can be perfectly healthy on a vegan diet?

    As you know, I’m in the shallow end of this pool. I love the taste of meat and I hate the notion of what meat is so between those two factors I lean more towards not eating meat.
    The only other barometer is one’s own health and………brace yourself…….I’m not 100% convinced that no human beings need it. I’d like to think that was so but I’m not sure. Are you?

    BTW, I like the Byrds version better as I’m wont to do and I still love tormenting you with that.

  6. Bill, I’m not a physician or a nutritionist. I’ve met many, mostly through the huge number of doctors in Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, all of whom insist that our nutritional needs can be met on a plant-based diet. I’ve met kids raised to adulthood on vegan diets (breast milk is vegan, of course) It requires education and thought and a paradigm shift, but I’m assured by PCRM many M.D.s and nutritionists that it can be done.

  7. Dietary issues aside…I’m appalled by the hopelessness of so many people, old and middle-aged as well as young. They say, “Oh, that will never happen”, or a sardonic “good luck”, or “we’re screwed” and turn away, or start in with that horrid little titter, the blithe little phony laugh that I never could make sense of. It makes me want to go hang myself, but that seems counterproductive so I have no plans of that sort. But that combination of despair and laughter just short-circuits my mind. If these people ever have a potluck, I am going to bring Titter Tots.
    When I get discouraged, I think of the swamp I helped save, because I didn’t listen to a relative who ws sure I couldn’t.

  8. Hugo, I have worked with an impoverished First Nations community, one of many for whom Peta’s fur boycott made the last 500 years of oppression and genocide that much worse. When you claim to have no problem with Peta’s anti-fur campaigns more serious than their use of highly privileged models in advertisements where they suggest a willingness to go naked, I find that absurd, offensive and more than a bit racist. Traditional First Nations people have shared with me the concept of a web of life, which includes everyone, from the humans to the plants to the Earth, all linked in a relationship to one another and to the Creator. I believe this view has an intellectual coherence that attempts to extend the post-enlightenment European concept of individual rights into the animal kingdom lack.

    I don’t know if, or to what extent, you have educated yourself on First Nations cultures. If you haven’t studied them deeply, I can’t see how you can have a complete view of the history of feminism. However complete or cursory your knowledge of First Nations culture, I don’t believe you can dismiss their perspective.

    You oppose passionate commitment and certainty with “sophomoric cynicism”; let me suggest that a third approach exists, namely, that of humility and caution, based on an understanding that conviction does not equal either truth or morality. The hundreds of millions of victims of ideological certainties of all stripes over the last century bear a silent witness to that truth.

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