Kaepernick, Veganism, and Nike: It’s All About Character

Colin Kaepernick throws pass at Super Bowl XLVII

If the past year or two has taught us anything, it’s that flawed and damaged people are everywhere. Collectively, we once knew that, but somehow society forgot. There’s a reason why every American high school student is assigned Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown.” Understanding the story takes you into adulthood. When you think of people as either purely good or purely evil, you’re still a child.

Young Goodman Brown learned that when you turn your eyes to the forbidden forest of impure thoughts and deeds, you’ll see that everyone has strayed. And if you make the mistake of looking for a hero—it doesn’t matter if it’s MLK or Gandhi or Moses—you’re going to find lapses of character. The moment you view anyone as a model of purity, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

If you’re seeking good character, remember Iago who spoke endlessly of love and truth and honor, but who used these fine words in service of despicable behavior. So always be wary of rhetoric. Stirring rhetoric can only reveal the possibility of good character but it’s no indication of whether the messages are being lived.

So don’t chase after noble words, chase character. The way to do that is to find people who’ve made meaningful sacrifice. It’s only through personal sacrifice that inspiring words carry weight and reveal the presence of character.

In the world of sports, there have been a handful of exemplars of personal sacrifice, notably Muhammad Ali (who, as a result of his antiwar stance, was stripped of his ability to box during the prime of his career), Roberto Clemente (who lost his life delivering aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims), and Jackie Robinson (who smashed baseball’s color barrier, at great personal risk).

In ten or twenty years, Colin Kaepernick will routinely be mentioned in the same breath as these other sports heroes. Through his decision to kneel during the national anthem, he’s put skin in the game. Kaepernick has risked his career and his safety to bring attention to police brutality and bellicose nationalism. He has afflicted the comfortable and paid the price. Not surprisingly, he’s also one of the first NFL athletes to embrace veganism. I’ve yet to meet the guy, but I have little doubt that he chose veganism because it resonates with his values of compassion and justice.

And now, one of the biggest sports stories of the week is that Kaepernick has been named the face of Nike’s new “Just Do It” 30th Anniversary advertising campaign.

Just as it is with people, it’s always easy to question the motivations of corporations. Any corporation of any size has done shameful things. In Nike’s case, the most egregious of these misdeeds has involved a history of appalling sweatshop and child labor practices.

But just as it’s wise to not permanently write anyone off—redemption of even the most stained character can begin at any moment—so too can a corporation start down the road toward being a genuine force for good. In putting its own brand on the line to feature Colin Kaepernick, Nike is acting with genuine courage. The company has, at least for a moment, put itself on the right side of history. They’ll alienate customers for doing this, and not just from the MAGA crowd. Expect the usual progressives living in glass houses to use this campaign as a pretext to belittle Nike for its past wrongdoings.

Despite what its detractors will say, Nike is taking a risk here, and showing real courage. They could have taken the safe route and chosen Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods for this campaign—superstars who are ciphers when it comes to doing anything for anyone but themselves. But Nike instead went with someone risky, who has arguably taken the most courageous stance of anyone in professional sports in this generation.

Whether it’s people, nations, or corporations, pure evil and pure good are as rare as hen’s teeth. When assessing character, the only sensible course is to replace binary thinking with a continuum, and to be charitable and tentative in your judgments and slow in reaching them—“Judge not lest ye be judged” remains among the most useful maxims to live by.

Nike’s move does not, in one fell swoosh, elevate them from a shitty company to sainthood. But it does make me believe that there’s an element of honor and decency at its core. This character is capable of growing stronger if given encouragement and support. I certainly have an anti-corporate bias, but I can recognize courage when I see it.

Colin Kaepernick has shown real courage when it comes to putting his career on the line in order to do what’s right. And now Nike is showing courage by positioning its brand alongside someone willing to risk everything to expose the dark underbelly of America.

We should never write anyone off. Corporations are as capable of redemption and becoming part of the solution as any flesh-and-blood human. And the first step toward virtue is often the hardest and most signficant. Welcome aboard, Nike.


By Erik Marcus. To stay current with vegan topics, please subscribe to our free newsletter.

Show Me a Sign

While hanging out in Chiang Mai, Thailand last month I suddenly found myself hungry. I had only been in town a couple days and didn’t yet have a good handle on the local vegan scene, so I checked Google and it turned out there was a vegan place called Ming Kwan within a ten minute walk. I strolled on over to check it out, and could tell right away that the thing to get was the khao soi—a curried noodle soup. They throw some yellow Chinese-style noodles into a bowl, add a spicy opaque reddish broth with some nice-sized chunks of tofu that have a meaty grain to them, and then they toss in a handful of deep-fried noodles. Once they hand you the bowl, there’s a condiments table where you can add some hot red pepper paste, chopped fresh cilantro, pickled vegetables, and squirt on some lime juice. It’s either a gigantic snack or a slightly light meal. Here’s what it looks like:

Curried noodle soup (khao soi) at Ming Kwan vegan restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The whole thing sets you back 35 baht, which is worth $1.02 USD as I publish this. Sometimes when you travel you find a major score, and this place definitely qualified. A couple days later, I invited my friend Tune out to join me for noodles. Nothing beats treating someone to lunch when the cost is barely a dollar. Tune liked the place as much as I did. She’s a lifelong resident of Chiang Mai but had never known about the restaurant. Now she goes there whenever she’s in the neighborhood.

While Tune and I were eating, she asked me how I found the restaurant. I told her Google brought me there, but that I’d actually walked right past the place the day before and hadn’t had any idea it was a vegan restaurant. That’s because it basically had no signage. Check this out:

 

That yellow strip below the orange awning was once a nylon sign with red printing naming the restaurant. The original bright red lettering had long ago faded into oblivion thanks to the relentless Thailand sun. I guess when you sell big bowls of noodles and tofu for only a dollar, there’s not a lot of money left over to pour into marketing.

Sitting there with Tune enjoying our lunch I remarked on how much business the restaurant must be losing thanks to its lack of signage. And then I said: “You know what I want to do? I’m going to buy this restaurant a sign that prominently has the word vegan printed on it.”

Tune said she’d help, and next thing I knew she and the restaurant owner were standing in front of the restaurant talking in Thai about my offer to buy them a sign, and figuring out the logistics. Like every other project I’ve ever been involved with, it was going to be tougher than it first appeared. The sign was going to need three different languages on it. It had to say “Ming Kwan” in Thai lettering. It had to say “Ming Kwan Vegan Restaurant” in English. And it needed the Chinese character for vegan.

Tune helped me find a Thai display font to use for the sign and she emailed me the text in Thai, and we then found the Chinese character as well through a Google image search. Next I went onto Fiverr and within an hour I found a guy in the Dominican Republic named Yesua who, for just $11, was willing to create a 3.2 meter by 30 centimeter banner design that would feature the necessary Thai, English, and Chinese text plus a nice piece of noodle clip art.

After some back and forth, four days and eleven dollars later we had our design. I ran the design past Tune and the restaurant owner to get their OK, and then approved the design, tipping Yesua $5. Here’s what he created:

 

Next, Tune made some phone calls and found a local company willing to print our banner onto vinyl, and punch in five grommets for hanging, for just $5. So we emailed the design to the printing company and drove out later that day to pick it up. This was my last full day in Thailand so we headed back to the restaurant shortly before it closed to hang up the sign. Here I am with an employee of the restaurant, standing on a chair and hanging it with twisted wires. A few times a year I’m reminded that I should be grateful that I don’t support myself doing physical labor, and this was one of those moments.

 

And here is the sign hanging in its new home:

 

So that’s all there was to it. I may not have the time or ability to run a vegan restaurant but for a tiny investment of time and money I was able to get a great little vegan spot in Thailand the signage it needed.

This was a small, fun project that only took about two hours of my time to help coordinate, and only cost me $21 total. I couldn’t have done any of this without Tune, since I don’t have the knowledge of Thai to communicate with the restaurant owner or to figure out how the sign’s text should be handled. But that’s what friends are for, and Tune was as excited to see this restaurant get decent signage as I was. We celebrated our accomplishment with a bowl of curried noodles.

Ming Kwan restaurant is in the old city section of Chiang Mai, Thailand. If you want to learn about all the great vegan options the city has to offer, visit VeggieInChiangMai.com.

It’s Time for Bacon to Carry Warning Labels

bacon

For more than a generation, meat has been linked to a variety of ailments. But not all meat is equally risky, and it’s been clear for some time that cured meats like bacon, ham, and sausage carry far greater health risks than other types of meat. It’s never been terribly difficult to imagine why, since if you lay some baloney slices on your car overnight it’ll eat through the paint by morning—so just imagine what the stuff does to your digestive tract when you eat it!

For decades now, studies have revealed strong connections between red meat consumption and cancer. In particular, people who eat the most processed meat have consistently suffered from alarming rates of colon and rectal cancer. Yesterday, the Daily Mail broke the story that the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that the cancer risk associated with eating processed meat is as clearcut as that of smoking.

This is obviously a watershed moment for the food movement. If the U.S. Surgeon General’s famous warning labels on tobacco products are appropriate given the health risks of smoking, surely it’s now equally appropriate for bacon and other processed meats to carry similar labels. After all, if a product available for purchase is likely to give you cancer when used as intended, shouldn’t you be warned? If bacon indeed poses as clear a cancer risk as tobacco, what justification could there possibly be to put warning labels on cigarettes but not on bacon?

As you might expect, the meat industry is presently taking an identical stance to the 1960s tobacco industry: denial and the usual bad-faith rhetoric about moderation and sensibility. The North American Meat Institute has already issued a response saying the IARC’s findings amount to, “dramatic and alarmist overreach.”

Never has there been such good reason for all the players within the food movement—vegans, reducetarians, and conscientious omnivores alike—to join forces. Warnings labels on bacon won’t destroy the meat industry any more than the Surgeon General’s warning destroyed the tobacco industry, but it’s the right thing to do and a moral imperative given what we now know about cancer risks. There has never been such cause for the various factions of the food movement to team up to ensure that processed meats get suitably labeled so that people know the risks they’re taking.

A decade ago it probably would have come off as unreasonable to contend that bacon deserves the sort of warning label found on a pack of cigarettes. But as of today, the legitimacy of this point of view can no longer be denied. It’s now inevitable that some meats will eventually carry health warning labels—and there can be no better metric of the food movement’s maturity and effectiveness than how quickly we can unite to make this happen.

On Regarding Farm Animals as Your Clients

The most useful metaphor I’ve heard used to describe the work of an effective animal advocate is that we serve as criminal defense attorneys for animals. But unlike an actual public defender, every last one of our clients is 100 percent innocent.

The reason that this is such a helpful metaphor is that public defenders and vegan advocates each have essentially two jobs. Their first job is to, if at all possible, win the case and to secure their clients’ freedom. But no matter how innocent a client may be, not every case will be won. So in these instances the job becomes advocating effectively for the minimal possible sentence. Five years of supervised probation may be a profound injustice for someone wrongfully convicted, but it is nevertheless incomparably better than a 20 year prison term.

Now imagine a public defender so obsessed with justice that she refused to play the game at a hearing when her unfairly-convicted client was being sentenced. Imagine her insulting the judge and prosecutor for this travesty of justice, and then daring them to impose the maximum sentence in order to illustrate the unfairness of it all. It’s safe to say the defendant would be aghast—he’s now been victimized twice; first by a flawed legal system, and second by his own attorney who, obsessed with principle, squandered her client’s only remaining chance of avoiding a stiff sentence.

I know the scenario I’ve described above seems insane, and that any public defender acting as I’ve described would be promptly disbarred. But the reality is that many vegan advocates today are, like our hypothetical public defender, refusing to act in the best interests of their clients during sentencing.

As a vegan advocate, just like a public defender, there are cases you’ll win and cases you’ll lose. When you lose a case it’s your responsibility to do everything possible to minimize your client’s punishment to whatever extent you can. It no longer matters that he’s innocent and deserving of no punishment whatsoever. That ship has sailed. Now the only thing you can do is to advocate as persuasively as you can for the most lenient possible sentence.

What all vegan advocates have in common is that we all work to the best of our ability to win every possible case. Through our skills and persuasiveness may vary we all do everything we can to convince people to embrace a totally vegan diet. And as a vegan advocate you’ve no doubt noticed by now that you’ve lost your share of cases. Try as you might it’s exceedingly unlikely that you’ve persuaded your father, your sister, and your best friend to go vegan—to say nothing of all the other people you’ve ever spoken to about diet.

Inspiring People to Take Another Step

The most strident Level 5 member of the Vegan Police is entirely right about one thing: anything short of embracing veganism entails some level of victimization of innocent animals. It’s a sign that you’ve lost your case. But that’s just the way it is. As an animal advocate, most of the time you’re going to lose the case.

The reality that many vegan advocates have a tough time accepting is that the overwhelming majority of people are unwilling to go vegan today, no matter what arguments you make or how persuasively you make them. And strangely enough, many activists who took years and years to transition to a vegan diet somehow think the rest of the world needs to go vegan tonight. Where these activists have it right is in realizing that we need to be promoting veganism in a clear and unambiguous way as the only diet that is free of animal exploitation. But where these activists get it wrong is when they continue to promote veganism to people who have already ruled it out. This is worse than a waste of breath—it’s squandering a legitimate opportunity to encourage significant change. That’s because the fact that someone has ruled out going vegan does not render that person unwilling to make lesser but still hugely important changes—changes that could eliminate much or even most of the cruelty and slaughter linked to that person’s dietary choices.

As Eating Animals author Jonathan Safran Foer has beautifully put it, the most effective activists are people who are skilled at persuading others to “take the next step rather than the last step.”

Looked at this way, outreach becomes a relationship rather than a one-time transaction. What’s more, the confidence gained by taking a small step today often leads to a willingness to take a bigger step tomorrow. Today’s small step away from factory farmed animal products, however inadequate, would never have been taken if the only message expressed was various permutations of, “Go vegan.”

This incremental approach to activism is often called the foot-in-the-door technique, and it is based on numerous sociology stuides that demonstrate that even the smallest step in a given direction makes that person vastly more likely to take bigger steps in the future. In fact, the foot-in-the-door technique is the sociological basis for the vegetarian movement’s single most prominent campaign: Meatless Mondays.

The genius of Meatless Mondays is that it makes a request so small and reasonable—merely skip meat on Mondays—that it’s a trivial commitment for most people, and it’s still easily achievable to even die-hard meat-eaters.

But once a person gets a few Meatless Mondays under her belt she will doubtless be receptive to taking bigger and more meaningful steps. Perhaps she’ll quit eating caged eggs next month, go meatless for most meals a few months after that, and maybe even go totally vegan each year. And all of these changes can be traced back to agreeing to participate in a single Meatless Monday.

Good activists will celebrate every one of these steps as a win, which in turn will increase the likelihood of more steps in the future. Activism becomes praising people for the important changes they’re making, rather than scolding them for not yet being perfect.

Now some might worry that this incremental approach to advocacy might be harmful, since it could inspire someone otherwise ready to go vegan to content themselves with a lesser commitment like being a part-time vegetarian, or eating only non-factory farmed meat. Fortunately, serious activists with substantial experience can see through this worry as without merit. That’s because effective one-on-one advocacy depends, more than anything else, on being a great listener.

These activists recognize that it’s crucial to listen intently, and to calibrate your requests and suggestions to what the person is ready for. There will certainly be people you encounter who, once adequately informed, will instantly show revulsion and contempt for everything related to animal agriculture. It would be madness to suggest Meatless Mondays to this sort of person as he is plainly eager to take more substantial steps.

What we need to do is to present veganism as a desirable goal to everyone we encounter, but also show them as many stepping-stones as possible along the way. The river needn’t be crossed in a single leap. It’s our job to inspire and help people to make the biggest steps away from animal products that they’re willing to make today. If we succeed, we’ll celebrate this accomplishment and be back tomorrow to encourage them to make another step.

Add a Zero

animal millionaire

I began doing vegan advocacy in 1991. It was a different world then. Nobody knew what a vegan was, much less how to pronounce the word. And the first generation of vegan meat and cheese products was simply vile. I remember craving cheese once and paying a small fortune for a block of vegan cheese. I stuck it in the microwave but no matter how long I nuked it the stuff just wouldn’t melt. Instead it simply perspired, like a glistening block of vinyl hanging out in a sauna.

Those were the days. Vegan food had a deservedly wretched reputation, and there were no popular vegan cookbooks. Most vegans had to make due with vegetarian cookbooks like the Moosewood Cookbook, and hunt through for recipes that were either vegan or could easily be converted. As you might imagine veganism was a tough sell in this climate. The general public knew nothing about factory farming, and there was a widespread belief that being vegetarian meant risking a life-threatening protein deficiency.

Around this time though, I met someone who opened the doorway to activism for me—helping me realize that there were countless possibilities to make an enormous difference. At the time I met him Henry Spira was a 63-year-old activist, who, working alone from his Manhattan apartment, had won one major victory for animals after another.

Spira had been a lifelong union and civil rights activist but in 1973 he switched his focus to animal protection—bringing with him the strategies and tactics that he had learned from a lifetime of activist experience. If there’s one thing that characterized Spira’s work it was a relentless focus on the bottom line: how many animals can you keep from harm? And how quickly and reliably can a proposed campaign be won?

Because he was obsessed with getting results, Spira spent huge amounts of time planning and strategizing before ever launching a campaign. His goal was to avoid conflict by establishing friendly and productive private dialogs with company leaders who were in a position to create change. Public confrontations were always a last resort, and would only occur after all other options had been exhausted.

This is the approach Spira used back in the 1980s when he sought to eliminate widespread animal testing by the cosmetics industry. Spira recognized the industry was vulnerable since it performed agonizing experiments on millions of cute fluffy animals—all for products that could in no way be considered anything but a luxury. So he decided to start his campaign by approaching Revlon, the biggest and richest cosmetics company of all.

Incredibly Revlon spurned Spira’s repeated overtures to establish a meaningful dialog, no doubt thinking, “Hey, what’s the worst thing that could happen?”

And then the worst thing happened. Spira had no choice but to implement the publicity campaign that he had carefully planned in case all else failed. Full-page newspaper ads began appearing across the United States asking, “How many rabbits does Revlon blind for beauty’s sake?” More than 30 years before the launch of YouTube and Facebook, Spira had a viral campaign—one that threatened Revlon’s future as the world’s top cosmetics company.

Revlon quickly made an about-face. They poured millions into setting up research on animal testing alternatives, and in short order issued a moratorium on future animal tests. Other cosmetics companies, not wanting to be left behind, enacted similar measures.

There are countless lessons I learned from watching Henry, but the three big ones involve refusing to see your opponents as enemies, to fight only as a last resort, and to always strive to scale up your effectiveness. Henry liked to talk about finding ways to tack a zero onto your results–to go from saving one animal to ten, or from 10,000 to 100,000.

We certainly need more of this kind of thinking in the animal protection movement, as focusing on being a Level 5 Vegan can never by itself bring the massive results we need. Most estimates say that one person being vegan will, over a lifetime, save between 100 and 4000 animals. The trouble is that the United States alone slaughters about 9 billion animals a year. And 9 billion minus 4000 equals, well, 9 billion (I think it’s fair to round up.)

So the only way we’re going to see the vegan movement reach its potential is for more of us to act in big ways. We urgently need more vegans to think in the largest possible terms—scaling up their efforts to do work that impacts large numbers of animals. By the late 1990s, thanks to Henry’s relentless focus on scaling his results, I had adopted the lifetime goal of being an animal millionaire—someone whose work has kept at least a million animals out of the slaughterhouse. Just like there is a multitude of ways to earn a million dollars, there are a great many viable paths to saving a million animals. Believe it or not, anyone sufficiently motivated can attain this level of effectiveness. In my next blog entry we’ll look at how you can become an animal millionaire.

How Far We’ve Come

cow

I’ve never started work on something with such mixed feelings, but two-and-a-half years after I quit blogging I’ve decided, for reasons probably not worth getting into, to have another go at it. Maybe this will last for weeks or months, but I doubt it’ll last for years. Blogging makes me uncomfortable, but I feel like some good things could happen for animals if I start doing it again. So I’ve decided to start posting occasionally. We’ve also just started a Friday newsletter you can subscribe to, and these emails will also include whatever new Vegan.com content Michelle or I have created over the course of the week. One day, just like last time, I’ll probably wake up one morning and decide it’s time for me to stop blogging. But until then I’d be grateful if you come along for the ride.

Apart from a few side-projects, the focus of my life has been working to bring us closer to the day when animal products disappear as a widespread and socially acceptable food.  And if you look at what the vegan and animal advocacy movements have accomplished over the past decade, you can see we’ve gained a lot of ground. We’ve now got hundreds of vegan cookbooks covering every niche. Food science where it concerns replacements for meat, milk, and eggs has come further in the past ten years than it had in the previous century. Brands like Beyond Meat, Hampton Creek, Wayfare, Gardein, Tofurky, and Daiya Foods offer an unbelievably good assortment of products that can totally replace the animal products in your life.

Vegan quick serve chains like Veggie Grill, Native Foods Café, and Loving Hut now have dozens of restaurants apiece, and all three of these chains are rapidly expanding. What’s more, they serve food that can win the hearts and stomachs of any omnivore. Have you had Loving Hut’s eggplant tofu, Native Foods’ deli reuben, or Veggie Grills’ carrot cake? Dayum!

On the activist front, it’s likewise been a decade of astonishing gains, most of which were won by the Humane Society of the United States and its allies. California Proposition 2 was a landmark victory, which will result in California’s last battery egg facilities being shut down by January 1st 2015. The Humane Society’s 2008 undercover investigation of Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company resulted in by far the largest meat recall in history, and the closure of one of America’s largest cattle slaughterhouses. In 2013 the Los Angeles Unified School District’s school lunch program embraced Meatless Mondays—a monumental win considering the district serves 650,000 meals daily. And finally, the writing is on the wall regarding the end of veal crates for calves and gestation crates for breeder sows, with top pork producers like Smithfield having signed on to abolishing these barbaric confinement systems.

On the outreach front, volunteers and staffers have taken leafleting to an unprecedented level. We’re not even at the end of October, and already 568,000 Vegan Outreach booklets have been distributed this semester at 524 different college campuses. This is vital work that anyone can do, and you can get involved here.

Groups like Mercy For Animals, Compassion Over Killing, the Humane Society of the United States, and PETA have released dozens of undercover factory farm investigations in the past decade, which have awakened tens of millions of Americans to the cruelties of factory farming. Animal agribusiness views these investigations as such a threat that they’ve thrown their weight behind ag-gag bills, which are viewed even by some meat industry partisans as a disastrous strategy that plays right into the hands of the animal protection movement.

Thanks to the progress we’ve made on these and other fronts, the number of animals slaughtered in the United States has at long last started to drop.

The best part of this is that we’re only just getting started. At long last, the pieces are finally in place to dramatically speed up our dismantling of the meat industry. I’ll be back next time to begin my analysis of how we can start gaining far greater results.

-Erik Marcus 

Paula Deen’s Downfall and the Food Movement’s Future

I went walking with my mother yesterday, and the subject of Paula Deen’s sudden career implosion came up. My mom doesn’t follow food politics nearly as closely as I do, but she offered a perspective that I think is more perceptive than any journalistic analyses I’ve yet encountered of this past week’s events.

Regarding the abrupt unravelling of Deen’s career, in which she lost the contracts with The Food Network and Smithfield Foods that have made her a national figure, I thought the weirdest part of the story was the passionate outpouring from her fans, who have resorted to inept social networking campaigns in a doomed attempt to get Deen reinstated. My mother’s response to all this: of course these people love Deen, because she’s the ultimate enabler for unhealthy eating. She’s somebody who gets on TV and encourages people to load their diets with bacon and butter, and she makes people feel good about eating in the most decadent and health-destroying ways imaginable. Go ahead and eat yourself to diabetes or a stroke, and Paula Deen will cheer you on every step of the way.

To call Deen an enabler is the most insightful take on her fanbase I’ve yet heard. Deen, really, is the embodiment of everything abhorrent in America’s food culture. Her entire approach to diet is a throwback to the days before the rise of the modern food movement, which has turned into an unstoppable force ever since the 2006 publication of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

I regard Pollan as the flawed hero of the modern food movement—a man who had done tremendous good despite his frequent fetishizing of meat, his well-known disdain for engaging with animal advocates, and his remarkably careless approach to the facts. No matter Pollan’s shortcomings, his famous admonition to base your diet on “mostly plants” has gained rapid public acceptance in a way that a more overtly vegan message never could.

However deeply I disagree with ethically engaged food writers like Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Tom Philpott on important points related to the consumption of animal products, at least these people are all urging mainstream America to eat lower on the food chain—and to abandon factory farmed animal products entirely. By vegan standards, none of these people go far enough. But by the standards of the current American diet, their positions are probably as radical as it’s possible to be while still resonating with the general public. There’s a reason, after all, that no vegan writer is a tenth as popular as Michael Pollan, and it has nothing to do with writing talent, or the ability to articulate a well-researched and defensible position.

But while the core of the modern food politics movement led by Pollan stops too far short of perfection, Paula Deen represents the know-nothing, do-nothing, care-not-at-all approach to eating that in its own way is far more radical than the most fire-breathing vegan. When assessing the food politics movement, it’s useful to view diet as a spectrum, with Paula Deen on one end and the most obdurate vegan rhetoric on the other. Using this standard, we can reasonably place Pollan et al. on the vegan-leaning end of the spectrum, say around the 70 percent mark.

Maybe it’s more than 70 percent, maybe it’s less, but where exactly you’d put Pollan on the spectrum isn’t all that important. What is important is that, however much vegans might object to some of Pollan’s positions, at least the people in his camp are somewhat willing to engage on issues of animal cruelty, environmental concerns, and human health. Paula Deen, on the other hand, embodies the antithesis not just of veganism, but of meaningful dialog on the subject. The real problem with Deen isn’t her reliance on gobs and gobs of butter, but rather her outright refusal to even halfheartedly address any of the important issues of food politics. If Pollanism represents a willingness to engage on the most pressing food politics issues, Deenism represents an unyielding refusal. Bring up the ethical issues of gestation crates to someone in the Deen camp and what you’ll likely get is a Butthead-style laugh, and a response along the lines of, “But bacon is so tasty.”

Paula Deen has long been the least conscientious omnivore on the planet, someone only too happy to sell out to red meat and diabetes drug companies alike. And that is precisely why her audience adores her. Choose any food politics issue that matters—beak searing, methane production, antibiotics misuse, or whatever— and people in the Deen Camp will basically cover their ears and yell “Butter” over and over again until you go away.

And that, in the post-Pollan food era, no longer cuts it. As Steven Pinker suggests, the arc of history bends slowly toward ever-greater consciousness, decency, and non-violence—and an ever-increasing willingness to base our choices on information rather than ignorance.

None of this analysis is intended to demonize Paula Deen as a human being. Like everyone else, she surely has numerous virtues, and she’s undoubtedly a kind and loving person to her friends and family. But perhaps one’s stance on food politics can serve as a litmus test for the degree of consciousness you’ve attained in life. If that’s the case, it’s no wonder that it’s Deen, and not Pollan, whose career has self-destructed for using the N-word. No ethical issue is an island, and it’s impossible to completely ignore the issue of food politics without that moral lapse making itself evident in other important positions you hold.

By contrast, if you’re willing to engage the issue of food politics, even moderately, you’re almost certainly giving attention to the other key social issues of our day—whether we’re talking about race relations, gay marriage, drug policy, or whatever. A refusal to even entertain the ethical arguments on food is, increasingly, a sign of a person who is out of step with the arc of modern culture. And I believe we’re heading toward a time when refusing to think meaningfully about food politics will create a stigma that no public figure can afford. After all, factory farming’s future hinges on the existence of a supply of people who refuse to give food politics the slightest consideration. And the public is only getting less tolerant of animal cruelty, and the people who perpetuate it by refusing to pay attention.

So everyone concerned with food system reform can justifiably celebrate the fact that the most prominent advocate of willfully ignorant eating has lost her platform. It’s probably too great a stretch to hope that the Food Network will replace Deen with someone from the vegan camp, but food activists of every stripe should push hard for someone with at least Pollan-like sensibilities to take Deen’s place. With that accomplished, we will have reached another crucial milestone in the history of the food movement.

It’s important not to view the Deen empire’s disintegration with shadenfreude. What’s relevant here isn’t the meltdown of Deen’s career, but rather the marginalization of everything she represents. It’s precisely because Deen’s slot will no longer be filled by someone hostile to food industry reform that the events of this past week are a watershed in the food movement’s history. Never again will a person so adamantly opposed to considering the ethical dimension of food attain such a prominent position within America’s food culture.

We could look at the end of the Deen era as the exploding of the Death Star. Animal agribusiness’ leading promoter of unconscious eating has been obliterated, but the Empire remains. With Deen’s departure, it’s Anthony Bourdain who probably now personifies the extreme end of willful ignorance within our food system. He shares with Deen a more-or-less outright refusal to think seriously on important food issues, although he’s far more articulate than Deen and lacks her monumental stupidity. Bourdain is therefore a more formidable enemy of the food movement, as he’s far less likely than Deen to blunder his way out of the national spotlight.

But the growing size and power of the food movement means that the sun is setting on Bourdain as well. Bourdain will doubtless continue the Deen tradition of dodging every effort to talk seriously about the ethical issues related to food (the difference being that Bourdain sneers at the topics he wants to evade, whereas Deen ignores them entirely.) Regardless, it’s now clear how America’s conversation about food is likely to play out. Veganism represents the more conscious end of the spectrum, Bourdainism represents the least conscious—and the Pollan camp is guiding mainstream America away from meat-centered eating. In the years ahead, Bourdain and his followers will be increasingly marginalized by a society that is recognizing that how we eat is one of the key moral decisions of our time. Willful ignorance, where the ethical dimensions of food is concerned, is at long last in retreat.


Erik Marcus tweets from @Vegan. He is the author of Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, & Money and The Ultimate Vegan Guide.

On Scarcity

Here I think about how some of our choices to protect animals can lead to scarcity-based thinking, which in turn makes it tough to accomplish big things for animals. (3 Minutes.)

Just Walk Away

Is something you’re spending lots of time doing making you sad? Then you need to step through your fear and stop doing it. You will find something better, that accomplishes more and brings you joy. (5 minutes.)