Violence and Activism

The excellent Satya magazine recently published two issues about “violence and activism,” after having solicited articles from readers, activists, and others involved in the animal/environmental/human rights movements. I read the March issue cover-to-cover in one sitting, waffling back and forth on the issue based on whatever article I was currently reading, and have read a number of articles in the new issue as well. Below is the piece that I submitted to Satya . It wasn’t printed, but I figured I’d share it here, since I figure other ethical vegetarians struggle with this issue themselves at some point.

During the first break of my freshman year at college, I went out to lunch with a high school friend who had started her senior year and was looking forward to going off to college herself. We chatted about the normal stuff, like what a big change college was and how the last year of high school seemed to drag on forever, but at some point, the topic of conversation drifted to civil rights. We discussed how so-called “radicals” or “extremists” that were part of the civil rights movement played a role and were even essential to its survival. My friend said to me, “You know, sometimes it takes extreme positions to really cause the status quo to change.” It’s this part of our conversation that I remember most vividly ten years later.

The more I thought about what she said, and I thought about it a number of times over the years, the more I realize she was right. If there were no Black Panthers or Nation of Islam speaking as loudly as they did, would the more moderate civil rights movement still have made the same impact as quickly? Probably not.

Does this same thought apply to the animal rights movement? As much as some outsiders consider PETA “extremists” for their various publicity stunts that draw attention to their cause, it’s groups like the Animal Liberation Front and SHAC-USA that proudly wear the label of “radical extremist” on their sleeves. When the fight for animal rights goes beyond civil disobedience or other lawful ways of bucking the system, does the argument still stand that change is brought about faster by the most extreme factions of our movement?

My wishy-washy answer is: I’m still not sure, but I think so.

On one hand, I consider myself peaceful and can’t find myself supporting physical harm to any person, no matter how many awful things the person has done. After all, aren’t they just “less enlightened” or something? My mind changed as I read about the wrongs of the meat, dairy, and egg industries, why couldn’t they be the same?

On the other hand, I can’t help but cheer a little bit when I hear that SHAC’s tactics have managed to convince another financial backer to sever their business relationship with Huntingdon Labs. Though the animals that are subject to the most unnecessary, horrible tortures in the name of cosmetics and cleaning products won’t feel the immediate victory, I feel like a step has been made in the right direction.

Really, there’s no easy answer and no one right answer. There are many ways to approach the issue of animal rights and each of us has our own calling to a particular form of activism. While some are disturbed most by the property damage and violence caused by some activists, I’m more concerned by the reason that sort of response isn’t so uncommon. The cause bothers me even more than the response.

For instance, if factory farms didn’t exist, would groups be defacing family farms and damaging property of people who bought eggs from them? Would the Earth Liberation Front be damaging fleets of SUVs if the vehicles were more fuel efficient and manufacturers didn’t so blatantly snub environmental groups by actively marketing vehicles like the Hummer to the general public? If HLS weren’t testing sweeteners on rabbits, would groups like SHAC even exist?

I will always fall on the side of a peaceful solution, when given a choice. I think most people do. But as in the civil rights movement, perhaps the more extreme factions are needed to help change the status quo, as much as the thought saddens me. My hope is that through all of our efforts, in the future, property damage and violence won’t even be a thought. Perhaps we’ll get to the point where our efforts can be focused on education and legislative changes. However, with systems as dirty as the ones we’re dealing with, it’s clear that groups that practice extreme types of activism are far from disappearing.

Movie Review: Peaceable Kingdom

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“All the darkness cannot extinguish the light of a single candle…”

This weekend, after another rewarding day at the farm, I came home and watched the new documentary about New York’s Farm Sanctuary, Peaceable Kingdom. Directed by Jenny Stein, who also directed The Witness, Peaceable Kingdom is one of the most touching and evocative documentaries I’ve seen in quite a long time.

Farm animals are often left out of animal rights discussions, which tend to center on companion animals and animals used for testing or research, but in recent years, the cruelty and pain behind the walls of factory farms has been exposed by videos like Meet Your Meat and books like Slaughterhouse. As informative as those resources are, and as necessary as they are for the animal rights movement, they’re definite downers (no pun intended). It’s hard to to come away from videos or books focused on farm animal suffering with any sort of optimism that one person can make a difference when millions of food production animals die every hour, many just because they’re the wrong sex.

Peaceable Kingdom is different in that the images of suffering and torture are juxtaposed with images of hope. It’s clear than when each year hundreds of millions of baby male chicks are discarded and left to die and a million veal calves are tortured and purposely malnourished, it can seem a pretty daunting task trying to make a dent in a industry whose cruelty runs so deep. But when those numbers and their accompanying images are followed by footage of Gene and Lorri Bauston rescuing downed cows, discarded chicks, and female chickens trapped in a tornado-ravaged hatchery, one can’t help but feel a sense of hope and inspiration. It’s this juxtaposition that makes Peaceable Kingdom so effective and moving.

Many of the painful images come from the Farm Sanctuary’s own library of rescue footage, as well as footage supplied by Compassion Over Killing, the Humane Society of the United States, and other similar organizations. It’s hard to describe the feelings that wash over you when you see humanity at its most disconnected and cruel. During one scene where baby calves are taken away from right in front of their mothers’ eyes, dragged away by a back leg, and then thrown into a crate and purposely made iron deficient, one will realize that this is why people are vegan.

While the Bauston’s Farm Sanctuary is the main focus of the documentary, we also hear from a number of others associated with the Farm Sanctuary and the animal rights movement. We hear from Howard “Mad Cowboy” Lyman, the cattle rancher-turned vegan activist, perhaps the most atypical vegan you’ll ever see. Also featured is Harold Brown, who tells the emotional story of growing up on a beef farm but having his life turned around after adopting and connecting with Snickers, a rescued male cow at the Farm Sanctuary. And, of course, there are the animals, who are given equal billing in the credits as their human counterparts.

Peaceable Kingdom serves a few purposes. First, it’s perfect for activists looking for new material, especially with the built-in “loops” section of the DVD that allows for easy display from a van or at an event. Second, it will open the eyes of the public who are fully unaware of how a cow becomes a hamburger. It does this in the most effective way possible: by showing, in a non-preachy fashion, what happens to food production animals in the factory farm system, how it got to be that way, and why it doesn’t have to continue. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Peaceable Kingdom helps remind those activists who are feeling burnt out that what they’re doing does matter and that despite all the suffering that continues, our efforts are touching the lives of many animals that would have otherwise died a horrible death on top of a pile of dead cows or buried under thousands of carcasses in a trash can.

Peaceable Kingdom runs 77 minutes and is available on DVD and VHS through Tribe of Heart‘s online store for $20. You can also buy “Gifts of Compassion,” copies of the video at a discounted rate that you pledge to donate to organizations or give away to friends.

An Interview with Sage Francis

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Sage Francis

One-half of the Non-Prophets, Rhode Island resident Sage Francis is a rare beast in hip-hop: he’s a vegetarian emcee/spoken word artist and he’s not timid about saying so. While he’s not the first person in hip-hop to leave the beef for a battle (like the 2000 Scribble Battle, for example, which he won), he’s one of the few that talks openly about it in his lyrics. On “Different,” from his solo album Personal Journals, Sage says:

Growing up in a microscopic town prepared me well for this petrii dish, /
Where talk is invisible to the eye and they hate the guy they’re speaking with. /
I’m a real vegetarian: No chicken…not even fish. /
I’m a real underground rapper: My tape quality sucks, my records are warped and my CD skips.

In this e-mail interview with Sage, he discusses how he became vegetarian and how some of hip-hop’s well-known vegetarians may not be walking the walk.

Ryan: Let’s start with the basic background stuff—what type of vegetarian are you? How long have you been vegetarian? What led you to choose to stop eating meat?

Sage: As my vegan friend puts it, I am a ‘half-assed vegetarian.’ I eat dairy products. I stopped eating meat in 1996 and it was basically done on a bet. My straight edge friends tried telling me that I was addicted to beef because of all the drugs that are pumped into cows. I knew the only reason I ate meat is because it was made available to me in different forms and for very cheap (which is absurd). So I stopped eating meat for a year just to prove them wrong and then when i tried to go back to eating meat again I was repulsed by the flesh.

Ryan: So that was some reverse psychology they pulled, huh? While you proved to them you weren’t addicted, their bet showed you the light. As the years went by, what types of things surprised you and disgusted you the most about food production?

Sage: Basically, they pulled the old, “Oh you couldn’t stop eating meat even if you tried.” Well, I proved them wrong. I most certainly wasn’t to meat. I ate it out of convenience. I truthfully believe that they believed I was physically addicted to eating meat and I knew that was nonsense. I had never been addicted to anything. Not to my knowledge anyway. The thing that disgusted me most about meat was that… I am composed of meat. I don’t feel like chewing flesh. It grosses me out. I know where it comes from and I know how it gets to my plate. If I can have an alternative to meat, I will always go that route. I can’t believe all people don’t do that.

Ryan: What are some of your favorite veggie dishes/recipes?

Sage: I absolutely love vegetarian makki. That’s about as classy as I get. Other than that, I am a sucker for pizza. I’m one of those people.

Ryan: How about restaurants? Are there any favorites in towns that you visit but don’t live near?

Sage: I believe that the only ALL veggie restaurant in RI is the Garden Grille [Caf�], which is unbelievable. Classy joint with scrumptious meat alternatives. My favorite place to eat in Providence is the Meeting Street Cafe which specializes in top quality food of all sorts. I have written many love letters and break up letters in that place.

Ryan: Vegetarianism is one of those topics rarely discussed in hip-hop (aside from every rapper and his mother saying, “even vegetarians have beef with me” or some such). Animal rights, specifically, seems to come up even less frequently, even among political emcees… do you think this disconnect is similar to the one that often exists between environmentalists and animal rights activists?

Sage: Ha ha, good call on the over-used vegetarian punchline. But humans have a lot of wrinkles to iron out between themselves before ‘animal’-rights becomes pertinent subject matter in hip-hop. I do wish ALL people could see the benefits of vegetarianism but there’s a lot of work to be done before that sort of awareness permeates the mindset of rich and poor.

Ryan: What do you think is the most urgent thing people need to know about food production/vegetarianism/etc., even if
they don’t go any further in exploring the topic?

Sage: A conscious diet should be a healthy one. A conscious vegetarian diet is a healthy one. You are not making a sacrifice to your body by depriving it of meat, that is a social fallacy. A true revolution begins with your daily eating practices.

Ryan: When it comes time to tour, have you faced any difficulties finding good eats on short notice?

Sage: Most of the time we are forced to settle with gas station cuisine. Horrible, horrible eating habits on tour. And touring Europe will definitely test a vegan’s faith.

Ryan: In a recent poll, England was named the most vegetarian-friendly country, which kind of surprised me because while Asian countries do eat a lot of fish, it’s not unusual for anyone (not just vegetarians or Buddhists) to eat a dish with seitan or tofu in it. I would have expected somewhere in Southeast Asia to be easier to find veggie food since it’s so ingrained into their culture. Did you find any European countries that were more friendly to vegetarian visitors than others?

Sage: That poll sounds like complete bullshit. Granted, there are a lot of Indian restaurants in England, but there is no way that any spot in the UK is the most vegetarian-friendly in the world. Quite the contrary. From my understanding, there are Asian countries that used to be strict vegetarian until they became westernized. From personal experience, the good old northern US of A is the most vegetarian friendly, but there is one buffet-style veggie restaurant in Montreal that takes the cake. I forgot the name though.

Ryan: Dre from Outkast is vegan, Dead Prez go so far as talking about raw foodism… who else in the hip-hop community is vegetarian/vegan that you know of?

Sage: Dre and Dead Prez may talk the talk, but like most rappers I have a sneaky suspicion they ain’t walking the walk. It’s like… KRS claiming vegetarianism on one song and then I read an interview where he was eating chicken. So who knows. Recently I heard a member of Souls of Mischief say he was vegan. Sole is vegan, Odd Nosdam is vegan, Yoni (Why?) is vegan, and I am the half-assed vegetarian.

You can find out more about Sage Francis at Non-Prophets.com. Be sure to check out his solo work (Personal Journals, the Sick of… series, Makeshift Patriot), his work with Joe Beats as the Non-Prophets (the outstanding 2003 release Hope), and his material with Art Official Intelligence.

An Interview with Larry Fessenden

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Larry Fessenden

Despite my deep interest in horror films, especially low-budget independent and foreign horror films, somehow I hadn’t heard of writer and filmmaker Larry Fessenden until Exhumed Films showed a double-feature of No Telling and Wendigo. I was really surprised to see that No Telling was a horror film whose main topics were animal rights and organic farming—when you think of a “typical” horror film, these issues aren’t exactly the first to pop into your mind. I spoke with Fessenden briefly between movies after having spotted him looking through some Farm Sanctuary literature I had left out. Here was a humble, unassuming guy who made horror films with a message and was a strong advocate of “low-impact filmmaking.” In the months following the Exhumed Films show, I had a chance to speak with him about his view on animal rights, vegetarianism, and ecologically sound filmmaking.

Tell me a little about yourself and how you got started directing.

In high school I was primarily an actor, but I fell in love with the super 8mm camera and the way the camera was such an important part of storytelling. I had grown up watching movies on TV and had always liked horror.

How did the idea for No Telling come about?

I was interested in updating horror stories to the present day and in showing how horror themes from old movies were still relevant to current life. I was working on a vampire story when I read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I was very taken with her book, and continued on to read all the classic environmental and animal rights books. I shifted away from my vampire tale and decided to make a Frankenstein story dealing with vivisection and pesticides.

What was it about Silent Spring that intrigued you the most?

That she could sustain interest and suspense by these testimonials about pesticides and birds. But the book was very emotional for me, and that’s when I knew that these issues affected me on a personal and spiritual level.

What other books made an impact on you?

To name early influential books: Silent Spring (Carson), Animal Liberation (Singer), Small is Beautiful (Schoonmaker), Entropy (Rifkin), Animal Factories (Mason/Singer), The End of Nature (McKibben) etc. I have a reading list at Glasseyepix.com.

Did you go into No Telling with a strong belief in animal rights, or was it something that developed more from the actual making of the film?

By the time we actually made the film, I was well versed in all the animal rights issues. ever since I absorbed these issues, I have addressed them in all my films, however obscurely.

Can you give an example of how you addressed them in Habit and Wendigo?

In Habit, Sam says “I could be a Vegetarian, but I couldn’t commit.” It’s a throwaway comment, but it suggests something about his change. Vampire movies are naturally about devouring each other so there’s an awareness of issues there. And Sam eats raw liver as he descends into madness. Wendigo is about man and nature more overtly. In general, because of my sensibilities, my films stress different themes and details than other filmmakers. Those themes often have to do with hidden truths, degredation of the sacred, self delusion, addiction—all themes which are at play in our arrogant treatment of animals and the environment.

What type of vegetarian are you? How long have you been?

I’ve been some sort of vegetarian since 1987. I was a vegan for a year (no leather!), but ended up a lacto ovo veggie since then. For the last three years I’ve eaten fish, so I’m no vegetarian, I just refrain from eating mammals and birds.

What kind of challenges did you face when you first made the change?

My main challenge was that I loved meat of all sorts. I became vegetarian cold turkey, but I would allow myself table scraps, because food that was about to thrown out was better off enjoyed than tossed. My main agenda is not to perticipate in the economy of meat production. Anyway I remember being at a baseball game, behind the bleachers, feeding on the wasted fried chicken from a huge group picnic. Waste is a fetish of mine.

How do you see being a vegetarian now different versus when you started?

It is more accepted. In fact it is common comparatively: at work, restaurants, cover of Time Magazine—vegetarianism is out of the closet.

What reactions do people have when they find out that you, a director of horror movies, don’t eat meat?

I make horror movies because I have an acute awareness of the horrors of life. There is no more explicit an example of everyday horrors than in people’s treatment of animals, in the labs, the slaughterhouses.

You mentioned a couple stories at the Exhumed Films showings about the shooting of Habit (involving liver and a veggie burger, if Iremember correctly)… could you recount those stories?

Well one story is only that in a scene where I eat a hamburger and reject vegetarianism, I am of course eating a veggieburger. The other more distressing story is: in a climactic scene our vampire victim hero pulls out a store bought piece of liver and licks the packaging of blood. I hadn’t eaten meat for ten years, but I opened the cellophane and licked the package. If you look closely, you see me dry heave, and you see the camera jiggle because the cinematographer was laughing. One take, let me tell you.

What is “low-impact filmmaking?”

That’s a book I wrote after making No Telling. I guess I felt I still hadn’t done enough to explore the issues in the movie. The book, which was distributed independantly, gives a history of environmental concerns, and tells of the waste you can avoid on a film shoot.

If George Lucas were to read your book, how much waste do you think he’d save?

I suspect Lucas is fairly enlightened in his thinking, and my book is not that insightful, but the giants of the film industry and all influential people can affect the level of waste in a given system. Our whole American system of single-serve water bottles, over-wrapped junked foods, all is on display on a film set. The trailers and trucks run all day long, on and on. It is an enormous systemic problem that would require new thinking from the ground up. Filmmaking is just one contained part of a greater society gone haywire.

Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo is now available on special edition DVD from Artisan Entertainment.


Links

Glass Eye Pix
Fessenden’s movie production company.

Low Impact Filmmaking
Fessenden’s book about making movie in an ecologically and animal-friendly way.

ADDmovies.com reviews of Fessenden’s films

Cookbook Review: Sunlight Cafe

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When Mollie Katzen wrote the original Moosewood Cookbook 20 years ago, I doubt she ever imagined that her collection of vegetarian recipes would become one of the ten best selling cookbooks of all time. Well-known amongst vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, Katzen has developed quite a name for herself. Sunlight Caf is Katzen’s latest vegetarian tome, providing over 350 breakfast recipes for those looking for some bright morningtime tastes without the use of meat.

Sunlight Caf is organized into 12 sections, including beverages, fruit, grains, eggs, vegetables, and “breakfast bars, coffee cakes, and sweet somethings.” Each section offers a good number of recipes and numerous variations on many. Most of the ingredients are readily available from the grocery store or a health food market and should appeal to everyone, not just vegetarians. Though there is a section dedicated to tofu and other soy products (I’d imagine that tempeh makes a great breakfast accompaniment), there’s not a heavy emphasis on them like in many vegetarian cookbooks.

The recipes are all appropriate for lacto-ovo vegetarians, as many use butter, eggs, or milk. However, in most cases, it’s perfectly acceptable to do the magic vegan ingredient replacer trick and swap in some soy milk, non-dairy spread, or Ener-G egg replacer. There are no fish recipes, as in many of the Moosewood cookbooks (and you’d be surprised how many cultures include fish as part of their breakfast).

The recipes and ingredient lists are presented in a visually appealing, easy-to-follow way, most peppered with great little tidbits of information about specific ingredients or the history of certain dishes. It was through one of these sidebars that I learned about the best way to extract pomegranate seeds (hint: it involves a bowl of cold water), usually a very messy job. And did you know you can freeze pomegranates for months? Or that egg whites will keep in the freezer for up to a year? These introductory sections and sidenotes are what really make Sunlight Caf a joy: this is one of those rare cookbooks that you can sit down with, open to a section, and just read it without any intention of cooking. The ingredient information is useful and well researched, and the anecdotes provide good context for a recipe before you try it.

Though no pictures of the dishes are included, the chapters are headed with attractive illustrations by Katzen herself. You may not get a good visual idea of how a dish should be presented, but the illustrations give the book a pleasing aura.

Now, let’s get to the good part: the food.

I’ve eaten oatmeal perhaps five times in my whole life, and I never really liked it. But I decided that if there was ever a time to give it a shot, now was it. For dinner one evening, I opted for Chai Oatmeal, a warm, simple, blend of oatmeal and chai spices (cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, and turmeric) with some optional saffron and vanilla. I swapped in soy milk for cow milk with no adverse affects. The optional minced pistachios and (soy) yogurt were a great touch. One bowl was quite filling and this is the type of meal that’s easy enough to make with a few extra minutes in the morning (total preparation and cooking time was about 20 minutes).

Masfouf worked great as a dinner one night and, indeed, seems more like a dinner recipe than something you’d have for breakfast. This dish combines couscous with pine nuts and pistachios with dates (something else I never thought I’d like), a bit of lemon, olive oil, and yogurt. The dish is simple enough to prepare, but the end result is surprisingly complex, with a nice blend of flavors and textures from the nuts, yogurt, and couscous grains.

As a diner lover, I tried the Basic Home Fries recipe with great anticipation. Though they’re not the healthiest thing on the menu, some hardcore home fries with ketchup are the perfect accompaniment to any greasy diner breakfast dish. The preparation time was a bit long, but I’m happy to say that with Katzen’s recipe, diner home fries have truly come home. They were just salty enough and the nice, crispy, browned potatoes had the proper texture. And using an oil like high oleic safflower oil—Katzen’s oil of choice for frying like this because, unlike olive oil, it’s not damaged by high temperatures—it’s not quite as unhealthy a choice as if you ordered a batch at a greasy spoon.

One recipe that didn’t come out quite as expected was a batch of Amazing Amaranth Wafers. I was pretty psyched to try these out, as amaranth is one of those grains that’s not very common, but is quite distinctive in its taste and texture. Though they were easy to make, the cooking time listed varied widely from what was appropriate for my gas stove. I cooked mine in a high oleic safflower oil (as suggested) for 6 or 7 minutes at a slightly lower temperature than the recipe called for. Katzen recommended at least 10 minutes, but after 7, the wafers were more like solid bricks of charcoal. I plan to give this one another shot, keeping a closer eye on the wafers in the final minutes. I think it has potential, with some adaptation. I have high hopes for getting this one right, though, as the side note about amaranth points out its many health benefits: it has more protein than beans, more fiber than wheat or soybeans, and more iron than brown rice! Not to mention that it’s an affordable grain.

Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Caf may be one of the most appropriately named cookbooks this year; the recipes will lift your spirits and bring some light into those dreary winter mornings and add a splash of fresh flavor to a Sunday in the spring. The range runs from quick and basic dishes to creative recipes that encourage experimentation. Katzen’s friendly, conversational style makes the stories and recipes feel like they were shared over a light brunch. If you really enjoy breakfast (at any time of day), you’ll certainly want to consider Sunlight Caf for your collection.

Find out more about Mollie Katzen at MollieKatzen.com and keep an eye out for an upcoming Veg Blog interview.

Sunlight Caf is available for purchase through the Veg Blog store. You are also invited to try out one of the recipes from the book, Polenta Waffles with Berries.