Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Keep death out of our street?

Portsmouth residents protest 'The Southern Co-operative’s plan to convert its existing funeralcare offices opposite The Tangier pub into a chapel of rest where bodies can be viewed and stored before funerals.'

Now, your opinions may vary on the planning application. Personally, it wouldn't bother me. In my time I've a) lived in close enough proximity to such places to know that you don't actually see all that much, b) considered at least once applying for a job in one when unemployed and c) lived opposite a noisy pub, next to a mosque that was a total parking disaster, and around the corner from a butchers where the morning delivery coincided with me being at the bus stop several times a week. In other words, I've seen and heard a whole lot worse.

You may be wondering why a vegan blog is discussing planning issues and dead people. Well, the slogan the protesters are using is ‘Stop dead bodies coming to Tangier Road’ - and, commenters point out, early on in proceedings one of these delightful missives was displayed by a neighbouring butcher. Can you see where this is going? I bet you can.

The commenters on the article - only one of whom, incidentally, acknowledges that they are a vegetarian - make quite a lot of this, and I have to say I agree. Personally, having avoided eating animals for a couple of decades, I am less bothered by seeing a stranger's coffin than by the array of animal parts on display for human consumption. And these bother me a whole lot less than seeing trucks full of live animals going who-knows-where (nowhere nice, is the answer). It isn't because I care less about humans than about other species - the issue is the difference in context.

Apparently the butcher has now removed the sign - maybe worried about people making the connection?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Why would you want to watch that?

If I recall correctly, the question was first asked of me (in a vegan/AR context rather than a more general one) when I expressed interest in seeing the slightly infamous documentary involving interaction between Peter Singer and Tipu Aziz. It seemed that certain acquaintances thought even watching the show constituted letting the side down. I think my reasons at the time were along the following lines:
-To see for myself whether Singer does in fact capitulate and express pro-vivisection sentiments. (admittedly I have a fairly healthy level of scepticism regarding the editing process, so wouldn't be 100% convinced unless he had made a very clear statement) Dude went from hero to hate figure at nought to sixty on the basis of publicity before the show aired - personally I have never seen him as either, but to make any sort of judgement I need to know what someone has actually said or done rather than what someone else claims they said or did, if that makes sense.
-To make up my own mind about Singer's words and actions.
-To be informed about what the opposition, in this case Tipu Aziz, was saying.
-To reinforce my own beliefs by testing their strength and locating the weak points that need fixing. Not a fan of dead dogmas over here.

I still apply that rationale to what I read. (I don't currently have a TV, so no idea what's going on in that arena) It's why I often read the blogs of anti-vegans and born-again ex-vegans, even though they often exasperate me. I want to know what the opposition is, what I'm up against. I might take the piss sometimes, but I try to treat these folks like worthy opponents* as far as possible. I intend at some point to read Lierre Keith's The Vegetarian Myth, in among a reading list composed of different vegan perspectives, because I want to know what she is saying. At the moment I am open to any of the new wave of vegan-hater types brushing me off with 'read Lierre' and using that as an excuse to not engage. It's a gap in my armour. Meanwhile, I feel that I am strong enough not to be 'converted' by her, so why should I be afraid to read it?

I believe that many people are afraid to read or otherwise encounter views that challenge their own. Why? Is it a betrayal of your own camp to know how the other side put their views? Are your own views so weak that they collapse when being challenged? I would hope not.

*99% of my students never want to hear those words emerge from my mouth or pen again for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately I will continue to deploy the phrase until 100% learn that brushing off the opposition without engaging will lose them marks. That could take the rest of my working life...

Monday, 23 January 2012

Book review - Jeffrey Masson, When Elephants Weep

I've been curious about Jeffrey Masson for a while now, but never really had the time to read his books. Come to think of it, this one has been sitting around on my shelves for a while now. It wasn't on the list, but probably should have been since (unlike many of the entries) it was already in the house.

Anyway, When Elephants Weep focuses on the emotional lives of animals. It has long been a subject for debate whether animals have emotional lives to begin with, and Masson gathers together evidence (observational and admittedly sometimes anecdotal) to argue this point. Generally he does so convincingly. I may of course be biased, since I see no reason why animals wouldn't have emotions of some description - and certainly no reason for humans to dispute this, other than those who wish to somehow exploit animals.

The cases Masson describes are interesting, but of greater interest to me was what many of these stories say about the humans involved, including a number of laboratory experimenters and several who work with animals in settings such as circuses and dolphinaria. Masson's focus is on the animals for most of his book - as it should be, since the issue of animal emotion is the controversial point here - but my predominant thought much of the time was 'yes, I can guess what's going through the animal's mind, but what the f*** is the human thinking?'. The reasons some people have for arguing against animal emotions are certainly highlighted loud and clear.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Hot stuff

I had a bit of time spare to play around in the kitchen today, and I used it to try making my own jalapenos. I love those things, but they are a bit pricey. Also, homemade ones are just peppers and vinegar, so no random additives.

I'm not giving any specific quantities here, the only measure is having a glass jar to hand that will hold the quantity of peppers you have plus sufficient vinegar to cover them. You can buy glass jars from Lakeland, but why bother when you get washable ones free with so many foodstuffs?

Here's the technique I used, which seems so far to have worked:
Cut the peppers into rings and sprinkle them with salt. Leave for half an hour or so (about the time it takes to have a cup of tea - might not need that long but I was reading something engrossing).
Use your glass jar to measure the vinegar (in this case white wine vinegar) into a saucepan. Don't fill it up to the top, you need to allow room for displacement. (Although if Archimedes had been bathing in this stuff he would not have been shouting 'Eureka', unless it has a secret meaning along the line of 'my balls are on fire!')
Heat the vinegar. Add the peppers. Bring to the boil. Simmer for half an hour or so. Don't inhale the contents!
Allow to cool before putting in the jar. Keep in the fridge.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Animal, vegetable, mineral, priorities!

Sometimes I wake up with the germ of a blog post, but not enough in itself to get me writing that morning. Today, for some reason, the animal rights and environment dichotomy (whether real or imagined) was on my mind, but not in any really formed way.

Then Mylene linked to this post of Vincent G's, with which (you may be unsurprised and underwhelmed to hear) I agree with a fair amount.

I have no problem, incidentally, with caring about the environment nor with acting on that concern. I try to do both as far as possible - recycling, repurposing, not owning a car, the million and one other things that I suspect most people reading this also do. That's cool. I neither have nor want a claim on being better than anyone else, except maybe Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot. I also suspect, by the way, that being vegan *might* make some intrinsic contribution to lowering my carbon footprint, but the science there isn't 100% conclusive and I am not a climate scientist anyway, so my perspective on the subject isn't based on that. Anyway, if you're an environmentalist who hasn't ranted at any animal rights activists lately, you can probably assume that my issue isn't with you.

My problem is with those who explicitly posit it as a conflict. It doesn't have to be. An animal rights activist can certainly have an eco-unfriendly lifestyle without being too contradictory to his or her core beliefs, but the ones I know are certainly no worse than the bulk of the population. And sure, energy directed at animal rights is not being directed at environmental causes. My answer is, so what?

My concern for the environment is based on a deeper concern for the sentient beings inhabiting it, who need as unpolluted an ecosystem as possible to survive. This means that when I have the time, energy and other relevant resources to be involved in activism, I'm generally going to focus it on said sentient beings, of my own and other species. If animal testing is required for 'environmental' reasons, I'm likely to call shennanigans. I am quite prepared to use a vehicle to get to a protest or sabotage a hunt, not to mention electricity and paper to promote certain ideas. Eco-friendly animal agriculture cuts very little ice with me. I don't see leather and fur as particularly 'natural', or maybe they are in the sense that eating one's enemies might be. Furthermore, if you're an environmentalist who thinks that culling animals or confining them for anyone's benefit but their own (e.g. for necessary medical treatment) is what the planet needs, sorry but I disagree.

I hope, at least, that it is possible to be for animals, people and the environment without too many contradictions...

Thursday, 19 January 2012

An example of what I've been ranting about for years

Vegansaurus highlights an obnoxious advert by Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine. Now, I like PCRM, in general. I have a few reservations about any group promoting veganism on health grounds, but can appreciate one that doesn't actually push it as a miracle cure/source of immortality. Likewise, they've always been a bit too anti-dietary fats for my taste (even if we ignored the health benefits of, say, olive or coconut oil, emphasising this angle would lead to a fairly joyless diet for many of us, which is of course a brilliant way of putting people off being vegan), but on the other hand I haven't seen any noticeable fat-shaming from them. Until now.

When I started this blog back in 2008, part of my motivation was to challenge the seemingly uncritical delight taken by vegans in sources such as the Skinny Bitch franchise and Gillian McKeith. (Since getting vocal on the subject, I have come across more critics, and GMK in particular has lost a lot of her popularity after eating insects on TV.) I've ranted about discussed related topics many times since then. I'm sure some people wonder why I give so much energy to this topic. Certainly, tofu-world friends* have asked why it bothers me so much. After all, if selling people a diet plan encourages them to go vegan, what's the problem?

I'll tell you what the problem is. VEGANISM ISN'T ABOUT GETTING SKINNY. Some people, for better or worse, experience that as a side-effect of going vegan. Others don't. Some put on weight. Some just stay the same, wherever they started from. And if you want to promote veganism for animal rights reasons, equating veganism with perfect health is a bit dodgy. A vegan diet is no more automatically healthy than an omni one - any diet takes a bit of work to get the right nutrients. Equating skinny with healthy is quite frankly dangerous - not everyone is designed that way. And equating veganism with the aesthetic side of skinniness? Just, no. As much as anything, if someone cares about 'getting skinny' over all else, do you really think they'll stay vegan if the weight doesn't fall off? If they get skinny and get sick, meanwhile, veganism will be blamed. This is how some of the more prominent ex-vegans seem to have come to be that way.

And the advert in question, well, it seems to be trading purely on the idea that fat is a Bad Thing aesthetically - that it looks gross, for a start, and furthermore is a sign that you must have been killing baby calves to keep yourself in such disgusting shape. A vegan, by this reckoning, absolutely cannot look like that. Sadly, many unskinny vegans (myself included) tend to have this strange thing called dignity that prevents us dropping trou/getting topless at PCRM HQ - possibly alongside a couple of the skinny omnis/lacto-vegs I know - and challenging the people behind the advert to spot the difference.

I'm with Fuck Yeah Fat Vegans on this one...

*Veganising 'meatworld', internet-obsessive speak for real life

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Things to read and do

I'm not doing new years resolutions here, but I do like a nice challenge, especially one that gives me something to blog about. And since I like books, that might as well be the theme. So here goes! NB each list will probably be added to as I remember other books I either have or want.

Re-read existing vegan/vegetarian/animal rights books
Specifically reread properly and blog. Many of my books are currently in crates while we get ready to move house, so may have to wait.
  • Peter Singer, Animal Liberation
  • Peter Singer and Jim Mason, Eating
  • Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation (Not a vegan book, but it certainly challenges meat culture)

    Books I want to read
    These include different perspectives on veganism and at least one anti-vegan book - never let it be said that I let my critical thinking skills go blunt! Might have to wait until I can afford or borrow copies.
  • Jonathan Safran Foer Eating Animals This has had mixed reviews ranging from 'most inspirational book EVAH' to 'TEH EVUL INDUSTRY SHILL', so I want to make up my own mind about it.
  • Gary Francione, Rain Without Thunder This is some vegans' bible and a hate figure for others, so again I want to make up my own mind.
  • Lierre Keith, The Vegetarian Myth Because this is what ex-vegans throw at anyone who challenge them, so if I can say I have read the bloody thing it will get that bit of awkwardness out of the way.
  • Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows - I can understand the critisms of her general concept of 'carnism' - on the other hand, as I have spent the last few years studying the construction of ideologies, I still find it intriguing enough to want a closer look.

    Vegan and vegetarian cookbooks I have and want to make more use of
    They occupy space in my kitchen, and normally they get ignored unless I want inspiration for something in particular. I'm thinking I should vary our diet a bit more by consulting them more than the current rate of twice a year...
  • Isa Chandra Moskowitz (/Terry Hope Romero?) Vegan With A Vengeance
  • Sarah Kramer and Tanya Barnard The Garden of Vegan
  • Simon Hopkinson The Vegetarian Option (This one actually belongs to my significant other, I'd be polite to say that veganising the recipies will be a challenge, but I might as well take it up!)
  • Linda McCartney Linda's Home Cooking (or similar title, I'm not fishing it out to check) - I seem to remember that this involved a fair few processed things (burgers and sausages - early product placement?!?) rather than basic ingredients, but worth a try. I may try it with Fry's products in some cases rather than Linda's own, since so few of the latter are vegan. (thankfully the exceptions are sausages, sausage rolls and pies, my favourites...)
    I'm sure there are other cookbooks knocking around the house, but none are particularly memorable - I'll make use of them in the new place as they emerge.

    Suggestions for more reading are welcome, and if you have favourite recipes in the books I mentioned let me know...
  • Monday, 9 January 2012

    That old chestnut

    I bought some chestnuts before Christmas, meaning to roast them, but was then too busy to actually do that. Luckily many of them were still edible by today! I was home alone for lunch, so this just makes one bowl. It was quite quick to make today, but involved overnight soaking.

    -1 or 2 tsp yeast extract
    -About three quarters of a small net of chestnuts, or buy a tin of pre-peeled ones if this is what you're setting out to make.
    -An onion
    -Three medium cloves of garlic
    -Olive oil
    -Splash of balsamic vinegar

    Peel the chestnuts. My preferred technique is to stick a knife into the middle of the shell and slowly bring the handle down towards you, then waggle the blade about to seperate the two halves. Try to get as much of the inner husk off as possible.

    Mix the yeast extract with hot water and soak the chestnuts in it overnight.

    The next day:
    -Put a decent amount of olive oil in the bottom of a saucepan and heat up
    -Chop the onion, crush the garlic, tip into the oil
    -Scoop the chestnuts out of the stock with a slotted spoon or fork (depending on the size of your container) and drop into the oil.
    -Stir around a bit
    -Add the stock and a bit more water if necessary
    -Bring to the boil then turn down and leave to simmer for half an hour

    Sunday, 8 January 2012

    Dispatches from my news feed

    Quite by coincidence, my morning trawl of facebook turned up two interesting posts on approaches to vegan advocacy.

    First, Mylene linked to a post by Vincent Guihan on the importance of humour. Sample: If you just glower and make fists in your pockets, you won't have a chance to explain your views. If you start shouting incoherently and flip the table (as I often do), people will wonder whether you are okay. If all you do is make cutting remarks that make people feel stupid, it just discourages someone from thinking critically about their choices.And really, it's the last that makes or breaks vegan education. I agree totally, as anyone who has read my blog for a while might gather. It is tempting to make fists and flip tables, but probably not the best strategy.

    Then Cat, who as far as I know doesn't blog (which is incidentally a great pity), linked to this post at The Fivefold Path on the issue of vegan preachiness. Specifically, those vegans (and vegetarians) who make a point of declaring their non-preachiness to the point that they can sometimes appear to be preachy about that. This really reasonated with me, because while I have no idea if the rest of you perceive me as 'militant' or 'preachy' I often suspect myself of being on that side of whatever line is drawn - purely because the people who draw the lines seem to conflate talking about or arguing for veganism with being preachy, by definition. And somehow it feels worse when a vegetarian or vegan says it. I am all for respecting differences of opinion, incidentally. I'm with JS Mill on this one, a dead dogma is neither use nor ornament. I spend a lot of my working life convincing young people that just because someone disagrees with them on a moral issue it doesn't mean that person is the devil. That said, you don't need to respect your opponents *more* than those who are nominally on the wrong side, and all accusations of preachiness do is shut down debate.