Long Live Veganism

vegan_joker_cardI don’t mean to belabor this tiresome semantical tirade on veganism but hopefully this wraps it up. It ended up more personal than I meant but I’m posting it anyways. I have hundreds of drafts in the queue and hope to get back to more interesting things.

In my last post I reposted an interview done at the height of my vegan apostasy. Frustrated by the identity politics of veganism and finding no answers I shut it all down. I changed the name of my “Vegan Represent” vegan message board and called it “Plant-Based People” thereby pretty much killing it. I mean, I was never vegan because I wanted to be a vegan. I was vegan because I thought it was unfair the way we were treating animals. It was with gusto I jumped right into this vegan thing, I found my people!

But at the start of my journey I looked to the mentors in this movement and was lead astray by charlatans. They had me eating a raw food diet and flushing my colon with chlorophyll laced concoctions (seriously :|), my low point. Thinking, “I was wrong about eating animals I must also be wrong about a whole lotta other stuff!” left me wide open to be exploited particularly for a non-critical thinker such I was. Opportunistic snake oil slingers picked my pocket to the tune of thousands of dollars. But even with all that, I was lucky. I got away with my physical health intact.

Then I accidentally discovered skepticism. I had to understand that science was a way to learn about reality. It wasn’t a set of dogmatic facts conjured up by maniacal puppy punching mad scientists hell-bent on greed and world domination. I realized how wrong I actually was and I felt betrayed, duped, victimized and ashamed. So I lashed out, burning down most of the work I’ve done in my vegan activist days save for one and before shuttering that I was a bit more astute in my reasoning and less reactive. I read and read and still read and read. I learned that the history of veganism had the spirit (more or less) of what I was after. But really who cares what a white English dude of the 40’s said? I make fun of homeopathy and other silly bunkum for how they started but is that not true for everything? Reading books like The Better Angels of Our Nature I learned that things are shit but get less so. Medicine get better, science, technology, justice. What somebody invented, said, discovered, 50 years ago (much less thousands) should never be relied upon as doctrine. Heck, all my own beliefs were created by a dumber person than who I am today so the heuristics I rely upon should always be suspect.

Long story longer, veganism sucks, I still believe that. It still makes exaggerated claims. It’s a clownish cartoon caricature of a movement. It has a toxic pathological culture of pseudoscience. It almost always misses the point and often cynically exploits its adherents. But what ideology doesn’t eventually find the messy condition of fancy monkeys mucking things up?  A new word, label, stance, sect, movement or ideology will ultimately find itself in a similar broken position. So let vegans eat their identity politics and let’s move onwards. Knowing it as well as I do too, I can point out the flaws and try to refine it, as I do here on this blog. In the very least it serves as a great foil to help illuminate. Wielding it this way has recently served me well enough I think and I’d like to continue. Otherwise if there’s any other purpose I can serve it’s the lessons of my bumbling self stumbling around trying to do the best that I can. Witness the folly of my naiveté and chuckle at my awkwardness. If it’s helpful somehow to some other kindred spirit out there, I’m glad for it.

So a shout-out to my friends, family, loved ones and acquaintances old and new who’ve patiently been by my side tolerating my manic elations and brooding crankiness. I would like to express my most sincerest appreciation and love. Expect more of the same to come but together we will make things better, yes? I’m gonna try to take to heart the inspiring words of hero Dr. Norman Borlaug:

“If I have anything to contribute to this world… I’m going to play that card and play it hard.”

On Renouncing Veganism

This is my boring story about why I renounced veganism, for the record.

Years ago I ran a vegan message board called Vegan Represent. For you kids out there, we didn’t have Facebook or much of any social media to so casually chat and meet people of like minds. We had to scratch by on independently run message boards, it was a frigid place.

Long story longer, I became disillusioned with veganism for a few reasons.

1) I discovered critical thinking, became a “skeptic” and was perturbed by all the pseudoscience in the vegan movement.

2) Around the same time I read an essay called “Boycott Veganism” by a local vegan animal rights activist, Wayne Hsiung.

I scoffed a bit reading it that article at the time but it worked its way into my head and led me down this path where I questioned the meaning of veganism. I polled the members of Vegan Represent relentlessly looking for an answer. What does veganism mean? Is it making a meaningful change?

PythagoreanCrank was born from that chaos. Ex-vegan and writer, Rhys Southern runs an excellent blog called Let Them Eat Meat about his and other’s vegan experiences. He interviewed me in 2011 for the also excellent Carpe Vegan where Jed Gillan features snarky astute vegan commentary.

They both gave me permission to crosspost that original interview here. While it’s dated and my views may have more nuance on this issue these days, it’s still an important part of my history. I hope it will provide some context and maybe help others who find themselves in similar quandaries.


Why Veganism Must Be Abolished: an Interview with Vegan Represent Founder Dave D

Dave D went vegan in 1999 for ethical reasons, and was a good obedient vegan for about a decade. He volunteered for EarthSave and several animal interest organizations, founded one of the first and consequently biggest vegan group on Meetup.com, and created one of the original vegan message boards — “Vegan Represent”.

I would have included a hyperlink to Vegan Represent, except it no longer exists. That’s because Dave D started to question veganism last year; after announcing this to the disappointment and confusion of his forum members, he started the vegan heretic blog Pythagorean Crank, and then took down Vegan Represent to make room for a new pro-animal message board, Plant-Based People.

Dave D still doesn’t eat animal products and continues to fight for animal liberation. Just don’t call him vegan.

Pythagoran Crank - DaveD

What led to your break with veganism last year?

The break was instigated by my discovery of critical thinking. As a vegan activist I was a cohort of a lot of pseudoscientific propagation. Once I realized that, I had to resolve the cognitive dissonance of being associated with a movement that was mired in so much nonsense. At first I had a sense that I could fix things and re-own the word but that seemed too fundamentalist and caused too much strife. I decided to leave and find my own path.

Something that influenced you was comparing the Vegan Society’s more recent definition of veganism to its original definition. Why did that have such an impact?

Well, as I was struggling with the definition of what vegan meant, I got all prescriptivist and went back to the original source of the term. It was some nutty British dude named Donald Watson and with it he founded the Vegan Society. This it how he defined it:

A way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.

35 years later they updated the definition like so:

Veganism denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practical – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals, and the environment.

Basically they watered down the animal justice aspects with anthropocentric appeals. I originally signed on for the aspects of peace and reverence like Watson originally describes but I never could wrap my head around the other two “pillars”. For a while I was bashing away at these arguments, claiming the righteousness of my own interpretation. When I stopped and looked at the originating point of contention, I realized it was codified in the revamped definition all along. Before that, I felt betrayed and exploited by leaders in the movement or gurus co-opting the term. It turned into embarrassment though when I had to accept that, no, this is what veganism is. I was the one who was wrong.

Do you no longer believe in veganism?

I’m not sure what there is to believe in veganism exactly. I don’t believe it will make me skinny, solve global climate change, or even instill an idea of animal rights. My whole activist career I used “veganism” as my softball cause but there really is no -ism there. I was denying the scary implications that this might be something deeper than I was ready to confront. Now that I’ve exhausted my search for meaning in veganism and come up empty-handed, I’m ready to explore the depths of these implications.

You still don’t consume animal products. How do you explain to people that despite this, you’re not a vegan?

It’s a lot harder to get into the vegan club than it is to get out. All I have to do is admit to drinking any beer (regardless of the blessing from Barnivore) with reckless abandon or not-checking the SKU of the bag of Skittles I’ve been eating that indicates the factory’s use of bone char sugar, etc. Recently, for example, I was just at a conference in Vegas and ate my fill of a vegetable stir-fry buffet made on the same grill with animal flesh. What vegan would do that?

I think it’s silly for people to judge me according to the animal molecules I do or do not ingest instead of the thoughts I posses. This focus on consumption quickly reaches absurd levels of obsessive compulsiveness and becomes this dogmatic thing.

The tagline of Pythagorean Crank is “By vegan abolition we mean abolishing veganism.” Great line — one I wish I thought of! Since you still have vegan habits, there must be something else about veganism that you don’t like. Why does veganism, or at least certain aspects of it, need to be abolished?

Oh thanks! BTW that’s just one of my taglines for Pythagorean Crank, they rotate.

So, my not-using-animals is part of how I put my beliefs into action. If there is a situation where using animal products becomes more of a hassle than an infraction of my ideology, I’ll bend and use that product. Peter Singer said something to this effect and was ruthlessly chastised, so I feel I’m in good company. I can still have my ideology intact. Bending the praxis doesn’t change that.

Veganism is a boycott without a campaign, relegated to a lifestyle. The word vegan is helpful for eating lunch, but as one of my other rotating taglines goes: “Animal liberation is not found on a menu.”

You still want animal liberation. Why isn’t veganism the way to achieve it?

Yes I do believe in animal liberation and it’s still a priority of my current activist work. It’s why I’m leaving veganism behind in the first place, really. When the practice of being vegan is the goal, it becomes a slippery slope where vegan activists are tempted to employ spurious arguments. While we may see a short-term growth in vegans via questionable means, all it really does is create a bubble. Vegans who are duped by bad arguments will eventually figure that out and leave, making it that much harder to reach back out to them.

For the vegans who still hang in there, they are left scrambling on their own to find some validity. All they know is “go vegan”. They don’t have the tools themselves to make informed decisions or constructive forays into animal liberation. So what they do is improve upon what they’ve been given. They try to be more vegan. This shoves them into the arms of new age cults like raw food. Veganism becomes a rung on the ladder to climb upon a higher horse.

If veganism can’t achieve animal liberation, what can?

Animal liberation will achieve animal liberation. That is, we need compelling arguments to explain why animals deserve consideration. We should allow people to figure out what that means in their own lives. There are people working for animal liberation who eat animal products! This may seem irrational and counterintuitive, but that’s a fancy monkey for you. Should their efforts be dismissed because they haven’t personally reached a certain level of veganositude? Veganism has its part to play in the right context but its significance is being exaggerated.

You had an argument with Vegan Outreach co-founder and VeganHealth.org founder Jack Norris in the comments of your blog. Where do you disagree with Vegan Outreach’s mission?

Vegan Outreach’s mission is just that of their namesake, getting people to go vegan. Their mantra is: veganism is a “tool to reduce suffering“… but it’s a really dumb tool. Veganism used that way is cargo cult activism. The only way veganism will achieve animal liberation is in spite of itself. I argued we should talk more about animal rights but he balked at the idea, saying the general public wasn’t ready for that. That’s a pretty patronizing and pessimistic attitude to apply to a method of advocacy.

Hey, but more power to them if that’s what they wanna do. That doesn’t mean I can’t dissent. It took me years to absorb a critique of veganism I read on Vegan Represent that played a part in my new direction. Similarly I hope others are inspired to think critically about their own veganism and blaze new paths of change. We need a better foundation upon which to build a movement.

You once wrote to me that you thought I was helping with veganism with my blog Let Them Eat Meat. How so?

You are helping because you are spotlighting the weaknesses of veganism. You are putting real names and faces to apostates and exploring the nooks and crannies of this thing that’s interpreted in so many different ways. It needs to be weeded and as an ex-vegan yourself you are familiar with your part of the story that you can leverage to dig up the dirt. You may be trying to justify your paleo diet or looking at the pieces for what went wrong with your veganism but ultimately I think you’re helping to evolve veganism by pointing out the weak arguments. I’m just sick of hearing the same tired fallacious arguments on both sides. We need more insiders like you to speak out and say “veganism failed me and here’s why”.

I do something similar with Pythagorean Crank. When vegans deride me for the critique, I wonder if they really believe their own arguments. I mean, if I were to be proved wrong about something, then shouldn’t I accept and adopt it? Shouldn’t vegans want to hone their arguments? Wouldn’t it be dishonest otherwise? When I criticize vegans, many rebuke me by saying “we’re all not like that” or “STFU meanie!!!”. Instead of arguing with me about that, though, how about speaking out, with me? How about recognizing that weakness of our supposed movement, and strive to change it? When I criticize non-vegans, though, in the same voice, all-a-sudden I’m one righteous dude. I’m not going to accept the tone argument. They can dish it, but they can’t take it.

So yeah, I think your criticisms of veganism are constructive. Your writing isn’t mean-spirited or malicious but you don’t pull punches either. I may still be in catharsis mode on PCrank but I’m looking for my voice. Let Them Eat Meat is an inspiration for me… I hope you don’t take that the wrong way. Heh.

How is your new message board, “Plant-Based People,” different than your previous one, “Vegan Represent”?

Plant-Based People ditched the word vegan because it was too restrictive and meaningless at the same time. Vegan Represent had a strict policy about being vegan. We even made you declare your “Vegan Story” at the door! PBP would be for everybody to talk in a constructive manner without the vague dogmatic qualifiers. It’s an attempt to bypass the preconceptions and seek, explore and share ideas, solutions and experiences. Isn’t that how rational people should commune?

Real Vegan Food

A grillfull of fake vegan food.

A grillfull of fake vegan food.

It’s BBQ season and I enjoy grilling up a plethora of plant-based vegan sausages, burgers and meats. Inevitably though somebody will (not necessarily disparagingly) call this food “fake”. I usually jokingly quip with a correction like “Nope, it’s quite real, see?!” or something like “No, here’s a fake burger!” while chomping cartoonishly at an imaginary sandwich in my hand. But I understand the point, it’s trying to be something else. 1

For years companies have been rushing to meet the growing demand of people like myself who wished to have their burger and eat it too. They scoured the plant-based kingdom for ingredients that provided the taste and texture of the old familiar animal foods. These ingredients get processed, combined, boiled, dehydrated, fried, condensed, extruded, and (you get the point) otherwise tortured in a search for a better analogue (all for profit of course). 2 The meat versions have gotten pretty good. Dairy products, not so much. 3

But is guacamole made with peas still guacamole? 4 Is chocolate pudding made with avocado still pudding? But hey, I’m no purist when it comes to these things. Sometimes though, even I have a knee-jerk reaction to the bounds for which ingredients challenge the original meaning of the word. So maybe the wheat gluten burger IS fake. Make the pea protein cheese IS fake. Should we say instead make up ridiculous words like “chik’n” or “chreese”. Or maybe say “vegan cheese” or “vegan meat” further diminishing the word vegan to mean “not as tasty”?

But wait, there may be an solution. A solution that not only solves this quibbling conundrum, but brings about the vegan world 5 vegans have been fantasizing about. Recently things have been happening. They’ve been happening so low under the radar though that this revolution may arrive with a whimper and not the bang most would assume. Three words: real vegan food.

By that specifically, I mean there are efforts to make animal foods utilizing nature’s own biological technology 6 and cutting out the middle animal. Here are a few recent examples of people I’ve recently met who are working on such exciting projects:

New Harvest
New Harvest is a 10 year old non-profit with intents on making conventional meat production obsolete by any means including cultured meat.

Muufri
Muufri is a small business savvy startup with plans to make sustainable animal-free milk from the bottom up.

Real Vegan Cheese
Counter Culture Labs and BioCurious are two teams of biohackers and citizen scientists embarked on a project to make the first real vegan cheese by getting baker’s yeast to make milk proteins. 7

While the logistics of in vitro meat currently seem overwhelming real vegan cheese is apparently less so. Once we have vegan milk, cheese then can be made from the ground up employing age-old traditional methods. This  animal-free cheese then is a holistic natural product of nature identical in the most important ways. 8 Not only that, but we can customize it minimizing known health effects of allergies and intolerances. The body of scientific nutrition literature applies too so there will be less unknowns unlike the current slapdash plethora of untested amalgamations for which we are currently being subjected. 9 And all that just scratches the surface to the benefits real natural vegan food can bring.

How lucky that the one thing fake food makers have been having a helluva time trying to mock might be right under our microscopes?! A good vegan cheese is the holy grail for vegans and this goes beyond any dreams of plant-based versions. How short-sighted and uncreative is it to rely on the limiting toolset of plant-based materials? It’s time we grow up and leverage the cutting edge technological tools to create a more just future. The “vegan world” will not come as a result of will power and belabored kitchen endeavors. It will happen when technology provides a superior vegan product.

So to recap:

  • We don’t need 10 untested witches’ brews of reductionist animal product knock-offs made by companies that shame natural technology. 11
  • We don’t need to suffer hours of complicated concoctions that ultimately rely on our amnesia to convince ourselves they taste good.
  • We don’t need to limit ourselves with this obsession with “plant-based” materials.
  • We don’t need to build a new animal body factory every time we want to convert energy into delicious protein.
  • And we won’t need fake vegan foods any longer. 12

Footnotes:

  1. ALERT! Much of this post is satirical and tongue-in-cheek. I recommend reading all the way through straight and then checking footnotes if some of it is lost in the dryness.
  2. Ethical profit is fine by me!
  3. Understatement, even though many vegans will insist otherwise as “if you’ve only tried this certain brand or obscure recipe”. Nope, thanks, I’ve been around the vegan block enough to know better.
  4. Technically called “mockamole” but this one was particularly bad for the GMO avocado (hint, there aren’t any) rant at the end.
  5. Yes, that is the goal for vegans. Whatever that means.
  6. Otherwise known as “biotech”
  7. RealVeganCheese.org website, IndieGoGo campaign
  8. #GMOFAQ: Transferring genes from one species to another is neither unnatural nor dangerous | it is NOT junk, Michael Eisen
  9. I do not really believe new combinations of food ingredients need to be scientifically tested every time. That’s as ridiculous as saying the same for every genetically modified plant.
  10. What constitutes a “need” is another silly argument people use over GMOs. As in “We don’t need GMOs”. We need any and every viable solution particularly if it spares suffering and lives of animals. I do support and encourage fake vegan foods.
  11. Vegan food companies will cynically cater to anti-GMO fears simply to sell product. Example
  12. Again I must reiterate that I don’t find food shaming using subjective terms such as fake, real, good, bad, junk, natural, unnatural, processed, clean, etc to be helpful. I’m using these terms here satirically to make a point.