A dear friend of mine, Megan, was in town last week. We’ve been close for twenty years. It’s hard to imagine. Meeting at fourteen in the halls of our former high school just doesn’t seem like that long ago. She and I were an immediate fit. She wasn’t afraid to dance to the beat of her own drum either. We came from opposite sides of the fence politically. My family was singing the praises of Reagan. Hers had a picture of JFK hanging in the hallway. We would talk for hours about politics and the world, exposing each other to new ideas.
That year we met was also the year I learned about the Holocaust. In my history class watching old black and white documentaries of innocent people put into trucks and carted off to their deaths moved me to nightmares for years. Seeing how the families were misled about what would be their eventual murder was beyond disgusting. To be greeted with violins at concentration camps and eased into believing the worst was impossible was all the more cruel and unjust.
When Megan came into town last week, she invited me to meet up with her and her husband and son and several of their friends at a restaurant not far from the Museum of Tolerance, which I think is the most powerful museum in LA. When our waiter came to the table, I told him that I’m vegan, asked about their preparation methods and what would be suitable.
He grumbled at me, “We are not vegan friendly.”
I asked about their veggie burger, and he said that it comes with fries that are cooked in the same fryer as meat. Then I thought he said, “But that depends on how nutsy you are.”
I looked at him in disbelief. “Did you say ‘nutsy’?”
“No,” he said. “Nazi. But that too. Both actually.”
His hostility astounded me. I was also struck by the irony that in not wanting other beings to be loaded up in trucks and sent to their deaths, I was being labeled a Nazi. I should have left immediately. If I hadn’t been with a friend I hadn’t seen in years and a group of strangers, I would have. Instead, I stayed and ate a salad, and when the bill came, the waiter drew a picture of a pig on the receipt. The pig had X’s for eyes as if he was dead. He was holding a sign that read, “Thanks!”
Seeing his crude pencil drawing of a deceased pig reminded me of the Farmer John slaughterhouse in downtown Los Angeles. The outside of the building, which covers a large city block, is covered in murals. These murals depict what most people would like to believe are the lives of the pigs who are killed there. The murals were initially done by a Hollywood movie set background painter. That tells you something, I think, about how fictitious these ideas are of pigs living in idyllic settings, feeding their babies in tall green grass, and lingering at a pond for an afternoon.
At the top of the slaughterhouse, there’s a painting of angelic winged pigs flying to heaven. Vegans are sometimes accused of being overly sentimental. There are those who say we care about animals too much and treat animals in a way that they do not deserve. Some claim that animals are only food, and vegans need to just realize their place in the food chain. It’s interesting then the sentimentality of this mural. Not only do the animals in this painted world live carefree lives, they die beautiful deaths that take them into heaven’s cloud-filled gates. In my mind if someone is taking part in something brutal, either by killing animals or paying someone else to, they shouldn’t get to put a halo on it by romanticizing the animal’s death. It may make the person feel better, but for the animal, who wants nothing more than to live, it’s the same. Also, if the idea of pigs living happy lives with their offspring is really so appealing, maybe we should stop and question buying their dismembered bodies in the first place.
Of course, this romanticizing doesn’t just occur in pretty painted murals or marketing campaigns. It also happens in a seemingly nice way over the dinner table. An acquaintance was telling me a story once about when his son went through a period of unease about eating animals. The boy started his meal by thanking the animal for giving his life. This logic, of course, is that of a child. The animal did not give his life. No animal runs towards the slaughterhouse, chin raised, begging for his throat to be slit. The animal’s life was taken from him. The only one who feels better about saying “Thanks” before the meal is the boy. If, for example, someone killed your dog, ate her, and afterwards said, “Hey, I said ‘thank you’ over her body,” would that make a difference? Would it make you think that person did your dog some kind of service? Of course not.
While the waiter at the restaurant was busy demonizing me and my choices, perhaps he didn’t realize that he’s making a choice too. Meat eating may seem like the path of least resistance in our culture, but it’s not neutral. Just because it is the way most of us were raised doesn’t mean it can’t be questioned, and just because it’s tradition doesn’t make it right. People say, “We always have done it.” So have we always had sexism, racism, and hate crimes. Does that give them validity? Slavery, genital mutilation, and making women second-class citizens is also a tradition in some cultures. Does that make those things ideal simply because people have been doing them for as long as they can remember?
Sometimes we have to question our traditions and ask if they really work for us today. Sometimes we need to see if we can’t find another solution. Sometimes when we discover that we’re taking part in a cruel system, we have to step out of it for our own souls. Perhaps that waiter will continue throwing around the word “Nazi” as if it’s just another insult, but to my mind if people are considered extremists because of their commitment to non-violence, maybe we need to take another look at what is “normal.”
To see more pictures of the murals at the Farmer John Slaughterhouse in Vernon, California visit my Flickr site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8948006@N06/sets/72157621812651671/