BACTERIA RIGHTS: All About Picking Nits
The Gazette Pleads Compassion for the Tiny and Unpopular Folk
by Gene Franks
The identification of the true and the good is but a pious wish.-- Miguel de Unamuno.
Among the things that clutter my desk for a season or two then disappear, there was once an article by William Murchison, the paragon of conservative wisdom, that I had torn from someone's Dallas Morning News. If I had it now, I would give you a line or two to illustrate how totally steamed up a righteous man can get when things don't go according to his Plan. What got Murchison's blood boiling and his pen spitting venom was that some Catholic prelate or other had offered a public prayer entreating the Almighty to care for the amoebae.
It wasn't that Murchison had anything against amoebae; he just thought that with erratic stock prices and consumer confidence on the decline there were enough real problems to keep several Almighties jumping without worrying the One-and-Only with the silly affairs of wee nothings like amoebae.
Murchison went on to chastise the "animal rights" people for wasting time fretting about monkeys and rats while Earth was bulging with people who needed fretting about. Murchison's statements qualify him as a serious proponent of an ism most people don't think about much. Speciesism. It's a deeply rooted mode of thinking, surely as old as humanity, though the term didn't enter our lexicon until the mid-1970s. Peter Singer, the Australian philospher who coined it, defines speciesism as "a prejudice or attitude of bias toward the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species."
Marjorie Spiegel, in The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, expands its meaning to include the belief that "different species of animals are significantly different from one another in their capacities to feel pleasure and pain and live an autonomous existence." Some animals, as Orwell said, are more equal than others.
Probably you think I'm leading into an attack on Murchison, Limbaugh et al--the loathsome speciesists. To the contrary, I shall belabor the point that we all are speciesists. Holding one's own species above others has always seemed as normal as rice cakes to me--a necessary ingredient for survival. Likewise, it seems normal to place the welfare of those most like us above that of those less like us; it's easier to feel sympathy for a camel than for his intestinal parasites.
It is fashionable to scorn "bourgeois" creeds like Christianity and capitalism. Jean Genet, the French criminal and writer, said, however, that if one is truly to reject middle class values, one must learn to like licking spit from the sidewalk. Hygiene, too, is middle class. To deplore Christianity while wearing clean underwear is mere intellectualizing. Similarly,if one is to be really legitimate, to reject speciesism, as is becoming fashionable, one must put intestinal parasites on a par with the camel. Or the poodle. The avoidance of speciesism is essentially an intellectual exercise with little application to reality. The most eager supporters of the welfare of other species are often, in fact, the most blatant practitioners of species discrimination.
Long before I had heard of Peter Singer or animal rights, I read a newspaper ad for a ritzy steak dinner sponsored by a local humane society to benefit its pet cemetery. What interested me--along with a curiosity to know if the humane-ists replaced their dead poodles' blood with embalming fluid, planted them in little boxes, and sang tearful hymns--was that they did not see the irony. My grade-school daughter caught on right away: "Boy, they really love their pets, but they sure don't love cows much." A few years later, when another organization announced a fur show to raise money for its shelter for battered women, lots of people noticed the absurdity. One young man griped so loudly that the group abandoned its project. That's progress, I thought.
The reason the fur show got thumbs down, though, was not because the world had taken a step toward enlightenment but simply because fur is an easy issue. People easily see the injustice of murdering a racoon or a mink so a snooty lady can flaunt her wealth in its skin. (Bob Barker suggests that the world's snooty ladies could better flaunt their riches by wearing cloth coats with thousand-dollar bills pinned to the sleeves.) Protesters against fur get the thumbs up sign even from guys in pickups with gun racks. If you demonstrate against hamburgers or rodeos, you get a different hand sign from pickup drivers. Try parading for the rights of fleas, ticks, cockroaches or E. coli and you'll get nothing but a horse laugh from everybody. Species equality is only a theory, even among the animal rights community.
To my knowledge, there is no organization devoted to preventing cruelty to fleas or cockroaches. Ironically, some of the most persistent persecutors of such unpopular life forms are promoters of humane treatment of favored animals. Take the the lowly flea. Although the planet's fleas outweigh the human population (Life, May 1994), no one seems concerned about their rights. They are, in fact, specific targets of persecution by the group of speciesists I shall call companionists. If you haven't heard of companionism it's because I only recently coined the term. Many now avoid saying "pet" and refer to the dogs and cats who live with them as "companion animals." I, therefore, call those who put the rights and welfare of their companion animals above those of other creatures companionists.
Some companionists stop at nothing to spare a puppy or a kitten the slightest inconvenience, but don't bat an eyelash at mass execution of the "pests" that nature has assigned to their favorites. Killing fleas and ticks, in fact, is regarded as an essential part of humane treatment of companion animals. The question is only how one can dispatch them "environmentally," since we're finally catching on that when you poison the flea, you also poison the dog and the person who lives with the dog. "Environmentally acceptable" solutions aren't necessarily humane. For example, a Texas animal rights group recently devoted most of a newsletter issue to "safe" flea and tick control. They recommended use of diatomaceous earth (DE) on fleas. DE kills fleas by piercing their waxy protective moisture barrier so that they die of dehydration. The article reports it matter-of-factly. Had the writer been reporting the death by thirst of a neglected horse or circus animal, or of a retriever chained in Texas summer heat, the tone would have been one of pity and outrage.
The dog and cat business, let's face it, is not only the supreme example of speciesism in action, but also one of our great crimes against the environment. While we are quick to point out the environmental devastation and consequent animal suffering caused by human meat eating, we conveniently ignore that ever greater amounts of meat are being consumed by companion animals. Visit any supermarket for verification. More shelf space is devoted to pet food than to baby food. Pets are pests to the planet, but so ingrained is companionism in our society that few are bold enough even to suggest reducing their numbers.
Permaculturist Bill Mollison says that if you want to do the planet a great favor you will eat your dog, mulch your cat, and shoot your horse. These domesticated favorites are essentially useless--a drag on the system. Termites, by contrast, are literally indispensable to the planet's existence. And without bacteria, plants could not grow and life would be impossible. But true to our self-destructive penchant, we devote great resources to nurturing dogs and to eradicating termites and bacteria.
Now, so you won't think I'm pitching a flea or termite protection society I've just founded, I'll explain that I'm picking on dog and cat people simply to make us all ponder our inconsistency. We pick from among Earth's creatures as if we were choosing bananas at the market, then invent lofty reasons to justify our choices. We all are guilty of species discrimination. Even Peter Singer argued, for reasons I find flimsy, that it is acceptable to eat certain mollusks.
So, companionists will please refrain from writing angry letters. You were only a convenient example. I could have as easily pointed a finger at organic gardeners, those blatant speciesists who divide the insect world into "pests" and "beneficials They love their darling lady bugs and trichogamma wasps but are fierce persecutors of aphids and cabbage loopers. Or at myself, for, though it pains me to confess it, 1, too, have a totally useless black dog living in my back yard for whom, in true speciesist fashion, I get tinned and dried carcass from the supermarket. May the gods of cows, the rainforest, and good sense forgive me.
When a man becomes steadfast in his abstinence from harming others, then all living creatures will cease to feel enmity in his presence.-- Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.
VEGANISMpronounced VEE-gunizmmeans living on the products of the plant kingdom, excluding flesh, fish, fowl, animal milk and dairy produets (butter, cheese, yogurt, etc.), eggs, honey, animal gelatin, and all other foods of animal origin. It also excludes animal products such as leather, wool, fur, and silk, in clothing, upholstery, etc. Vegans usually make efforts to avoid the less-than-obvious animal oils, seeretions, ete., in many soaps, cosmetics, toiletries, household goods and other common commodities.--Definition of veganism from Ahimsa, the American Vegan Society's official membership journal.
Our society is spineless when it comes to taking a stand on the age-old questions about our conduct toward our fellow creatures. Typically, moral leadership comes via some bird-blasting authority figure who enjoins us to be "kinder and gentler." Christianity has over the centuries only muddied the waters with its vagaries about our "dominion" over others, a phrase generally taken as license to eat, pillage, or exploit whatever we choose with God's blessing. Ironically, Big Science, or Scientism, as Professor Pietro Croce calls it, which is now America's leading religion, simply duplicates the dominion creed by promoting "humanism" and our manifest right to exploit and experiment on other creatures for the greater glory of Man.
The East has traditionally given more attention to the human/animal question.. As a result, the concept of Ahimsa is deeply rooted in Oriental thinking. Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word that means non-killing or non-violence. It is sometimes rendered in English as "dynamic harmlessness." Victoria Moran, in her book on veganism, Compassion: The Ultimate Ethic, describes living in accord with Ahimsa as "purposefully living to do the most good as well as the least harm possible." The key is "least harm possible," because totally harmless living is a theory, not a practical possibility. Try as we will, we leave paths of destruction. Ordinary acts like breathing and walking do great violence. Mowing a lawn destroys a million universes. Practicing Ahimsa is referred to as "walking lightly upon the earth." But still one must walk.
Veganism, often called the First Pillar of Ahimsa, attempts to put Ahimsa into practice, especially in dietary and lifestyle choices. As commonly used, veganism is an extreme form of vegetarianism. Its practice can be complicated.
For the past several decades, Mr. H. Jay Dinshah has devoted himself, with keen insight, indefatigable energy, and, as you are about to witness, no small amount of good humor, to the never-ending task of unravelling the complications that surround veganism. Mr. Dinshah founded the American Vegan Society (AVS) and serves as its president. He is also editor of Ahimsa, an information-packed journal which has been "lighting the way since 1960," as its banner proclaims.
The Gazette is honored to reprint an excerpt from Mr. Dinshah's voluminous writings. The piece below is on the subject of vinegar eels, a problem that most readers probably do not worry about much. It is from a longer piece entitled "Maple Syrup, Gelatin, and Vinegar," from the October-December 1993 Ahimsa. In it, Mr. Dinshah examines vegan concerns about three common foods. Maple syrup has been rumored to contain a small amount of animal fat added to the sap to keep it from foaming during processing. Mr. Dinshah's investigation revealed that while animal fat was used at one time, this is no longer the case. Maple syrup is, therefore, "ethically acceptable," though, like all artificial sweeteners, not recommended in large quantities from the health standpoint. Gelatin, most commonly known to Americans as the popular junk food called JELL-O, contrary to rumors to the contrary, is still made from "slaughterhouse collagen (found in the connective tissue, bone, and cartilage of animals)" and is therefore not an acceptable vegan food. In the article that follows, Mr. Dinshah explains the American Vegan Society's findings on vinegar.
by H. Jay Dinshah
An interesting question arose recently regarding the use of vinegar. What are vinegar eels, and do they play a part in the vinegar making process?
Vinegar eels are a type of nematode (thread-like worm), the maximum size of which is variously given as 1/10 to 1/2-inch long. Their eggs are carried from place to place by tiny fruit flies (Drosophila), and deposited on or in the skin of the apple, which gives them a free ride to the vinegar making establishment.
Initial AVS investigations (mainly encyclopedia articles) seemed to indicate the utilization of vinegar eels in the manufacturing process. However, a careful checking with The Vinegar Institute of Atlanta, Georgia revealed that eels are not used deliberately, but rather viewed as a pest or contaminant, apparently not related to the vinegar process itself.
They may live (eating, secreting, and reproducing) at any stage of production, in the top layer of the fermenting liquid. In modern submerged-culture fermenters they are less common than in old-style packed generators. The eels and eggs are killed by pasteurization, and removed by filtration. Their presence is also minimized by modern hygienic procedures in the factory that reduce the likelihood of transfer.
It is not a case of adding a pound or two of nematodes to alcohol (from apple cider, grape wine or grain alcohol) to convert the raw material to vinegar This is done by bacterial action on the decomposing fruit substance.
There appear to be some ethical grounds--though perhaps not overwhelming ones--why vegans should not use vinegar, as compared to any number of other foods which need cleaning off of insects or their eggs, or require animal droppings to be washed away. From a standpoint of squeamishness, it should be pointed out that one customarily washes one's fruits, vegies, and leafy greens; and if a garden-variety bunny has seen fit to relieve herself on a plant it is easily cleansed.
This cannot be said of a liquid in which tiny worms have been "eating, secreting, and reproducing," to say nothing of swimming, diving, or water-skiing. On the other hand, with the realities of bulk transport and storage, the average consumer (vegan or otherwise) would probably prefer not to know that the federal government sets standards on how many pounds of rat-dirt or gallons of urine are permissible per carload of flour. Sorry 'bout that.
Aside from the ethical question, there is good reason to be wary of vinegar. The bacterial decomposition of apples (from which most food vinegar is made) creates first alcohol, and then acetic acid (which gives the sour taste).
To quote Agatha & Calvin Thrash (both M.D.'s) in Nutrition for Vegetarians, "Acetic acid, a waste product in the human body, is an irritant to both the stomach and nerves. It is one of the three commonest dietary causes of gastritis in the United States, along with aspirin and alcohol. All products made with vinegar can just as easily be made with lemon juice, a healthful article. Pickles made with vinegar are injurious to the stomach lining, causing loss of protective mucus and changes in the lining cells (nuclear enlargement and coarsening of the chromatin and increased mitosis [cell division-ed. D.]."
The vinegar question was discussed at length at two AVS Council meetings, and it was decided to leave the substance in the "gray area" between vegan and unacceptable products (along with refined sugar, photo film, rubber tires, etc.).
The Council Members noted how easily vinegar is replaced with citrus juice, and felt vinegar use should be discouraged, but would not necessarily refuse a salad with dressing containing a little. Due to the mitigating facts they stopped short of abstinence as a requirement for AVS Advanced Membership.
We are not dictators to dogmatically force our views or actions on others, but seekers of Truth. When the facts are known, it is our duty to help others understand and act on the matter according to the development of their own consciences. A line must be drawn somewhere, though, for voting purposes, to avoid a vegan society's degenerating to the lowest common denominator of practice, and eventually being led (by sheer weight of numbers) down some "middle path" of "ovo-lacto-pisco-pollo-porko-bovo-veganism."
Ahimsa is a quarterly publication of the American Vegan Society. Membership is open to all. Please contact AVS/ 501 Old Harding Highway/ Malaga, NJ 08328, or call (609) 694-2887 for information.
Buying Shoes in a Mutual Eating Society
By Gene Franks
The biological world is a mutual eating society in which every species is the prey of another. But if there were any species not preyed upon by another, it would increase and multiply to its own self-strangulation, as human beings, through their skill in defeating other species (such as bacteria), are in danger of disrupting the whole biological order by over-population and thus of destroying themselves.--Alan Watts.
There is an old Taoist story about a farmer whose horse ran away. His neighbors consoled him, saying that losing his horse was a terrible misfortune. "Could be," said the farmer. The next morning his horse came back, and with him a half dozen beautiful wild horses. "What great luck!" said the neighbors. "Could be," said the farmer. That afternoon, the farmer's son fell from one of the wild horses he was attempting to ride and suffered a broken leg. "What rotten luck!" said the chorus of neighbors. "Could be," said the farmer. The very next day the Emperor's conscription officers passed through the area seizing able-bodied young men for service in the army. The farmer's son with his broken leg was passed over. "What great luck you're having!" said the neighbors. "Could be," the farmer replied.
The moral, if stories must have a moral, is that in this world of illusions things are often quite different from what they seem on the surface. We usually assume that it is better to have seven horses than one or that it is bad to break your leg. But these are only assumptions. I see in my own life that when I think I'm winning I'm often losing, and vice versa. Perhaps the story also means that what is good for one is not necessarily good for another. The farmer's son, an impetuous rider of wild horses, might have preferred seeking his fortune in the Emperor's army to withering away in the safety of his home listening to Taoist stories. Could be.
Several years as an "aspiring vegan" have taught me that the practice of harmlessness is relative to the individual and that there is no universal standard of diet or conduct that can be applied to every individual in every condition of life. Eskimos or desert nomads would quickly perish eating the food that American vegans thrive on. Certainly a Canadian subsistence hunter cannot be measured with the same moral yardstick as an urban American. And to adopt a "more harmless than thou" attitude simply because we do not eat blubber or snare bunnies is to misunderstand completely how Earth's "mutual eating society" operates. A typical American who drives a car, takes the elevator to his office, or wears a plastic raincoat is just as surely a slayer of animals as the subsistence hunter who stalks and kills a doe, butchers her for food, and makes his clothing from her skin.
Far more items than most of us imagine originate from exploitation of animals. Automobiles, for example, roll on tires that contain animal ingredients. To follow Ahimsa to the letter, one would have to forego automobile ownership and also give up products brought to market in automobiles or made of ingredients transported in automobiles. Even if you limit your food to that grown in your own garden with "cruelty-free" tools, seeds, and fertilizer (if such existed), brought in on foot by someone wearing non-leather shoes, you still have to fret about cutting up earthworms with your spade or eating their castings with your turnips.
In our commerce-driven social system in which we "act" indirectly, mainly through product purchases, following the path of harmlessness is especially complicated. We are often reduced to making "lesser evil" choices which are more statements of principle than clear-cut acts of harmlessness. Although for several years I have bought only non-leather shoes (a considerable hassle for one who wears size 14), I'm not convinced that this is more than a gesture. A vegetarian friend who wears leather shoes argues convincingly that a single pair of sturdy leather shoes, cared for excellently and worn until they disintegrate, causes less environmental damage, hence less animal suffering, than the five pairs of synthetics I wear out in the same time span. The havoc caused by manufacturing and transporting my five pairs of size 14s is considerable. My friend takes the pragmatic view that it is kinder to use the skin of a cow that has already been murdered for her flesh than to encourage the making of synthetics. Could be.
Several years ago I read a piece by Mr. Dinshah on the use of photographs in Ahimsa. Film contains animal ingredients, so strict application of vegan principle would prohibit photos. However, photographs enhance the publication's ability to promote harmlessness, and it was concluded that the end justifies the means. This seemed sensible to me. Living in the real world involves compromise. Being kind to dogs sometimes makes it necessary to be unkind to fleas. Total harmlessness would require total inactivity, which is itself contrary to the goal of doing "the most good" as well as the least harm.
To illustrate how complicated this can get, Mr. Dinshah could elect to use drawings and not photographs in Ahimsa, but he would then have to consider the contents of the drawing materials, the wisdom of paying an artist money that could otherwise be spent to promote harmlessness, and even how the artist would spend the money. In the case of my shoes, an alternative would be to wear no shoes at all. The most "harmless" action in many cases is simply not to act. But wearing no shoes would be a decisive act that would change my life completely. It's hard enough to earn one's bread wearing Converse basketball shoes. Try doing it barefoot. And should we not consider the employees of non-leather shoe companies who will lose their jobs if I stop buying shoes?
Now, to get even more complicated, suppose I find a pair of really good size 14 leather shoes for $5 at the Goodwill store. Should I buy them? Would it make it acceptable if I donate the $175 1 save on basketball shoes to the American Vegan Society? The cow is dead, whether I buy the shoes or not; and if I don't buy them, they'll probably go to the city dump, since it isn't likely that some other giant-footed fool who doesn't mind wearing unstylish clodhoppers will come along. Am I not, in fact, committing an act of violence and being a pious hypocrite if I fail to buy and use these perfectly good leather shoes?
And suppose I find some great used canvas size 14s that have only a tiny patch of leather to protect the heel. Should I buy them, and if so, should I take the leather off? And suppose . . .