Vegan Agonistes


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I am not a good vegan.

Oh, I call myself that, and I’ve joined several vegan Meetups so I could share camaraderie and food with like-minded folks. But I guess to some of them, I am a phony, claiming a title I don’t deserve.

I am, as I’ve written before at the Crisis, not 100 percent pure in my veganism. We are totally vegan at home – except we sometimes  eat locally produced honey, for its alleged power in reducing allergies. And I never threw out that old leather coat, though I certainly won’t get another when it’s gone (and that day is close, since the zipper is broken and I don’t plan on getting it fixed). But my real transgressions come when I’m out of the house, as I admitted at a recent Meetup, our first in New Haven.

If I’m out and I can’t get soy milk, I’ll use a dash of cow’s milk, rather than drink it black. I could drink it black, and I have occasionally  in the past, but I usually go for the more familiar –and pleasing – creamy taste. At weddings and birthday parties, I’ll eat some of the cake, to be part of the social bonding that marks the event. Let’s face it, food is more than just fuel, when you’re eating with others. Sharing a meal is a cultural ritual imbued with import for millennia. I’ve already set myself apart from the majority by choosing the eating habits I have; so sue me if I want to go for a little inclusion at certain celebrations with omnivores.

Site of our latest Meetup--yum!

Site of our latest Meetup--yum!

That explanation seemed to raise a few eyebrows at the Meetup table. I’ve met lots of great people at those events, but I just don’t have the fervor for the cause that many of them seem to. Maybe because I don’t see it as a cause per se. It’s a lifestyle choice, and it’s on a continuum, for me and lots of others who want to avoid animal products, but can’t always do it, for whatever reason. Yes, I applaud the people who are more devout than I am. And I do see the moral issues at stake. But, as I’ve outlined so many times here at the Crisis (far too many times to provide a solitary link…), I am weak. I can be situational. I am not a good vegan.

Earlier on that day last week, I had another occasion to think about my eating habits. A trip to the naturopath led the good doctor to suggest that some of my chronic pains could be the result of not getting enough/any animal protein. We discussed his theory of the need for humans to have animal sinews/tendons in their diet to strengthen their own muscles. He wasn’t claiming this was a fact, and he wasn’t saying vegetarian sources of the chemicals that the animal products provide couldn’t do the trick. It was more a hypothetical.

But I felt queasy discussing it. Would I go back to eating meat to improve my health? I’ve heard of vegans and vegetarians who return to animal products for that reason (though many more say giving up those products improved their health). My first reaction was, no, I would not start eating flesh, or even dairy/eggs (on a regular basis), even if it improved my health. And my second and third reaction was still no, even though I realized a lot of people would think it’s crazy. So maybe I do have some morality on this issue – even if not enough to satisfy the vegan righteous.

Click the photo for another perspective...

Click the photo for another perspective...

Then, a third vegan issue popped up. Reading a magazine on Connecticut agriculture, I saw a blurb about the need for buying locally produced milk, to keep dairy farms from being developed. Huh, something I had not thought of – a demand for dairy helps local farmers stay in business. This is not the factory farming I’ve railed against here. This is Mom and Pop Farmer, treating their cows well, connecting with their customers, and keeping the state’s dwindling open space intact. So should vegans want these people put out of business, for the sake of saving the cows, and at the risk of land preservation? And do family-owned dairy cows need “saving”?

I think I know how the hard-core vegans would respond. I’m not sure how I would, though I think nobody, vegan or not, “needs” dairy. I know I’m not going to be trekking out to Windham County for some unpasteurized milk, no matter how much it might help a local farmer. But I guess I don’t think it’s bad if people who still eat dairy want to. Still, shouldn’t I be encouraging everyone to give up animal products, for the sake of the animals, the overall environment, their own health? Haven’t I done that before?

Well, not really. I am not a proselytizer. I will answer questions about my own choices, and the larger issues, but I don’t want to get too militant about telling people what to eat. Maybe because I don’t have all the answers in what can be a nuanced issue – factory farming and agribusiness evils aside.

But I do know one thing: I think I’m gonna be drinking my coffee black now, when I’m out in public. And hope the dairy farms still find a way to stay farms.


~ by mburgan on October 13, 2009.

6 Responses to “Vegan Agonistes”

  1. dumb question here..but why do you care what others think? maybe you should find some meetups that are more “social” instead of “cult” like.

  2. I think some of the disconnect comes because while you can be in a group of people who are vegan, the reasons behind people’s veganism generally encompass a wide spectrum. No, it isn’t a cult, not even close. But it is something that we tend to be passionate about, and which is likely unfathomable to people who have never considered it. (which is maybe why the cult comments happen at all.)

    I was one of those who went vegan overnight, once I learned the something-that-caused-the-decision. Animal products simply were no longer food to me, I could see the faces of the individuals (and all that was done to them) behind the “product” and that is why it doesn’t occur to me to “cheat”. I know that how it was for me isn’t how it is for everyone, but I also think knowing is one thing, understanding is something different if we haven’t experienced it ourselves. It isn’t about willpower, which is a misconception of many, I think. It is more about a mental state. (For me, I would have a hard time switching back and forth, and that’s what it would be for me.)

    I recently read a blog post that gives a great description of what the author describes as her gestalt shift. This post of yours reminds me of what she was talking about. ( )

    Not sure if you would relate to it or not, but you might find it interesting. It might (or might not) give insight into some of the reactions at the vegan meetups.

  3. Thanks for the comments. @Cheryl: I didn’t mean to imply there was anything cultish about the meetup, and the reaction there to my statement–this time–was actually pretty subdued, and we had a fun evening. Maybe I just feel a little guilty about not being “pure,” so I get defensive. This meetup was actually more enjoyable than many in Chicago because we talked about something other than food and veganism. The one-track thinking/conversing in Chicago got a little tiring for something that was supposed to be social. But people are passionate about this, I know, and it is nice to be around people with whom you don’t have to explain your choices.

    @Deb–thanks for the link; I will check it out. Obviously I have not made that complete switch of seeing all animal products as not-food, or at least when I don’t see the animal product (the egg or butter in a wedding cake). It’s a constant struggle, and again, one that really got me thinking when the doctor brought up the possibility of eating animal products for health. So I will put this out to any vegans reading–would you stay chronically sick, even if you knew an animal product would make you better? Do you not get vaccinated because chicken embryos are used to make most vaccines? To me, it’s gray area, but I’m sure others see it differently, and that’s cool, I respect it.

  4. I guess it is an odd question to me, without a very specific example of what the sickness was and why the animal product was supposedly going to make me better. I have little trust that the average doctors (who get little nutritional education in med school) actually know more than I do about nutrition (because I’ve researched vegan nutrition). A couple years ago my neighbor was fresh out of med school. In his residency, he was so fresh. And his first question to me, on learning I was vegan, was about protein. As in, where do I get it. He was shocked to learn that there was protein in plant sources. “They really didn’t teach nutrition in med school, did they?” I asked him, and he confirmed that they really didn’t learn anything at all about nutrition.

    So, if I had a doctor who insisted that I could only feel better via animal products, I’d hot foot it to a vegan nutritionist and get a second opinion.

    But, to go along with your hypothetical, we can look at medication. Given a variety of factors, we can assume that almost all medication has been tested on animals, and so likely most of us would prefer to avoid it, even go as far as to say it is not vegan. (Regardless of whether there are animal products in it or not.) This is a situation I have several friends in. Though to be honest, they have all benefited from their vegan diets, and are less dependent on the meds than before, the truth is that they would have a much less full life if they didn’t have access to the meds. (I’m talking about people with fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis; not something anyone can easily deal with, even with meds.)

    It does turn it into a gray area. We can never know for sure what we’d do until we’re in that situation. I would definitely try everything possible before going on meds, and I’d likely put up with a fair amount of discomfort, but I don’t think I could rule out the meds if faced with something like RA.

    As interesting as it is to explore the margins, I think it is always good to take a step back and remember that veganism is an ethical decision because at least 99.9% of us can eat a vegan diet and not only not compromise our health, but actually improve it.

  5. More good comments. In his defense, the doc I cited is a naturopath who does seem pretty hip to nutritional issues–not your standard issue MD. And his discussion was strictly hypothetical; once I said I was vegan, he was very sensitive to discussing supplements that could be taken in vegetarian/vegan form.

  6. […] feel like I’m being true to my sense of what is right and wrong (while being the first to admit, as I have here before, that I can be a bad vegan). And as I write this, I feel that smugness creep in that I bemoaned […]

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