Saturday, October 19, 2019




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Story of Jimmy (video)





"Disintegration" by S.E. Soldwedel - A Review by Carlo Alvaro


More than a Story, a Literary ‘Singularity’

By Carlo Alvaro


Disintegration by S.E. Soldwedel. Inkshares (2019). Paperback 412 pages, $ 14.71.

On its surface, S.E. Soldwedel’s Disintegration seems a series of interweaving adventure tales. They take place in an indefinite future. The adroit narrative leaves the reader free to interpret. To one, it may be a traditional, hard-boiled sci-fi story that at times is reminiscent of Aliens and Blade Runner. To another, it may be a perverse hallucination akin to Jacob’s Ladder or In the Mouth of Madness. It is both cinematic and literary at once.

Soldwedel doesn’t moralize. He doesn’t indict his own characters. He lets them damn or redeem themselves—often both, in one order or the other. We could say that we don’t know what he intended, but it seems a conscious choice to allow the reader to project his or her paradigm. The way we think affects the way we perceive the media we consume. Soldwedel understands the subjectivity of perception, and he exploits it to create a rich, ambitious tale rife with moral ambiguity.

There is no singular protagonist. Instead, this is an ensemble drama. Soldwedel skillfully interweaves these storylines without dropping any threads. The brevity of certain chapters and a lengthy hiatus of one storyline only add mystery and pique intrigue. This aspect of the book is the one that I like most. Why settle for a simple, comfortable story? Rather, Soldwedel’s tale is the literary equivalent of taking a trip through a wormhole: terrifying, fascinating, compelling! While an Einstein-Rosen Bridge underpins the entire premise, he sends the reader through a series of figurative portals to arrive at surprising but satisfying destinations. We travel these warped paths with the various characters, feel their discomfort, experience their perversion and, in a few cases, their redemption.

In this text, I see subversion. At the same moment a misogynist might revel in depictions of violence, a more discerning reader would recognize that the heroes of this book are, in fact, its women. Soldwedel’s lens unflinchingly examines things from which most people would prefer to turn away. He seems to be saying that, yes, humanity is capable of great ugliness but the only way to confront it is to pay dutiful witness to the evils that we perpetrate. What good does it do us to ignore them? He posits that our champions should be those who have experienced abuse, know trauma, and have persevered despite. And who—rather than continue the cycle—lash out at the engines of oppression that churn out the men and women who perpetrate such abuse.

One character, Ada, is a counselor by trade and she is the most emotionally intelligent of all the players. Even still, she is averse to commitment, polyamorous, and bisexual. Further, neither her sexuality nor that of any of the characters is played for titillation. Instead, Soldwedel uses sex to develop the characters—to reveal how they act at their most vulnerable, and how they prey upon or protect the vulnerabilities of others. By some estimations, Ada might be considered a “minor” character, but her influence upon multiple “major” and “minor” characters is so profound that I consider her one of the most important figures. She is, in many ways, the conscience of the book.

Playing with and against Ada is Carina, an Algerian refugee turned soldier, whose late, French father served in the same military. Carina smolders with rage borne of trauma, and of resentment that she had to pretend to be French to join the martial empire that she reluctantly serves. One of the many striking things about her is her size. Soldwedel describes her to be over six-feet tall and powerfully built, enough to dwarf many of the men she encounters. She also presents as a militant, misandrist homosexual, but is so beautiful that the men around her refuse to withhold their “appreciation.” It’s a fitting anecdote for where we find ourselves, at present. It can be read as an endorsement of certain trends, but the author doesn’t vilify the villains of that paradigm. Instead, the narrator is neutral. The characters speak for themselves, and even the bad actors are permitted their moments of nuance, exhibiting even beneficence and empathy.

Though rife with coarse language, there is beauty and elegance in the prose. The narrator is not just neutral but erudite, whereas the characters are as aberrant and multifaceted as real people. Soldwedel’s creations are so credible as to seem real—even those who are not human. The aliens are allegorical, though not in a trite way. The author knows the razor’s edge upon which dance such trappings of science fiction, and he manages to keep them balanced. They neither fall off one side into the absurd, nor off the other into belabored self-consciousness.

Disintegration is the work of a writer who understands craft and that all contrivances are products of ego. Yet, it is rare for a debut author to have seemingly barred his ego a place in the narrative. At the very least, he’s prevented it from infecting the book with the sort of obvious wish-fulfillment that damns the early work of so many writers. As such, the novel appears to be a labor that has undergone many iterations. Parts of it indicate a certain brash youthfulness, which might to some audiences seem puerile. Other parts—the characterizations—boast deep understanding of the human condition.

I won’t leave you without a taste of the plot itself. The back cover tells us of a world in disarray, the victim of a long conflict that hints at an immortal architect, which imbues the fiction with an element of the fantastic. It then teases a plan to restore order, but not before an assassination. There are elements of political intrigue, global war, and personal betrayals. It’s an ambitious work. But it works. What holds it together are its well-drawn and eminently relatable characters, even those whom you may wish not to like. I look forward to Soldwedel’s further output. A debut of this caliber promises even greater things to come.

- Dr. Carlo Alvaro has been teaching philosophy at New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York since 2011. He has also taught at St. Francis College and at Kean University. He’s the author of Ethical Veganism (2019) and Raw Veganism (forthcoming, 2020).

Copyright©2019 by Carlo Alvaro, All Rights Reserved


Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Songs of Story Men - Vaneshran Arumugam and Emmanuel Castis

Vaneshran Arumugam (left) and Emmanuel Castis (right)

ON Saturday, 28 September we held the fourth Moral Sense Colloquium, which focused on cross cultural morality, human and animal. As part of the program, two seasoned actors and musicians from South Africa, Vaneshran Arumugam and Emmanuel Castis performed their work, SONGS OF STORY MEN. We witnessed a moving, multicultural feast that weaved a story of two men and one shared love in New York. There was tension, conflict, and yet above all brotherhood. Everything was told through a medley of crisp song and sprightly movement, a sharing of tones through the textures of a steel-string guitar and a nylon-string guitar. Every moment of the performance was well orchestrated to achieve maximum effect. There was Indian chanting and yoga-like rhythms along with light shared from one man to another. Words consisted of texts from Shakespeare to popular songs. The audience was engaged in part of the performance, and everyone I spoke to afterward confirmed having a deeply satisfying experience. I know I did. The lighting and sound engineer was Guy de Lancey.

Among the many guiding questions of the Colloquium, here are a few that would have been addressed by Songs of Story Men: What is cross-cultural morality? What principles and standards of behavior are shared among cultures? How do values, beliefs, and practices differ among cultures? And as Charles Darwin says, in The Descent of Man, “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.” Today we’d say “humankind” and not “man,” but the point is that Vaneshran Arumugam and Emmanuel Castis, through their artistry of words, music, and song, epitomize the type of universal moral sense, evident even among animal species, Darwin alludes to.

IN their own words, here’s a bit of what Arumugam and Castis say, put together especially for the event program by their colleague and manager, Jacqueline Acres, of Sixface Creatives: “Songs of Story Men is an experiential meditation on cultural relationships and story. It aims to incite the imagination and evoke the emotions of the audience into drawing together different musical, literary and performance styles and techniques into a cohesive “narrative.” The piece aims to present a thinking, feeling platform for experiencing one’s own reflections and glimmers of memory... The creation and curation of content is evolving and arises from and in response to the actual life experience of the performers, as men, as children of immigrants, as Africans... and as storytellers.”

About The Performers.

Vaneshran Arumugam is a veteran of the South African and International independent film scene, and a film maker in his own right with the independent offbeat hit, “Actorholic.” On stage, he has played the part of parts – Hamlet – for the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, while in South Africa he has become the very image of Othello gracing the cover of the Oxford University press edition of the play. Vaneshran graduated with a Master’s degree in Consciousness in Performance as a Ford Fellow in 2008, which first brought him to New York where he studied at Columbia University under Kristin Linklater. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Residence at St. Francis College in 2013, teaching and performing. Vaneshran and his wife Jacqueline have been selected as a winner in the competitive global social innovation challenge 2019 (Civil Society Academy) in recognition of their innovative vision for the arts in social design, Living University.

Emmanuel Castis became a household name through his character Steve in the popular South African drama, Isidingo. Since then he has been on film sets and stages all around the world. Having played a role in major soaps/dramas in South Africa (Sevende Laan, Erfsondes, Scandal) and the United States (General Hospital, Days of our Lives), Emmanuel is a well-known star of the screen. Emmanuel started his theatre career in Bloemfontein on the Sandt Du Plesis stage playing Rocky in the Rocky Horror show (1999). He has gone on to star in a host of musical and live theatre productions, including, Jersey Boys and Grease. His other claim to fame is beating Trevor Noah in strictly come dancing season 4, 2008, proving that white men can dance! Emmanuel released an album in 2008 called South of Nowhere. He now gigs regularly with his band, Dalliance.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Tribute to Toni Morrison - by Divya Bhatnagar


Remembering Toni Morrison


By Divya Bhatnagar

I feel the pain of losing the one who gave me a meaning to lead a self-awakened life…the one to whom I owe - learning, thinking, understanding, and the power to create consciousness in terms of self with a WE feeling. Yes, she is none other than Toni Morrison - 1993 Nobel Prize winning first African-American female author, who left this earthly abode for heavenly peace on August 5, 2019.

Late on the evening of August 6, 2019 (as per the time zone), I started receiving calls and messages for the sudden, sad demise of Toni Morrison, as everyone in my family and circle was well aware of the love, respect, and admiration I owed for Ms. Morrison. For the past 19 years, Morrison had become an integral unseen member of the family. It all started with the thought of pursuing a Ph.D., and Toni Morrison was the prominent name that struck my mind. At that point of time, I had only read “The Bluest Eye” and “Sula,” and reading them helped me to understand the thin line of difference between living in dreams and talking about realism. My Ph.D. thesis concentrates mostly on “The Bluest Eye to Love,” but the inspiration to read Morrison’s writing is unending.

She is one of the most influential, celebrated, and respected authors of her time. Her writing is richly known for epic themes, vivid dialogue, and richly detailed African-American characters. In other words, she’s not a mere one-time reading. Though her writing ranges for more than 4 decades, still one element that has always fascinated me in all her writings is that there is something and that something needs to be addressed even today. Each of her novels explores the power of self-consciousness that emerges from each individual’s connection with her roots. Toni Morrison’s progression as a writer can very well be interpreted from one of her famous quotes:

If there is a book that you want to read, but it has not been written yet, you must be the one to write it.

Her ideology has worked as a catalyst to my thought process. It gave me the power to own a meaningful life - a life full of purpose and hope. If I could boil down my learning from Morrison in a couple of words it would be, Speaking the Unspeakable. She had the power to unveil the harsh cruelties and truths which remain undercover of silence with a face of injustice. It was not an easy task to talk about Pecola (“The Bluest Eye,” 1970) or Sethe (“Beloved,” 1997).

Each of her novels reflects the growing awareness of the common oppression, exploitation, and victimization of black people in American. “This is not a story to pass on...” is the concluding statement of “Beloved” (1987) and suggests that blacks (now used to describe a free man of colour) first need to know what they have been, where they are, and the significance of what they are. By renewing this they will get some idea of what they still must be. Morrison taught me that the idea of freeing oneself from the brutal facts of inhumanity and injustice not only applies to the black community but to all those individuals and communities (across the globe) who readily accept themselves as a symbol of powerlessness - falling in a trap, the web of victimization. As Morrison says:

Freeing yourself was one thing claiming ownership of that freed self was another. (“Beloved,” 1997)

Morrison’s writing nurtures the thought of awakening an individual’s sensitivity over the socio-psycho rigidness of society. The biggest oscillation between “Why” and “How” appears in “The Bluest Eye” (1970):

There is really nothing more to say - except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.

This statement suggests that one needs to find a solution by either retrospecting or introspecting the “how” (as per a situation). There is no single scene in our daily life that fails to find a reference from Ms. Morrison’s writing. It reminds me of many such unforgettable incidents that I came across. Whether it be the incident of a female soft-skills coach who refused to take up assigned sessions on fear of being unwelcome by the audience for being dark-skinned, or be it the girl child of rural areas for being deprived for technical higher education, or be it the grievance of working women who at many times face sexual atrocities from their senior male colleagues, or an individual being deprived on grounds of minority status. Whether I read Morrison’s African-American society, or I talk about my Indian society, or about any other society across the globe, what really matters is how you handle “how” instead of “why.” The “how” will help you find alternatives for constructing a positive approach in society. I somewhere believe that my thesis would have been incomplete if I could not contribute, like Claudia, Milkman, Paul D, Mrs. MacTeer, and Baby Suggs, towards the betterment of society.

Like, Claudia (“The Bluest Eye,” 1970) and Paul D (“Beloved,” 1987) it was my social responsibility to enhance the feeling of self worth in the female coach and help her recognize her inner beauty and potential of knowledge. Characters like Felice (“Jazz,” 1992), Mrs. MacTeer (“The Bluest Eye,” 1970), Baby Suggs (“Beloved,” 1997), and Pilate (“Song of Solomon,” 1977) insist that I sustain the feeling of pride for being a female and that I too am an empowered woman. Taking this as a duty, I worked in rural areas to educate people to value the existence and the right of each and every girl child. As a result to this, twenty six (girl) children were able to attain engineering and pharmaceutical degrees.

Reading Morrison has given us the power to contribute meaningfully. Her brilliant writing has taught us to love one’s own self, to understand the gravity of belongingness, to write about both the triumphs and also the sufferings. By doing so we create a society where conscious souls emerge to celebrate ways of survival and hopes of creating a Paradise through love for race, community building, and emotional bonding.

I tribute my Ph.D. thesis - research based on Toni Morrison’s novels from “The Bluest Eye” to “Love.” Rest well and in peace, Ms. Morrison.

Copyright©2019 by Divya Bhatnagar, Ph.D. – All Rights Reserved

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Banning Meat Consumption? - Book Review by Carlo Alvaro


Abolition of Meat

In Animal (De)liberation: Should the Consumption of Animal Products Be Banned? Jan Deckers makes a convincing argument for qualified moral veganism. Qualified means that it “does not demand that human beings abstain from eating animal products in all situations” (p. 99). In most societies where plant-based food is readily available, vegan diets should be adopted because consumption of animal products undermines human health and undermines the health of vegans because animal agriculture has a tremendously negative impact upon the environment (p. 108).

The writing is clear and engaging. This book can be useful to three different groups: meat eaters can benefit from Deckers’ detailed first-hand experience on factory farms to help them think about the negative global impacts that animal agriculture causes; second, physicians who currently recommend their patients animal products for good health; third, as a college text since it discusses some ethical theories, environmental, and nutrition science.

In my view, Animal (De)liberation has not received the attention that it deserves. This is rather unfortunate because it shows convincingly that human health, holistically conceived, must take center stage in animal ethics. Contrary to most work in this field, Deckers’ concern with human health leads him to embrace animalism, an extension of speciesism, which encompasses both a bias in favor of animals and a bias against eating them (p. 10). By showing that vegan ethics must be grounded in a concern with human health in order to be robust, Deckers advances animal ethics significantly. Whilst he makes the valiant point that his discussion may or may not convince people to go vegan, in the meantime, animal agriculture undermines human health and is rapidly destroying our environment. Thus, it is now time to make truly radical changes and consider ways to legally ban the consumption of animal products.

In the opening chapter, Deckers suggests that human rights should include healthcare. Consequently, it is of utmost importance that the food that humans eat should be conducive to good health and respect for the environment. In the early chapter, Deckers shows how the consumption of animal products jeopardizes the human right to healthcare unjustifiably and how diets can change when this is the case. Also, there is a detailed discussion of the negative impact of zoonotic diseases on the health of those who do not consume animal products; and most importantly, Deckers discusses how natural resources can be used more efficiently if we grow food for human consumption. First of all, as the world population is growing, demand for animal products is also growing. To satisfy this demand, more animals must be brought into existence. More animals means using more natural resources, such as water, fossil fuels, food, and more. Second, confinement of these animals leads to infectious diseases that are spread farther and farther as animals are transported around the world.

To fight diseases, the farm animals’ sector uses drugs, such as antibiotics, to prevent diseases. Globally, half of the antibiotics that are produced are used to prevent diseases. This promotes drug-resistant strains of bacteria. Not to mention that these drugs are consumed by the animals and end up not only in the bodies of those who will eat the animals, thus compromising their health, but also in the soil and the waters and polluting them. Speaking of diseases, vector-borne diseases are caused by infections transmitted to people by insects. Such diseases are caused and became more severe as a result of the environmental changes that resulted from the practices of animal agriculture, such as deforestation and reduction of biodiversity. Deckers gives the example of the forest clearance in the early 1960s in Bolivia that led to a viral fever known as Machupo (p. 20). He also discusses the spread of HIV, influenza, and the Nipah virus. Bottom line, those who consume animal products contribute more to the emergence of zoonotic diseases that cause illness and kill people and animals than those who consume plant-based diets (p. 22).

Another problem is that the farm animals sector uses too much agricultural land, since 70-75% of earth’s arable land is used to grow food to feed animals. In North America and Europe only 40% of arable land is used to grow food for humans (p. 23). Using land to feed animals is highly inefficient. Vegetarian diets generally require five times less arable land than meat-based diets. Consequently, meat-based diets contribute more to land use and degradation than plant-based diets.

Farmers apply phosphorus fertilizers to supplement the low quantities available in the soil. In many cases this has led to the buildup of phosphorus in the soil, and in turn the potential for phosphorus to become soluble. Dissolved phosphorus is transported from farms to lakes, rivers, and streams causing excessive aquatic plant growth, such as eutrophication. Decomposition of algae leads to hypoxia in rivers and seas, which causes suffocation of aquatic ecosystems. Eutrophication also generates Pfiesteria Piscicida, literally a group of fish-killer eukaryotes. Animal farming uses more fresh water than any other sector. It also pollutes more water than any other sector. Furthermore, farmers use fertilizers and pesticides that cause the formation of nitrates that leak into the groundwater resulting in negative health effects. Farmers in the USA use recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBTS), hormones that pollute waters. Consider that half of the fish that humans consume are produced in aquacultures systems.

The points are (a) we could feed more people by using the same amount of plant protein that is now required to feed the animals; (b) with animal farming out of the picture, we could use less arable land in a more sustainable way; and (c) animal agriculture degrades more land and has a more negative impact upon the environment than any other agricultural sector (pp. 24-25). Vegan diets, on the other hand, are shown to be more efficient than any other diets. They consume less water and reduce water pollution. Animal farming is a leading cause of climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions.

Deckers formerly worked on a farm and so shares his first-hand experience of the practices. Such practices can be described as cutthroat, profit-driven, callous, absurd, revolting, and more. There is nothing remotely fair, just, compassionate – nothing noble, nothing that evinces good intention or good human character – with such practices. If the practices described in this chapter won’t make the reader decide to become a vegan, I do not know what will, at least in my opinion. Consider that most societies have the fortune to have an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, and more. Yet, people demand animal flesh irrespective of the suffering of animals and the negative environmental impacts of animal farming.

Although there is a general agreement that farm animals are sentient beings, some dispute this fact. Clare Palmer (2010) thinks that many organisms may only be capable of “unconscious responses to pain” (pp. 14, 18). Her argument is that “research on human fetuses indicates withdrawal reflexes before the development of the thalamo-cortical circuits associated with pain perception” (p. 12). But what if a fetus feels pain before the development of the thalamo-cortical circuits associated with pain perception? Murray (2008) argues that organisms exhibit pain behavior when exposed to pain-inducing stimuli. Animals with a more neurologically complex structure experience first order pain, that is, they feel pain, but are not aware that they are feeling pain. Only humans, and perhaps other primates, experience second order pain, which is awareness of suffering, i.e., they know, anticipate, and reflect upon their pain experience.

Deckers does not find commonly made cognitive distinctions or distinctions made on the basis of organisms’ interests in the avoidance of pain convincing. He argues that inflicting pain on sentient organisms should be avoided in many situations, but not all. Deckers suggests that sentience does not stop at farm animals, but continues down to clams, insects, plants, and even bacteria – a position to which he refers as “pan-sentientism” (p. 70). Deckers addresses the issue as follows. First, Deckers points out that most philosophers are wrong in asserting that only certain animals have an interest to continue their existence. All organisms have been “designed” by nature to have an interest in continuing to exist. Whether the organism can say or think to itself, “I want to continue to exist,” is ultimately unimportant from a moral point of view. However, we have to eat, and everything that we eat is sentient, though in different degrees. Thus, a morally acceptable diet must take into account that animals like pigs, chickens, and cows, are not human food, except in extreme or particular circumstances. This is grounded in the notion that while all living organisms are related, we are more closely related to animals than to plants. This notion Deckers calls animalism, that is, we should attribute more moral significance to animals than to other organisms because we are more closely related to animals biologically (pp. 85, 99). In other words, Deckers argues that we are morally justified in eating plants but not justified in eating animal products. Therefore, in most cases we ought to adopt qualified moral veganism, not on the basis of reducing animal suffering, but on the ground that consuming animal bodies undermines human health (p. 103).

Despite these considerations, some meat eaters and vegetarians may remain unconvinced about the moral necessity to adopt veganism. However, having documented the negative impacts of animal-based diets upon the environment and human health, it is clear that diet is not a matter of taste or personal preference. Something must be done to move in the direction of qualified moral veganism. Thus, in chapter three, Deckers offers a valiant answer to this problem, and that is, the political project that includes “political and legislative reforms to reduce the likelihood that people will not fulfill their duties when they make choices about what to eat” (p. 107). In other words, to ensure a human right to healthcare, the next step is to ban the consumption of animal products. This is of course a gargantuan difficulty in light of the fact that our society is animal-product-centered. We have been disciplined by society that consuming animal products is the norm, and that being vegetarians or vegans is a radical position. It is not difficult to understand why – blueberries don’t generate money, meat does!

In spite of many social and political obstacles, Deckers suggests three strategies to move governments and people to promote and eventually adopt qualified moral veganism. The first option is to educate people about moral veganism. This may be accomplished by promoting educational initiatives to encourage discussions on the negative effects resulting from consumption of animal products and the benefits of qualified moral veganism. In my own work (Alvaro 2017; 2019) I suggest educating children from a young age through clear information in the form of lectures, videos, and more, on the impacts of animal agriculture; moral education emphasizing virtuous actions; and vegan food preparation and nutrition. The second strategy is to increase the costs of animal products; and the third is to implement a qualified ban on the consumption of animal products, qualified in the sense that it would not apply to all people in all circumstances. The remainder of chapter three is dedicated to addressing three challenges to the vegan project.

The first objection is that people are not ready to go vegan, and consequently it is pointless to pursue a ban. Deckers shows that in fact it is quite the opposite. There is evidence that people are ready to make changes. Anecdotally, the recent interest in veganism may be observed. Non-philosophers have become more and more interested in veganism because they understand that animal agriculture contributes to the degradation of the environment; that eating more fruit and vegetables is more conducive to good health, which is a no-brainer that somehow has been contested, not surprisingly, by the meat industry; and that meat-based diets require the unjustified infliction of pain to farm animals. The second objection is that the vegan project seems to undermine human food security. This worry seems groundless especially considering that a vegan scenario would release more arable land that would allow biodiversity and a greater abundance of plant-based food. Furthermore, veganism would lead to growing a wider range of vegetables and fruits than what is available today. The third objection is that the vegan project may alienate human beings from nature. In my view, this is quite an extravagant worry. First, there are many human endeavors that have alienated us from nature. I am reminded of that every time I go to work on an overcrowded train where every single person stares at his or her cellphone holding a cup of coffee in the other hand. It is hard to see how the perpetuation of factory farming and killing animals will bring us closer to nature.

In chapter four, Deckers discusses what other people think and have to say about qualified moral veganism. This discussion includes a number of views of academics as well as non-philosophers, including slaughterhouse workers. Deckers argues that qualified moral veganism “stands firm in light of the various problems that beset other positions” (p. 156). Here he reiterates that more people than we think understand the moral importance of the vegan project and are willing to make changes. Deckers ends the book with an appendix that addresses the unjustified fear of many people that vegan diets may not be nutritionally adequate. I find this issue very interesting because most people know little about nutrition in general. Meat eaters do not research to find out if their particular diet is nutritionally adequate. By the same token, without research people who are interested in adopting a vegan diet cannot possibly know that it is possible to thrive on vegan diets. To address the question of the adequacy of vegan diets and conclude this review, I wish to make two points: one is that there is a massive body of ever-growing scientific evidence showing that vegan diets are more healthful than meat-based diets, and that vegan diets can prevent and reverse certain diseases. Thanks to the Internet, nowadays it is quite easy to learn this information. Second, considering that we live in a carnist society, and considering that the meat industry and many meat eaters try to discredit veganism at any possible occasion, were vegan diets nutritionally deficient, by now we would know about people becoming ill or dying as a result of vegan diets. Anecdotal or not, the fact is that millions of people, including scholars, athletes, construction workers, children, housewives, young and elderly, truck drivers, and more have been strictly vegans and thriving for decades. After all, it is said that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, not that a steak a day would do so.

References

Alvaro, C. (2017). “Ethical Veganism, Virtue, and Greatness of the Soul.” Journal of
Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 30 (6):765-781 (2017).

Alvaro, C. (2019). Ethical Veganism, Virtue Ethics, and the Great Soul.

Deckers J. (2016). Animal (De)liberation: Should the Consumption of Animal Products
Be Banned. London: Ubiquity Press.

Murray, M. (2008). Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal
Suffering. Oxford University Press.

Palmer, C. (2010). Animal Ethics in Context. New York: Columbia University Press.

- CARLO ALVARO is a moral philosopher and the author of Ethical Veganism, Virtue Ethics, and the Great Soul

copyright©2019 by Carlo Alvaro – All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Story of an Ethical Vegan - Carlo Alvaro


Veganism is a ubiquitous term today. It is supposed to denote a lifestyle devoid
of animal-based food and all sorts of animal byproducts, such as leather, fur, and more. However, many people, for a variety of reasons, like to toy with the idea of veganism and label themselves as vegans despite their using or consuming animal products. They might as well call it freeganism. Perhaps, one reason is that announcing allegiance to veganism gives one a feeling of superiority, a feeling of being part of some elite group, or makes one feel like a rebel. Many celebrities promote veganism, for one reason or other, and their fans, often following blindly their idols, embrace veganism. On March 3, 2018, for example, Beyoncé had invited her hundred plus million Instagram followers to join her on a “vegan” journey; a year later a New York Times article appeared with the self-explanatory title “Wait – Beyoncé Is Not Actually a Vegan” (Oh, what a surprise!). Many others, confused about nutrition, go vegan on the (false) promise that veganism will make them lose weight. Yet others are motivated by some tenuous or ill-understood moral principles. For example, I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard people parroting Jeremy Bentham’s line “...the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” So, in this age of moral and culinary confusion, many people embark on vegan journeys. But my journey has been a bit different.

One important difference is that when I went vegan – believe it or not – the Internet did not exist yet. There were no vegan celebrities, no graphic YouTube videos showing the horrendous conditions of farm animals, no Instagram, no vegan video recipes, no magazines talking about veganism, and no vegan aisles in supermarkets. In fact, when I went vegan the politics and aesthetics of veganism did not exist. Vegans then were referred to as “vegetarians.” Most important, my moral attitude toward life was, and still is, closer to Aristotelian virtue than to Benthamite utilitarian principles. I was more interested in becoming a compassionate, temperate, just, caring, and magnanimous person than a person concerned about the greatest good, or the greatest satisfaction of preference for the greatest number, or animal suffering or animal rights.

But before I get to the story of when and how I took the “red pill” and became a vegan, I want to make an important premise. I was not born in the United States of America; I was born in Italy. I am not mentioning this fact to brag or to put down the US, but rather to make an important point: the US tops the list of countries that eat the most meat. To be sure, the US is at the top of many lists, including the one of countries with the most obese people. Around 80 million adults and 13 million children (36% of the population!) are obese. The US adopts an aggressive campaign to push consumption of animal products. From “Got Milk?” to “Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner,” the government has disciplined people into believing that food equals meat served upon meat. Only in America, the land of fast food, can you find the most unhealthful food in the world. Which country in the world could come up with such bizarrely unhealthful ideas as stuffing the crust of cheese pizza with cheese or to deep-fry butter in lard? Unfortunately, America’s culinary culture has now spread all over the world. However, when I was a boy in Italy, before Burger King and McDonald’s had set foot in the Italic boot, animal products were not omnipresent. Growing up, I recall, my diet was predominantly based on fruit, legumes, grains, and vegetables. Meat and dairy products were not an important aspect of my culture. Yes, of course, when you say “Italy” people immediately think of spaghetti and meatballs, chicken Parmigiana, fettuccini Alfredo, and other such concoctions seen in movies. But those are American inventions. Thus, growing up in a culture that does not literally shove meat down your gullet since birth may help.

Now back to my story: there was a particular event that made me become a vegan when I was only twelve years old. One day, some girls in my school decided not to eat lunch during the break and instead use that time to protest against animal cruelty. I approached them and asked what the commotion was about. They told me that they were against makeup. I wondered why makeup. Our exchange went something like this:

Me: “What’s makeup got to do with animals?”
Girl: “Well, makeup is tested on animals.”
Me: “So? Don’t you guys eat meat?”
Girl: “Yes, but…”
Me: “But what?”
Girl: “Well, it’s not the same thing.”
Me: “Explain why not.”
Girl: “It just isn’t!”

I walked away triumphantly for having exposed those girls, thinking how silly they were. But seconds later, what I said to them made me pause. I knew that what I said to that girl did not affect her, but it made a profound change in my life. I thought that using animals for testing makeup and using animals for food were, morally speaking, the same thing. However, while it was obvious to me that testing makeup on animals was callous, I had never connected the dots before. The following day, I saw those girls in the cafeteria eating ham sandwiches and caterwauling about makeup – nothing had changed for them. I, on the other hand, was a different person ever since – I quit eating animals.

In retrospect, what I find interesting is that I arrived at the conclusion that I had to quit eating animals not on the basis of typical considerations. What I mean by ‘typical’ is that when people go vegan or vegetarian, typically, do so out of love for animals or for health-related reasons. This is not to say that I did not care about the welfare of animals or about my health. I did. However, they were not my primary goals. My approach toward understanding my ethical relation with the environment had to do (and still does) with the question of what sort of person I should strive to become. One of my life’s goals has been to become a noble person. It is hard, but not impossible. In other words, I was not worried primarily about animal suffering; rather, I asked myself what kind of person consumes the flesh and bodily fluids of animals? What kind of individual supports the practices of raising animals for food? It seemed obvious to me that the answer is, “Not a noble person.” A noble person is one who lives simply and refuses to participate in violence or unjust practices. At that stage, I had no formal philosophical education. However, it was very clear to me that animal agriculture is a violent and unjust business. I did not have rigorous arguments to support my ideas of what a good, noble person is supposed to be. That came later in my life, and I will discuss it in a following paragraph.

Naturally, if the story ended there it would be too easy, but it isn’t easy. At that tender age, I was not ready to dedicate my life to my new idea. Moreover, my family members were not exactly supportive. In fact, they did not understand what I was doing at all. As a result of family pressure and peer pressure, about two years later, I abandoned my principles and went back to eating what was considered a normal diet. Forward a few years later, I was in college taking a course in public speaking for which I had to give a persuasive speech about anything I liked. I thought about what topic I could discuss and it suddenly hit me: I decided to give a speech on why we should boycott McDonald’s. I received an A+ for the speech – and I quit meat again. This time I knew I would stick to my principles. Perhaps the process of preparing the speech opened my eyes anew. I realized that animals are, well, animals; they are playful, angry, cute, fluffy, ugly, small, big, smelly, aggressive, docile – but not food for humans. I went home that day and trashed animal products that I had in my apartment, and donated to a homeless man my only pair of leather shoes.

I realized that our behavior toward animals is morally appalling. Considering our stage of intellectual and technological development, we don’t need to raise animals for food. We do not live in the desert or in the Dark Ages. Eating animals and their byproducts is not necessary. Those like us who are lucky enough (lucky?) to live in affluent societies do not need to exploit and kill other beings in order to thrive. We have easy access to plenty of vegetables, fruit, grains, and legumes. These foods are environmentally sustainable and healthful. Yet, nowadays-intensive factory farming is considered a normal aspect of society. But what is normal about killing billions of creatures? Farm animals are reared in cages, separated from their families, cut into pieces, packaged, shipped to supermarkets where they are sold and labeled with funny euphemisms such as beef, pork, drumsticks, eggs, and so on. Sorrowfully, they are just the mutilated body parts of what once were beautiful animals.

Egg farms are horrific too. Since male chicks are not profitable to the industry because they cannot lay eggs, every year, 200 million baby chicks are ground up alive. Workers separate male chicks from females and toss the males into a chute where they are ground up alive in a meat grinder into a bloody pulp. Speaking of birds, turkeys are artificially inseminated. By “artificially” I mean that there are people whose job is to collect sperm cells from a male turkey (I’ll let you imagine how) and manually deposit them into the reproductive tract of a female. (Try bringing up artificial insemination of turkeys during your next Thanksgiving dinner!)

At this point, I became deeply interested in the subject. I started wondering why people eat meat. It is a complicated question. One’s diet, like many other aspects of life, traditions, beliefs, and customs, is seldom considered or questioned. I don’t think I am a conspiracy theorist when I say that in our society we are not exactly encouraged to think for ourselves. Quite to the contrary, we are taught to always accept and never question the status quo. In most cases, people eat meat because their parents taught them to do so. And of course, people enjoy eating meat. However, there are two interesting aspects of this: first, I often wonder whether it is eating animal flesh that people really enjoy. Take any mutilated part of an animal, boil it and serve it on a plate. I am willing to bet that most people would refuse to eat it. Eating meat is not like eating cherries or mangos. Meat must be prepared with spices, marinated, cured, smoked, and cooked because, after all, it is rotting flesh. Second, people enjoy all sorts of things that are unnecessary, such as drinking, gambling, smoking, and taking drugs. But my question is, “Is that the way a good and noble human being is supposed to live?” The practices required to produce animal-based food are less than noble; they involve the worst vices of which human beings are capable, such as callousness, gratuitous violence, injustice, intemperance, and smallness of soul.

Another reason people eat meat is that they say, it is “natural.” By natural, I take it, it is meant that human beings are somehow “designed” by nature or by God to eat animals or that eating meat is the cycle of life. Considering that most people in affluent societies buy conveniently packaged meat in supermarkets, it is not clear what they mean by “the cycle of life.” Rather, it is the cycle of supermarkets. Also, human beings are not animal eaters. I just cannot imagine how anyone could observe cows, pigs, chickens, lambs, cats, dogs, and other animals in their natural environment, and find them appetizing. Think of a chicken scurrying on the grass or a pig enjoying a mud bath or a cow chewing grass. Such creatures may be considered cute or funny or gross, but not appetizing.

I find it interesting that animal rights advocates argue that eating animals is wrong because animals suffer. I agree that animals suffer and causing gratuitous suffering is wrong. But what if we discovered that animals do not suffer at all? What if Descartes was right in saying that animals behave like, but are not, sentient creatures? This is where my attitude toward nature differs from the attitude of many animal ethicists. I do believe that sentience is important, but it’s not the principal factor. I would not eat or use animal products even if it were discovered that animals do not feel pain. Rather, I would still avoid such products because the actions and practices required to produce them are bloody, violent, unnecessary, unaesthetic, and deleterious to our health.

My ethical relationship with the environment made me reflect upon the purpose of my life on this planet. The world has been conquered and nature dominated by humans. In so doing, humans have killed not only other humans but also animals and destroyed the environment. So, I changed my attitude toward animals, acknowledging that they are not our property or food. I don’t even worry about whether they can suffer or whether they have rights. I believe it is unvirtuous to exploit and kill animals or destroy nature. Modern life alienates us from nature and gives us the illusion that we are here to dominate the world. In my journey to veganism, I realized that humans are the guests on earth, and not the hosts. The notion of using animals for food and other purposes became clear to me. I realized that it is the world’s greatest injustice. Thus I decided to stop eating animal flesh, to cease using animal by-products, and to shun all products obtained through animal testing. Those who fail to treat animals and the whole environment with respect are certainly less than fully virtuous. They fail to be admirable individuals, and they exemplify a variety of vices. In particular, using animals for food evinces indifference to the value of nature, ignorance, and self-importance. It evinces lack of humility, and a sense of beauty. In short, animal exploitation is a failure at human excellence.

In 2015, I began thinking about my experience and my journey and all the research on environmental science and the science of nutrition I had done, and began writing my first book, Ethical Veganism,Virtue Ethics, and The Great Soul (Lexington Books, 2019), which discusses in details how embracing an ethic of virtue naturally leads to ethical veganism. I also discuss how most of the so-called modern ethical systems (utilitarianism, deontology, rights theory) force us to view the morality of our relationship with animals in terms of duty, rights, or maximization of utility. No wonder that typical discussions of animal ethics focus on the rights of animals or the duty of humankind. What I offer is to reevaluate this dichotomy and show that the most profitable way to talk about how we ought to treat animals is to look ourselves in the proverbial mirror first and realize that the most basic virtues show us that we should be or become vegans.

Is this the end of the story? No, it isn’t! For many years, believe it or not, I never was concerned about the health aspect of veganism. As I said, I went vegan because I believe that it is the only noble way to live. In 2013, I started toying with the idea of going completely raw, that is, eating only food in its raw state, nothing cooked. At first I experimented raw veganism off and on. It was not until the beginning of 2017 that I went completely raw. Eating directly the food that nature makes is the best possible diet for human beings. What I mean by raw may be different for another person. My approach to raw veganism is to eat only salad and fruit. I do not consume tea, coffee, alcohol, nuts, seeds, sugar or salt.

Cooking food changes its molecular structure – and not for the better. It destroys nutrients, creates acrylamides and other carcinogenic substances, and denatures proteins, which leads to many problems. Just to mention one problem: Leukocytosis is an increase in the body of white blood cells. This occurs as a reaction to inflammations or infections. In other words, when the body detects a threat, as a response it produces more white blood cells. This obviously does not happen when we eat fruit and salad. However, it does happen whenever we consume any type of cooked food. There is a wealth of scientific research showing that cooked food – vegan or not – shortens our lives. Another interesting fact is to consider that humans have been around for about 200,000 years (not to mention that human-like creatures have been around for millions of years). During this time, no significant change occurred to our digestive system that equipped us for digesting cooked food. Thus, considering that human beings are evolved creatures, adapted to their environment, it is obvious that there is a diet that is specific and optimal for our species. Cooking food is a relatively new practice for humans. For the longest time, humans have eaten fruit and tender leafy greens. This is a scientifically documented fact – humans are frugivores. Consequently, cooking food is in no way beneficial to human health. The only benefit is that it provides easy calories by heat-processing food that otherwise would be indigestible. I don’t want to get too technical here; and I don’t want to reveal too much because this is the topic of my next book, whose title speaks for itself, and that is, The Human Diet.

Such is my journey to veganism. It is a great accomplishment for me to live this way and having raised three children to be vegans since birth. I have no desire to eat animal products. Even if in the future scientists discovered that animals don’t feel any more pain than rocks, I would still not be interested in consuming animal food. I do not see meat and animal products as food that I chose not to eat. Rather, I do not see animals as food in the first place. About being a raw vegan, initially I had the desire to eat cooked food. However, today I regard cooked food the same way I regard animal-based food – not for human consumption.

Finally, I learned one important lesson from my journey: it takes years of deep philosophical and moral reflection to realize what I have realized. Those vegans who condemn meat eaters should think about this. They should be more understanding because becoming a vegan often requires going against the grain, against the status quo, against one’s deepest beliefs, against one’s upbringing, against one’s social life, and against one’s culture. For these reasons, I do not criticize or judge or attempt to change meat eaters. Rather, I tell others about my moral journey to veganism by teaching, lectures, writing articles and books. In other words, instead of telling people what they’re doing wrong, I tell them what I have done right in the hope that they will join me in my endeavor to make the world more compassionate and realize that animals are friends – not food.

- Carlo Alvaro, Ph.D. teaches philosophy at New York City College of Technology, CUNY, and elsewhere. You can purchase his book, Ethical Veganism, from Amazon here. Better yet, the book is available at a 30% discount if ordered directly from the publisher with code LEX30AUTH19 here.


Copyright©2019 by Carlo Alvaro – All Rights Reserved