March 25, 2014

JOHN | A Few Thoughts on Food Politics

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As immigrants we are told that we do not know how to value life. We do not know how to tend to it, how to nourish it, how to enjoy it. We come from places where people are dying, killing each other. We do not know how to live, how to eat. I remember eating my lunch in a corner in the 4th grade so that the white girls wouldn’t make faces about the way the food my mom made for me smelled. When my parents came to this country, they practically memorialized the first time they ate a McDonald’s hamburger, a rite of passage for new immigrants trying so hard to become “American.” Food is political, it is a  part of identity and a part of a larger assimilatory project of global capitalism.

Veganism, for example, is sold to us increasingly in a package that fits into capitalism perfectly instead of critiquing it. NGO’s, corporations, institutions like Cornell, even Beyoncé are promoting veganism. When corporations start endorsing something, it is enough to make anyone suspicious. The focus is on productivity, on making more food to feed a growing population for less.

There needs to be a critique of the way mechanizing food production in a way that works swimmingly with capitalism and colonialism, rather than in opposition to it, is deeply problematic and not revolutionary at all. A scroll through Cornell Vegan Society’s Facebook page shows posts lauding Israeli prime minister for “moving towards a deeper understanding of animal consciousness.” Now if only if he could care about Palestinians too? What kind of food politics places animal rights over genocide, instead of perhaps understanding how the exploitation of animals and humans is all built into the capitalist colonial system.

Meanwhile, I will continue to roll my eyes at hipster food appropriation that gives all sorts of “ethnic” foods a vegan twist. In Craving the Other, Soleil Ho discusses how food becomes an experience in cultural tourism and self-discovery:

Veganism as practiced by white liberals tends to whitewash and appropriate foods, without any sort of understanding of where and who it comes from. It erases histories and ways in which foods are a part of histories or resistance. In countries occupied by the United States military after World War II, surpluses of cheap canned meat (spam) made their ways into native diets and became both a comfort food and reminder of occupation as well as resistance to it. The veganism that is promoted through mainstream liberal politics does not acknowledge or understand such histories, or engage substantially with questions of access. In fact what we see is certain food achieving “trend” status, upping their prices and making them more financially inaccessible, a phenomenon referred to as food gentrification.

Some people think that veganism promotes a compassion for animals that is the first step to cultivating a broader sense of compassion that will end suffering in general. However, it is perfectly possible to have compassion for animals and still be complicit in violence towards other human beings who are seen as not human enough. Only a radically shifted idea of who and what constitutes a human will broaden our sense of compassion, and compassion alone without material and structural changes will not end human and animal suffering. I wonder if vegans care as much about the farmworkers and food workers that are exploited in the food industry as much they do about the animals that are abused.