So how did I feel after watching Oprah's vegan challenge show? In a word: disappointed. And by the last five minutes downright angry. But let's go back to the beginning. (I'm also writing this before reading any other blogger's post on the subject so I won't be influenced by my usual "damn, why didn't I think of that" envy. Snort.) And, just as the episode did not include a lot of investigative journalism that I could see evidence of (despite Lisa Ling being a paid journalist), this post will not attempt to be balanced or even-handed if I don't feel like it, nor necessarily present my impressions in chronological order. Ha!
The show started off pretty well, I thought. Oprah and 378 staff members signed up for a week long vegan challenge (participation was not mandatory), and in terms of lunch line-ups and staff-wide hugely increased fiber-induced bowel movements, the week was a big success. The term radical was tossed around a few times with regards to veganism, but I suppose most of us are used to that, just as we're used to hearing words like militant and extreme when our philosophy is described. Michael Pollan (Oprah introduced him as being a rock star of the food movement which I thought quite silly) did agree that veganism is a "cool idea" because it forces you to be conscious and think about where your food comes from, and he also mentioned the link between the standard American diet and chronic disease. Oprah then introduced the statistic of 10 billion animals being consumed each year including 30 million cows and let those numbers (I'm assuming those are stats for America only) sink in. So far so good.
Unfortunately, from there it went downhill for me, but before I continue, I want to say how much I dislike the term meat. It's too ambiguous, too sanitary, and too far removed from what we're actually eating. Michael Pollan to his credit (who will be referred to as MP from this point on), also mentioned how far removed we are from reality when we buy stuff wrapped in cellophane. Snacking on deceased (and diseased) animal flesh is terminology much more accurate as far as I'm concerned.
The show then continued with Lisa Ling (after seeing cows being fattened up on corn and corn byproducts) taking a tour of Cargill, one of the largest slaughterhouses in America I believe. Twenty companies had refused a request for a tour of their facilities, but oddly, there was no question as to whether Cargill was typical or representative of most slaughterhouses (correction: MP later stated that Cargill was cleaner, bigger and better run than most), but they still would not allow the actual killing to be filmed. The general manager (sorry, forgot her name) paid lip service to the idea that animals should be treated with dignity and respect and reiterated a number of times how the company and employees had a lot of respect for the former living creatures. Right. I also heard her use the phrase "harvested (gotta love that euphemism) carefully" and that killing animals was somehow part of the "natural order of things." And did you know that the stun bolt gun doesn't hurt, but renders animals completely unconscious so that they don't feel any pain when the bolt is driven into their brain? The effect of the tour on Lisa Ling? Well, she did appear to wince when shown how cows don't feel pain, but now has a new appreciation when eating the animals described as naturally curious by the guy responsible for fattening them up at the beginning of the show.
So what is MP's take on this industry? Well, meat is not evil (I'm inclined to disagree, and would argue that the production of what we call meat today most definitely is), and while it may be a good idea to reduce our consumption, there's no need to eliminate it, especially meat that's "humanely" raised. He expressed concern that eliminating meat would hurt farmers, and that reforming the industry is preferable. He also credited veganism for improving industry conditions. And remember how I said in my last post that I wasn't sure how I felt about MP? I do now! Putz indeed. MP has a new book coming out soon and I truly hope his sales tank. While it's possible that there are humane ways of raising nonhuman animals, there's nothing humane about killing them for food.
This brings me to one of my major objections in how veganism was presented in the episode: veganism as diet only. While I appreciate the time constraints of a commercial-riddled hour-long show, absolutely no mention was made of how vegans try to avoid the exploitation of animals in all its forms. Even worse, the implicit (and usually explicit) assumption among most humans that animals are ours to use wasn't addressed at all.
The show then focused on Kathy Freston and how the vegan challenge was met by staff participants. I like Kathy, I do, and her vegan segment in her Quantum Wellness book was persuasive enough that it (and other factors) convinced me that I wanted to go vegan full-time and not just convert slowly. Some might not like her "lean into it" approach, or her "lose weight, get healthy, change the world" campaign, but I welcome any step in the vegan direction. I also don't have a problem with her seeing veganism as a spiritual path. And, I was quite impressed when she jumped in as soon as MP said, "meat is not evil" with the retort that she wasn't able to look into the eyes of an animal and feel that their suffering was less important than her appetite. At that point though Oprah interrupted with her most delusional and asinine comment ever by saying, "but the animals don't suffer!" What? Really? She then referred back to Lisa Ling saying that whether a person decides to eat meat or not needs to be an individual choice. Maybe she's been burned by the hamburger lawsuit, but to me that's a major cop-out because nonhuman animals certainly don't get that individual choice. No, animal use needs to be seen as a collective decision (one I don't agree with) that human needs/wants are more important and that they trump the rights of any other species.
And surprise, surprise, Oprah does not want to commit to going vegan, although she doesn't mind being veganish if and when it suits her. To sum up I would say that in some ways this show was a good start, but I was extremely frustrated by the end of it. What a shame. Oprah could have done so much good had she wanted to. And yes, I'll still be contacting her, but it'll be to let her know that she clearly doesn't have a clue and missed a big opportunity to achieve something positive with her useless fame. Sigh.