Monday, September 15, 2008

On Food, Violence, and Power

A quick google using the key words “vegetarian dictator” reveals links to the sorely contested idea that Adolf Hitler, mass murderer and all around asshole, was a vegetarian. Some historians have argued that Der Fuhrer did not eat meat, that the man who got it into his head to attempt to exterminate a whole race in a sincerely, insanely, misguided effort at purification, only nibbled on plants and cared not for carnivorous pleasures such as steak, foie gras, ham, bologna, salami, sausages, fried chicken, roast turkey, grilled fish, and other cooked permutations of formerly living, breathing, walking, and swimming members of kingdom Animalia.

I can imagine how vegetarians, especially those who don’t eat meat for moral reasons, would be gagging about this. Since vegetarianism is often associated with a pacifistic philosophy and lifestyle that seeks to respect all forms of life even, say, bacteria, it of course won’t do for one’s moral code to be associated with a man who had zero respect for any life other than his.

I myself am skeptical of the idea that Hitler only consumed plants because… well… A vegetarian dictator? Somehow, it’s hard to imagine such a creature ever existing.

A dictator is one who superimposes his will onto that of the weak. He doesn’t ask for anything, he just takes it, grabs it, keeps it then spews it out whenever, wherever, at whomever he wants to. A dictator doesn’t wish, he wills. His is power that renders others’ moot. Equality and respect are anathema to him. Superiority and dominion are his raison d’etre.

It’s difficult to imagine that someone like this would have a diet that reflects a “live and let live” philosophy.

To my mind, dictators don’t just consume, they devour. They don’t just nibble, they take huge, jaw-breaking bites. They don’t pick their food; they spear it, stab it, and tear the flesh off it.

After all, at a most basic, primitive level, eating is an exercise in power. To eat is to reinforce the hierarchy to which all living organisms belong. Science calls it the food chain and humans are taught early on about our place, occupying the top position, in it. Science and pedagogy collude to instill in us the idea of our inherent superiority to all other species.

Hamlet’s soliloquy might as well have been, “To eat, or not to eat…and make a pet out of.”

The food chain represents the vast gastronomic options we as a species have before us. We exercise our power through the choices we make, the answers we come up with to the question of what to eat and not to eat.

The choice is made expedient by the act of naming and personifying. You cannot eat that which you have named. It is atavistic will, simple and without logic. All other unnamed species, all those you have not made pets out of… have at it.

Even after you have made the choice of what to eat, you come up against another question: how to procure the food. Procurement of food is almost always an act of violence. You hunt, you capture, you slaughter and let the blood flow, then you make a fire and burn it. It’s making sure whatever it is is truly dead. Some people can stand this knowledge more than others. These people don't mind actively involving themselves in this procurement process. We call them "hunters", "butchers", "cooks". The others we call consumers, passive receivers of food already deadened and prepared. Or more quaintly so, we call them "foodies".

After this, the question: how to eat it. The answer to this question often flows from answers to the previous questions. Say you, like most folks, have decided to eat lower animal forms. It is very likely that you are at least aware that your food is procured in a fairly violent fashion. At least, we hope none of us are so deluded as to think that the cows, pigs, chickens, and fish we eat have all died convenient, natural deaths. Because these animals have flesh, which is tough and often unpalatable in its raw state, you would have to subject your animal of choice to all manner of beating (which you would call “tenderizing”), destroying (which you would call “processing”) and burning (which you would call “cooking”).

Euphemisms abound where violence resides.

So, how to eat it? You can, like members of polite society, saw it with a knife and stick a fork in it. Or you can pretend less and just use your hands and your teeth to pull a chunk off it.

Or you can be a vegetarian.

You can choose to limit your eating to living things that can’t walk or run away from you, hopelessly unable to evade your capture, living things that are stuck to the earth and are virtual sitting ducks, ready for you to pick them. Then you can yank your food from the ground, by its stems, to reveal its naked roots, chop off its leaves and shred them. And you could call this shredding “to julienne”.

Euphemisms abound where violence resides.

So, how to eat your plants? You can poke at them with a fork and slice the larger pieces with a knife. Or again, you can pretend less—and be truer to your no less violent nature—and just use your hands to pick your little, refined slices of death and put them in your mouth.

To nibble.

On second thought… maybe it’s not so impossible that Hitler was a vegetarian.