The Moment of Truth
Few individuals can get the nation’s attention like Oprah. The fact that she’s instantly recognizable by one name is testament to her celebrity and media status. If someone or something is featured on her venerable stage, you can bet it’s going to get a lot of attention. Which is why her recent show about veganism was such a phenomenon.
It’s not the first time Oprah’s name has been linked to matters of meat. Her infamous 1998 “beef libel” trial (along with Howard Lyman) got people thinking about mad cow disease and exposed the nasty politics of agribusiness. Her struggles with weight over the years led her to try a three-week “vegan cleanse” last summer with the help of The Veganist author Kathy Freston. Oprah blogged about it and concluded that she was “leaning into” a healthier and more humane way of eating.
That experience led her to devote an entire show earlier this month to how she and more than 300 members of her staff went vegan for a week. This time it wasn’t just about a celebrity’s diet, it was about a wide variety of ordinary people of various backgrounds, shapes and sizes doing something “radical” about their eating habits, either out of curiosity or consciousness.
Oprah's show featured Freston along with food author Michael Pollan, whose version of “conscious eating” stops short of vegetarianism because, well, despite all the horrors caused by factory farming, he likes the way animals taste too much to stop eating them.
Three things struck me as I watched this episode. First was how amazing it was that Oprah was devoting an entire show – in its celebrated last season – not just to dabbling in vegetarianism, but to exploring full-on veganism – a term I’m sure many of her regular viewers couldn’t pronounce, must less define. She laid it on the table, so to speak, not as a novelty but as a legitimate health, environmental and ethical issue. That’s huge.
But – and of course we animal advocates will find a “but” in almost any mainstream media attempt to characterize our positions – items two and three unsettled me.
One was Pollan’s rationalization that he’s OK with eating animals from “humane” farms because they supposedly enjoy quite a few “good days” and only have “one really bad day” when their lives end.
Although I give him credit for helping to fuel the growing national conversation about food and its origins, I found that comment both convenient and condescending. Convenient for him so that he can feel morally superior to people who consume factory-farmed animals without having to deprive himself and go fully vegetarian, and condescending to the nonhuman individuals whose lives he insists on placing in the commodity category, as if their lives and interests had no innate value aside from his palate.
My main disappointment in the segment was not in what it showed but what it didn’t show. Part of the discussion included a filmed tour of a Cargill slaughterhouse in Colorado, courtesy of journalist Lisa Ling. The footage was lauded by Oprah as a progressive gesture from a company (like the industry as a whole) notoriously secretive about its operations. Ling took viewers step by step through the plant, where 4,500 animals a day are killed. Except that the actual killing – the shooting of the captive bolt into the animals’ brains and the subsequent shackling, hoisting and bleeding out – was not allowed to be filmed and thus not shown. The footage skipped over that minor detail and continued with the hanging carcasses being skinned and dismembered, which was no doubt an eye-opening experience for most daytime TV viewers.
But it was that moment of truth – truth with a little t and big T – that likely could have told the whole story, without all the corporate PR show and tell (even Pollan noted that this particularly clean and modern slaughterhouse was not typical of the industry). By refusing to let Oprah film the moment at which each animal – 3 per minute, 188 per hour, day and night – lost his or her life, Cargill was allowed to hide the crux of the vegan argument: that taking a life needn’t be part of making a meal. All the discussion of pollution, heart disease, drug resistance and other meat-related ills falls short of that act, and yet that was what America was not allowed to bear witness to.
As a whole, Oprah’s vegan show was a milestone in mainstream programming and a testament to her progressive thought. But “what I know for sure,” as the lady likes to say, is that by censoring the moment of death, the show sidestepped the Moment of Truth that might have made more people turn a week of veganism into a lifetime.
Published by email@example.com on 02/15/2011 17:00:00
Modified by firstname.lastname@example.org on 02/15/2011 17:00:49