What's the Beef with Vegetarianism?

Carnivores get mad about meatless Mondays.

As official exhortations go in this city, Supervisor Sophie Maxwell's recent nonbinding Meatless Monday resolution — suggesting restaurants, stores, and schools offer plant-based food for those who want it — was pretty mild. Notwithstanding, the symbolic measure provoked outrage among some locals and out-of-towners, who wrote in protest to the Board of Supervisors.

"Why don't you board members work to find ways to make the city safe rather than concerning yourself with my diet," Stace A. Hillbrant, a financial adviser from Wilmette, Ill., wrote in an April 8 e-mail. Hillbrant claims he used to travel to San Francisco every month to stay in hotels and dine at fine restaurants. Now he's doing his West Coast business in some place he won't be forced to stomach nutritious fruits and vegetables: "I'm going to start conducting my business meetings in Napa Valley."

Michael T. Collins, a vice president of UBS Financial Services, likewise wrote to the board, saying he will no longer attend meetings in the city. "I'll stay somewhere else from now on," he wrote.

Amusingly, several of the dozen or so letters the board received on this issue came from people perturbed that board members had wasted valuable time on a trivial measure — while seemingly unconcerned that they happened to be wasting their own valuable time complaining about an innocuous local measure that is not backed by the force of law.

"You guys spend precious time talking about meat-free Mondays?" wrote Ann Wilder, spending her precious time sending an e-mail about the meat-free Monday measure. "You embarrass me."

"Forcing others to live the way that you want to live to conform with your 'lifestyle' makes you a fascist," wrote Malnar Jones, apparently unaware that Maxwell's measure does not force anyone to conform to anything. "This is disgusting. It really is."

Antiregulation zealots weren't the only people opposed to Meatless Mondays. Some felt the measure didn't go far enough.

"California has a serious budget deficit," Stanford Daily columnist Jack Cackler wrote to the board. "Why not tax meat on Mondays, to kill two birds with one stone?" He left unanswered the question of whether the meat tax would apply to wildfowl culled in this way.

Jordan Saiz protested that some people's meatless diets consist of "chocolate, french fries, and microwavable dinners," while Larry Battis said Maxwell is only setting herself up "to be labeled a 'moonbat' and relegated to ridicule." How can she keep San Francisco from being made fun of? "Declare Mondays 'Locally Grown, Free-Range, and Organic Mondays,'" he wrote.

My favorite, however, has to be the suggestion of Robert Hsiao. "How about a 'No Shark Fin Soup Day Any Day' resolution?" he wrote.

Why not?

Meatless Mondays was an example of "a power trip like I've never seen," wrote San Ramon–area small-business owner Bill Ezell in an angry two-page screed that touched on issues such as the financial crisis in California, immigration, ROTC, and dog dishes. "And, I am convinced, [politicians] will stop at nothing to continue sucking the life out of us until the state — or the country — has collapsed."

Ezell is so angered by this that he's leaving California, he wrote. And, "with all due respect, I couldn't imagine retiring here."

What is it about vegetarianism that drives some people off the deep end? Could it be that their moral calculus is vexingly unassailable? There's no way around the fact that modern meat-eating is indefensibly barbaric. On small family farms — even though they may be local, sustainable, and organic — some livestock are killed in unpleasant ways: by suspending animals by their feet and slitting their throats, or by bashing their heads with a sledgehammer, blasting them with a shotgun, or putting bolt guns to their heads. Chickens, meanwhile, can be swung in the air until their necks snap. We won't get into the suffocation-by-feces side effects of the factory farming process.

For similar reasons, there's no worse way to kill the buzz of a nice ham sandwich than to realize your food once had a face.

"I just don't want to put something in my body that was alive," said Laura Beck, the brains behind the blog Vegansaurus. "I'm also an anti-factory-farm vegan — it's just terrible for everyone involved. Workers, environment, water waste, and the horrific conditions animals are kept in. That's why I don't consume meat."

Yielding to your conscience comes at a cost. Beck says her father chided her for years over her choice not to eat meat or other animal derivatives.

"My dad would say 'vay-gan' for five years," she said. "At first it was an honest mistake. But then it was to nudge at me."

A man who would endlessly mock his daughter would seem to be covering up for some sort of pain of his own.

And as a meat-eater who admires, but is also sometimes made uncomfortable by, friends' meatless ways, I can vouch for the fact that it just plain hurts to be reminded, even by the kindest of vegetarians, of the moral quagmire we carnivores wallow in. If my 7-year-old were to announce she'd stopped killing animals one day, I fear I'd call her "vay-gan," too.

 
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