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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Sebastian

Rise of the Power Vegans (an excerpt from Media Literacy for Animal Rights)

Occasionally, I publish content from my presentations in order to give people a sample of what to expect. Media Literacy for Animal Rights is one of the more popular ones. In addition to an education on the historical use of propaganda to influence animal consumption in the early 20th century and a look at anti-speciesism in classic literature and current popular culture, the presentation includes an analysis of how the mainstream media apparatus positively and negatively shapes our perceptions of both veganism and animal rights. Below is a slide from the presentation that illustrates a 2010 article that appeared in Bloomburg entitled “Rise of the Power Vegans.” A brief excerpt from the presentation follows it. If you want to host the full lecture, get in touch!

Pictured in the above slide are some of the men cited in the article, including President Bill Clinton, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, music mogul Russell Simmons, actor Alec Baldwin, and real estate businessman Steve Wynn.

Superficially this article shines a positive light on the acceptance of veganism into the mainstream. In fact, it was wholly embraced and reproduced in full by many organizations dedicated to animal rights. And why wouldn’t they? The association of the vegan aesthetic with celebrity is both gratifying and intoxicating. Mainstream acceptance means more people will follow the cues of their respective celebrity counterparts. And to a certain degree, that’s absolutely true. But it’s equally important to examine pieces like this on a critical level and understand the unintended implications they include. The text opens up by stating:

It used to be easy for moguls to flaunt their power. All they had to do was renovate the chalet in St. Moritz, buy the latest Gulfstream (GD) jet, lay off 5,000 employees, or marry a much younger Asian woman. By now, though, they've used up all the easy ways to distinguish themselves from the rest of us—which may be why a growing number of America's most powerful bosses have become vegan.

So immediately veganism is divorced from a framework of animal liberation and contextualized next to the exercise of power. And not just any power, the power of massive consumerism and the accumulation of wealth. Further, the author asserts that laying off workers is another exercise of power and, perhaps most eyebrow-raising of all, so is the commodification of Asian women by wealthy men. So what’s left? Veganism!

Yes these statements are made in jest. But they still make a lasting impression on readers. And the association of veganism with abuses of power and massive consumerism has consequences. It unintentionally reinforces the idea that veganism is a hobby of the wealthy and the elite, which is a message that resides in stark contrast with the one of educators who work tirelessly to combat the stereotype that minimizing animal exploitation is an unattainable goal for the average person.

The article then goes on to state:

Steve Wynn, Mort Zuckerman, Russell Simmons, and Bill Clinton are now using tempeh to assert their superiority. As are Ford Executive Chairman of the Board Bill Ford (F), Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, venture capitalist Joi Ito, Whole Foods Market (WFMI) Chief Executive Officer John Mackey, and Mike Tyson. Yes, Mike Tyson, a man who once chewed on human ear, is now vegan. His dietary habit isn't nearly as impressive as that of Alec Baldwin, though, who has found a way to be both vegan and fat at the same time.

So, in reading through this laundry list of presumed power brokers, more messages become clear. First of all, the divorce of veganism from animal liberation and the use of it as a shorthand for an elitist diet could not be more direct. And not only is it an elitist trend, it’s one that is steeped in masculinity and capitalist patriarchy as illustrated by this highly specific selection of men.

(…I would also say something regarding the backhanded comment about Baldwin’s weight. But a brother is here to save keystrokes and the endless fat-shaming is a post unto itself.)

Moving on:

It shouldn’t be surprising that so many CEOs are shunning meat, dairy, and eggs: It’s an exclusive club. Only 1 percent of the U.S. population is vegan, partly because veganism isn’t cheap: The cost comes from the value of specialty products made by specialty companies with cloying names (tofurkey, anyone?). Vegans also have to be powerful enough to even know what veganism is.

So there you have it. Once more, an unassuming and uncritical reader is told quite explicitly that this is an exclusive club. And again, the notion that veganism is defined by expensive meat and dairy replacements undermines the hard word of people within our communities desperately trying to shift the image of veganism away from luxury goods to one of accessibility.

Even more potentially insulting is the last line that also states explicitly that veganism is reserved for people with enough education and power to understand veganism. Nothing codifies veganism as pretentious more than the haughty declaration that the hoi polloi are too simple to get the basic concept.

It’s an especially painful statement to read given that the roots of plant-based lifestyles have historically been associated with poverty and now it is shockingly assumed to be a lifestyle of affluence.

Of course it would be tempting to say, “But I don’t care! As long as fewer people are exploiting animals, their reason for doing so doesn’t matter to me!”

And I agree. We all want the same thing. Unfortunately, a critique of media is quickly dismissed as gatekeeping. But a critical analysis of our media is not equivalent to a rejection of normalizing the lifestyle. And if authors like this one associate veganism with an exclusive club, exactly who is it standing at this gate?

I know it’s easy to believe that vegan capitalism is a fast track to animal liberation. I understand. But not only is that a lazy assumption, it’s historically proven to slow liberation down. Look at how commodifying social movements has historically affected women’s liberation. And don’t ignore the insidious results of President Richard Nixon introducing black capitalism. Animal liberation is not a simple matter of shuffling the pieces around the economic playing board. Reproducing the machinery of the system does not automatically mitigate its effects.

Becoming savvier consumers of media only strengthens our movement. Being aware of how these messages land only provides us with better tools for how to absorb and distributing content ourselves. Naturally, we should share whatever content we like. But we should also be able to quickly perform an internal cost-benefit analysis of it in order to make informed decisions.

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