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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Sebastian

They want to take away your hamburgers: animal exploitation and white nationalism

Updated: Mar 27, 2020

Last week, the Conservative Political Action Conference was held in National Harbor, Maryland. And although many different topics were discussed, a theme suspiciously emerged throughout the event.

“I have a hundred cows. You just let Alexandrio Cortez [sic] show up and try to take my cows away,” Jerry Falwell, Jr., told a room full of attendees during a panel.

“I love cows […] They’re delicious,” said Donald Trump, Jr.

Representative Mark Meadows joked, “With this Green New Deal they’re trying to get rid of all the cows. But I’ve got good news. Chick-fil-A stock will go way up because we’re going to be eating more chicken.”

And yes, this is the same Mark Meadows who engaged in the most eyebrow-raising racism just days earlier when Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib challenged him on using a black woman as a prop during a congressional hearing.

Even America’s most lovable zodiac killer Ted Cruz got in on the act. “I hope to see PETA supporting the Republican party now that the democrats want to kill all the cows.”

It seems the Republican party can’t stop talking about or thinking about meat. And frankly, there’s a reason for that.

Eating and exploiting animals is a crucial aspect of defining white national identity. Those who strongly identify with white nationalist ideology view the consumption of animal bodies as an act of solidarity.

On New Years Eve 2013, hosts of the Fox network’s All-American New Year asked Sarah Palin what her resolutions were. She responded with three: 1. eat more meat, 2. make the federal government as irrelevant as possible, and 3. restore American exceptionalism.

Eat more meat.

What purpose did eating meat serve as a New Years resolution? There were no ‘rabid’ anti-meat voices anywhere near her platform. As a statement, it was completely unprovoked.

Eating meat is an assurance of proper whiteness. It is a dog whistle, a signifier of shared American values, a means to encode proper wholesome white identity into her rhetoric. Indeed, Palin used it as a lead-in to her third, and arguably most important, point: American exceptionalism.

And guess what? The animal agriculture industry is listening to this coded language and responding in kind. Amanda Radke writing for Beef Magazine (yes, there’s a Beef Magazine) said in a January article

If tofu, beans and lentils become the number-one recommendation as the plant-based protein substitutes to beef, then we have not only failed our own industry, but we have failed the children, military, hospital patients and nursing home residents.

Playing on the moral panic derived by the think of the children trope and nationalist rhetoric that demands fealty to the American military, she invokes fear among readers to generate support among audiences who positively respond to white identitarianism.

She stopped just short of framing eating lentils as the moral equivalent of shooting veterans in the face.

And animal exploitation as white nationalism has a long history. White identitarians respond to a great many cultural codes related to animal exploitation laced throughout the American ethos.

Take, for example, the American cowboy.

Although cowboys were introduced to the American frontier by southern Europeans, former slaves, Mexican vaqueros, and recent immigrants made up nearly a quarter of the cowboy population after the end of the American Civil War.

Of course, actual history has little to do with the construction of the American cowboy mythology. Literature and film quickly re-imagined him as the archetype of white masculinity. Historians Joe Frantz and Julian Choate wrote

The American cowboy exists on three distinct levels — the historical level, about which the average American cares and knows no more than he does about any other phase of nonmilitary or nonpolitical history; the fictional level, in which the cowboy occupies a not quite respectable but highly popular position; and the folklore level, on which the cowboy sits as an idealized creation of the American folk mind.

The cowboy lives as a symbol of American exceptionalism. He is America’s manifestation of the fabled knight.

To eschew animal flesh is to reject the offerings from this steward of America’s legacy, the brave giant who conquered and tamed the American west, the icon of 20th century popular culture, and the vanquisher of evil Indians.

And if there is any figure more virtuous icon than the American cowboy, it is the American farmer. When faced with propaganda that represents America’s freedom, independence, and sovereignty, it is not the humble broccoli farmer that we are shown. Not the men and women who harvest America's 'amber waves of grain.'

It is the farmer who proudly harvests our beef. The farmer who lovingly puts creamy white milk in the American refrigerator.

How ironic that industry of animal agriculture has all but eliminated the humble family farm in favor of industrialized farming operations. And it is an even greater irony that many of the same Americans who vehemently defend the animal farming nuclear family unit also fervently defend the capitalist engine that destroyed it.

Critical race scholar and University of Hawaii law professor Andrea Freeman discussed another example of this history of animal exploitation as a symbol of white superiority in her law review article The Unbearable Whiteness of Milk. She dates this back approximately 100 years.

In the 1920s, a pamphlet from the U.S. National Dairy Council explained: “The people who have used liberal amounts of milk and its products … ” — meaning white people — “… are progressive in science and every activity of the human intellect.”

Of course, although I focus on America’s embrace of animal exploitation as white nationalism, it is not unique to the United States.

In fact, use of ‘white’ as a modifier before the word nationalism may be redundant given that history professor Mark Brandon of Anglo-American University places the birth of nationalism itself firmly in 18th century Europe. And nationalism is enjoying a renaissance throughout Europe by way of what sociologist Michaela DeSoucey calls gastronationalism, where animal products are assigned symbolic value by those who articulate nationalist sentiments.

Dutch dairy company Campina embraced its farmers' milk in displaying the red, white and blue ribbon of the Dutch flag. And British retailer Tesco sought to gain customer confidence by guaranteeing the national origin of their meat.

At the end of the day, the question for me is not, “Why is animal exploitation a matter of white national identity?” To the animals who exist as mere products in the food chain, it doesn’t matter.

For me, the question is, “Why do more people not forego animal exploitation as a matter of political resistance?"

And the answer is unfortunately grim. Most of us care little for liberation. What we call liberation is merely access to the same power that white identitarians have used to exploit others for centuries.

In the words of Angela Davis

Straight black men and white women will always be the weakest links in the struggle for equality because they view equality as achieving status with white men. The problem with that is that white men’s status is contingent on the oppression of other people.

For more on animal exploitation as a signifier of white national identity, email me for a lecture at your school or in your community. To read more about veganism as political resistance in an age of political uncertainty, read Protest Kitchen by Carol J. Adams and Virginia Messina. And to support more work like this, consider supporting me on Patreon.

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