My wife is a vegan and we are raising our daughter vegan. I am not a vegan nor am I a vegetarian. I am, for those familiar with this space, nothing. I could scarcely call myself human, really. I traded in my integrity for a moped and a six-pack of Genesee Cream Ale in 1981. This makes almost everyone I know better than me. This is an interesting base in which to run an elitist egomaniacal construct. But I manage.
For those unfamiliar with the term, vegan is, according to Webster's, "a strict vegetarian who consumes no animal food or dairy products; also: one who abstains from using animal products (as leather)." A quick search of veganism on Wikipedia will garner:
Ethical vegans reject the commodity status of animals and the use of animal products for any purpose, while dietary vegans (or strict vegetarians) eliminate them from their diet only. Another form, environmental veganism, rejects the use of animal products on the premise that the industrial practice is environmentally damaging and unsustainable.
My wife simply says, "Eat like you give a damn," which she wears on a tee-shirt as proudly as she displayed the "Meat is Murder" bumper sticker on her college car.
So it is no surprise that as we happened to catch an appearance by children's author and artist Ruby Roth speaking about her new work, Vegan is Love, a practical and rather stirring primer for kids from seven years and up (a publisher's recommendation Roth does not necessarily agree with, as she believes, as I have always believed, that children of any age are capable of handling the truth of a given subject if explained properly). It roused a request from someone who rarely if ever reads my column, "You should write about this woman and her book."
At first I thought my wife was nuts, something that was clearly evident long before this suggestion. No one cares about this, really. This is why I had to add the definition of vegan to my lead. People can barely muster empathy for the starving, war-damaged or oppressed peoples of the world, much less chickens. And if there is one thing people usually agree on, it is that they love meat -- cheap McDonald's crap to big, fat, juicy, expensive carcasses.
But my best friend on Planet Earth has dedicated her adult life to this cause and now my only child has followed suit for four years and counting, so I figured, why not?
We received a copy of Vegan is Love some weeks ago and love it; most importantly, so does my daughter. And so a couple of phone calls ensued, and after a few biographical tidbits about Ms. Roth being the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors with "an acute sense of oppression," raised by a vegetarian mother on a "an organic tree farm in Hawaii," and later studying politics and American history at UC Santa Cruz, which she calls the Mecca of veganism, we got down to business.
"To know the violence you're participating in and continue to eat animals takes a willful ignorance," Roth began.
Our society has a very anthropomorphic-centric view and it is at the root of the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in today. Our desires and addictions and technologies are more important than the very earth that we walk upon. And I think the self-centeredness that allows us to keep abusing animals is the same outlook that allows us to buy houses that we can't afford or trick other people into buying houses that they can't afford. It is a systemic belief that our country suffers from that surely begins on our plates.
Roth, 30, considers herself an artist before a writer and has dedicated her life's work to what she says is a "cherished philosophy and the foundation of my morals and values." She is soft-spoken and well versed in the advantages of her chosen lifestyle and quite adamant about the adverse. Yet she does not come on as preachy, simply referring to humanity's apathy to the abuse of animals as "the truth."
"The quickest way out of any predicament is to tell the truth," insists Roth. "You forget how simple it is to say some people eat meat and some people don't. I don't."
The public image of most vegans is that they're militant, elitist and mostly angry, something you would be if you really cared about animals, because a preponderance of evidence shows that hardly anyone does. Most say they do, but they don't -- like people telling pollsters they go to church instead of strip clubs or read instead of watching The Bachelor. Maybe people dig their pet or some cute thing they see in a movie, but cows?
"It's a very strange disconnection," Roth said when I inquired about how people who would not normally kill a pig or cow or turkey can easily compartmentalize their eating habits.
It's like a blind spot even when your attention is turned to it. I think if you haven't witnessed the footage it's impossible to imagine the depth of destruction and violence that occurs. It changes you as a person. I think my brain chemistry changed when I started witnessing the footage, because our habits allow us to associate meat with comfort food and that's normalized, but when you see what it really is your neural pathways actually change.
The other public image of vegans is that they tend to skew young, as in they embrace this philosophy in the idealistic age of caring for the future of their environment, etc. And once they go vegan, most don't let go. Believe me. I know. It is here that Roth has connected on a deeper level with Vegan is Love, in that it purports what my wife has always believed; children have an innate bond with all living things and if that disconnect was not passed down from their parents, they would, as Roth puts it, "choose wisely."
For the first time in children's literature, Vegan is Love presupposes that if kids know animals are being tortured for product testing, abused for sport or entertainment or especially killed for glue or coats or lunch, they might be inclined to go for the salad.
"It's never too early to discuss the truth and when kids start asking questions, that's an appropriate time to tell the truth," said Roth.
There is no universally accepted concept of childhood. Our American one is inherited from the Victorian age when it was believed that children needed to be protected from the adult world, so it's passed down to us and we see it in our schools, our children's books, and our laws. In other countries by the time kids are four they're hauling wood and watching over their younger siblings.
Although a kids book, there is nothing juvenile about Vegan is Love. It is beautifully and realistically depicted with Roth's stunning illustrations and the text allows for parents to discuss such weighty subjects as animal testing for drugs, hunting, the wonton destruction of the environment and the gory spectacle of animals in circuses. Yet the book is less polemic than it is a genuinely empathetic characterization of animals. It is here that Roth makes her most interesting point:
Most children's books and movies are anthropomorphic and I think that detaches us from animals, because we automatically think of them with fictional attributes. It's the same with zoos and circuses, which they claim sensitize people to animals when it actually does the opposite; it desensitizes us to the use and abuse of animals.
Roth's mission for Vegan is Love is to offer an alternate view for children, and for our daughter, it is a helpful reinforcement of something she has embraced thus far; something she will need when entering a world that doesn't accept alternatives to anything easily. But hell, the kid is already behind the eight ball with a lunatic like me for a father.
"Vegan kids are good influences on their peers and their peers are often interested in what they're eating" Roth, a former educator, assures me. "I think knowledge is power. And the more your child knows because of discussions that you've had the more confident they will be. The confident kid in the classroom always seems to be the cool kid."
Roth, who says the positive response to Vegan is Love has far outweighed some of the criticism, is currently working on her third book with the same faith that humanity's most compassionate elements begin in childhood; which is where we all begin our journeys to the center of our own universe.
"Maybe if it's too scary to talk about," Roth mused as we bid ado. "Then it's too scary to eat it or participate in it."
Or write about?