Sunday, November 4, 2012

Vegan Terrorist: The Rhetoric of Veganism and the Post-9/11 Backlash

On September 20, 2001, then President George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that took place on September 11.  In a speech that constituted his declaration of war on terror, the President designated al Qaeda a terrorist organization distinct in its beliefs from the rest of the Muslim world and an organization capable of “evil and destruction.”  The rhetoric Bush employed in the speech established a clear divide between “America,” land of freedom, and terrorism, an ill-defined, looming menace comprised of anyone who would dare to attack us.  Bush outlined the cause of the attack as hatred, stating the that terrorists “hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” and he asked the rest of the world to choose a side: “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”

In creating what William D. Lutz terms a “rhetoric of permanent war and fear,” the Bush administration established a political and social environment that lasted throughout his tenure as President and that continues to impact public discourse up to the present moment.  A month after his speech, the subsequent passage of the Patriot Act, which allowed the government heretofore unheard of license with regard to surveillance and detention of suspected terrorists, established a general erosion of privacy and civil liberties that further placed on lockdown any attempt at dissention.  During his September 20 speech, Bush offered a mandate: “I ask you to uphold the values of America,” and in the wake of a changed world, we were left to posit continually and forcefully certain behavior as patriotic and American and to just as vociferously denounce anything that was not as aligned with terrorism.  You were, after all, either with us or with the terrorists.  You had to be an American with American values; you flew a flag, were Christian, and ate like an American.  And whatever you did, you did not question the government.

In the wake of the attacks, Americans turned to so-called comfort foods to feel better, and they shied away from expensive restaurants, many of which served ethnic cuisine.  According to Brian Gallagher, in the subsequent decade, “restaurants focusing on simple, familiar and hearty food – though often rendered in an upscaled and inventive way – would become the culinary zeitgeist.”  Gallagher notes the popularity of such items as fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and hamburgers in the decade that followed the attacks, and he notes that in terms of dining out, people “wanted places that felt, in terms of scale, much more like home.” 

While the desire for so-called comfort foods makes a kind of psychological sense, other shifts in terms of our culture’s relationship with food were clearly a product of the rhetoric of fear espoused by the Bush administration; for example, in an act of outright xenophobia that remained in tact until 2006, when France refused to support the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq – a direct result of the September 11 attacks – Republican lawmakers following the lead of North Carolina based restaurant Cubbies retaliated by renaming French fries “freedom fries” on cafeteria menus in three House office buildings (Loughlin) in a move that was followed by other restaurant owners in the private sector.  And in an article published as late as 2011, Michele Payn-Knoper discusses the potential dangers associated with the fact that the U.S. imports 40 percent of its food:

At a time that Americans are so sensitive about our national security, do we really want to rely on other countries for the majority of our food?  Consider what’s happened to oil and our gas prices; it makes no sense to have our food “held hostage.” Yet, the increasing regulations, lack of understanding about today’s modern farm and constant scrutiny of American agriculture is pushing more food production out of the U.S. and Canada.

Given such post-September 11 sentiment with regard to the sanctity and nature of “American” food, it should not seem odd or even outrageous to consider that our current understanding of veganism in the U.S. has been hugely impacted and shaped by the Bush administration’s rhetorical response to the attacks.

How embarrassing for us.

I want to look briefly at the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, a period during which vegetarianism – and even veganism to an extent – experienced a kind of mainstream recognition and acceptance that was significantly diminished in the subsequent decade.  To begin, Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in 1980, and that organization’s dissemination of graphic literature and images shocked the public and forced it to come face to face with the cruelty inherent in Western culture’s treatment of animals.  Newkirk believes that decades later, “the popularity of animal rights revived vegetarianism in America” (Iacobbo and Iacobbo 199), and PETA’s ability – controversial as it has been – to force people to recognize that their food once had a face was largely responsible for this shift. 

Also during the 1980s, even as sale of chicken products increased, “sales of beef slumped,” and “ethnic cuisine, traditionally prepared with vegetables or grains, and a much smaller portion of meat than Americans were typically accustomed to, or none at all, started to increase in demand” (Iacobbo and Iacobbo196).  This interest in non-Western cuisine marked a moment of culinary multiculturalism that allowed many Americans, for the first time, to consider dietary options other than those that were typically standard American.  Sushi was the rage on the West coast, and Japanese and Chinese food thrived in the U.S. during this period.  Furthermore, John Robbins published Diet for a New America in 1987, and this work linked meat consumption with environmental destruction in ways that allowed Americans to consider that meat eating, animal cruelty, and environmental devastation are inherently connected in ways that jeopardize human existence.

Yes, I went there.

If the 1980s was in many ways a good decade for vegetarianism, the 1990s were perhaps even better, ushered in by “a flood of scientific evidence supporting vegan diets” (Iacobbo and Iacobbo 209) as healthier than their omnivorous or even vegetarian counterparts.  The work of Caleb Johnson and Dean Ornish was influential and its impact long lasting.  In 1990, Carol J. Adams published The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, a work that examined the linkages between the exploitation of animals and the exploitation of women and advocated for veganism as a necessary feminist act.  In 1991, the basic four food groups, recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture since 1956, received an overhaul led by Neal Barnard, M.D., founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine; Barnard’s model relegated both “meat and dairy to optional status” (211).  This recommendation was made after decades of research by Barnard and other physicians, namely T. Colin Campbell, Oliver Alabaster, and Denis Burkitt that effectively proved both “the health benefits of vegan foods” (212) and the detrimental aspects of consuming meat. 

During this same period, veganism entered mainstream and popular culture in ways that depicted that lifestyle in a sympathetic light.  In 1995, Babe, directed by Chris Noonan and staring James Cromwell, who became outspokenly vegan while acting in that film, was released and, in its anthropomorphic depiction of farm animals, caused viewers across the country to stop eating them.  Howard Lyman, author of Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from a Cattle Rancher who Won’t Eat Meat, appeared on Oprah in 1996 and explained to America why and how he, a fourth generation cattle rancher, became vegan.  Lyman and Winfrey, who declared during the broadcast that she had eaten her last hamburger, were subsequently sued for libel by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for anti-beef comments made during the broadcast.[i]  And in 2000, Rod Lurie’s film The Contender portrayed a female, vegan political contender for the office of Vice President of the United States as a heroic champion of American values.

Some good stuff from Lurie's The Contender

While awareness of vegetarianism and veganism has continued to rise in the U.S. since the 1990s, prompting even the most recalcitrant aspects of our culture to make some concessions and accommodations – even Burger King saw fit to start offering a veggie burger in 2002 – there has been a pronounced shift in the discourse of veganism since the beginning of the twenty-first century.  Even prior to the 2001 attacks, chef Anthony Bourdain aligned vegans with anti-American terrorism in his wildly successful 2000 exposé Kitchen Confidential:

Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. . . . Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It’s healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I’ve worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold. (70)

Bourdain is famous for his disdain of the non-omnivorous in general and of vegans in particular, and his incendiary claims about them are oft quoted.[ii]  Bourdain’s association of veganism with terrorism, however, constructed veganism (a decidedly pacifist ideology) as dangerously, violently radical, a behavior that posed a threat to any sane conceptions of diet.  Vegetarians and vegans, in this construction, are the “enemy” of the very “human spirit.”  After the advent of the so-called War on Terror, terms like “Jihad,” “al-Qaeda,” and the omnipresent and pervasive “terrorist” entered the mainstream U.S. vernacular, part and parcel of a political rhetoric that divided the world into the simplistic categories of good and evil, and Bourdain’s construction of vegans as terrorists held a different and more powerful sway. 

A search for "Anthony Bourdain douche" pulls up this.

And Bourdain reiterated his point after the terrorist attacks.  While in Philadelphia on a book tour promoting his 2007 release No Reservations, Bourdain said that vegetarians “are the worst kind of terrorists. And they must be stopped” (qtd. in Valocchi), asserting again – and this time in a post-September 11 world – that not eating meat constitutes an act of terrorism.  In the years since that statement, the supposed connection between cruelty free diets and terrorism has played out in startling ways.  For example, a Village Voice article by Matt Snyders chronicles the FBI’s solicitation of informants to monitor protest groups during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Snyders discusses the case of Paul Carroll,[iii] a student at the University of Minnesota, who was approached by the FBI.  According to Synders,

What they were looking for, Carroll says, was an informant – someone to show up at “vegan potlucks” throughout the Twin Cities and rub shoulders with RNC protestors, schmoozing his way into their inner circles, then reporting back to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, a partnership between multiple federal agencies and state and local law enforcement.

Snyder quotes attorney Jordan Kushner who notes that “the Joint Terrorism Task Force is another example of using the buzzword ‘terrorism’ as a basis to clamp down on people’s freedoms and push forward a more authoritarian government.”  Veganism, as a non-normative dietary choice, represents an ideology at odds with an increasingly authoritarian regime; in this case, it becomes associated with protest, dissent, and terrorism and must be covertly monitored.


In 2009, police in the U.K. secretly investigated 47,000 suspicious travelers who booked flights into and out of Britain.  These travelers were red flagged “as potential terrorists [for such things as] ordering a vegetarian meal, asking for an over-wing seat and travelling with a foreign-born husband or wife” (Lewis).  Travelers were selected via a terrorist detector database that was introduced by Britain’s Labor Party, yet the system, which cost over a billion pounds to implement, “has never led to the arrest of a terrorist” (Lewis).  And also in 2009, the FBI for the first time placed an animal rights activist, Daniel Andreas San Diego, on its most wanted list.  San Diego, who is still at large and was the first domestic terrorist to appear on the list, is accused of bombing two corporate offices in California in 2003 – both of which were associated with animal testing – causing property damage but no loss of life. 

In the slew of media that followed his placement on the list, San Diego’s status as a “strict vegan” (Frieden) was highlighted.  The headline of a 2011 article in Boston magazine reads “Violent, Vegan Animal Rights Terrorist Suspected in Northampton,” and in a Fox News article, Joseph Abrams says “San Diego's bespectacled face masks a violent hate that authorities say turned him into an eco-terrorist, a vicious vegan with an ax to grind.”  To be clear, discussing the media’s coverage of San Diego’s veganism is in no way to advocate for his methods; San Diego’s actions are reprehensible, violent, and antithetical to the predominant ideology that, I would argue, influences most people who opt for a vegan lifestyle.  But in their coverage of the San Diego case, the FBI and the media have, like Bourdain, linked veganism to terrorism in ways that elide veganism with dangerous extremism.

As America has continued to fight its seemingly never ending War on Terror and as we have shifted from one administration to another, at least some of the paranoia and fear that gripped the nation in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks has abated.  But the rhetoric that the Bush administration employed immediately after those attacks established a pervasive and still extant need to clarify certain behavior as patriotic and American while denouncing anything that did not comfortably fit that model as not only un-American but anti-American, as behavior that might underscore and compliment a terrorist mentality, and as behavior that must be closely monitored, even if such monitoring violates basic civil liberties. 

Veganism, which had enjoyed a mild and even at times positive reception during the preceding two decades, became at the dawn of the twenty-first century suspect in its sudden associations with fundamentalism, radicalism, and anti-government protest; in its deviation from the Standard American Diet (SAD), it appeared alien and dangerously ethnic, influenced by the ideologies of the non-Western world.  To be vegan was to be un-American, to be with the terrorists and not, as Bush commanded, with the rest of “us.”

* I realize this blog is too long.  Sorry bout that.
* Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations airs its final episode tomorrow.  Buh-bye, ass clown.

[i]   The case was dismissed in 1998.

[ii]  Bourdain has tended to focus on vegan and vegetarian arguments about the health supportive nature of those diets and on what he views as a kind of cultural elitism that keeps vegans from being able to travel to other cultures and eat their foods.  He has tended to stay away from the ethical arguments for veganism.

[iii] “Paul Carroll” is the alias of young man who wished to remain anonymous.