Casting a Moral Vote Against Big Ag

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Over the last many years, I've gradually moved toward full vegetarianism to the point where there's only one meat-based foot I still semi-regularly consume -- every few weeks, I have a bagel with whitefish salad on it (and I'm working on ending this last vestige of my meat eating). I tell you this with the disclaimer that I've never before broadcasted my vegetarianism, and I am not comfortable preaching about it. In fact, I don't usually like talking about it at all, because the core reason I am a vegetarian is a reason that our macho culture portrays as the most unacceptably "weak" or "bleeding heart" of all. But it is a reason that is finding a powerful constituency at the ballot box.

In this country, vegetarians have often been looked at suspiciously no matter what motives they cite for their vegetarianism because eating meat has become fundamentally associated with patriotism itself. When politicians speak passionately, we say they are feeding "red meat" to audiences and when candidates campaign in the heartland their manliness is shown off as how big a slab of meat they can wolf down. Indeed, slaughtering live animals and eating their corpses has become so synonymous with American culture that the beef industry's entire marketing slogan is simply "It's what's for dinner."

Admittedly, in the last few years, it's become a bit more acceptable to be a vegetarian for either health-related or environmental reasons. As we've learned more about the negative health effects of a high-meat diet, our society has been a little less suspicious of those who refrain from meat eating at the suggestion of their doctor. Likewise, as we've learned about how meat consumption is a major contributor to climate change and other environmental problems, more and more people are a tad more accepting of green-motivated vegetarians.

What we are still not really accepting of, however, is vegetarianism as a moral choice - specifically, as a choice to avoid eating a living thing that not only had to be killed to be on a dinner table, but (unless you are eating organic meat) was also most likely tortured in the process. When you tell people you don't eat meat because you don't like killing animals, inevitably, you will be met with a look that can be described as falling somewhere between innocent surprise and irritated disgust.

The morality - the killing issue, really - is why I am a vegetarian. While I am happy that my vegetarian has positive personal health and progressive environmental implications, I have come to feel uncomfortable eating animals, especially those that are most commonly eaten: those that are mass produced, tortured and murdered by an inhumane factory farming industry.

That's exactly what goes on at most of the places where most of the meat is produced in this country. These are animal concentration camps, as any of the award-winning works of journalism about factory farming (my favorite being the classic, Fast Food Nation) have shown. For the most part, animals are treated as pure commodities, not living beings.

In a sense, this is quite strange in a country that is also one of the most loving of domestic pets like dogs and cats. Somehow, many of us make a distinction to care for Fido like part of our family, while regularly chowing down on, say, tortured baby calves penned up and starved for their artificially short lives.

But in another sense, it's quite predictable. Because we don't hear much about what factory farming really is - because we don't regularly hear and/or don't regularly want to hear about the terrible conditions for animals in these factory farms - we don't usually think of the hypocrisy. Out of sight, out of mind - and when in sight, it's angry rationalization time.

Yes, I'm sure the typical dumbshit "meat eating 'merican" has been taught to read these last few paragraphs about animal torture/murder and criticize me as a "pussy" or a "wimp" and tell me to "man up." It's the same rationalizing reaction you'll get when you tell people you aren't interested in hunting, because you don't find it all that "fun" to chase a frightened fleeing animal through the woods and blow its brains out.

That, of course, is just the broader culture talking - the Americana that says being a "red blooded" citizen of the good ol' U.S. of A means being proudly callous about killing things.

But as evidenced by the last few elections - and perhaps this one tomorrow - that culture may be changing.

As the New York Times Magazine and Time Magazine reported last year, the Humane Society has mounted a series of successful ballot initiatives in some of the biggest states in the country creating some basic rules about how animals at factory farms must be treated. These initiatives - not surprisingly - were vehemently opposed by powerful corporate agribusiness interests, but they won anyway, and often by big margins. These initiatives haven't legislated vegetarianism - not even close. They've merely created some standards for how we, a supposedly civilized society, should treat other living beings before they are executed for our consumption.

In response, the agribusiness industry is attempting to preemptively strike back with its own ballot initiative tomorrow.

In Ohio, voters are being asked to pass a seemingly innocuous piece of esoterica called Issue 2. At first glance, it looks rather mundane - it would simply instruct the governor to appoint a panel of "experts" that would be empowered to write the rules governing the Buckeye State's agribusiness practices.

What this really is, of course, is agribusiness attempting to stop one of the Humane Society's initiatives from being passed by the legislature or by voters themselves via the ballot. These big corporate interests are afraid that if such an initiative is put to a vote of the people, Ohioans - like voters in other states - will vote for minimum standards of treatment for animals. As Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board member Thomas Suddes put it:

Issue 2 isn't a case of Farmer Goodfellow trying to fend off vegetarian geeks. It's about a mega-business that wants an insider's lock on Columbus decision-making. So, for instance, one group opposing Issue 2 is the Ohio Farmers Union. In contrast, Issue 2's chief promoter, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, is a voice for agri-business.

Officially, Issue 2 would just create a 13-member Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board to figure out the best ways to treat Ohio farm animals without the muss and fuss of politics. And on paper, Issue 2 wouldn't deal with Fido and Kitty. But how Ohio law treats animals that voters don't see is as important as how it treats pets. Callousness in barns condones callousness at home...

So Issue 2's obvious purpose is to scare off the Humane Society of the United States, or force it to spend itself broke mounting a ballot issue on Ohio farm animal care in 2010.

Put another way, these corporate interests are attempting to short-circuit that before it happens, knowing that they will have a great chance to permanently rig the rules governing agribusiness via an insulated commission where the "experts" will inevitably be industry-connected insiders (by the way, as I've written before, this is the same reason why corporate interests are always pushing for the creation of autocratic "nonpartisan commissions" to do unpopular stuff like Social Security privatization - because they know they will have a much easier time of accomplishing their goals when the public and its representatives in the legislature are removed from the legislative process).

The good news is that most of Ohio's newspapers, environmental groups and progressive advocacy organizations have spoken out against Issue 2, and have been doing their level best to educate voters about what this measure really is about. The bad news is that agribusiness has dumped a tractor-load of cash into the campaign to pass this monstrosity.

If you live in Ohio, I strongly encourage you to vote against Issue 2. And if you know someone who lives in Ohio, shoot them an email or give them a call telling them to vote against Issue 2. As I said, this isn't an initiative about vegetarianism, though it is an initiative about why many people (like me) have chosen to be a vegetarian.

Animals aren't people - but they are living beings. If saying that makes you believe I'm some sort of pansy, then I'd say the real wimp is you because you are clearly too afraid to even think about the questionable moral decisions you are making when you bite into a typical hamburger.

Mind you, I'm not saying you have to be a vegetarian to be a moral person. But I am saying that morality is at play in your food decisions - and the least carnivores and vegetarians should be able to agree on is that animals are living beings that deserve some modicum of humane treatment.

For more on Issue 2, see the website of Ohio Against Constitutional Takeover - the coalition of environmental, family farm and progressive groups fighting Big Ag in this campaign.