Sunday, February 21, 2010

Soundbytes and Bird Feed: "News" in the 21st Century

Define irony: Samantha spends 3 hours a day logging onto Perez Hilton for the latest celebrity smut, criticizing so-called "entertainer" and their demands for privacy, then gets noticeably disturbed and disgusted when her preferences in footwear are openly criticized, mocked, and related to her upbringing by her friends on Facebook.

On the afternoon of February 18th, 2010, Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot was driving to a dentist appointment when the radio station informed him that he had died. Twenty-two minutes later, CanWest Media pulled the story, indicating that he was in fact alive and well and their information sources were unreliable; and uncertainties exist as to whether the "source" had in fact been a Twitter post... in those 22 minutes, however, a cascade of Facebook and Twitter updates across the country lamenting the loss of a national folk icon percolated the virtual universe. People were sad and entire country turned their heads, only then to stumble over their previous sentimentality with anger towards CanWest Media -- as though they themselves had somehow been victim to a media panic, like Stanley Cohen's "moral panic" on steroids, which just as quickly was rectified in the social networking community as it had originally emerged.

It's fascinating how we acquire knowledge in the fast pace of 21st century Western life. Rather than reading books or multiple-perspectives from archives of news articles, the 140-character soundbyte has become the end-all of information and communications. One could have presented this evolution as a "media porn fantasy" in the 1980s; that ultimately it really never is the story, the facts, the point of view or even the truth (whatever that may be) that needs to be considered but the shock and awe of a concisely worded soundbyte. Surely few cultural critics would have predicted that "knowledge-as-slogan" would actually come to be reality at all, let alone to manifest in the form of non-threatening baby blue cartoon birds on computer screens.

Information sharing in mass media has moved beyond the facade of reputable journalism to the point of grassroots information sharing becoming contagious gossip -- which may be all that so-called "news" ever was in the first place. Major publications have now turned to using daily Twitter feeds as "fact finding" for entire news columns. Whereas once journalists had to hit the pavement to find real-life sources and inside scoops, they know live in an insular bubble where they never have to leave their computer chair let alone speak to another human being to produce a story. Whilst admirably news "from the people" holds a long-standing value amongst critical oral and traditional historians, and the value of non-corporate media outlets is firmly entrenched amongst those seeking multiple perspectives (though coverage of the anti-Olympic efforts in Vancouver may suggest otherwise), the question emerges: have we reached a place where we are no longer relying on trustworthy sources to screen information? Michelangelo once said, "I didn't create David, I only took away what was not David." The role of the publisher was historically one of filtering out the noise to present what consumers felt was the best possible product. Of course, many vested interests affect what come to be excluded from popular consciousness, which is a dangerous and disgusting process, but I can't help but feel that our tendency for gossip has truly morphed any reputable quality of journalism into nothing but the high school cafeteria.

So what is true anymore? Maybe Tweeted news is not a media porn fantasy so much as a post-modern orgasm. It's most certainly shattered our traditional notion of celebrity, which I for one think is a wonderful sigh of relief -- it illustrates how absurd the concept is; one needn't do anything extraordinary to have their benign activities be deemed newsworthy. All they need is an email address and a Facebook account and everyone they know can snicker at them. Our vicarious sensibilities have been displaced onto everyone and everything rather than just those individuals that corporate media deem publicly fair game for ridicule. Although I still wonder when we're just going to give it all up and start living our own lives.

Though the Gordon Lightfoot incident does ruin my plan to Tweet "Robb Johannes is dead" as a publicity stunt. What would The Boy Who Cried Wolf say to all of this?

"Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story." - Bob Whitaker

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Since When is Not Eating Meat an Act of Defiance?

Rebellion is only tolerated to the degree which it will not challenge established thought patterns and ways of life. Thus, not making it "rebellion" at all.


I'm vegan. A vegan is someone who does not eat meat and/or animal products. Prior to recently becoming vegan, I was vegetarian for 10 years. A vegetarian is someone who does not eat meat. And yes, "meat" includes fish. I have no idea where that delusion comes from. A pescetarian is someone who still eats fish. I used to prefer to use the term "hypocrite," but these days I don't think that's entirely fair.

Living in Vancouver for a long time, I found a very veggie-friendly community, covering the broad spectrum of vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, and tourist. A "tourist" is someone who most of us know, or who at least in the context of speaking to a vegetarian, will say, "Yeah, I was vegetarian for 2 years, I couldn't keep it up" (as though every person alive will ultimately fail as they did). Tourists usually are doing it to follow the latest health fad they read about in Shape magazine, or feel that cutting meat out of their diet will help them to lose weight. Well, it will, but if you don't research your decision and learn more about your own biology as a human being, you will develop the stereotypical "vegan" look: rail thin, gaunt, and pasty, or "heroin chic" as it's been sometimes called.

I became vegetarian 10 years ago at a time when it wasn't as "popular" amongst celebrities and, henceforth, non-famous people. It was a struggle because at the time there wasn't quite the same range of vegetarian options in the supermarket (in those pre-Yves days), but because I was doing it for political, cultural, and social (though ultimately personal/ethical) reasons, I held my ground and through learning about daily vitamin and mineral requirements, protein, digit-by-digit alternatives, and just the general and basic requirements to maintaining a healthy body, I was able to successfully transition and have never looked back.

I am surprised and amused that still, after all these years, upon revealing that I am vegan, I am faced with genuinely concerned looks or morcels of fear and/or confusion (as though fear is somehow not entirely of that which we do not yet understand). Of course, the responses are always incidental to being in a dining situation. I'm not one to wear a "Meat is Murder" t-shirt; I keep my dietary choices to myself and don't claim that meat-eaters are morally bankrupt, nor do I need to be lumped in with so-called "activists" who blow up meat factories -- vegetarians like that give the rest of us (vegetarians and activists) a bad name. Vegetarianism is a proclamation of passivity and non-violence. Why would I firebomb your restaurant if I found out the sweet potato fries are cooked in animal fat? Though I must admit, instilling a healthy fear amongst restaurant waitstaff when I drop the "V"-bomb is rather amusing but at least it ensures vegan-friendly dishes and cooking methods. But naturally then comes the classic line: "So... what do you eat then? How do you survive?" Well, for one, I'm honouring a cultural history in India of vegetarianism, where my family has existed for centuries and centuries. Go to certain parts of India, order beef, and get mad or call them "hippies" when they tell you beef's not on the menu. Do it now, I dare you! The assumption that meat is "essential" to a human diet not only discounts an entire nation's history and is, frankly, severely ill-informed and borderline racist, it also dismisses the millions of years that humans lived prior to agriculture and mass production, during which time meat was not a primary source of protein or nutrients in a human diet. Furthermore, if a life had to be taken for consumption, very strict procedures were followed around ritualistic sacrifice, use of the animal, and acknowledging its place in the cycle of life, never seeing it as a means to an end or a pawn in a game of human domination of the planet. Genesis 1:28 isn't necessarily a directive to destroy and exploit all non-human life in the interests of human expansion -- in spite of what some archaic Biblical "scholars" may try to impose.

The thing that throws people for a loop is that they expect me to look like a starving Ethiopian baby because I am vegan and, surprise surprise, I don't. I have muscles, broad shoulders, and a strong cardiovascular system, and do not fit into the preconceived formulas of what people think a vegan looks like, and the over-dependence we have on animals and animal products in our day-to-day diet. I eat very well, have developed an even greater appreciation of diverse ethnic foods in light of not being able to rely on simple meat and potatoes. More so, pretty much everyone I know absolutely loves coming over for a home-cooked vegetarian meal, meat-eaters or not, usually saying, "Wow, if I ate like you guys (meaning my wife and I), I could totally be vegetarian." Thus we face the reluctance to become vegetarian on the ground of, "I like the taste of meat too much." My response, always: "Give me an hour and your favourite recipe and I'll make a vegetarian version that will satisfy you equally, if not more, especially in the long-term. It's not the actual meat itself that you like the taste of, it's the spices, the seasonings, and the treatments -- you can make anything taste the way you want it to if you cook it properly. And your B-12s, proteins, and irons can be easily supplemented without having to pop a million pills."

Whilst I normally try to explain the massive range of wonderful food options I have available to me as a vegan, I am often received with glazed eyes and judgment (and frankly, I get kind of bored of answering the same three questions over and over again -- and do you really care why I stopped eating meat when you live under a worldview that treats anyone who does not as a malcontent and only tolerates "rebellion" until it actually forces you to introspect and examine your own patterns of thought and way(s) of life?)... so, I'm pondering just stopping the sugar-coating, cutting to the chase, and saying: "A vegan is someone who does not eat meat or animal products. Humans, on the other hand, don't fit into that category because modern science, philosophy, and religion have taught us that we are in a class above animals. So, as a vegan, I get my protein from a freezer full of unsuspecting murdered Catholic school boys. But I'll call it 'soy' if that's more PC."

Though I suspect that would probably alienate people (and vegetarians/vegans are already marginalized enough socially). Keeping the open invitation to dialogue open is, as it always has been, the way to go. Such as asking the question to meat eaters: "What is it about my vegetarianism that offends you so much? Why does it mean so much to you to eat meat that you feel the need to ostracize me, or try and pick apart every so-called 'inconsistency' in my point of view or way of life?" Do I come up to you and say, "If you're not gonna eat human flesh, you may as well not bother eating meat at all"? No, I don't, because I'd be a jackass if I did and you'd never hold a conversation with me at a party. Yet, it's perfectly fine coming from the other side, and you wonder why I may walk away after a few minutes (and then it's me who's the asshole?). Frankly, eating meat is just as much of an ethical standpoint as not eating meat; it's just not seen as such because meat-eating is the "conventional" practice in this culture. Lest we begin a discussion of rebellion, counter-culture, necessity and deviance, and other concepts too grand to comprehend in a 140 character Tweet.

So come chat with me next time you see me. I promise I won't bite (like a good vegan). I may nibble though.

"Don't criticize what you can't understand." - Bob Dylan

"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." - Winston Churchill

** Please note that the point of view expressed here is that of one vegan in a band of 3/4 meat eaters.