Two unconnected month-of-December items, so that my conscience can be clear going into the new year:
•Julie and I finally took our honeymoon, to Ensenada in Baja California, about three weeks ago. It wasn’t sub-tropical by any means—our shorts and bathing suits went unused, which we half-expected—but it was quite relaxing, with plenty of napping and strolling, with a pleasant day trip to Mexican wine country thrown in. It also featured a minor milestone: I fell off the meat wagon. For the first time since (roughly) May 1993, I knowingly ordered and ate meat.
I’ve never been one of those vegetarians who is appalled by the thought of eating meat unknowingly. When, at one Midnight Breakfast at Sarah Lawrence, I realized that the fake sausage I had been enjoying was actually real sausage, I didn’t freak out, nor was I bothered when I realized that “imitation crab” is made out of other fish, not out of gluten or something. I also have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards broths, stocks, and sauces. But even with this permissiveness, my trip to Japan a couple of years ago felt extremely unsatisfying: while my family enjoyed every kind of fish dish, I was eating the same miso soup, salads, and edamame everywhere, and anything else I tried was most likely cooked in fish products anyway. Furthermore, my moral commitment to vegetarianism is wholly personal; I’m perfectly fine with others eating meat, so it felt strange holding myself to an absolute standard.
So, when I learned that our vacation destination was the Home of the Fish Taco, I realized that I was open to trying some. It was important that it be fish—I do believe that they feel less suffering and consciousness—and also that there be few interesting vegetarian options where we were traveling; even in Greece, I was able to enjoy local varieties of Greek salad, as well as various pita-based foods, whereas around Ensenada few restaurants had anything vegetarian other than quesadillas.
Over the course of the trip, I ate five fish tacos at two different restaurants, as well as a plate of seafood pasta. (I also ate steak tacos after all, but that was a misunderstanding: I ordered “tacos quesas,” and it ended up having steak, and the food took so long to arrive that I didn’t want to send it back.) How was it? It was fine. It felt somewhat odd knowing I was intentionally breaking an abstention, and I worried that I would have digestive problems (I didn’t), but it was basically anticlimactic; I was just eating food.
In the end, though, I think this experiment ended up strengthening my vegetarianism. The fish tacos tasted good; they didn’t make me feel like I had been missing out on something amazing for fifteen years. At one point during our trip, I had a vegetarian tostada, and that was as satisfying a meal as anything else I ate in Mexico. Taste is possibly the most transitory aesthetic experience: even if you eat a meal that you remember for the rest of your life—and I’ve had one or two—it can’t make you want to live a different way. My feelings on eating meat are unchanged: for me, it is a moral issue, but not a moral absolute.
Incidentally, in talking about this experience, I received a reminder that the personally significant is not always identical with the objectively significant. Talking to my sister about our trip, and trying to build suspense, I told her that there had been a “significant occurrence” on our honeymoon. She thought I was going to tell her that we had gotten pregnant.
•There’s a debate raging in the feminist and left-wing blogospheres these days, over a new book project, Yes Means Yes, a collection of essays about fighting rape culture through emphasis on women’s sexuality. The book was announced at Feministing and is co-edited by Jessica Valenti, controversial author of Full Frontal Feminism, which was (to my mind justly) accused of excluding middle-class, non-white, and international feminist issues, despite its claims of universality. (My two favorite responses were petitpoussin’s and Kugelmass’s.) Yes Means Yes is facing much the same criticism: it has been accused of being ahistorical, reductionist, and indifferent to working-class and third-world rape cultures, among other things. However, the book right now is just a call for submissions, and so there is no content to critique; furthermore, many people seem to be taking it as a given that the book is attempting to be the last word on rape, and that it could not be relevant to underprivileged women’s issues. Neither point seems fair to me.
That said, I don’t have much of a dog in that fight … except where it spills over into unfounded incriminations of progressives generally. At an excellent post by tekanji at Shrub Blog—a post that correctly critiques aspects of book’s promotional material while recognizing the potential value of the project overall—I read a comment that seemed to cross the line between making supportable claims about the book, or about Western feminism in general, and unsupportable generalization and hyperbole (“the incessant need of some middle-class white folks to act as though their insular world is the center of the universe, and that all others simply don’t count”). Breaking my usual policy, which is not to discuss politics online except at friends’ blogs, I responded, and a discussion followed, including what is probably the longest comment I’ve posted anywhere. The thread seems to have run its course, but you never know.
You can read the actual arguments at tekanji’s blog. I do want to say a word, though, about where my interest in this issue comes from: it comes from attending both high school and college with students who were 1) universally left-wing and 2) divided, to different degrees, into pretty stark contrasts of privileged and unprivileged, both financially and demographically. Consequently, identity politics has been central to my political understanding and discussion, for better and for worse. Some would expect this to be the point where the white, straight, middle-class man complains about how unfairly he was treated; actually, I found most of political discussions in my youth to be thoughtful and productive, and especially important for someone coming from natural positions of privilege. The exceptions have been cases where assumptions of exclusion and privilege preclude and eclipse fair consideration of content, and I think that’s what’s happening with Yes Means Yes. At Shrub Blog, one commenter accused progressive and feminist bloggers of paying “lip service” to working-class issues, which for me raised the question of what other kind of service can be paid on a blog; aside from organizing and fund-raising efforts, the internet is all talk. In fact, people seem to be criticizing Yes Means Yes precisely for its failure to make explicit mention of unprivileged women’s issues. Honestly, this is a fair point—if the book wants to be for everyone, it should make this clear— but the fact remains that the suggested topics are just that, suggested, and before the essays are compiled it is impossible to conclude whether or not the book is “exclusionary.” The frustrations with the state of feminism and the feminist and progressive blogospheres seem valid to me; the assumptions about this unpublished book do not, and run the risk of alienating potential supporters and allies.
Be safe tonight and this year, everyone.