Chicago’s foie gras ban repealed

May 15, 2008

Foie gras prohibition has been repealed in Chicago, and it comes as no surprise. Mayor Richard Daley was hell-bent on defeating the ban from the get-go.

However, I originally saw the near-unanimous support for this ban among Chicago’s aldermen as an encouraging sign. I supported the campaign at the time, thinking it was an incremental step toward abolition (though I confess to having no idea what abolition really meant back then). Here we had not a regulation of animal treatment, but an outright prohibition on selling a certain kind of product derived from animals. Good news, or so it seemed. Right away, Chicago restaurateurs made a mockery out of the ban by giving foie gras away for free with the purchase of another product, or turning into “duckeasies”.

But loopholes weren’t the only problem. The fundamental flaw with this ban, as I have come to understand it, is that it was based on the cruelty of foie gras production in particular (primarily the forced feeding), as opposed to the immorality of unnecessarily using any animals as an instrumental means to our ends. In other words, this was a ban on a certain type of product, not any sort of incremental legal admission that animals deserve the right not to be used as property.

It’s actually kind of amusing to review one of my posts from September 2006, as it reads almost identically to some of the letters and comments I’ve received about my “Abolitionists: Fringe or Core?” post, suggesting as it does that this anti-foie gras campaign, even if unsuccessful, would promote “a national awareness of the cruelty inherent in the modern diet, and an alteration in people’s food choices.” Well, unless the alteration we are talking about is the rise of “happy meat”, I was being awfully unrealistic.

I experienced a major shift in thinking here at AAFL a few months after this ban was passed–not all that dissimilar from when my paradigm shifted toward veganism–and I have come to reject as counterproductive measures that reduce animal advocacy to addressing certain “most egregious” cruelties and that do not strike at the root of our collective presumption that it is acceptable to use animals in the first place. Chicago’s foie gras ban is a perfect case in point. Single issue campaigns like these (and those against other “low-hanging fruit” like fur, for example) fail to change the popular view of animals because they perpetuate speciesism by implying that certain forms of exploitation are worse than others (they even suggest that foie gras would be more acceptable if forced feeding was not being used), and they typically fail to address the interest animals have in not being used instrumentally as a means to our ends.

In reality, a wide array of animal uses cause unnecessary harm, and of course all animal advocates know this. So why aren’t we all focused on abolitionist vegan advocacy? Apart from the political value of focusing supporters on a single campaign goal, it has also been said that such an approach is unrealistic. But we have here evidence that reductionist animal advocacy is unrealistic, seeing as how it expects to deliver animals from suffering without addressing its root causes.

Now, I don’t write this to perpetuate “infighting”, as some would suggest. I seek to critically examine what we do on behalf of animals, and to explore ways we can act that are most consistent with our beliefs and that are most effective for animals in the long-run. If we do not allow for critical thinking, then we have already lost. I mean, who do we think we’re fooling? Even the mainstream media understands the inconsistency of focusing on one form of animal exploitation over another. As Jeffrey Steingarten writes for Men’s Vogue:

When we buy the flesh of a mammal, bird, or fish in a restaurant or food shop, we are an agent in the slaughter of another living thing. We are taking life. This is a serious act, not a casual one. But our purpose is not survival or even sustenance; most of us can live comfortably without eating meat. No, our goal is pleasure, pure sensory pleasure. We chew on the succulent muscle of a steer, crunch through the crackling skin of a pig or turkey, suck out the marrow from the shin of a calf. If we are willing to kill for our pleasure, shouldn’t we also be willing to force-feed ducks for our pleasure?

Ultimately, if we want to see enough popular support for an effective, permanent ban on animal-derived consumer products, we have to shift popular opinion in favor animal rights, and that means spreading a consistent message about vegan ethics far and wide, not the message that only certain forms of animal use are bad. Only after that shift occurs will we have the broad-based support we need to promote legislation that recognizes the interests of nonhuman animals and abolishes their exploitation on the basis that unnecessarily using them for our pleasure or profit harms those interests.

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May 14, 2008

Click-through to An Animal-Friendly Life.


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