I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.
— Upton Sinclair
Years ago, I picked up a copy of Upton Sinclair’s famous 1906 novel, The Jungle. I think I was looking for a book on slaughterhouses, but what I got was a book on servitude and capitalism. I’ve since learned that he set out to write a book that would end wage slavery but instead it ended up getting people upset about the meat industry and its practices. I think most people would happily run with the idea that Ruth Ozeki’s 1998 book My Year of Meats was written to turn us all vegan, but this omnivore got caught up in the bigger theme: our skill at ignoring and normalizing unacceptable realities, even when those realities are likely to hurt us.
While the experiments behind the boiling frog analogy have been proven biologically false, humans remain all too willing to adapt to situations we should be resisting. Anyone who’s ever gotten caught up in a lie, a bad relationship or an addiction knows what this looks like on a personal level. Towards the end of My Year of Meat, a character named Bunny describes it like this:
It’s hard to make things stop once they’ve gotten going. Things you’d never even believe could ever happen just start seemin’ normal as pie. Well, maybe not normal, but still you accept it… until something happens that is, that wakes you up and makes you see different.
The main character, Jane Tagaki-Little, is a fence sitter. She blames her “tendency to vacillate” on her mixed ethnicity. I relate. When you are born of two worlds, it’s harder to accept one of them as entirely normal. You live closer to the edges and bounce back and forth between ways of being, ideas about the world. Why not make a living out of asking questions?
“Meat is the message,” Jane is told after she takes a job directing a Japanese reality tv show featuring attractive American housewives cooking their favourite meat dishes for their husbands and kids. She offers a more realistic view America than her superior would like — a perfect nuclear family coming apart at the seams, a family with multiple adopted children of Asian descent, even vegetarian lesbians. What she learns along the way sets her up to break-up with meat, get fired, and use her story-telling powers to take-on the industry that pays her rent.
“Ignorance.” In this root sense, ignorance is an act of will, a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms and knowledge has become synonymous with impotence.
I would like to think of my “ignorance” less as a personal failing and more as a massive cultural trend, an example of doubling, of psychic numbing that characterizes the end of the millennium. If we can’t act on knowledge, then we can’t survive without ignorance…. Ignorance becomes empowering because it enables people to live. Stupidity becomes pro-active, a political statement. Our collective norm.
It wasn’t sympathy for housewives or livestock or even moved this character beyond ignorance and into action — shit got real for Jane Tagaki-Little, and personal, when she learned that her inability to conceive a child was likely related to a medication given to her mother during pregnancy.
The medication, DES (Diethylstilbestrol), was given to more than two million women between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage and other pregnancy complications — despite that fact that studies conducted in the 1950s showed that it was not effective. Later on, this same chemical was used to stop lactation, as an emergency contraceptive, and as a treatment for menopause. It has also been used to treat cancer (both breast and prostate). Did I mention that synthetic estrogens like DES are known carcinogens?
In the 1950s, the FDA approved DES for use as a growth stimulant in livestock, and of course, there is more to this story. There’s so much to this story, I could easily get lost in it, but DES is not actually the story. It’s just the thing that moved the story forward. That thing could have just as easily been water.
You’d think that by now we’d have come up with an upstream solution that worked better than a slew of class action lawsuits, but we haven’t. We accept the economic imperative of corporations making money for shareholders, and hope nothing awful happens to us.
As I finished reading this book, headlines and photos about young Russian men fleeing their country started popping up online. These men don’t want to fight an unjust, un-necessary war, and it’s fair to assume that they felt much the same way eight months ago when their government started that war. It’s fairly safe to assume that for eight months now, they’ve been keeping these feelings more or less to themselves. They put their heads down and forged on with their lives, hoping for the best. Apparently, that was not enough.
Most of us are not so different. Outrage does not necessarily move us to action. Did you know the fossil fuel industry has been making close to $3 billion a day for the past fifty years, and they are continuing to enjoy these profits despite the undeniable awareness of the consequences? This is standard stuff, like meat wrapped in plastic under fluorescent lights. We are full of anxiety, waiting for someone to come along and save us.
We are not stupid, or even ignorant. At best, we are overwhelmed with information. We know upheaval, take it in stride and are not surprised when it hits us at increasingly short intervals. We talk about “the good old days” as if things were “normal” 20 years ago. We talk about “the new normal,” but if there was ever a baseline of normality, we’ve lost sight of it.
Where do we go from here?
Few of us willingly choose to follow Upton Sinclair’s path: it seems he was one of those rare types who enjoyed the sport of running headlong into power structures in an effort to break them. Jane Tagaki-Little is more typical. In her story of taking-on the meat industry, she’s rewarded with a career boost and a solidified romantic partner. These rewards might be a little far-fetched, but if we wait around to be wounded by the horrible realities of the world, we allow ourselves to become victims. Even worse, we become collaborators.