The R Spot

Posted in Letters on Sunday, April 29th, 2012 by Mark Pastore

Sex and eating are perhaps the two most intimate things we can do with our bodies.  Is it any wonder that matters of personal morality related to either food or sex have been so effectively exploited by both ends of the political spectrum as highly flammable moral kindling, tinder used to ignite support for other agendas? While it’s usually an either-or choice, it bears noting that at least one group that describes itself as “complete press sluts” has recently made the next logical leap, exploiting both sex and food for politics at the same time.

It makes perfect sense: the more personal the subject matter, the stronger the passion. Tapping into people at their moral core, after all, is the key to converting them into highly motivated, externally focused political actors.  Those political movements best able to incite individuals’ strongest sense of indignation and moral righteousness – touching the “R Spot” if you will – have long proven the most effective at achieving political victories.

Unfortunately, the act of inciting fervent righteousness can come at a heavy cost, particularly when its aim is to impose one group’s morals upon another in such intensely personal matters as food and sex.  This fact explains abortion clinic bombings, the murder of Dr. George Tiller at his Wichita church, the horrific history of gay bashing.

This explanation also accounts for the streak of hatred and violence that exists within the animal rights movement, examples of which include run-of-the-mill stuff like trespassing, vandalism and theft at farms and research laboratories, to more craven acts such as donning masks and banging on the doors and windows of homes with sleeping children, to soliciting assassins on Facebook. While the January 2012 arson at Harris Ranch that caused $2 million in damage and the recent “flour bombing” of Kim Kardashian may be at opposite ends of the seriousness scale, both are examples of passionate righteousness unleashed. Within this realm of people who believe their own morals supersede rule of law, the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable action are extremely fluid.  For example, spokespersons for the most radical of the animal rights groups have publicly stated, including in Congressional testimony, that violence and murder can be morally justifiable if it saves animals.

The debate over the California ban on foie gras, due to take effect on July 1, 2012, has in many respects been ideal moral kindling for the broader battle some wish to wage over what you eat; it succeeded in getting a core group of activists riled up to fight for animal rights by vilifying an animal product that 98% of Americans would never eat anyway, therefore making it politically expendable. The values system underlying the cause harnesses a brand of philosophical utilitarianism that ascribes rights (but no accompanying responsibilities) to any non-human being based solely on its degree of sentience, without regard to species.  While the notion that the U.S. Constitution provides a legal framework for abolishing this so-called “speciesism” is not shared by everyone, the philosophy behind it is important to understanding the intellectual anchor for many of the leading voices within the animal rights movement.

If anyone needs clear evidence that California’s ban on foie gras is not merely about banning foie gras, consider what is happening as the ban’s effective date of July 1, 2012 approaches.  In recent weeks there has been a rebirth of aggressive anti-foie gras activism throughout the state.  Protesters are once again picketing restaurants and threatening other businesses with action if their demands are not met before the law goes into effect.  

In San Francisco on any given night, it’s likely that no more than a few dozen people will eat foie gras. Intimidating a couple more restaurants into ceasing serving foie gras two months earlier than required by law won’t likely have as much direct effect on reducing animal suffering as would, for example, peacefully convincing one person to become vegetarian.  But the very act of forcing someone to submit to a vigilante authority – rather than our elected government – that dictates what foods we can and cannot serve undoubtedly adds more fuel to the activists’ inner fires. And it certainly generates publicity for the self-described “press sluts.”  Which begs the question, is putting more moral kindling out into the world a goal unto itself?

Incanto’s involvement with this controversial ingredient started back in 2003, when vandals struck the home, automobile and shop of Chef Laurent Manrique and his business partners Didier Jaubert and Guillermo Gonzalez of Sonoma Foie Gras.  The New York Times reported that the vandals spray painted “Stop or be stopped,” poured acid on Chef Manrique’s car, glued locks shut, and flooded the Sonoma Saveurs shop (cement was poured down drains, then water turned on).  The vandals also left behind a videotape, containing footage filmed through a window outside Chef Manrique’s house, of Chef Manrique and his wife playing with their two-year-old child inside the house.

The FBI has called these incidents “acts of domestic terrorism,” because they were intended to achieve a political end through the use of violence and intimidation. As you might imagine, the acts did indeed effectively achieve the objective of inspiring fear in their targets.  But the repercussions did not end there.

The following year, retiring San Francisco state senator John Burton implicitly rewarded these tactics  by shepherding  – in just eight weeks, with limited public review – Senate Bill 1520 through the California Legislature, banning the production and sale of foie gras within the State of California. Then, as now, there was only one foie gras farm in the entire state, a small business with approximately a dozen employees, run by the Gonzalez family, who had emigrated to California from El Salvador some 20 years earlier.

As the ban approaches, it’s worth noting what California’s legislative process did not do:  It did not commission or undertake an unbiased, independent scientific study on the subject. It did not propose a set of veterinary-based standards for the care and feeding of domesticated waterfowl.  Nor did it develop a process for reviewing the evolving animal husbandry practices that some U.S. producers of foie gras have continued to implement over the past seven years, under the supervision of leading independent animal welfare experts. It did not solicit testimony or input from producers of down duvets, pillows, and jackets, such as The North Face, who have recently been surprised to learn that the law’s broad language may prohibit them from selling their goose-down filled jackets and sleeping bags in California.  It took the drastic step of banning a 5,000-year-old foodstuff and all related products in entirety, after making a show of a few weeks’ hearings.

By choosing the simplistic “moral kindling” approach to this issue – a flat ban  – Senator Burton followed the same well-traveled path taken throughout history by those who elevate an issue of personal moral choice into the domain of the state.  Both past and present are awash with examples of attempted prohibition of human activities such as drinking, gambling, recreational drug use, sex acts, contraception, abortion, and publishing.

Typically, such laws are enacted on the crest of a wave of moral outrage expressed by a politically well organized minority.  Almost as typically, such prohibitions fail in the long run. Merely banning an inherently personal activity doesn’t stop it from happening, it only criminalizes it. History shows that many otherwise law-abiding people choose to ignore moral prohibitions.  In several examples, the prohibition laws themselves eventually end up overturned because they never genuinely reflected mainstream societal beliefs.

The more troubling aspect of prohibition, however, is that it often has unintended consequences worse than the original “problem.”  Prohibition drives the activity underground, where it is unregulated and, as with other taboos, more likely to happen in excess. From a purely pragmatic perspective, moral prohibitions are almost always bad public policy.

For example, prohibition of alcohol here in the United States via the 18th Amendment did succeed in lowering the overall rate of alcohol consumption.  But it also led to a host of unexpected problems including a higher prevalence of binge drinking and increased incidence of alcohol-related death and injury due to “bathtub gin” and other unsafe or adulterated alcohol products.  Political corruption increased during Prohibition; there was a corresponding a general increase in public distrust and open disdain of both law enforcement and government generally. The scope and severity of these unexpected outcomes led many of the original supporters of Prohibition to support its eventual repeal 14 years later.

The current ban on recreational drugs has numerous vocal critics, tellingly, even within law enforcement. The “war on drugs” has ensured that recreational drug use is unregulated, untaxed and more dangerous than it might be if it were supervised.  Thousands are killed each year in this country and others via overdose and drug-related violence.  Approximately a half a million Americans are incarcerated for drug-related offenses, contributing to the fact that U.S. prisons hold nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, though we account for only 5 percent of the world’s population

Anti-foie gras activists tout Israel and some European countries (almost all of which are places where foie gras has never been produced in the first place) as locales that have banned the production of foie gras. While these places have banned production, we are unaware of any that have placed a ban on its sale and/or consumption, as California’s law attempts to do. There is only one precedent we’re aware of for the prohibition of the sale of foie gras: Chicago.  In April 2006, the Chicago City Council voted to ban foie gras within city limits. After two years, during which the lawmakers were widely ridiculed and the law was flouted by consumers and restaurants, the same body overturned the ban in 2008 by a vote of 37-6.  The reasons for this stark turnaround are telling as we head in a similar direction here in California.  For a remarkably well written and researched account the global battle over foie gras, including the Chicago story, please consider reading Mark Caro’s “The Foie Gras Wars”.

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We first publicly spelled out our position on this issue in 2009 via a Letter from Incanto called “Shock and Foie.” In the five years prior to that and the three years since, we’ve invested considerable effort reviewing the body of literature on the subject, meeting with foie gras producers both on and off their farms, and listening to people on both sides of this issue.  With the benefit of three additional years of hindsight, we have a few more things to say as California’s ban date approaches.

Democratic rule is based upon the notion of expanding individual choice and freedom.  Authoritarian rule aims to prescribe behavior and limit personal moral choice. Extremists of all stripes seem always to tend towards the latter. Dictating behavior is fundamentally an extremist’s approach: it’s a more ideologically pure - and it touches the R Spot. Trusting people to keep personal moral choices personal may be less politically inspiring, but it is grounded in a philosophy that respects the rights of the individual to do what’s right for them.

One doesn’t have to support what’s written in every book to support the principle of free speech.  One doesn’t need to be religious to support the right to worship.  One doesn’t have to believe abortion is a good thing to respect a woman’s right to make that decision herself.  And one doesn’t need to approve of foie gras in order to believe that people should be permitted to make the choice about whether to eat it. We believe people are capable of making their own moral choices about what they should and should not eat.

“I’d like to sit all 100 of them down and have duck and goose fat – better yet, dry oatmeal- shoved down their throats over and over and over again.”

Like many others who have stood our ground and stated our beliefs about this issue in a civil manner, we have been on on the receiving end of more than our share of unwarranted ad hominem attacks, name calling, threats of physical violence, and targeted vandalism at our businesses. Just this week, a San Francisco Chronicle article reported that 100 of California’s most well-known chefs have signed on to support a new set of science-based animal husbandry standards for foie gras production. In response, former state senator (and current chair of the California Democratic Party) John Burton, is quoted saying, “I’d like to sit all 100 of them down and have duck and goose fat – better yet, dry oatmeal- shoved down their throats over and over and over again.”  When the “adult” leaders within our political system descend to using personal, physical threats in their rhetoric, they send a clear message to their followers that such behavior is acceptable.  Unfortunately, as we have seen on numerous occasions in this country, hateful language can incite violent behavior from followers at the fringe, who often don’t understand any barrier between hateful speech and violent action. Such speech has no place in a civil society.  It is precisely for this reason that California has section 422 of its penal code, which makes it illegal to threaten bodily harm against another, even if there is no intention of carrying it out, in order to place that person in fear.

John Burton ought to know better than most of us what California’s laws are; he was president of the California Senate. He ought to be a positive example for civil discourse, not a negative one.  At the very least, he ought to offer an unqualified public apology both to the chefs at whom he directed his threat and to the public at large.

We view each such non-sensical attack as evidence of the attackers’ inability to generate widespread support solely on a positive agenda – it’s easier, more self-gratifying, and more newsworthy to attack your opponent personally. The raw hatred we’ve experienced exposes the dichotomy of people who profess to want a kinder world yet throw that principle out the window if they believe inspiring fear will cause someone to comply to their demands, or if an outrageous act or comment will generate press coverage for their cause.   It’s ironic that the core argument against foie gras is that “the ends don’t justify the means,” when in fact many of the tactics used by those who oppose foie gras would be considered – by most reasonable people – to be textbook examples of precisely that notion.

In spite of our personal experiences, we continue to recognize that many of those advocating for greater animal rights are good-hearted, respectful, law-abiding people.  Though we may disagree with them on the issue of choice, we strongly support their right to voice their opinion. Doing so is the very essence of democracy and civil society.  We applaud the commitment of anyone who is working respectfully towards what they believe.

Given the history of foie gras and animal rights protests in general, however, the following must also be said aloud:  It is virtually impossible for anyone subject to this kind of vitriol to distinguish between peaceful protesters and ones who might sneak out in the middle of the night, firebomb your car, and send a threatening videotape of your children.

Unsurprisingly, we continue to receive violent and hate-filled communications on this subject. In such an atmosphere, even peaceful protests benefit from the fact that illegal acts committed by the militant among them have planted seeds of fear and hatred in our communities.  Like it or not, that is one very real legacy of the debate over this issue in California and in other places. People in positions of authority, such as John Burton, deserve their fair share of the credit for legitimizing this type of bad behavior instead of being an actual leader and condemning hateful speech.

The continued inability of the animal rights movement to put an end to this behavior from within their ranks stains whatever political victories they achieve, whether in run-of-the-mill street protests or subsequent legislative successes.  Although much of the basis of their argument is that the rest of us should follow their example to be kinder and more moral, the actions of the anti-foie gras movement are more closely modeled on people like Randall Terry than Ghandi.  That’s not a legacy to envy.

So, when restaurants such as BayWolf and Campton Place agree to cease serving foie gras in anticipation of the ban, is that because they genuinely agree that foie gras is immoral? Or was it a business decision, made by a rational person who is responsible for the safety of both employees and customers, that being a target isn’t worth the risk?  Is a political victory achieved under the cloud of implicitly threatened violence really a victory, or is it just brute force censorship?

One facet of this issue upon which I suspect we share common ground with the anti-foie gras supporters: we recognize this moment as a doorway, not a destination. It’s what comes next that makes this discussion relevant. Here’s what we think should be next:

Like the Chicago City Council, the California Legislature should recognize the numerous flaws in trying to impose one group’s morals on another’s diet by legislative fiat.  The Legislature should stay or repeal Senate Bill 1520 before it goes into effect on July 1. In its place, California should adopt a set of veterinary-based standards for the humane care of domesticated waterfowl raised for food that includes the production of foie gras and related products. Based on the size of California’s economy, such a move would have a chance of becoming the basis for a national (if not international) standard. 

There are many good reasons to support this approach. Perhaps the most compelling is that establishing clear standards for foie gras production would positively affect the welfare of animals raised not only in California, but in other U.S. states, in Canada, and perhaps in Europe and beyond, all of which would have to comply with the standards in order to access California’s market.  By comparison, a flat moral ban – to the extent it’s obeyed – might slightly reduce the total number of animals processed for foie gras, but do not much beyond that.   Once the ban is in place, California will forfeit its opportunity to further influence the practices of producers in other states and countries.

By contrast,  a standards-based approach could influence the production of foie gras that takes place and is destined for consumption far outside California’s borders, expanding the animal welfare effects of a simplistic ban by tenfold or more.

But incrementally improving animal welfare across the U.S. and Canada isn’t likely to satisfy the extremists, who see the outright ban as a template for how they might treat other things they disagree with.  After all, the desire to impose a unilateral ban on someone’s behavior is precisely the reason why someone calculated it was acceptable to threaten Chef Manrique’s family in 2003. Elevating the standards for foie gras production, while it may not touch the R Spot as effectively as threatening to jam oatmeal down my throat, is a more impactful approach.  It demonstrates leadership on the issue that will extend far outside of California’s borders.

The Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards (CHEFS) has been working with concerned citizens, chefs, farmers, and leaders within the veterinary community to define just such a set of standards for the ethical production of foie gras. At the date of publication of this letter, more than 100 of California’s most prominent chefs have signed on to support these  veterinary science-based standards.  We urge you visit the CHEFS website to learn how you can get involved, including supporting this cause with a donation, a signature on a petition, and a letter to your California legislator.

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On April 16, 2012, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed H.B. 1390 into law.  Like California’s S.B. 1520,  the Mississippi law targets only one small business within the state, imposing new restrictions that are intended to effectively force Mississippi’s only abortion clinic to shut down. “If it closes the clinic, then so be it,” Governor Bryant said upon signing the bill.   “Today you see the first step in a movement, I believe, to do what we campaigned on — to say we’re going to try to end abortion in Mississippi.”  He might as well have instead said, “…to do what we campaigned on — to touch our political base’s R Spot by any means possible.”

One has to wonder about the motivation any government that chooses to ignore the multitude of broad-based problems its citizens face (one example:  California and Mississippi both rank close to the very bottom of NAEP 8th-grade reading proficiency) and instead dedicates itself to passing a law aimed at shutting down a single small business.  Is this truly about governing for the highest priorities of good and safety of society? Or has the process been hijacked for something else altogether?

We remain involved with this issue because for us, and for many others, preserving personal moral choice is a central part of our values system.  We believe in the Jeffersonian ideal that the principal purpose of law is to protect public safety and welfare, not an instrument for projecting someone’s personal morality on others. Extremists of all political stripes, however, have long thought otherwise. Perhaps they are aspiring to a form of authoritarian utopianism, a means of governance that has never worked and will never work.  Whatever the etiology, this battle most definitely does not end with this one small example. A more likely reality is that food and sex will continue to be centerpiece issues for political battles for the foreseeable future.