One evening in December a bunch of us gather on the second floor of a warehouse on the North Side of Chicago for a party. The warehouse smells delicious because baked goods are on offer. It is beautiful, full of plants. We are comfortable.
But conscience catches up with us. Now there is a cow dangling from the ceiling by one hind leg. This is one of the strangest and saddest scenes I have ever witnessed. Its neck is cut, but it is alive, still straining to see something; it seems to be stretching for the floor.
I turn to my companion: “What is going on?” She whispers that the invitation had made mention of “workshops.” We are to be edified.
This is “Meet Your Meat,” a video put on by an animal advocacy group. Ordinarily, Alec Baldwin would be narrating. Tonight, though, the sound system is not working, and I bet “Meet Your Meat” is more shocking in silence. In a pen, a bull has awkwardly buckled on one knee in pain that must be mixed with disbelief, because behind him a man is carelessly cutting off his scrotum with a pair of clippers.
The presenters of “Meet Your Meat” appear to be aware that there is a lot of annoyance in the audience. That’s okay. This is modern moral confrontation.
So they take care to connect the dots not to the third person, but to the second, to you. “These practices are standard,” says a representative. “Meat from these animals ends up in the pink packages you see in supermarkets right here in Chicago. So if you ate meat tonight…”
This organization, the largest animal advocacy group in the country, also hands out a “comic” to children entitled “YOUR MOMMY KILLS ANIMALS!” Alongside the photos, it asks them to imagine their favorite pet with its head stomped on and its skin stripped off.
The warehouse has a third floor, what used to be the warehouse offices, with a panoramic view of the city. Tonight also happens to be the first snow of the season.
From these windows we look out on a parking lot full of the city’s fleet of dump trucks, parked surprisingly neatly, partly purified by the snow. Beyond that, intersecting row on row of orange lamps light the streets that make up Chicago’s vast grid. At the horizon is the dense downtown skyline.
No one is speaking of meeting our meat, but my friends are detectably sad. It isn’t just sympathy and shame. “Meet Your Meat” is haunting, it’s true. But what disturbs us tonight is an inaptness and impropriety, not only in the institutions described in the film, but also in this mode of moral motivation. This itself feels unacceptable.
“Meet Your Meat” is, very sensibly, directed at our lack of involvement with an issue. Perhaps this is where animal advocacy has to begin. It is pushing back on a problematic part of modern metropolitan life: we have very little experience with, and no proximity to, the procedures that produce what we consume. These cows are out of sight, out of mind.
In response, the presentation appears to have a two-part plan. The first part is a very vivid experience of maltreated chickens, cows and pigs on their way to a bad death: horrible sights and sounds. It is, above all, sensual. The second part is an encounter with our own connection and complicity with these practices.
I think that the most obvious objection we have—it isn’t the most important one—has to do not with what the presentation asks of us, but what its prospects are. Tonight, we’re dizzy with the brutality and gore of mass husbandry, and the thought of meat as a meal is sickening. Tomorrow too, perhaps. But in a week these same images will be dulled and dumb in us, and the facts forgotten. The tricky thing about an out of sight, out of mind problem is that once again out of sight is, of course, once again out of mind.
Nor, I believe, is brevity the only shortcoming. We meet our meat, a calf with a mutilated eye faces us, and we say: the problem is that people don’t see this. It is a natural idea. But witnessing doesn’t work wonders on its own. Just south of here, until relatively recently, was Chicago’s huge cattle yard, and not far from there “Packingtown,” where pigs were processed. The sight and smell of the meat industry in this city was part of the day-to- day lives of its inhabitants, where meat packers would empty extras and by-products into gutters that ran through the city center. This town used to be famous for the baldness with which it went about big business in meat, with conditions that were much more insensitive and intolerable than anything we saw tonight.
Norman Mailer wrote of Chicago, “No one could forget where the money was made. It was picked up off the floor still sticky with blood.” This contact hardly made Chicago the center of consciousness in food. It seems that the raw sensual facts, the nearness, can drive men as often to stubborn and sluggish coping with bad practices, even commitment to them, as anything else. Think of the South in slavery. We’re amazing animals. We can live in atrocity.
On the inside of movements like animal advocacy, motivation tends to be propped up on a palpable addiction to anger and antagonism, very energizing and enduring emotions, probably because the sensual sort of contact with the consequences of our choices in “Meet Your Meat,” and the sympathy and shame it generates, the raw aversion, are not, on their own, lasting sources of moral motivation.
Involvement, some sort of involvement, is needed—“Meet Your Meat” certainly has a good intuition when it gropes for an engagement and encounter with the world. But it will be worthwhile to think through just what involvement means.
In this country, a lot of alternative ethical enterprises such as vegetarianism trace their roots to the New England Transcendentalists, or were anticipated by them. The members of the small intellectual circle centered in Concord in the 1830s and 1840s, men and women like Emerson and Thoreau, Alcott and Fuller, were the forerunners of experiential education, environmentalism, forms of de-institutionalized religion (they began as the radical side of Unitarianism), and socialism. They were abolitionists and activists.
The Transcendentalists are not often studied for their philosophical positions anymore (most philosophers I know can’t stand them). They are notoriously difficult to define. But one salient mark is that they think of themselves as belonging to a tradition in Greek and German philosophy they called idealism—Emerson called Transcendentalism “Idealism as it appears in 1842.” For our purposes, “idealism” can mean an ethical and psychological position which sees living in light of positive possibilities, ideals, as fundamental to action.
“Meet Your Meat” tries to motivate us in our will not to be a part of something, a demand we see a lot of these days, especially in what we might call consumer conscience. Our involvement here is felt in a discovery of our de facto complicity in nasty practices. The Transcendentalists, on the other hand, focused on self-reform that gets going in our will to be a part of something good. Involvement is involvement in an ideal, something constituting or conditioning a good whole way of life.
Self-guidance via an ideal to which we are attracted is very different from self-guidance via an aversion, and the limits and laws an aversion sets up. These two approaches are not two sides of the same coin. Idealism’s involvement is an involvement of investment and identification. Importantly, it is idealism that makes use of our higher capacity for planning a good life for ourselves and others with an eye to the whole, to a life we see as better because shareable, sustainable, healthy, happy and workable.
Thoreau complained, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live.” It is worth our while to take a look at the Transcendentalists both because they are decidedly dreamers, idealists—something we are not—and also because of the way they mix their idealism with a rich sense of practice. The Transcendentalists themselves thought and talked a lot about how to live. And they really experimented with it. But the Transcendentalists’ pragmatism wasn’t just a matter of adding application to their conceptions of what to do. Practice was essential in the Transcendentalists’ conception of a good whole way of living, and of what it takes to have a healthy soul.
The key thesis of Transcendentalism is that for our souls to be alive and active, we’ve got to see our ideals instantiated—even if very imperfectly instantiated—in what is already around us in the near and the everyday. This thesis informs their ethics and cultural criticism. We are all idealists, but some designs of life fail to set us in the right relation to ideals.
The work I know best is Thoreau’s Walden. Thoreau characterized the life his contemporaries were living as one of endless and excessive labor. This made them brutish, unable to pluck the “finer fruits” of life. What he meant isn’t just that they labored long hours. Rather, men saw what they were surrounded by today as for-tomorrow. What was not instrumental value was some other form of valuing in which worth was triangulated by way of a third thing: of value to them because it was of value to something else or someone else, as one calculates “value” on the market. A life like that has a bad effect on the soul. In early industrialism, men, wading waist-deep in deferred forms of value, were becoming less and less fit to be, themselves, the original seat of sentiment. With this they were cutting themselves off from the best things in life—satisfaction, self-respect, God. They lost any real feeling for moral matters.
Thoreau’s way of life, emblematized in the two years described in Walden, emphasized a new set of virtues: simplicity, self-sufficiency, attendance to the near and local (e.g., nature), toughness, hands-on practical power, resourcefulness. It was a life that made constant day- to-day contact with ends that themselves weren’t necessarily on their way anywhere else, or answerable to anyone else.
Building his cabin, cooking, catching a fish: these are, as Thoreau puts it, “simple.” Simplicity, he thought, made for spiritual strength. “Humility, like the darkness, reveals the heavenly lights.” You see Thoreau’s “Simplify, simplify” on advertisements for services— someone will do your tax returns for you—but Thoreau’s sense of simplicity could have little to do with a deeper division of labor. It is, rather, about the ability to actually find our aspirations in our hands day to day, and to put our hands to a whole way of life in a way we understand and underwrite. It is to live a life that is constantly complete.
Thoreau tells an anecdote in which a friend suggests to him that he take the train to Fitchburg, a town about 30 miles from Concord, “to see the country.” Thoreau counters that in the time that he would work for the wages it would cost him for the train, he could walk to Fitchburg. “And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think I should keep ahead of you.” Thoreau isn’t kidding when he recommends to his readers flatly that they“get arithmetic”; but the point is, of course, a deeper one about two designs of living. Thoreau’s way of life, walking to Fitchburg, was always already his aim, where he wants it to be, not cashed out in an arrival.
A good whole way of life is something we love. When we love something, it attracts us in the present and also projects possibilities that attract us; each of these attractions is a source of strength to the other. This awakens in us and keeps active our ethical intelligence. Desperation, disappointment, anxiety and depression are the sicknesses of a being that has to handle living a human life of aiming and aspiring, and can do so well or badly. Moral degeneracy—for example, eating animals we know (haven’t we all heard?) are wretched, is another such sickness. This isn’t cured by shock and scandal. It is, at root, the condition of a slackened soul. Our idealism needs exercise. It comes from a sensibility developed by living in the right relation to ideals, where what is already around us and the perfection we seek make constant contact. “Individualism,” the Transcendentalists’ prescription, these days often means an insistence on one’s own interests, or has something vaguely to do with isolation and idiosyncrasy. What it meant to Transcendentalists like Thoreau was the cultivation of a robust first-person, present-tense perspective, a guarantor of ends and commitments, and thus the self that can hold higher ideals, personal or political.
Thoreau’s best-known proclamation is: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” They are in a state in which they can’t see anything of their aims or aspirations in what is present to them. This is matched by a state in which what they see around them does not attract them, or project possibilities that attract them. The purest form the Transcendentalists’ therapy took was nature, the wild, and Thoreau’s acts of observing the phenomena of the local landscape and the pond, “watching the spring come in,” take over the late chapters of Walden. They were gratis and, importantly, not instrumental. Not instrumental, and so also not incomplete. Early in Walden, Thoreau’s irony is attuned to a sense that there is something strange in the very notion that his neighbors could wish to live as they are living, both because they believe “there is no choice left” and because their day-to-day life appears to have no value in it, only around or after it. Later, Thoreau’s irony melts into this, on the edge of comedy, that the only kind of value he has a sense for is so simple as to constantly collapse into immediate, intrinsic value. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
But where are we? We look out the warehouse windows now and we’re looking at the city’s ten million citizens. From here we can see the skyscrapers where many go to work in multinationals seventy stories in the air, losing it over the credit crisis.
Chicago was built, and built fast, on business and commerce with the world. Chicago is here because by the time the railroad came, the city was well enough established to become the water and rail hub to which small, scattered shipments from the West were sent to beprocessed for bulk Eastern shipments, and vice versa. Margaret Fuller wrote of Chicago and Buffalo: “They are like two correspondent valves that open and shut all the time, as the life-blood flushes from east to west, and back again from west to east.”
The world, including the nasty and the contaminated, comes through here. Everything is on-its-way, and one’s fate is to be had with everyone else.
When Chicagoans think through the future they tend to think centripetally, publicly, in terms of power, politics and growth. They set their own aspirations in a context of deep co- dependence. They are cosmopolitan. In Chicago, independence from others would oppose what life and livelihood is about, what a role is, what a positive project is.
In November, many of us attended Obama’s election-night speech in Grant Park. We were on tiptoe to see him pronounce—“Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.” Obama’s ethos (it was everyone’s ethos, but we only believed Obama) of “crossing the aisle” was not only a political one; it represented a refusal to treat the individual as an isolated node of guilt or goodness, as though this is where ethics ends. Political engagement is more than occupying a “political position,” as in a sour marriage where we’ve come to care more for being in the right than the rightness, the fate, of the family.
There is an uneasiness here that a lot of urbanites feel toward strains of individualistic ethics and self-reform. It is, I believe, another aspect of our reservations regarding “Meet Your Meat.” The calculus of consumer conscience in “Meet your Meat”—that one cow eaten by you is one cow fed the wrong food, branded, beaten and neglected as much as possible or profitable for you—has something to it, of course. But it holds compromise and complicity as slippery-slope vices, and opposes to them one’s own purity, innocence by way of independence, as though self-reform (in this case, vegetarianism) will set you free. The bottom line is: opt out. Get clean. It is a whole way of thinking that we don’t want to get a grip on us tonight.
“Shouldn’t we be discussing what we want our standards to be?” says a friend after the presentation has ended. He means something shared. To his way of thinking, the question of whether his own choices constitute a consumer’s connection with evil practices, or a rejection of them, is disturbing, but also off-topic. Clearly what these animals need is reform in the public, the political.
Is this moral isolationism also a problem for the kind of idealism and individualism we see in Transcendentalism? What I described earlier is, quite determinately, about the small sphere of involvement in one’s own ideals. If a combination of guilt and soul-saving withdrawal won’t work for us, nor will a personal participation in some ideal, if this eclipses shared standards and reforms. Emerson said that you could sum up Transcendentalism with the idea that “the individual is the world.” This looks like an extreme form of the attitude that we’re uncomfortable with in consumer conscience: a kind of atomism that attacks our sense of ourselves as parts of a whole, our common country and world.
And Thoreau is, in fact, most famous for what look like two acts of withdrawal: moving out of town to a cabin on Walden Pond, and spending the night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax over slavery, an act of passive “civil disobedience.” Of the latter Thoreau relates how he was in town to retrieve his shoe from the cobbler. On his way home, our uneasy slave-holding society seized him and put him in jail, demanding allegiance and money. He refused. He concludes with characteristic nonchalance—“However, I was released the next day, obtained my mended shoe, and returned to the woods in season to get my dinner of huckleberries on Fair-Haven Hill.” It sounds like he’s flaunting a kind of aloof complacency, a clean conscience by way of pure dissociation. Thoreau explains that it occurred to him that he might run amok against society and slavery, “but I preferred that society should run ‘amok’ against me, it being the desperate party.” The message seems to be: the individual is the world, and the good we aspire to is that of one’s own good principles alone.
Yet I believe it would be a real misunderstanding to see the individualism of Transcendentalism as antipolitical. The Transcendentalists themselves thought of what they were doing—their kind of individualism—as what makes ideals, and thus real politics, possible. A healthy life in which we stand in the right relation to ideals is a condition of holding them.
The Transcendentalists—even the penniless Thoreau—funded John Brown, whose raid on Harper’s Ferry sparked the Civil War. Thoreau’s speech “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” delivered on the day of Brown’s hanging, is, interestingly, not a plea so much as a meditation on why Brown couldn’t be seen by his contemporaries in a moral light at the event of his execution. Thoreau’s claim is that we cannot so much as see the difference between law and “higher law” when we do not already act in light of a higher law. He says of talk-based approaches to emancipation that they speak of spreading the sentiments of humanity “as if the sentiments of humanity were ever found unaccompanied by its deeds.” But living in light of a higher law, I’ve suggested, doesn’t start on the road to Damascus, being struck suddenly by inadequacy and born again into new standards. It comes from the ground up. It emerges from our attraction to possibilities projected from our love of the present. The trick is to live in such a way that participation in what we value has a lively form—that what we value is, to some degree, always already here.
Individualistic idealism and political life are not, in principle, opposed. However, there is a deeper difficulty with how Thoreau’s Transcendentalism might be lived out in Chicago. Thoreau calls for a radical revision of the way we live now, and it isn’t straightforward how the kind of rich pragmatism he develops can be pursued here.
There are plenty of people in this country who still try Thoreau’s simplicity and self-reliance. Friends of mine live on an island off the coast of Maine with a year-round population of about seventy. Every time I see them they seem to have reclaimed some new aspect of human livelihood from “the grid.” They really do-it-themselves: heating, housebuilding, fish, venison, vegetables, dishes, dog biscuits, car repair. Low income and low cost.
In the interior of the island there is a new farm. Starting a small farm is not exactly an easy undertaking these days, and probably never was. But as far as I can tell, it really works in Maine: it really revitalizes rural communities. “Localism”—drawing more on the resources that are literally local—brings our ideals and our identity back to life bit by bit. Value, role and responsibility are to-hand. On the island, the virtues of the raincoat hanging on the hook have to do with allowing its owner to go outside and pick tomatoes without catching a cold.
Think of what makes an advertising agent’s pair of shiny shoes valuable in the city. Where do we begin? How many twists and turns would it take to point to the point? This is instrumental value dropped in the dark. Thoreau recounts the story of a traveler who asked a local boy whether the swamp he was to cross had a hard bottom. The boy said that it did. “But presently the traveler’s horse sank in up to the girths, and he observed to the boy, ‘I thought you said that this bog had a hard bottom.’ ‘So it has,’ answered the latter, ‘but you have not got half way to it yet’.” Thoreau admonishes—“So it is with the bogs and quicksands of society; but he is an old boy that knows it.” Our city may have a hard bottom deep down, some set of facts it is founded on. But with no form of contact with them, we can drown in it nonetheless.
What would it be to have some notion of an end, to watch out for a whole, a possibility we’re drawn to and can see instantiated day to day in what we value, as contemporary Chicagoans? The complexity and commercialism of the city make Mainers and their ilk the more obvious inheritors of Thoreau’s simplicity and Transcendentalism’s bottom-up involvement in ideals. But the more apt assignment, surely, is the question of how the city can inherit America’s first philosophy. The city, after all, has all the raw potency—the immense institutions, money, the hard and soft sciences, technology, culture—that run the real world. Contemporary reality is here, and thus so is the real question: what would it be to make modern metropolitan life our own? The Transcendentalists resolve that we must see some instantiation of the ideal, the complete, in the everyday. What would that look like here?
This question is not an easy one. If this were 1833, we would be looking at snow falling on big bluestem blowing in the breeze. Not even a town. In 1893, baptized by fire, this protrusion on the plain was hosting 27 million at the World’s Fair. Chicago is not Maine. It’s a monster. The railroad was Thoreau’s favorite figure for efficiency at the price of our day-to-day creation of the soul, the ability to value by projecting possibilities from what we already see around us. Chicago is a crossroads. Capitalism’s baby. What would it be to make close contact with what is of value in relating to a whole way of life here in Chicago, when our work and relations are directed at the black box of metropolitan economy and exchange?
The Transcendentalists teach that the question is not just: how should we live? It is: how should we live given our character as beings that live in light of ideals? The raw materials for an answer in the city, I suspect, will have to come from what makes a city a city, evenwhat makes it a monster. It will incorporate the city’s acceptance and affirmation of its own mutability, take up its more nested ways of identification and investment, and maybe even its vanity. Beyond the moralizing of “Meet your Meat,” we see some of that tonight at the warehouse—a small community within the larger community, which wants to live together and hold, together, a whole way of life. We can all agree we ought to eat more responsibly, but the harder question is also the more hopeful one.