Fatherhood, Veganism, and Masculinity
Still, I know as well as anyone, it does less good than harm,
to be honest with a conscience eased by lies.
But you cannot deny that meat is still murder, dairy is still rape.
And I am still as stupid as anyone, but I know my mistakes.
And I have recognized one form of oppression; now I recognize the rest.
Life's too short to make others' shorter.
~Propagandhi, “Nailing Descartes to the Wall/(Liquid) Meat is Still Murder”
My dad was a meat man. I say “was” as I haven’t had much contact with him in years, but I can only assume that he is the same.
As a young boy, I worked alongside my father in a number of economic pursuits. We staffed two newsstands and a hot dog cart. We gutted a row house, and ran a Mr. Softy ice-cream truck. All of these pursuits were “manly” jobs, and three out of four were directly tied to selling animal products from cheesesteaks, eggs, sausage, hotdogs and bacon on the cart to candy bars, jerky and assorted garbage at the newsstand and soft serve ice-cream for Mr. Softy.
At that time and up until I was a high schooler, I ate a ton of meat. Hamburgers, chicken cutlets, veal, meatballs, tacos, pizza. . . In a typical high school workday, I would have milk with breakfast, cheese, lunchmeat and ice cream with lunch, two Ellio’s pizzas for a post-school dinner, and a Wawa tuna hoagie for dinner at work. I worked throughout high school at the local Planned Parenthood clinic, clocking in hours driving there directly after school and staying until close. My days were long, and I needed my meat to keep me strong.
For my dad and I, in our relationship as boss and employee, teacher and student, father and son, meat consumption was always directly linked to our identities as “men,” as authentic members of a food-based, cultural tradition emanating from Italy by way of South Philadelphia. Cheesesteaks, hotdogs, stromboli, calzones, veal, pulled pork, bacon, and tons of cheese. This is what he and I ate every day. A great deal of the loving, warm and genuine memories I have with my dad are centered around cooking, ordering, serving and eating animal products. I can remember, nearly ten years after the fact, his typical pick-up order: Cheesesteak, provolone cheese, friend onions, no tomatoes and absolutely no mushrooms. A large coke and fries and garlic bread if they had it. The calzones always contained peperoni and green peppers, and the steaks were cooked medium and covered in béarnaise sauce.
As I think about how I want to father my new daughter, I imagine her memories as I recount my own. What will she cling to as her fond memories of me? Of us? If we can’t have our Tony Luke’s pulled pork and sharp provolone hoagies eaten in the ice cream tuck parked in the median what kind of memories can we have?
In Philadelphia, in the 1990s, ordering at these local gems of the city was a very authentic experience, far removed from the often in-authentic, unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable feeling of a vegan restaurant plopped down in the middle of a rapidly gentrifying city like Washington, DC, where I reside. Somehow taking my daughter to Sticky Fingers (a delicious vegan café and bakery) a few days ago seemed not at all like my dad taking me to Annelli’s bakery on the 1100 block of East Passyunk Ave. Maybe it’s because the Italian bakery is more than 100- years-old and the vegan bakery only six in its current incarnation. Not only did the Italian locale itself feel real, but my father’s guidebook-style knowledge of such un-advertised, family-run restaurants was always reassuring and a point of pride. So why was my experience of taking lil’ Emory to Sticky Fingers so different? One of these sites felt built into the infrastructure of the city—culturally, historically and with authenticity—while the vegan bakery felt displaced and sterile, a visible stage for the city’s vegans and the greenie health conscious folks out to munch on an $8 pastry or use free wi-fi.
The consumption of meat and animal products is so built into the everyday violence of our lives that it is intimately tied up with the economy of our neighborhoods and cities. As we are a proud, committed vegan family, my daughter will not know the joy of a van-side ice-cream menu staring at her from above atop a Jack and Jill truck playing annoying music. Getting milk from the dairy where you can see the cows ‘grazing?’ Nope. Competing in the generational wars over who makes the best Philly cheesecake? Not in her future.
But I guess, in the end, we make our own traditions. New traditions.
Yes, of course, I will take my daughter to our own vegan gems like SoulVeg (a Howard University favorite specializing in soul and Caribbean food) and places where vegan treats can be found like the chili fries at Ben’s Chili Bowl. We will make our way to the ‘authentic’ sites, and of course, when she’s craving a sweet which she is bound to do, I will let her stare up in wonder at the cupcakes, cookies and cakes behind the glass at Sticky Fingers and make her choice. My fear is that in a world with at least nineteen varieties of Coca-Cola, we are taught that consumer choice is freedom. With a vegan practice in a non-vegan world, this can often be a location of frustration as we navigate menus for what we can eat, not what we want to avoid. But alas, my daughter and I will make our own father-daughter memories just like my father made them for me. The problem is, I can’t pass on his traditions to my daughter via me. My experiences: zoos, meat packing wholesalers, ice cream vending, grilling steaks . . . all lost remnants from an older, outmoded past.
So of course we all make our own family traditions and memories, but as far as those relating to food, the traditions for Emory will be quite young. First generation traditions forged by my partner and I, and carried fourth by our offspring.
Returning to the lesson of the flesh. . . The subtext to my father’s endorsement of his meat-intensive lifestyle was always likened to the masculine. He loved 1960s muscle cars, guns, motorcycles, classic rock, an ‘American work ethic’, and working with your hands. He taught me to be a hardworking and proud members of the American working class. He taught me to provide a better life for your family than you’ve had.
What will I teach my daughter?
Of course my mother also taught me how to be a man, and in terms of longevity, stamina, and outward concern, she’s unbeaten. But, in the way that masculinity is enforced through violence and the pervasive threat of violence, my gendering was much more negative reinforcement from my father then positive masculinity from my mother. I think this is pretty standard. My father taught me what men liked and how they acted, but infinitely more common, he taught me what men did not like and how they did not act.
Men ate meat, fucked women, worked hard for their families, and always met threats with aggressive and overwhelming force. My father taught me his ethics of armed defense as his ongoing justification for gun ownership and his policy of carrying a concealed weapon while at work. Masculinity is enforced through violence. That is just the way it is in our times. It was not my father’s fault or cause, after all, it was how his father raised him I’m sure. My grandfather, an electrician and concentration camp-liberating soldier known as Duke, was taught violence from his father as well, a man named Arthur, who was notoriously abusive. Through 40 years of employment with the South Eastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) and combat abroad, Duke inscribed upon my father formative lessons. A father teaches his son so much in calling a gay couple “fairies;” he teaches them infinitely more adoptable lessons then a structured, sit down chat with your child about tolerance. You learn how gender is performed, racial and class hierarchies maintained, and stories of you own group’s persecution, othering, and ‘chosen trauma.’ You learn these things through stories, stories of violence.
We are men because we are not women. We are Jews because we are not ‘goys.’ We are straight because we are not skipping and wearing dresses since that’s, of course, how the gays live.
When my dad implied with a scorn of deviance that his cousin who had taken us in during hard times was a ‘rug muncher’, I learned about violent disrespect and othering. In other situations, when female relatives had bad histories with men, I was told they were ‘probably gay.’ My dad was not gay. He was married, had extra-marital affairs, and dated from his “bachelor pad” that he shared with me on the weekends. For the past twenty years he has been in a long-term relationship with a women he swears he would never marry. “Never again” had a whole new chosen trauma connection for him then for his parents who fought Nazis.
Meat, heterosexism and fatherhood. I spent a lot of time thinking about these things in the ten years in between becoming a vegan and then having my first child. I guess I’ve always resisted it all with varying degrees of performativity and success. I worked with all women for years in abortion and gynecological health services. I lived with a friend, her sister and her sister’s girlfriend while I hid a boyfriend of my own. I touted a very in-your-face vegan hard-line posture at times in college, and I openly identify as an anarcho-Queer. So we are all certainly more than the collective traumas we experience as occupants of this time and place. We are resistors, rebels, subversives, clandestine saboteurs of gender, sexual and class hierarchies. My father told me it was my class duty to not work with my hands, but I choose to keep part-time work as a waiter for the money. My father would have rather me teach full-time since that would mean I had won some sort of reprieve out of the rat race of waged slavery, tradesmenship and service work. He was always so proud of my good performance in school and he knew that unlike the Loadenthal men, I wouldn’t also be a plumber, electrician, soldier, cop, cook, prison guard of sorts. . . There was not a lawyer, teacher, doctor, engineer amongst them. All tradesmen of sorts, or violent agents of the state’s monopoly on legitimate force.
Lessons of fatherhood passed transcontinentaly from Europe—the “old world”—to the new American dreamscape of Philadelphia. Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II, the last ‘Great’ War. After barely completing high school, my father flunked out of the US Marine Corps, which he had enlisted to at the height of the Viet Nam War. The story I was told as a youth is that he was put into the stockade at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, after accidentally killing a man in a bar fight initiated by an anti-Semitic slur. This story is highly suspect, but it was part of my understanding of him. I have my dad’s tattered Guidebook for the Marines on my bookshelf, and it even says ‘Private Loadenthal’ on the inside cover in pen which fades a bit more each year. As a kid, I had his formal Marine dress, which I frequently played in. I would routinely don the stiff and itchy jacket adorned with military pins, and place the partially rusted combat helmet atop my tiny head. In this sense, I was continuing the Loadenthal male tradition of emulating the father through the possession of war ephemera. Since I can remember I was told that his father, my paternal grandfather Duke, had a ceremonial sword he took as war bounty from a Japanese soldier of some rank whom he had apparently killed.
Fatherhood, meat, heterosexism, patriotism through military service . . . it’s all a far cry from what I plan to teach my daughter as it has very little to do with the life I have created for myself since becoming emancipated from parental oversight. Since becoming aware of the world around me and developing my own identity vis-à-vis my society, I have sworn to teach my children respect for all life, tolerance, justice, goodness and the value of cooperation over competition, voluntary association over forced regimentation, and freedom over alienating drudgery. I want my daughter to love being a vegan family, not to see it as a restriction. I want her to see her family’s identity as a positive thing that is affirmed by a community and a history. I want her to have anti-speciesist, anti-racist, Queer positive role models like the heroes that inspired her mom and I. I want her to see the inherent value in removing yourself, even if only yourself, from factory farms, battery cages, veal auctions and milking machines. I want her to know kindness, compassion, empathy, love, non-violence and respect. I want her to know that the liberation of others can also be your own.
How do I do all of this? Well all I have are examples to counter, and my own experience of self-discovery. If I can say that I learned through counter example, how do I teach her without such formative moments of oppositional defiance? How do you teach racial harmony not based in anti-racism. Queer positivity without homophobia? Anti-speciesism without a history of meat?
How do I teach through positive example and not the “ah ha” moment of her adamant, rejectionist disagreement?
After all, what teenager wants to be anything like their parents? As someone who was politicized in a context of anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, ant-sexist, anti-State . . . how do we teach the egalitarian, utopianism that is our anarchist meta-narrative? To be honest I am not quite sure. I know you need a critique, and a new way of trying, and last but not least, you need an idea of a brighter future.
Prefigurative political, social and ideological histories like anarchism need a utopian end game, and a post-present imagined future of peace, justice and freedom in order to prosper and grow. My family will be the experimental venue for my partner and I to make these examples and we’ve already begun creating our own (new) old family traditions.
And I kinda thought we all shared common threads,
in that we gravitated here to challenge the conventions we’ve been fed
by a culture that treats (living, breathing, feeling) creatures like (biological) machines.
And if you buy that shit then how long ’till it’s me
who serves as your commodity?
~Propagandhi, “Apparently, I’m A ‘P.C. Fascist’
(Because I care about both human and non-human animals)”
For Further Reading
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, 20th Anniversary Edition. Revised. New York: Continuum, 2010. Print.
Connell, R. W. Masculinities. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005. Print.
Davis, Kara, and Wendy Lee, eds. Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and the Sexual Politics of Meat. New York: Lantern Books, 2014. Print.
hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: South End Press, 2000. Print.
Kimmel, Michael. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2009. Print.
Moniz, Tomas, and Jeremy Adam Smith, eds. Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011. Print.
Nocella II, Anthony J., John Sorenson, Kim Socha, and Atsuko Matsuoka, eds. Defining Critical Animal Studies: An Intersectional Social Justice Approach for Liberation. New York: Peter Lang, 2013. Print.
Pascoe, C. J. Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011. Print.
Michael Loadenthal is a Visiting Professor of Sociology and Social Justice at Miami University of Oxford, Ohio, and the Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association. He researches, writes and teaches courses dealing with political violence and terrorism and has had two additional children since authoring this essay. The text remains unchanged from its original version written after the birth of his first daughter in 2012. He lives with his three little ones, one canine companion, and his female partner—all proud vegans.