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Hillary Clinton Should be Vice President Because Empathy

Ladies, Bill Keller wants you to know that he was really thinking outside the box yesterday. He has this crazy idea. Wait for it: Hillary Clinton for VP.

I know, I know, it’s pretty out there. You’re probably thinking the idea of a woman a heartbeat away from the presidency is preposterous. Don’t worry! Hillary was “perfectly plausible” last time around, much to our surprise that the country could ever take a woman seriously. But does she have the qualifications? Rest assured, unlike most mediocre ladies, she could be “the first woman at the top [with] qualifications so manifest that her first-ness was a secondary consideration.” Who else could pull that off?

And it’s because she’s a woman that we really need her. Her “warmth” is missing from the campaign. Her “empathetic ability” could guide a new approach. Like a good wife, “She listens, she learns from her mistakes.” Oh yeah, and she’s a “dutiful Methodist schoolgirl” who won’t turn down the president for anything he asks. (After all, “She has, to put it mildly, an ability to navigate the world of powerful, problematic men.” Yuk yuk.) No man has these qualities. All ladies do. Done and done. Oh yeah, and one other thing – every female voter will totally go in for Obama with Hillary on the ticket (because we vote with our vaginas).

***

Can I be serious for a moment? It’s fine with me that Bill Keller has some obsessive fantasy about Hillary as vice president, even in the face of the real likelihood that it’s not going to happen. If he’s right about anything, it’s that Hillary has done an exceptional job in her post and she “embodies the aspirations of many women.”

But he falls into a trap that catches people over and over again: arguing that we need more women in higher office by claiming that women have more empathy, more “warmth,” a higher inclination to be conciliatory, [add other stereotypical female traits here], when in reality women are a diverse bunch of people. (Remember when the media had decided Hillary was a nagging shrew?) Yes we need more women in office. Yes a female vice president (or president) would set a great example for young women – and all people – in this country. But we can make that argument minus the stereotyping (and icky condescension).

Why Should We Push for More Female Politicians?

The 2010 midterms were depressing for many reasons. One of them was that the number of women in Congress decreased by one, the first drop in 30 years. There’s a chance to reverse that trend in the 2012 elections, however. Jennifer Steinhauer reports in the New York Times that there is “the greatest number of female incumbents ever up for re-election in the Senate, and would be among the highest number of nominees ever, which could add up to a banner year for women.” That is, if they actually get elected – which could be difficult if the Democrats suffer and women get dragged down with them. It’s yet to be seen if 2012 could be the “year of the woman” many had predicted 2010 would be.

But why should we care? Why is it so important to have more women politicians shaping the course of the country? The answers given to these questions vary, and some end up being very problematic. Rather than pointing out that women bring more diversity of experience and give girls someone to look up to, many fall back on essentialist claims about our inherent nature.

Take Sen. Claire McCaskill. Amanda Terkel reports at the Huffington Post that she explains it this way: “I think we are, by our nature, nurturers and negotiators. We want people to get along, we want to find a solution, we want to move forward. I think sometimes there is a tendency to like the fight for the fight’s sake every once in awhile with some of the guys. So I think having more women involved will help.” In other words, the reason we should have more heels clacking through the halls of Congress is because we’re all motherly and don’t like it when people fight.

Her sentiments are echoed elsewhere in Terkel’s article. My own Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, puts it this way: “When women are part of the negotiation and are part of decision-making, the outcomes are just better… I think if there were more women at the decision-making table, we would get more things done.” Which is a vague way of saying that there is something about women that makes negotiations smoother and leads to better decisions.

The argument that women should be more involved in the political process because of inherently good qualities is quite old. It hearkens back to at least the early suffrage era. When fighting for the right to vote, many women activists fell back on arguments that women are more moral and religious. Frances Willard, president of the pro-suffrage and pro-prohibition organization the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, argued that women needed to vote so they could act as “citizen-mothers” and protect their homes – and the country – from evil. H.G. Cattell, a California city council member at the time, argued thus in favor of women’s right to vote: “Women are better morally, as evidence by the criminals in the penitentiaries… We must, therefore, admit that women would be a great factor in promoting honesty, equity and morality if given the ballot.” And a widely used suffrage poster said it this way: “Women are by nature and training housekeepers. Let them help in the city housekeeping. They will introduce an occasional spring cleaning.”

It’s easy to balk at the way these women talked about the right to vote, but the idea that women are more nurturing, more moral, and naturally motherly is still very much with us. It’s the wrong tactic. These arguments boil women down to supposedly inborn traits, but we’re far more complex than all that. What of women who are aggressive? Who don’t always play by the rules? Who choose not to have children? Arguing for our inclusion based on our supposed traits will hurt us in the long-run when it’s exposed that we’re not all paragons of morality or looking to be everyone’s mother.

So is there no good argument for getting more women into Congress? One of the biggest reasons to support more women – and more of every marginalized group, enhancing diversity overall – is to get more life experiences into Congress, therefore making it more representative of the general population that it is supposed to represent. One anecdote in Terkel’s article gets to the heart of this: Sen. Jon Kyl argued during a Senate Finance Committee on health care reform in 2009, “I don’t need maternity care, and so requiring that to be in my insurance policy is something that I don’t need and will make the policy more expensive.” Sen. Debbie Stabenow retorted, “I think your mom probably did,” undermining his argument, and Kyl eventually lost out. She later told Terkel, “I don’t know what it would have been like if I had not been in that meeting. This was just a snapshot of the differences in perspectives and the importance of having women at the table.” She’s absolutely right. Without women at every level of government, it’s far less likely that our concerns will make it into the conversation. We won’t be there to stand up for them.

There’s also the rising tide effect of having visible women leaders. As Rep. Tammy Baldwin put it, “The symbolic impact of being able to look at a woman senator, a woman secretary of state, a woman as a CEO of a company — as well as seeing women in all parts of society — sends the message that you can be anything you want to be, and there’s nothing holding you back.” It’s important for women to be able to reach for any career goal they want. It’s much easier for them to do it when they see others have come before.

It may seem politically expedient to say women are different than men and therefore we need more of them in politics. It appeals to deep-seated stereotypes about gender roles and has an air of biology backing it up. But these claims simply aren’t true. There are other, much more important, reasons to see that more women run and win. We just have to highlight them.

This is Why I Do What I Do

I just finished up writing an article for The Nation on government funds for domestic violence getting slashed just as the need for those services is rising. I spoke to a lot of amazing people doing work to support victims in local communities who are really struggling to keep providing their core services. Some have turned to layoffs, furloughs, and pay stagnation for their own staff just to keep serving their populations.

I emailed the article after it was up to all of the advocates I had spoken with or been in touch with in the process of writing the piece. This is an email I got back from one of them:

Thank you for highlighting this issue. We fear that more state budget cuts will be in store in January when our legislature reconvenes. Your story will help us tremendously in our advocacy efforts against such cuts.

This is the best impact I could hope my writing would have.

The Clue in Bossypants About Tina Fey’s Feminism

Tina Fey is not a perfect poster daughter for feminism. She’s come under attack by feminist bloggers for many things, some of which are jokes that strike a feminist sensibility wrong. One of those was when she hosted Saturday Night Live and lit into Jesse James’ mistress of the time, Michelle McGee. Rather than go after Jesse James for cheating on Sandra Bullock, she laid the blame with his mistress and said her “body looks like a dirtbag’s binder from 7th grade metal shop.” Another came when 30 Rock character Pete related a one-line story in the show about how great the sex he had that morning was – with his sleeping, unconscious wife (which amounts to rape).

In some broader blogger takedowns, Sady Doyle has complained of Fey’s seemingly at least semi-autobiographical character, Liz Lemon, that she practices a brand of “white, coastal-city dwelling, fairly well-to-do heterosexual cisgendered” feminism Doyle calls “Liz Lemonism.” In criticizing Fey’s white liberal feminism, Feministe blogger Constintina is slightly more kind in calling her a “feminist(ish) comic and writer.”

So is Fey a feminist or isn’t she? What’s going on with her meta critique of show business that includes off the cuff rape jokes? In her new memoir, Bossypants, she leaves at least one big hint. In the midst of relating some of the managing skills she’s picked up from boss Lorne Michaels over the years, she relates this bit of advice: “When hiring, mix Harvard Nerds with Chicago Improvisers and stir.” She goes on to explain what this means (my bold):

The writing staff of Saturday Night Live has always been a mix of hyperintelligent Harvard Boys… and gifted, visceral, fun performers… To generalize with abandon, if you had nothing but Harvard guys, the whole show would be commercial parodies about people wearing barrels after the 1929 stock market crash… If you had nothing but improvisers, the whole show would be loud drag characters named Vicki and Staci screaming their catchprase over and over, “YOU KISS YOUR MUTHA WITH THAT FACE?” Harvard Boys and Improv People think differently because their comedy upbringing is so different. If you’re at the Harvard Lampoon, sitting in a castle with your friends, you can perfect a piece of writing to be exactly what you want and you can avoid the feeling of red-hot flop sweat. Especially because you won’t even be there when someone reads it. But when you’re improvising eight shows a week in front of drunk meat-eating Chicagoans, you will experience highs and lows. You will be heckled, or, worse, you will hear your own heartbeat over the audience’s silence. You will be bombing so hard that you will be able to hear a lady in the back put her gum in a napkin. You may have a point to make about the health care system in America, but you’ll find out that you need to present that idea through a legally blind bus driver character or as an exotic dancer whose boobs are running for mayor. (I would like to see that sketch, actually.) Ultimately, you will do whatever it takes to win that audience over.

Fey isn’t a hypterintellectual Harvard Boy. [Side note: Fey explains her use of “Boy” in Harvard Boy thus: “I say Harvard ‘Boys’ because they are almost always male – but not exclusively; rock on, Amy Ozols!”] She’s an Improv Person whose main goal is to win an audience over. She is clearly a brilliant woman, but she’s not an academic, blogger, or pundit; she’s a comedian.

I agree that a rape joke is a rape joke and must be called out as such. As Constintina says in her piece, Fey should not be above criticism, and no one, no matter their status or lack thereof, should be when they do or say things publicly. But I’m also a Harvard Nerd. I’m not in the business of making jokes; I’m in the business of writing social critiques. We Harvard Nerds in the blogosphere need Improv People like Fey to help us use comedy to get out our messages (one of the best ways I know how). Fey and her comedian friends need the nerds of the world to keep them on their toes when they step over the line into offensive material. Feminism wins when these groups can work together, not against each other.

Do I wish that every celebrity, male and female, were as strictly adherent to every concept of feminism that I endorse personally? Of course. Do we live in that world? No. I’d love every comedian to be an Amy Poehler Xerox in the way they think about and embody feminism. But even if Poehler were to fudge something and be caught calling another woman a whore, I would call it out and then continue supporting her other work. That’s how I can be most helpful as a nerd. Rebecca Traister put it most succinctly in the wake of Fey’s SNL hosting gig and subsequent backlash: “Tina Fey is a professional comedian. She is not a professional feminist.” While the two very often overlap, they won’t always, and that’s okay with me.

A Politics of Life vs. a Politics of Death

I was very happy to use the White House’s new tool that calculates where tax dollars go and find out that more of my taxes go to paying for Medicaid and CHIP than for funding ongoing military operations. As tax day comes in the midst of intensely partisan battles over the budget, this juxtaposition between funds that keep our citizens healthier — more alive — and between those that wage wars — cause death — feels very clear. Are we going to keep spending $698 billion on the military, six times more than China, the world’s other largest spender? Or are we going to keep spending intact for the social safety net that provides health care, food subsidies, housing, and income to those who can’t get it any other way?

In her 1988 book Manhood and Politics, Wendy Brown examined the political theories of Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Weber and proved that all three conceive of power as wrapped up in manhood. But their conception of politics and manhood is very specific: it is defined as transcending life and its necessities. All three feel that the highest cause for humans is to overcome our dependence on meeting bodily needs and to risk our lives for glory. In other words, concerns with life and maintaining it — associated with women, who reproduce and produce sustenance for men — are both antithetical to power and to manhood. “Concern with life was conceived by all of them not simply as foreign or irrelevant to politics, but as threatening or debasing to the political realm and manhood,” she noted.

This formulation carries forward today, as she explained:

The formal political power of the liberal state is expressed in its assertion of the “national interest,” a “cause” usually juxtaposed to the particular interests and general well-being of the citizenry. The notion of national interest permits the state to jettison its erstwhile concern with life or assert and pursue concerns higher than life. It is for “national security” or “national honor” that the state sacrifices its youth in foreign military interventions, engineers right-wing coups in the Third World, spends millions on subverting domestic and foreign voices of dissent, pays farmers to bury rather than reap their crops, sanctions depletion and destruction of the environment, tolerates carcinogenic industrial operations, and slashes welfare programs while expanding defense expenditures. Little remains of the welfare state’s protective posture toward “mere life” when such lives can be made into instruments of aggressive warfare, subjected to working conditions threatening to their mental and physical health, or subjected to an environment in which the prosperity of the state is held in higher esteem than its citizens’ need to breathe air, drink water, and eat food that will not kill them.

So as Democrats and Republicans argue over where we should cut spending, the question we might want to ask is this: do the policies promote life or do they promote death? Are we protecting the environment, our food supplies, our air, and our health, or will our spending do the opposite? I’d call on politicians to get in touch with their feminine side — the side that’s interested in promoting life.

I Stand with Planned Parenthood because I’ve Never Had to Use Their Services

I stand with Planned Parenthood because I’ve never had to use their services. I’m so moved by the many personal accounts from women who have depended on them on Twitter through Amanda Marcotte’s #thanksPPFA campaign as well as blog posts and video posts. But I don’t have a story like that. I’ve never once had to enter its doors as anything but a volunteer. And for that I am forever grateful.

I grew up in a rural area on the Eastern end of Long Island. Not much is out there — we had to drive a half hour to get to the closest chain restaurant, a McDonalds. But I remember exactly where the Planned Parenthood was, only about a 10 minute drive. I had to take a friend there who was more sexually active (and matured far faster than me) and wanted to get birth control to protect herself without letting her strict mom in on her personal life. We were stupid teenagers in so many ways — sometimes I marvel that no one got into a car accident, considering how fast we drove on dark backroads — but Planned Parenthood was there and helped us make safe decisions like taking birth control and using condoms. And while I never used its services (my mom practically mandated I get on the pill when I reached 17), I always knew it was there if I needed it. It was like a guiding light of sexual health and responsibility.

I’ve also been lucky to grow up in an area where Planned Parenthood has made inroads in sex education. I’ve watched their lobbying efforts in New York City, where I now live, and am grateful that they work so hard to make sure the city’s students are educated accurately about their bodies. I got an accurate education about mine in both middle school and high school, and while I squirmed in those classes at the time (watching a baby comes out of a woman’s vagina was not a highlight of my high school experience), I know that they inform the choices I continue to make to be healthy in my sexuality.

One of the most moving personal accounts I’ve read was from Sady Doyle, who described growing up in an environment where she was not encouraged to take care of her sexual health and had a hard time even finding a Planned Parenthood. One of the times she needed Plan B she went to the emergency room and was hit with sky-high insurance bills. The less Planned Parenthood offices available to young women, the less visible encouragement there is to stay healthy and the less information there is on how to do that. Planned Parenthood does more than provide contraception, preventative care and abortions (all vital) — it fosters an environment of conversation around and acceptance of female sexuality that makes it easier to make the right choices.

I take the attacks on Planned Parenthood — and not just the attempt to defund it — extremely personally. When I read that South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa all drafted legislation that could lead to justifiable homicide defenses for vigilantes who kill abortion providers, I know who they’re targeting. And I also feel targeted. Virginia just moved to regulate abortion clinics as hospitals, a huge roadblock in providing that care. But Planned Parenthood works tirelessly to continue to provide the (safe, legal, and varied) services that women depend on them for. South Dakota has essentially barred abortion practitioners from the state, so Planned Parenthood flies a doctor in once a week to see patients. That can’t be a cost effective service, but it’s clearly a necessary one.

Defunding Planned Parenthood is only one prong in the current all-out assault on the institution and on women’s right to control their own bodies. I stand with them and with all the women who rely on them. As Republicans and conservatives try to chip away at their services, there will only be more demand for what they do. And more girls will grow up in an environment that doesn’t give them the information and tools they need to stay healthy.

Asking More from Michelle Obama

Upfront disclosure: I don’t know what’s in Michelle Obama’s head, so I can’t speak with certainty about the decisions she has or hasn’t made about her public role.

But there has clearly been a deliberate shift in how she presents herself from when Barack first started campaigning. In her new book about the 2008 election, Rebecca Traister remembers that at first it was Michelle as well as her husband who won over crowds of middle class working Americans. Although she was not excited or even necessarily happy to enter the realm of politics, while they were campaigning in Iowa in the early days, Traister recalls, “this woman who grew up on the South Side and went to Princeton and Harvard did not do anything halfway. So long as she was here, she was going to sell it…” She gave rousing speeches to crowds who declared such things as, “I would vote for her for president.” And in the middle of it all she didn’t shy away from her role as a career woman. “She was unapologetic about the fact that she, like Hillary, was not a housewife but a working mother,” Traister writes.

“I’ve felt so disconnected from Washington. You don’t know me! As a mother, as a professional, as a wife, you can’t represent me!” she said. Here was an unfussy assertion that her identity was multifaceted, and that in that formulation at least, her wifeliness came third to children and career.

Compare that to the Michelle Obama who gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver months later. Traister writes that “this smart and accomplished woman sum[med] herself up in relation to the other people in her life – ‘a wife who loves my husband’ and ‘a mom whose girls are at the heart and the center of my world.’” After her now infamous remark that she was proud of her country for the first time in her life, critics had started turning her into the paradigm of angry black femininity. So she did a round of publicity and “won over daytime audiences a being as girly as girly could be,” Traister recalls. Was it the campaign advisors who counseled this shift? Was it Barack? Or did it come from Michelle herself? Either way, the change is clear to see, and she has since fully embraced it.

Which is why I have something to add to Dana Goldstein’s concern that the media is whittling Michelle down to nothing but a fashion plate. True, no one seems to be able to help themselves from commenting endlessly about her choice of dress (including right-wingers who took the opportunity to equate her latest with socialism). But she isn’t passive in this role. She’s done a 180 in presenting herself as the embodiment of traditional femininity. She tackles safe issues like childhood obesity and military families (which are important, but not terribly threatening or controversial – her obesity campaigns have avoided tough food issues like agriculture subsidies and global warming). I think she deserves more credit for her role in crafting her own image – which is also to say that she shares the blame for promoting herself as unthreatening and playing down her credentials as a brilliant woman in her own right.

It’s possible that this was a choice to subvert other norms – the stereotype of black women as bad mothers, the long history of black women having to work to support families alongside their husbands, and a history of enslaved women who weren’t allowed to lay claim to their children, as Melissa Harris-Perry points out. It is a white, middle class gender norm that says a woman should stay in the home, one that hasn’t necessarily applied to black women. So by touting her warm and easy role as a mother, she subverts racial stereotypes that are still very much with us.

And to be fair, Michelle never wanted this spotlight. But she has it. And at first she was able to use it. She is clearly a smart and capable woman, both in caring for her family and in her career. Why can she only take on the tradition of black motherhood and not also address the “incredibly retro role of First Lady,” as Goldstein puts it? The Michelle Obama of Iowa would have been able to play up her role as a mother while also tackling issues that others are afraid to handle. Career came only second to children; it was still an important part of her identity. Yes, it might dent her sky-high approval ratings. It might even affect her husband’s ratings. But she would show young girls – of all races – that you can be a good mother and have an independent work life at the same time. And she could be an important factor in bringing about change in whatever tough issue she chooses to address.

Goldstein embedded a video in her post of one of those speeches Michelle gave back in Iowa. In it she talks of her reluctance to let Barack run, and says, “The reason that I said yes, was because I am tired of being afraid.” And she describes Barack’s decision to stand against the Iraq war, “When he could have lost taking a stand… It was unpopular. But he was right.” I would remind Michelle that fear – of damaging poll numbers, of conservative backlash, of doing more than a First Lady “should” – shouldn’t hold her back either. It’s a lot to ask of her. But she can take it. She can do things, even if they are unpopular, because they are right.

Who’s left to vote Democrat?

There’s a lot of talk about the enthusiasm gap for the midterms between those fired up to vote Republican and those disappointed in the Democrats. And for good reason. If you look around, it would seem that a lot of “the base” is thinking of withholding their vote for the Democratic party. For example: a new ad in Nevada from conservative Hispanic group Latinos for Reform recently sparked some controversy. It lists grievances with the Obama administration and Democrats in general – mostly that they made promises for immigration reform that haven’t been kept – and ends with the simple imperative: “Don’t vote.”

But they’re not the only ones who might abstain from heading to the polls. At The American Prospect, Jamelle Bouie sees few policy iniatives to help black people and worries, “the longer Democrats don’t have to worry about losing African American voters, the longer Democratic representatives can take advantage of their black support.” Lt. Dan Choi, a US service member who was discharged for being openly gay under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Tweeted today that he won’t vote for Obama. Why? Because a Court Of Appeals temporarily stayed an injunction against the DADT policy after the government had tried to get a stay itself. Much concern has been raised about a low level of enthusiasm among women voters — and rightly so. A commenter who weighed in on a post I wrote urging women to vote shared this feeling: “Democrats aren’t doing what we put them there to do. They aren’t listening to the concerns of women and other marginalized folks who voted them into office.” Many women feel this way.

Blacks, Latinos, gays, women. Even issues groups like environmentalists are wondering if they need to reconsider support for our Commander in Chief. No one feels they got what they wanted these past two years. The question for these groups is whether they lose power by being a shoe-in voting bloc for their party. The conclusion many are drawing: don’t give Democrats your vote on November 2nd.

So what does this mean for the Democratic Party? Basically everyone has prophesied that the midterms will be a bloodbath. The enthusiasm gap will be all over the news on November 3rd and then fade into the background. But this is a long-term problem, and one the party will eventually have to face up to.

And we’re going to have to grapple with it, too. It’s clear we can’t find a friendlier ear in the GOP. As women, minorities, progressives, are we willing to keep voting the lesser of two evils? Do we lose our voice if we refuse to vote? We’ll have find some answers.

Elizabeth Warren: Frances Perkins’ plight all over again

I’ve seen this before. Elizabeth Warren, the sharp-witted, tough-as-nails advocate for the brand new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has been appointed a “special advisor” to the creation of the new agency. She was long expected to be named head of the agency, which would have meant a confirmation battle in the Senate. So President Obama avoided that mess by potentially sidelining her from the something that wouldn’t exist without her.

In a happy coincidence, I just finished reading The Woman Behind the New Deal, Kirsten Downey’s biography of Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor under FDR. She was a pioneering person and the first woman to serve in a president’s Cabinet. This, of course, came with much grumbling from the boy’s club and many unfounded personal attacks, including an attempt to impeach her. She was also a bargaining chip for FDR, a president who didn’t hesitate to play the political game, as publicly slighting her was an easy way to gain support for his initiatives from conservative Southern Democrats.

While FDR is known as the president who signed our Social Security program into law, it was really the brainchild of Frances Perkins. It was on her task list that she brought to the President before she was willing to accept the Secretary post, and without her pushing, pulling, and cajoling all those involved, it would likely never have come to pass. In order to meet a deadline on the proposal, she even brought committee leaders to her residence, put a bottle of whiskey on the table, and told them no one would leave until the task was finished.

So she would have made a logical candidate to head the new agency. But the politics didn’t match up. Senate approval of the bill looked risky until an amendment was added, saying that the Secretary of Labor should play no role in hiring its personnel. It ultimately meant Perkins had no control over the program she had championed. In the end, she named many of the agency’s top officials to be appointed by FDR and was asked to keep a close eye on the agency (something he would often ask her to do after he had deprived her of official oversight). But the greatest accomplishment of her life came with a personal blow in the form of a political compromise. Even years later, after she left Washington when Truman became president, she asked to be named the head of the agency and was declined. Someone else, who Truman needed to get favors from, wanted the job and got it.

The similarities between these two women were apparent even before Warren’s appointment. Both were direct speakers; both fought single-mindedly to protect the American people; both did so without thinking of personal gain or fame. And now we can add one more similarity: both were short-shifted out of positions of leadership in their own creations for political efficacy.

Much has changed for women since Frances Perkins served FDR, but they are still often political outsiders. This means they are good at spotting areas where we need new rules, but it also means that they can lose out to those closer to the political epicenter. A Wall Street insider like Tim Geithner still gets Obama’s ear over a watchdog like Warren. Let’s hope that Obama can cut through the political games to see her for what she is: just the woman we need fighting for us.

Vegetarianism and BP

For people who know me personally, you will probably agree with two things: 1. I’m a vegetarian, and 2. I’ve never been interested in telling other people how to eat or using my vegetarianism to feel holier than thou. Unlike some, I recognize the multiple factors that keep people from being vegetarians: lack of access to vegetables, high prices for good produce, culture and traditions that surround cooking, really liking a juicy burger. Vegetarianism has always been a very personal choice for me (and an easy one, since I’m not a big fan of meat), and I’ve never felt telling people how to eat is a useful cause.

But I read one little fact that struck me in the new book Eaarth by Bill McKibben, which describes a planet that we’ve changed so entirely that it no longer resembles the Earth that we’ve known. This fact is that, “It takes eleven times as much fossil fuel to raise a pound of animal protein as a pound of plant protein.” McKibben suggests that this means we should either turn to vegetarianism or Chinese cooking practices, which “use meat almost as a condiment.”

The BP oil spill has been the most glaring, physical evidence in recent history of just how destructive our reliance on fossil fuels is. Our use of them is complex; as I’ve pointed out before, electrical generation is the highest producer of pollution, yet uses a negligible amount of oil. The fossil fuel it relies on most is natural gas, which is usually extracted onshore. But even so, we clearly use a whole lot of oil as a country, as our thirst for it has driven rigs deeper and deeper into the ocean and is drying up the assets in the Middle East.

One of McKibben’s points in Eaarth is that the large scale must become smaller in our new world. Rather than corporate farms, we need community gardens; rather than national roads projects, we need local governments to upgrade infrastructure that can handle a shifting climate. Personal choices are also becoming more and more important in the fight against global warming. Conservation, the least glamorous and most personal solution, could be one of the most important tools: “The energy analyst Amory Lovins recently calculated that Americans could, relatively cheaply, save half the oil and three-fourths of the electricity they use” through actions such as insulating water heaters and turning off videogame consoles.

So personal choices really matter. And perhaps more vegetarians could make a really big difference, if it takes so much fossil fuel to raise meat. If you were flirting with the idea of becoming a vegetarian, now is a great time to consider a serious relationship with it.