TCS Daily


Meat n' Greet?

By Ilya Shapiro - July 31, 2006 12:00 AM

From time to time for us armchair political philosophers, events in our personal lives illustrate larger concerns of public policy. For me this most often happens in the area of democratic theory. To wit, I have this crazy belief that, in a democracy -- and especially in one constituted on republican lines -- not only must the majority respect the rights of the minority, but the minority must accommodate majority preferences in the vast public sphere outside fundamental human rights.

As a corollary, in a democratic society we must all -- up to a point -- tolerate things we do not like, and allow people to pursue their private vision of happiness to the extent that vision does not intrude on others'. From an economic perspective, "live and let live" is the Pareto optimal attitude to have in a diverse society. That is, it makes society happier, and freer.

The forces of multiculturalism and political correctness frequently upend this ideal of peaceable coexistence by imposing a sort of first-do-no-offense rigidity on social and political relations: You can't say this. You can't wear that. You have to study this history. You have to attend that seminar.

I ran into this problem most recently after being invited to join the Southern Jewish Cluster, one of the interest- and affinity-related groups for young people organized by the D.C. Jewish Community Center and its "Gesher City" program.

In the past year I've signed up for and participated in a number of these "clusters," from the one for sports fans to concertgoers to plain ol' Shabbat (Friday night) dinner groupings. It's a good way to meet people outside your normal circle and good fun too.

And so I was excited by this Southern Jewish dealie because, after all, I had lived in Mississippi for a year and generally have a great affection for all things Southern, from food to music to sports to women. (I even have this unconscious affectation of breaking into a drawl whenever I cross the Mason-Dixon line or talk to folks back in the Southland, which some of my friends find endearing and others annoying.)

Unfortunately, the organizers of the group ordained that, in an apparent quest not to offend those who observe strict Jewish dietary rules ("koshrut"), there would not be any meat at the inaugural meeting, a potluck dinner.

Pause there for a second and think about this: a Southern meal without meat. Why, that's all side dishes (and green beans inexplicably cooked without a chunk of ham thrown in). I was pretty offended by this zealous vegetarianism and decided to bring some real Southern food for the vast majority of those attending an event like this who don't keep kosher, like barbecue, or bacon-wrapped anything.

I emailed the organizers to this effect, and also took a good-natured poke at them for being overly sensitive.

The reply I got could not have raised my ire more if it had included Howard Dean's thoughts on pickup trucks and Confederate flags:

"We don't want to alienate people who keep Kosher. .... If the cluster, as a whole, decides after our first meeting that bacon and meat and cheese are okay together, then we can move forward with allowing such things at our gatherings. We ask that for this first cluster, you not bring anything other than a vegetarian dish. Boca fake ground meat could be used in many dishes... also, soy bacon works fine too... and casseroles are very southern (as is baked beans). We hope that you will respect the possible traditions of other members of the group."

Boca fake ground meat? Even if I knew what the heck that was, I don't understand why I had to use it when, chances are, very few (if any) people would be offended by "bacon and meat and cheese together." And we would be using paper plates and plastic cutlery anyway, so there was no threat of non-kosher cross-contamination. Like a driver at Daytona who sees that green flag, I floored the gas without thinking twice:

"You should ask first. Why is [the] onus always on meat-eaters? This is why, for example, there are always cheese and veggie pizzas left over at events. This my number one pet peeve. Those who have non-majoritarian eating (or other, for that matter) preferences should have to compromise as well."

I then amended my "evite" response to ask people to contact me if they would be offended by my bringing by some little ol' barbecue. That raised the stakes more than Santa Ana's reinforcements at the Alamo, because dissent from orthodoxy, as it were, would simply not be tolerated:

"As Cluster Coordinators, we are requiring that this meal be vegetarian. If you have an issue with this, please do not come to our event. We are not excluding people by leaving out food, but we would be excluding people by adding certain foods. If you can't bring a vegetarian dish or drink, please do not attend the dinner."

At this point I was incredulous -- was this not a Southern Jewish cluster? -- and had to forward the email thread to the group of young professional Jews with whom I had attended a weeklong conference and fact-finding trip in Israel earlier this year. Some chided me for being my usual provocateurish self but most were supportive. For example, a Miami Cuban (a.k.a. "Juban") about to enter the prestigious Wharton Business School offered this:

"When we allow these panderers to define us by what we are not allowed to do -- or, really, what the orthodox do not allow themselves to do -- our Jewish identity becomes a series of negatives and our fellow Jews either develop a nasty inferiority complex ("I'm only sorta Jewish"), overlook all that Judaism has to offer beyond religion, or simply run for the hills whenever they see a Jewish event. Let's start respecting all Jews' backgrounds and traditions and stop clinging self-consciously to that lowest common (vegetarian) denominator. Keep fighting the good fight. Nothing less than the future of our people hangs in the balance."

Just to be clear, I have no problem with people who want to observe kosher laws, or any other religious mores that do not interfere with my personal liberty. I don't care who eats meat or anything else, as long as nobody forces me to refrain from eating what I enjoy (or to eat things I literally can't stomach, like tofu, mushrooms, and eggplant -- yeah, I'd be the worst vegetarian).

OK, I do enjoy seeing someone who professes to be vegetarian enjoy the distinctly carnivorous pleasures of a Brazilian churrascaria -- but that's just to stick it in the ear of the ridiculous meat-is-murder, "go veg" as political statement crowd. But as far as I'm concerned, if you don't want to eat choice grade-A filet mignon, all the more for me. No blood, no fowl.

I also do not intend to enter any theological frays. Not for me is it to answer the eternal questions of "who is Jew" or "what is righteous."

Again, my beef, so to speak, is with those who would impose their rules -- or, what is possibly worse, the rules of some nebulous other whom they wish not to "offend" in some incomprehensible way -- on me. (At least when I'm in the majority; when I'm in the minority, I either bite my tongue or try to convince people to join my side until we're no longer the minority.)

In short, my disagreement was not with those who observe koshrut (God -- nay, G_d -- bless 'em), but with the organizers -- one of whom had, in a previous email thread, agreed with me that "bacon-wrapped anything" was indeed delicious.

Thus I resolved to boycott the inaugural Southern Jewish cluster meeting, in hopes that these culinary issues would be resolved before the next event. Alas, this time, when I went back to change my response to the invitation, I discovered that I could no longer access the evite. I had been, in effect, dis-evited!

In the end, I wouldn't have been able to make the event anyway because I was called out of town on business. But the principle remains, and I am saddened to be reminded yet again of the insidious reach of self-flagellating accommodationism (which, by "respecting" all, respects none).

After all, so long as the majority respects the minority's natural right to live as it pleases -- within the Western conception of rule of law -- it is up to the minority to accommodate (or assimilate into, or otherwise live with -- whichever they prefer) the majority's culture.

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer whose last "Dispatch from Purple America" was actually a dispatch from Mexico.

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