Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner,” the baritone voices of actors Robert Mitchum and Sam Elliott told us in the 1990s. “We’re not gonna let Joe Biden and Kamala Harris cut America’s meat!” cried Mike Pence during a speech in Iowa last year. “To meet the Biden Green New Deal targets, America has to, get this, America has to stop eating meat,” lamented Donald Trump adviser Larry Kudlow on Fox Business. Repeatedly, we’re reminded that red meat is the lifeblood of American culture, a hallmark of masculine power.
Adam: This association has lingered for well over a century. Starting in the late 1800s as white settlers expropriated Indigenous land killing Native people and wildlife in pursuit of westward expansion across North America, the development and promotion of cattle ranching — and its product: meat — was purposefully imbued with the symbolism of dominance, aggression, and of course, manliness.
Nima: There’s an associated animating force behind this messaging as well: the perception of waning masculinity in our settler-colonial society. Whether a reaction to the closure of the American West as a tameable frontier in the late 19th century or to the contemporary right’s imagined threats of “soy boys” and a US military that has supposedly gone soft under liberal command, the need to affirm a cowboy sense of manliness, defined and expressed through violence and domination, continues to take the form of consuming meat.
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll study the origins of the cultural link between meat eating and masculinity in settler-colonial North America; how this has persisted into the present day via right-wing charlatans like Jordan Peterson, Josh Hawley and Tucker Carlson who panic over the decline of masculinity; and the social and political costs of the maintenance and preservation of Western notions of manliness.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with Kristin Hoganson, Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of books including American Empire at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars and, most recently, The Heartland: An American History.
Kristin Hoganson: There were lots of claims that things like white bread, red meat and blue blood make the tricolor flag of conquest, and that the meat eaters would eventually dominate the entire world by virtue of absorbing the muscle power of their racially superior animals and that the meat eaters were understood as the Anglo Saxon, white, US or British men.
Adam: So one qualifier for this episode as we, as we often do on the show, this is not meant to be a categorical or exhaustive account of meat eating and all cultures. Obviously, we are focusing on white settler colonialism in North America, we are not arguing that the consumption of meat is somehow unique to white settler colonialism in North America. Obviously, other cultures eat meat with varying degrees of organic and natural reasons for eating meat. We could dispute the contemporary ethics of that there’s, of course, a lot of organic and natural reasons why we do a lot of things that we maybe ought not do, but we are not making a normative claim either way. What we are suggesting is that the obsession with the fetishization to focus on meat consumption as a form of dominance has its own political and cultural currents, which still live with us today, that we think are worth exploring, especially in the context of the recent right-wing panic over Biden coming after and Obama and Ocasio-Cortez, and I think Pelosi was thrown in there at one point too, coming after our hamburgers, something that is not, we can sort of mock in isolation, but is actually in fact part of a broader framework of how we perceive dominance over animals as a proxy for manhood and manliness.
Nima: So I think to understand the origins of the association between meat and masculinity, it’s instructive to start, yes, not perhaps a number of million years ago in hunter gatherer societies, but let’s start, Adam, in the 19th century, when the beef industry in North America really began to emerge. Now, the history of the beef industry is inextricably linked to the history of colonialism in the United States, of the United States, and the development of global capitalism. Now, by most accounts, the beef industry arose in the late 19th century — that’s not to say there weren’t ranchers for hundreds of years before then — but after the 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican American War, Mexico ceded 525,000 square miles of land to the United States — land that we now know as the states of Colorado, Arizona, California, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and New Mexico.
In the subsequent decades, cattle ranching accelerated amid the United States as westward expansion and the growth of capital markets. As white settlers flooded this newly obtained land from Mexico now called the United States the use and expansion of this land for cattle ranching was predicated on the military-led extermination of Native people, including the Kiowa, Comanche and Plains Apache and wildlife of course, across the continent, namely bison. Now, according to Joshua Specht, author of the book Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America, 95 percent of western lands were acquired through the dispossession of American Indian land. As Specht writes, quote:
In a matter of decades, an ecosystem founded on the relationship between ranchers and cattle displaced a system of nomadic peoples and bison. Cattle ranching not only justified the expropriation of American Indian land, but it also was a part of the material process of doing so; ranchers and cowboys supplied the US Army, occasionally accompanied the military on raids or reconnaissance missions, and even at times organized their own expeditions. Further, the profitability of ranching encouraged the rapid settling of the American West.
Adam: That’s why we call them cowboys versus Indians, it was inexorably linked to the ranching industry. But of course, as the West was quote-unquote “won,” which is to say they ran out of Indians to kill and land to conquer, according to most academic research on the subject, there was a transformation of Western masculine notions that occurred around this time in the final decade of the 19th century and this closing of the American West began to change perceptions of the threat to American manliness as scholars like John Robert Van Slyke and our guest, Kristin Hoganson, characterize this shifting definition of masculinity as a response to, among other things, the closing of the Western frontier, the coming-of-age of a post-Civil War generation that hadn’t fought in a war, and the rise of women’s suffrage and the presence of women in the workforce.. In the early 2000s, Van Slyke wrote, quote:
Throughout the final decades of the nineteenth century there was a crisis of manhood that transformed the male ideal in America…The former [notion of manhood] implied a moral dimension of manhood as an ‘honorable, high minded’ ideal rooted in the Victorian attributes of sexual restraint, a powerful will, and a strong character. The emergent masculine ideal, by contrast, represented the ‘characteristics of the male sex’ that differentiated men from women. Beginning in the final decades of the nineteenth century, this evolution of convention yielded a male standard that increasingly embraced ‘aggressiveness, physical force, and male sexuality.’
And as Teddy Roosevelt biographer Sarah Watts noted in her book Rough Rider in the White House, quote:
…men were changing their ideas of how to be men, appropriating more aggressive models in response to a growing sense of male diminishment…In keeping with changing models of masculinity…mass-circulation magazines began to feature a Napoleonic ‘idol of power,’ a man of action who used iron will and ‘animal magnetism’ to crush his rivals and dominate nature.
Sounds like a podcast.
Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah.
Adam: The manliest of professions. Watts continued, quote:
Enter a new type of charismatic male personality after 1870, a cowboy-soldier operating in the new venue of the American West on sheer strength of will and physicality. Eastern readers instantly recognized him as more masculine precisely because he met the psychological desires in their imagination, making them into masters of their own fate, propelling them into violent adventure and comradeship, believing them at home in nature, not in the hothouse interiors of office buildings or middle-class homes.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: So this is the ultimate dude doing dude stuff, right? It’s out in the West unencumbered by women, dominating the land, settling it so the weaker of the races among us could come later.
Nima: Teddy Roosevelt, I think, as we’ve discussed on the show, I mean, if you’re talking about American imperialism, if you’re talking about this performative sense of masculinity, this making up for a childhood deemed not dominating enough — Teddy Roosevelt was very sick as a kid and he kind of spent his entire life trying to dude it up to make up for that — we talk about Roosevelt a lot and I think it is really important to dig a little deeper on Teddy Roosevelt’s role in this association between meat and masculinity.
So Roosevelt, in fact, was one of the most singularly influential figures in this era’s cultivation of contemporary masculine social mores, particularly as they relate to cattle ranching and cowboy iconography. Now, prior to his presidency, in the early 1880s, Roosevelt — now this is Theodore Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt — served on the New York State Assembly. At the time, newspapers derided him for a perceived effeminacy, calling him a quote “weakling,” and “Jane-Dandy,” a “chief of the dudes” — dudes not meaning the current sense of dudes like dude-stuff but meaning someone who is not tough, like a dude ranch, someone who is not of the wild, of the pioneering spirit — a “Punkin-Lily” with a quote-unquote “squeaky” voice. These are all of course dog whistles for homosexuality, for not being manly enough. Even Roosevelt’s voice, which the squeakiness of it, potentially a result of his childhood asthma and other illnesses, was used against him in the press. Now, around 1883 or 1884, in the interest of transforming his own public image, Roosevelt ventured to the Dakota territory out west looking to hunt bison. He contrasted his romanticized conception of rugged life in the West with urban life on the East Coast, he’s a native born New Yorker, which he characterized as draining men of their quote-unquote “life juices.” Now, Roosevelt eventually bought two cattle ranches, both as an expression of frontier-style masculinity and as an attempt to cash in on the burgeoning beef industry. He fashioned himself into a quote-unquote “frontier life” propagandist for national magazines writing paeans to the settler-colonialists of the Western US and published three books. These are the titles: Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail, and The Wilderness Hunter.
Adam: In his book The Wilderness Hunter, Roosevelt portrayed hunting as what scholar John Robert Van Slyke called, quote, “a metaphor for American success.” As Van Slyke would write, quote:
For Roosevelt, hunting provided a ‘training school for war,’ which honed the frontiersman’s skills and explained his success vis a vis the Indians. For Roosevelt, then, the frontier ceased to be a mere safety valve and instead became a virile proving ground for civilized manhood.
An overarching theme of Roosevelt’s work was the connection between hunting and expression of domination, particularly white domination over nature and over Native people who were considered a subset of nature and their land. Here’s an excerpt from The Wilderness Hunter:
Daniel Boone, the archetype of the American hunter, was leading his bands of tall backwoods riflemen to settle in the beautiful country of Kentucky, where the red and the white warriors strove with such obstinate rage that both races alike grew to know it as ‘the dark and bloody ground.’
Boone and his fellow-hunters were the heralds of the oncoming civilization, the pioneers in that conquest of the wilderness which has at last been practically achieved in our own day. Where they pitched their camps and built their log huts or stockaded hamlets, towns grew up, and men who were tillers of the soil, not mere wilderness wanderers, thronged in to take and hold the land.
One of Roosevelt’s most commonly cited quotes describes the archetype of the cowboy as, quote, “a man who possesses few of the emasculated, milk-and-water moralities admired by the pseudo-philanthropists; but he does possess, to a very high degree, the stern, manly qualities that are invaluable to a nation.” Unquote. Now keep in mind, this is one who is born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was born at 20th and Broadway to a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist who had a reputation as being weak and this to me is the most quintessential of American stories, right? Someone who is, you know, Bush bought a cattle ranch as a scion into the Bush family, where if there’s a sense that you’re not back in the day that the kings would lead their troops in the war, right? Edward III, and then at some point they stopped doing it, because you know, what’s the point of being elite, if you got to go risk your fucking neck, right? It’s not fun that way.
Adam: So you sort of you build these kind of fantasy camps for the wealthy in the elite to sort of prove their mettle and the West and the taming of the West and picking on a totally under funded, under resourced, our technologically advanced native population was kind of your stomping ground, it’s where you want to go sow your wild oats and to prove your mettle, and then with the closing of the West, these opportunities became less and less available, and then enter the Roosevelt-directed moral panic around the turn of the century, where we had to come up with other ways of kind of reinvigorating the soul of this waning masculinity. So towards the end of the 1890s in 1898, Roosevelt, before he became president, Roosevelt would recruit and lead the first US volunteer cavalry, known as the Rough Riders during the Spanish American War. This was a coterie of moneyed frontiersmen, Texas Ranger and East Coast college athletes. They were basically the sons and themselves wealthy elites, who were popularly thought to have embodied the Roosevelt masculine ideal. Like Roosevelt, they sought to abandon the trappings of their comfortable metropolitan city lives in favor of what they perceived as rugged, intrepid life of hunting and warring, and of course they pick on inferiority, in this case the Spanish, and what was basically a chip shot war — because they’re doing fantasy camp, it’s a dude ranch.
Nima: Yeah, exactly. It’s like cowboy camp where they actually get to murder people. At the time, not just in retrospect, but at the time, the kind of mythology of the Rough Riders was burnished in the media. This is from The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer from Wheeling, West Virginia, published on June 14, 1898 and the article is headlined, “Roosevelt’s Famous ‘Rough Riders,’” and it says this, quote:
Roosevelt’s ‘rough riders’ are on the march. They started from Texas for Cuba some days ago. Immediately upon their arrival in Tampa they will be transported to the island. The ‘rough riders’ consist of American millionaires from all over the United States, who have asked permission to fight under Theodore Roosevelt in this way. Hallett Alsop Borrowe, who married Austin Corbin’s daughter, is one of them. They are seasoned by Rocky mountain hunting.
There’s another article that came out the following month, July 28, 1898, this from The Summit County Beacon in Akron, Ohio, with the headline, “HAIL OF LEAD: Roosevelt’s Rough Riders Faced It Bravely. NO COWARDS AMONG THEM.” no cowards among them, it says in all caps, “Every Man Did His Duty Without Flinching.” And a couple of months after that September 28, 1898, from The Topeka State Journal, from Topeka, Kansas, this article, “Four Rough Riders From Teddy Roosevelt’s Regiment are at the Reunion Now,” and it says this:
Troopers Faulk. Groves, Crockett and Bascomb of Roosevelt’s rough riders, had a little reunion of their own today. They enjoyed it fully as much or more than the old veterans did, and as they called up incidents and anecdotes of San Juan it was extremely interesting to the spectators. They all agree that ‘Teddy,’ as every rough rider calls Roosevelt, was the best man in the war, and next to him came General Joe Wheeler, with Colonel Wood close behind him.
‘You see Teddy was one of the boys,’ said a trooper to a Journal reporter. ‘It didn’t make any difference if he was rich, he got right down among us and looked after our comforts. If he came to a lot of us sitting down on the ground he would say “Never mind about saluting, boys, you’re tired. I’m not Colonel Roosevelt, but just plain Teddy.” He ate hard tack with the rest of us and once when we didn’t have very much he told us to go ahead and eat what we wanted and he would eat what was left.’
Adam: Right. So it’s all PR for a burgeoning political career, and of course, he went on to become Vice President and after McKinley was shot became president. And this is of course, once you’ve “closed the West,” quote-unquote, in 1890, I think that was when the West was officially considered settled, right? Obviously, they were still genociding Indians after that fact, but that was when it became a known entity, if you will, you got to turn elsewhere, right? You got to turn elsewhere, to other parts of the western hemisphere to dominate, and then of course, that’s where the Spanish American War came in, because then that was another war of colonial domination. As our guest, Kristin Hoganson, and Van Slyke have written, the instigation of the Spanish American War was very much predicated on the expression of masculinity. We don’t want to oversell that, because obviously imperialism is its own force, we don’t want to act like toxic masculinity is necessarily responsible, but it was certainly one of the motivating recruitment factors.
In March of 1898, President William McKinley was somewhat dovish and hesitant to go to war and a stance elicited criticism of quote-unquote a “lack of manhood” from several different publications, and his leadership was, quote, “lame, halting, and impotent.” According to an 1898 issue of New York journal, it focused specifically on his lack of manhood and manliness, McKinley eventually caved to pressure and declared war on April 25, 1898. As John Robert Van Slyke wrote in 2001, quote:
Why were men like McKinley so disconcerted by the media campaigns preceding the Spanish-American War? It may seem rash to affix a single answer to this loaded question. Nonetheless, there is one explanation that warrants detailed consideration.
Throughout the final decades of the nineteenth century there was a crisis of manhood that transformed the male ideal in America. Gail Bederman, in Manliness and Civilization, credits this period with effecting a shift from the term ‘manliness’ to ‘masculinity’ in characterizing turn-of-the-century manhood…
With the closing of the West and the rise of modern comforts there was extra emphasis put on sports, which Teddy Roosevelt was a huge promoter of.
As you may remember from Episode 59, one of the major reasons why football was promoted specifically by Teddy Roosevelt, among the elites in Ivy League schools, which is why the early football games were played in Ivy League schools and Rutgers — no offense to Rutgers — Yale, Harvard, Princeton, etcetera, was because they it was viewed as being with the closure of the West and lack of a war, a meaningful war, that they had gone soft and that football could help make them tough. Again, this was another form, in addition to hunting and ranching and going off to Cuba to fight an overwhelmed military to send back a bunch of press releases boosting your presidential campaign, this was a way you kind of groomed the elites for toughness and manhood because if there wasn’t a war, you could sort of artificially create one in the football field — to a lesser extent baseball field in prior generations, although with that point, I think baseball was seen as being fairly weak — and this was just another example of how you combat this moral panic around waning manliness.
Nima: Now, let’s bring this back to meat. Around the late 19th century — likely not a coincidence that the US was expanding West simultaneously — media in the form of advertisements, magazine articles, features and dietary advice reinforced the gendered characteristics of meat, particularly of course, red meat, that persist still today. Now, according to Yale history professor Paul Freedman, a bifurcation between masculinized and feminized foods began really in the 1870s. At the time, increasing numbers of women entered the formal workplace and dined in restaurants, and restaurants seeking women as customers proliferated. Freedman writes this, quote:
It was during this period that the notion that some foods were more appropriate for women started to emerge. Magazines and newspaper advice columns identified fish and white meat with minimal sauce, as well as new products like packaged cottage cheese, as ‘female foods.’
Now, if we fast forward a bit to the mid-20th century, by 1949, Esquire magazine was releasing its Handbook for Hosts, a cookbook and how-to guide for entertaining marketed toward men. And here’s an excerpt, quote:
The world’s greatest cooks are men. Since the beginning of time, he-men have always prepared the savory dishes that caress the palates of epicures of every nation.
For Food & Wine magazine in February of 2021, Kat Kinsman wrote this about the handbook:
The handbook goes on to slam ‘woman’s magazine salads’ and ‘doily tearoom fare,’ making a curious claim that ‘women don’t seem to understand fish’ and declaring that a game-based stew is ‘second only to steak in its standing as a Man’s Dish.’
Adam: Fast forward to 1990, which saw the publication of Carol J. Adams’s book The Sexual Politics of Meat. The book contextualized meat consumption within the patriarchal social and political structures, connecting the subjugation of women to that of animals. Needless to say, the book incurred the wrath of a lot of conservative media at the time; Rush Limbaugh went on dozens of tirades against it for weeks.
In the 1980s, the Beef Industry Council — the promotional arm of National Beef and Livestock Board, a lobbying group for beef interests — began a series of mass-media ad campaigns to promote consumption of beef, of course what better to do that than the manliest of all men, Bob Mitchum — that’s what his friends call him, you call him Robert Mitchum, but those who knew him called him Bob Mitchum — Bob Mitchum and later after Bob Mitchum’s passing Sam Elliott, who is of course is the manliest man to ever manly men, and they launched their “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner” campaign.
[Begin TV Commercial Clip]
Robert Mitchum: At the end of each day, all over the country, nothing satisfies so many people in so many ways. Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.
[End TV Commercial Clip]
[Begin Radio Commercial Clip]
Sam Elliot: Some folks like to call beef the red meat, but there’s a lot more to beef than just the color red. It has more micronutrients than a lot of foods you eat everyday. So you might want to take another look at beef the next time you pass by the meat case, because everything else looks pale in comparison. Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.
[End Radio Commercial Clip]
Adam: The idea that meat was associated with virality and manhood obviously cemented itself in popular culture and still exists to this day, this is not a shock to you I’m sure, surfaced in far more explicit ways in a number of mid-2000s commercials were marketing —
Nima: Yeah, it got kind of weird.
Adam: Marketing and advertising people, there was sort of a bit of irony, it was like there was this irony like, ‘Oh, aren’t men like, we need to be manly, we’re doing a joke but we’re kind of doing the real thing.’
Nima: Kind of like the Denis Leary ‘I’m an asshole’ song. You’re kind of tongue in cheek, but you also kind of mean it.
Adam: Yeah, exactly.
Nima: So for instance, in 2006, Burger King came out with an ad campaign that was basically a song parody of the Helen Reddy song “I Am Woman,” but it instead was “I Am Man,” and it sounded like this.
[Begin Burger King Commercial Clip]
Man: (Singing) I am man, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore, and I’m way too hungry to settle for chick food. Cause my stomach’s starting to growl, and I’m going on the prowl for a cheesy bacon XXL.
Man #2: (Singing) Man, that’s good!
Group of men: (Singing) Oh, yes, I’m a guy.
Man #3: (Singing) I’ll admit I’ve been fed quiche, baked tofu bye-bye, now it’s for flame grilled beef I reach. I will eat this meat, until my innie turns into an outie. I am starved.
Group of men: (Singing) I am starved.
Man #3: (Singing) I am incorrigible. I can eat a big burger beef bacon super cheesy good thing now.
Group of men: (Singing) Yeah!
Man #3: (Singing) I am hungry!
Group of men: (Singing) I am hungry!
Man #3: (Singing) I am incorrigible!
Group of men: (Singing) I am man!
Man #4: The cheesy bacon XXL. Eat like a man, man.
[End Burger King Commercial Clip]
Adam: So this is an ad called “Tofu” from 2006. It’s a Hummer commercial.
[Begin Hummer Commercial Clip]
Adam (narrating): We have two bros, two normal looking bros at the grocery store. This guy is getting his groceries rung up, it’s tofu, celery, lettuce, radishes, and there’s a guy behind him with a bunch of meat. He sees a Hummer ad. And then this guy pulls out in his rather effeminate looking car and he goes and buys a Hummer. And it says, “Restore the balance.” The idea is that he was eating too much tofu and he needs to go get a Hummer to expedite the warming of the planet to prove his manliness.
[End Hummer Commercial Clip]
Nima: (Laughs.) Exactly.
Adam: Right? Again, these are part of a trend where people listen to that and they say ‘Okay, this is kind of a joke, it’s kind of tongue and cheek,’ but it’s kind of not, right? It’s sort of playing to a general perception that we can overcompensate for our lack of manhood. It’s very much in the 2000s vein of ironically problematic as a joke but, I don’t know, it’s not really ironic. I think they are very much playing to a neurosis among certain kinds of middle class men that they’re inadequately asserting their machoness.
Nima: Well, yeah, I mean, you even see this oddly enough relating back to that weird handbook line about male chefs. You then have, you know, in the mid-2000s also Emeril Lagasse’s famous “manly meat lasagna” recipe where he — bam! — now it’s time for meat and there’s squeals of glee from, not the women in the audience, but the men in the audience. I think we can listen to that here.
[Begin Emeril Live Clip]
Emeril Lagasse: We got the sausage over here browning, we got the pan cheddar in the other one. When the pan cheddar is brown, now it’s time for the meat!
Crowd: (Applause) Yeah!
[End Emeril Live Clip]
Adam: Again, throughout the 2010s marketers kept playing to this idea of meat being equated with manliness or kind of waning masculinity in the face of presumably women emerging in the ranks of law schools and medical schools and colleges and other kinds of panics around women overtaking manliness or kind of owning spaces, which were typically for manliness. Esquire magazine released a series of cookbooks and articles under the theme “Eat Like A Man” which were very heavy on red meat. In 2015, Esquire followed this with their book Eat Like a Man Guide to Feeding a Crowd: How to Cook for Family, Friends, and Spontaneous Parties, in which one learned to cook like a man.
Nima: You need 18 pounds of brisket on hand at all times for your spontaneous parties.
Adam: In January 2014, they proceeded with, “Can You Prove to Us That You Eat Like a Man?” An article about how to be a man. Now of course the Republicans and alt-right, some people may view those ads as ironic or tongue-in-cheek, the alt-right and Republican party very much were not being ironical, which I think was sort of part of the appeal of that approach. Republican politicians in the United States constantly preserved the connection between red meat and masculinity, albeit to a cartoonish degree, it was very much in earnest.
Nima: Red meat, particularly beef, and yes, of course, there’s this long history of the American West and cattle ranching, but really just this idea of meat consumption as evidence of your manliness, your man-itude, really just retains enormous cultural purchase in the contemporary right. I mean, it’s not even about associating with cowboys anymore, although I think that’s part of it, it really just is about what is going to make their own consumption, who is their prey? In contrast with this imagined coming system of totalitarian socialism in which meat is forever banned, it’s replaced with meat substitutes, soy and tofu is routinely feminized for it’s coming from plants, for daring to presume that it could replace meat, and so we see this to really a very cartoonish degree. But in February of 2019, former Trump administration communications director Tim Murtaugh tweeted this, quote, “the truth is they” — they being democratic politicians, particularly Ocasio-Cortez — “want to ban meat.” This was of course famously followed by Sebastian Gorka, neo-Nazi and former Trump aide, claiming at CPAC in the same year that Democrats, quote, “want to take away your hamburgers” in response to the mild calls from people like Ocasio-Cortez to reduce meat consumption as part of the Green New Deal. Republicans continue to recycle this trope into 2020 in reference to the presence of vegan and vegetarian presidential candidates like Cory Booker and Tulsi Gabbard and in reference to perceptions of Democrats as meat industry-killing environmentalists.
Adam: The New York Post had an op-ed, “Why I vote ‘Hell, no!’ on a vegan president.” The Carteret County News-Times, in 2019, the same year, quote, “No to a vegan president.” Mike Pence vowed in 2020:
Pence: “We’re not gonna let Joe Biden and Kamala Harris cut America’s meat!”
Adam: In response to Harris’s expressed approval of nutritional guidelines that would reduce red meat consumption. Tucker Carlson did several different segments on the moral panic around people wanting to take our meat over several different months based on this very spurious idea that we would reduce red meat consumption in any possible, totally theoretical Green New Deal. We can listen to that here.
Tucker Carlson: As George Orwell once noted, the worst advertisement for socialism is its adherence. According to Orwell, the typical socialist is, quote, “Either a youthful snob-Bolshevik or, more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller, and often with vegetarian leanings.” Orwell wrote those words in 1937 but they’re weirdly recognizable today, especially the line about vegetarianism. There’s something about the left you may have noticed that makes them highly neurotic about food. It’s been that way for generations, but there is ample evidence the impulse is getting worse. Here’s a clip from the other night on CNN. Democratic candidates lining up to denounce meat as immoral.
Woman: Would you support changing the dietary guidelines?
Kamala Harris: Yes.
Woman: You know, the food pyramid. To reduce red meat specifically.
Kamala Harris: Yes. Yes I would.
Andrew Yang: It’s good for the environment, it’s good for your health if you eat less meat. Certainly meat is an extraordinarily expensive thing to produce.
Elizabeth Warren: Look, there are a lot of ways that we try to change our energy consumption. Some of it is with lightbulbs, some of it is on straws, some of it dang is on cheeseburgers, right?
Tucker Carlson: You catch that? Elizabeth Warren says you eat too many cheeseburgers as if it’s any of her business, but that’s the thing, she actually thinks it is her business. They all think that. The activist left seeks to control everything you do, including what you put in your mouth.
Adam: There was a misleading Daily Mail article in April of 2021 that speculated that Biden’s climate change — God, I really wish Democrats were like the Republicans think they are, it’s always funny to me.
Nima: (Laughs.) I know, I know. Wouldn’t it be great?
Adam: Speculated that Biden’s climate plan, which was very vague and short on specifics, would limit people in the US to only quote, “one burger a month,” notably reliable source Daily Mail. Fox News business did a whole segment about Biden’s assault on the middle class with the Green New Deal. Larry Kudlow, Trump’s former adviser said, quote, “To meet the Biden Green New Deal targets, America has to, get this, America has to stop eating meat. No burger on July 4. No steaks on the barbecue.”
Nima: (Laughs.) No burger on July 4th. Can you believe what they’re doing to our country?
Adam: And in recent years right-wing self-help and alt-right types, gurus, during the early years of the Trump administration, like Jordan Peterson, became huge promoters of meat eating as a proxy for masculinity, as a pathway to masculinity. He wrote a self-help book Twelve Rules for Life, which again like Teddy Roosevelt were obsessed with this panic around waning masculinity and he promoted an all-beef diet as part of a self-help regime claiming it could provide —
Nima: All beef?
Adam: No literally, all beef, that it can help your body and cure depression.
Nima: A few years ago, in 2017, when Professor Ann DeLessio-Parson published a report about meat and its intersection with masculinity, this obviously created endless rounds of silliness on Fox News and other right-wing media all the way up to the point where Professor DeLessio-Parson was actually a guest on Jesse Watters’ ridiculous Fox News show, when in the middle of the interview with her a PA on the show comes out and serves Watters a plate of steak that he proceeds to eat in front of the guest, as she’s talking about her academic work on meat masculinity, on toxic masculinity, on the consumption of animals as also being part of this domination culture. I mean, of course this is completely ridiculous and it almost becomes too obvious to even comment on.
Adam: Well that’s the thing, right? The whole thing is very much based on a kind of faux irony. Fox News does this all the time, ‘We’re just being ironic,’ not just about the meat thing, they do this all the time.
Nima: ‘Oh, I was just kidding.’
Adam: Right, now we’re playing up the whole, ‘I identify as an attack helicopter; is just a joke, and it’s like, it’s not a joke. The Ron Swanson thing, people on right-wing memes quote him all the time sincerely. There is this idea that meat approximates masculinity and that the left wants to assault meat, it’s all a bunch of sort of soy boys who want to undermine masculine dominance as part of a broader cultural understanding of this antisemitic dog whistle, cultural Marxism that the idea is you sort of erode the country from the inside, that you make us weak, you promote homosexuality, you promote transgenderism, you promote a woke CIA, woke DoD, this is all part of it. Again, if you watch Tucker, which unfortunately I do because of my job, there’s this connective tissue to all this, which is that it’s about undermining the sort of traditional core family values of masculinity.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: And if you can’t do it outright, you do it through this crypto, Green New Deal, secret plan to turn us all vegan because presumably, if we all eat soy, men become less virile, less dominant, and then therefore become weaker and easier to control by a big bad government and it’s just ingrained into the DNA of how America views meat as this, again, Fourth of July, ribs, barbeque, its iconic and it’s iconic because it sort of represents the idea of dominance and the idea of dominating nature and that once you kind of give an inch on that, before you know it we’re just, you know, we’re Soviet Russia or whatever, or China, I guess we’re the CCP or whatever Boogeyman Tucker wants us to believe we are or rather we’re controlled by them.
Nima: Yeah, but not just Soviet Russia or communist China, right? But the vegan versions of it, which is even more horrifying.
Adam: “Cultural Marxists,” quote-unquote, are using this as a backdoor way of undermining our civilization. So then we’re so weak we’re overtaken by foreign enemies. I mean, this is the shit they talk about all the time. Meat is just one part of that, right?
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re going to be joined by Kristin Hoganson, Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of a number of books including American Empire at the Turn of the Twentieth Century; Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars and, most recently, The Heartland: An American History. Kristin will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Kristin Hoganson. Kristen, thank you so much for coming back on Citations Needed.
Kristin Hoganson: It’s great to be back.
Adam: So we’re excited to, we’re going to avoid the food puns I promise, we’re not going to say we’re going to dig in, set the table, but I want to start off by talking about, it is sort of broadly understood that American culture views meat eating as a kind of manly act, which is reflected in several polls, it’s sort of associated with masculinity pretty commonly, it’s not just a cultural trope, it’s actually backed up by polling data. So, I want to sort of discuss the historical reasons, this is something you’ve written a lot about, we obviously touched on it in the last episode which is why we were excited to have you on to talk about this. In most cultures, this sort of direct connection isn’t really there or is incidental, but it’s central to the American, you could even maybe sort of argue Pax Americana culturally, that manhood is associated with meat consumption. I want to talk about what the genealogy of that idea is in North America.
Kristin Hoganson: In many cultures, men do eat more meat than women. It’s not just in the United States, and in many parts of the world, people are largely vegetarian, or mostly vegetarian, by circumstance, not conviction, and in the context of food scarcity, men often take more meat for themselves. So the question is: Why? And I think there are reasons that have to do with taste and nutritional value, but beyond that meat is often associated with muscles and virility, with violence and with hunting, and so I think that has a lot to do with it, but I also want to note that hunting is not the same as consumption, just because somebody goes out and gets something or produces something doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be the end consumer, and the point I’m trying to make with meat is that it is associated with things like power, dominance and control that I think have also contributed to the disproportionately male consumption of meat. So then the next question is: What’s particular to the United States? And settler colonialism has a lot to do with it. That if you go back and look at early British writings about North America that were aimed at enticing colonization, there are lots of descriptions of and visual depictions of abundant game, just unbelievable amounts of game, you know, you can’t even see the water in the rivers hardly because they’re swarming with fish, and turtles and shellfish and lobsters and things, and the air is darkened by birds, there’s just so many birds and the deer just popping out of the woods, you know, just aiming straight for the hunters, and that was a real inducement to the early colonists to come to North America. The argument was basically meat, which is relatively scarce for poor people and the working class, but you know, the kind of working poor in England at the time, the argument was that it is just going to be plentiful in North America, and it’s going to be something that can be hunted, in contrast to England, where think back on the Robin Hood myth, right? You could be hanged for hunting, for poaching if you were a poor person on someone else’s land.
Kristin Hoganson: And so hunting being gendered as a male activity made it seem that in contrast to maybe livestock production, which would be maybe more family farming, that in North America, it would be kind of a male activity of meat acquisition. So, I think that is kind of like the start of thinking about how meat was gendered in British North America. But moving forward in time, I also want to draw attention to the intersectionality of thinking about how meat was perceived and when you think about the diets of enslaved people, they were very thin on meat. So there was production of salt pork, for example, is something that might be sold to the slave labor camps of the Antebellum South, if you move forward in time, but if you read accounts, I’m thinking of Frederick Douglass’ narrative, he talks about eating cornmeal from a trough like an animal as a small child, and that gets at the heavily corn-based diet of enslaved people, and in some of the colonies, a heavily bean and rice based diet that drew on African food ways, with meat being something that was not as commonly available to enslaved people and something that they often had to produce on their own in the evening hours or on Sundays, where they might be able to raise some chickens in some contexts, or often would kind of disappear into the woods, to trap animals, wild animals that they could eat, and they were frequently accused by their enslavers of stealing animal protein, of stealing chickens say that belong to their enslavers or going into the smokehouse to get hams and so forth. But the response to that on the part of the enslaved people, you know, how can we, as your nominal property, steal something from you since there’s no division in ownership between the chicken inside of me and the chicken outside of me, but that led to a a long term trope of African American men as chicken stealers that has been something as pernicious as, you know, some of the watermelon imagery, and I think that has to do with attitudes of who has a right to meat, right?
Kristin Hoganson: And it’s not African American men who are assumed as having a right to eat animal flesh, but it’s a race-based idea of which men should have access to animal flesh. So one of the things that makes US meat consumption significant historically, it’s just how common beef ultimately became, and one of the things that reduced the significance of beef early on is just the size of the animals. So if you’re a farmer, and you butcher your cow, that’s a lot of meat, and it spoilt quickly, before refrigeration, and so that meant that more commonly consumed meats were initially game, but I should say that was rapidly depleted. There were laws in the books by the 1640s, game preservation laws, because the colonists just were so destructive of animal populations. So pork became very commonly consumed and game and fowl became commonly consumed because of the magnitude of what it meant to butcher beef. But as the United States took more and more land from indigenous people, had more land available to white ranchers for grazing purposes, ultimately became involved in the feedlot-style fattening of livestock, feeding them corn that farmers raised in places like the Midwest, then the meat industry really became concentrated, and ultimately, there was a beef trust based out of Chicago and it was forming the companies that controlled the packing market and because of refrigeration then, they could send all the butchered cattle to the larger markets of the east and that made beef readily available in the United States, and made it become the most commonly consumed meat, displacing pork as the kind of staple meat for people middle class and wealthier people. So that really distinguished the United States from other countries. But then who are the people who are buying all this meat? And they are urban people in large part who are buying them, and they may be people who have the men in the family, may be more likely to be working in factory positions, kind of managerial supervising kind of positions and kind of white collar work, not doing as much manual labor as people did earlier, and so they start to think about cowboys, right, as these romantic figures of freedom out in the West, and they associate beef with the masculine attributes that they pin on to cowboys, and the thing about cowboys is they were working class people, right? Multiracial, many Spanish speakers, African Americans, Native Americans and poor white men involved as the kind of people who would round up cattle and drive them to market, and so these were people who in other circumstances, middle class white men, would have been disparaged, but they imagined them as whiter than they were and as these freedom loving men who were tough and hearty, who would shoot up the bad guys who would go into town and drink a lot and have relations with prostitutes, and it was all these male fantasies got attached to cowboys, that then got attached to red meat. So I think that is another factor that kind of fed into why beef became associated with masculinity, and then the connections with racial and imperial domination just continue to build over time.
Nima: That was unbelievable, the ground you’ve just covered to really lay all that out. So thank you, I mean, there’s so much in there. There’s this idea that dominance over the wilderness and certainly wild animals, much like the taming of nature, like the central tenet of settler colonial ideology, and manifest destiny, and so that in itself consistent with meat eating as this kind of, you know, highest order of achievement of quote-unquote, “man,” right? And then there’s this idea that meat signifies abundance and prosperity, right? It was a luxury item, but now if everyone is eating hamburgers, then it’s kind of like a way to take yourself out of precarity, scarcity, poverty, because you’re eating the thing that rich people eat. But this also leads to then, as you’ve laid out the industry and the meat markets and how that was centralized in the Midwest of the United States, can you tell us how livestock — so rather than hunting — but livestock markets are then also intimately connected with imperialism? So meat has this kind of settler colonial thing, but then the livestock industry also has this imperialist component to it?
Kristin Hoganson: Yeah, so there are just so many dimensions to that. So at the most basic level it is like, whose land is it, right? And which animals are being produced and which animals are they displacing? So you think about the decimation of bison populations, and then the replacement on the grasslands of the American West of bison with cattle and so that’s a colonial story and it’s a story that involves moving people off the land as well, and ironically, a lot of the cattle that was produced in the late 19th century, a substantial portion of it went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to feed Native American people who had been forced on to teeny tiny little reservations where they couldn’t sustain themselves. So that’s one angle to the story, but also just thinking about the animals themselves that were understood in racialized terms. With the pureblooded animals that were used for breeding purposes being imported from European lines of pureblooded animals that were understood as aristocratic lines, that wealthy landowners in Britain had developed, you could trace your ancestry back in the herd books for many generations, they often had aristocratic titles that came to them, the breeders who purchased them paid top dollar for these animals, they were celebrity animals, and they were understood as animals that would participate in the project of racial betterment, which then mapped onto the human project of racial betterment, which white supremacists deeply believed in at the time, that they would whiten the darker races of the world, and they saw their animals as allies in that enterprise. And then if you compare that in the cattle industry to the Mexican breeding scene, you should know that there was a lot of crossing across the US-Mexican border, right? So the animals crossed, ranchers would cross the river to buy cheaper stock to build up their herds, there was a lot of rustling going both ways across the border. So it was really not just a meat industry that was confined within US borders, but something that definitely straddled the US-Mexican border. But US ranchers and fatteners and breeders regarded the Mexican animals as the degenerate descendants of the Spanish animals brought over at the time of Cortez and they believed that they had African ancestry, North African ancestry, that influenced the Spanish herds, and that they had been racially impure to begin with, and it only degenerated further over time, and that they were diseased threats to the United States, because sometimes they carry tick borne diseases that would decimate other animals in the feedlots of the Midwest, and so it led to these impulses to patrol the border, right, to have veterinarian inspections on the border that were the predecessors to inspections of humans crossing from Mexico into the United States, and so then there’s a racial politics and imperial politics to that. And switching from beef to pork, I can talk a little bit about Anglo-Saxonist pigs and the thinking was that there were different breeds — the Berkshire hog is one that comes to mind as an example — that were developed through British imperial circuits, some of the genetic material of the Berkshire hog came from China on the ships of the British Empire, and it enabled just a massive advance in kind of the speed with which animals fattened, and it led to a different kind of texture and quality to the meat, and so this hog took off in the US Midwest as similar and kind of related breeds. And the thought was, again, that it was an Anglo-Saxonist pig that was the supreme pig of the world, that was bound for global domination unlike, say, the British imperialist who was thought to be able to prosper in any climb, the thought was, the pig could do so as well, and that it would accompany imperialist agents to the far corners of the earth, and in fact, it happened because salt pork was the main foodstuff that fed the ships of the British Empire. It fed settler colonists going to places like Australia and New Zealand and South Africa, it fed military expeditions in places like Abyssinia, it fed polar exploration expeditions, and it also fed the US military and other militaries of the world.
So the imperial politics kind of spun out from the land taking and displacement of indigenous people in North America to have kind of a more global component, and it was accompanied by all kinds of ideologies and discussions of what it meant to eat meat. So there are references to the meat eating races, meaning white people, right, as the leading meat eating races, thinking about people who could not eat pork, for religious reasons, like Muslims and people like Hindus who wouldn’t eat beef for religious reasons, so I think that ethnographic thinking kind of fed into it, but it went way beyond kind of ethnographic analysis. So there were lots of claims that things like white bread, red meat and blue blood make the tricolor flag of conquest, and that the meat eaters would eventually dominate the entire world by virtue of absorbing the muscle power of their racially superior animals and that the meat eaters were understood as the Anglo Saxon, white US and British men. And it was also used, these same ideologies were used against immigrant groups and particularly against Chinese immigrants to the United States who were often derided as rat eaters. So it’s not just eating meat that would be a mark of manhood, but what kind of meat, right? And there were all kinds of meat that were taboo, right, like eating things like insects or vermin or shark fins , in some cases, even things like snails were considered to be not true forms of meat. The beef was always at the pinnacle, and in fact, like the British Navy didn’t even call pork meat. Pork was pork and chicken was chicken and meat meant beef. So Chinese men were derided as rat eaters, and they were also widely thought to be among white Americans as rice eaters, in a way where rice was understood to be an inferior foodstuff in comparison to bread and potatoes. The rice eating was used to justify Chinese exclusion legislation and the argument was that you can’t work a man who must have beef and bread alongside of a man who can live on rice, and I’m quoting now Senator James Blaine, he said, “In all such conflicts, and in all such struggles, the result is not to bring up the man who lives on rice to the beef-and-bread standard, but it is to bring down the beef-and-bread man to the rice standard.” So his argument is if you let Chinese immigrants into the United States, it is going to degrade white working class men who cannot survive because what Beard says, right, they have to have meat to be manly, and they cannot survive on a rice-and-bean diet, say, because it will deracinate and demasculinize them.
Adam: I want to talk briefly about this because I think some people listening will say, ‘Well, yeah, of course meat is better than not meat.’ Cultures that have the resources and the means to buy meat typically do regardless of what country they’re in, right? So it would sort of make sense that to some extent, we would associate meat with wealth, right? If you’re in certain parts of the world, you can sell 10 heads of cattle to buy but it’s basically to buy a bride, it’s a dowry, oftentimes takes the form of a cow. It’s an extremely efficient way of getting calories, produces milk, meat, so it sort of makes sense on some level. Obviously, what we’re talking about here is the weaponization and fetishization, if you will, of those currents, to assert a kind of dominance over a particular land, to kind of tame the wild, and specifically putting it in a gendered context, and I think that’s what’s fascinating here, because there are historical examples of some of these features, but never are they this hypercharged, never are they this directed, and I think that one of the broader themes you talk about with meat consumption is the broader theme of this show, which is the the various spasms of moral panics if you will, not to mix metaphors, of waning masculinity. You wrote some years ago, when talking about this timeframe, you wrote, quote:
There was shift in conceptions of manhood — from an older 19th-century version that emphasized self-restraint and virtue, to one of physical prowess, militarism, and aggression. By the 1890s, many American men felt that American manhood was under assault from outside and within. As the Civil War generation aged, many felt that a new generation had come of age without any similar experience that would forge their manly virtue. The Depression of 1893 emasculated men who could no longer provide for their families, while others worried about the closing of the frontier as an opportunity for building manliness, or the deteriorating effects of ‘soft’ urban life and white-collar jobs. Finally, the women’s suffrage movement made women more and more visible in the political sphere, threatening what some men saw as their male prerogative.
I like this quote, because it sort of talks about that there’s always this overarching obsession with manliness and this is the theme we keep coming back to on the show whether it’s in your research or other research is that, you see this with even the Boy Scouts or the chronicles, sort of Western books of the day that were very popular, while contemporary with like the Wild West right up to the ’50s, you had the concept of, you know, Davy Crockett wrestling bears, all the shit. There’s this constant obsession with waning manhood as this forever moral panic. How does meat and meat consumption dovetail with these panics both historically and even contemporaneously?
Kristin Hoganson: Yeah. So masculinity is so fragile, right? And it’s something that there’s always a crisis of masculinity just playing out in different ways, and then in terms of how they connect, I mean, a lot of things that were going on in the time period, in the late 19th century, you know, aren’t directly connected to meat eating, right? Things like this strenuous life, boxing, football, going camping in the summer, you know, thinking about the rise of the Boy Scouts, like you just mentioned, it’s not all about meat, but I have to say meat does play in some ways, right? So with camping part of it is with the Boy Scouts is cooking over the fire, right? So that connects to meat for men for one of the things that makes meat so masculine is that it’s often barbecued, that’s the quintessentially masculine form of meat and that came out of this whole moment of worry about masculinity in the United States, and it carried on from the 1890s. If you move forward into the 1920s, you think about Ernest Hemingway, and all of his short stories, his Nick Adams stories, there’s a lot of campfire cooking, right? Nick is always cooking over a fire. So to think about that as a predecessor to the barbecue and that had to do with bringing out your inner savage, which is connected to the all the other things I was talking about with the strenuous life, with war being the ultimate expression of that as many pro war men explicitly said, around 1898, when the United States went to war in Cuba and the Philippines, and the thought was that war would be a place to develop more masculine character on the part of effeminate men and a place to express masculinity, and to counter what was regarded as over civilization and that does go back to meat and one point of evidence for that is the writings of Dr. George Miller Beard, who wrote in the late 19th century, and he was really worried about men’s nervous exhaustion and thought the solution to that would be more flesh eating. Well, I have to say that the doctor I’m talking about, Dr. Beard, was in conversation, basically with Sylvester Graham, who you may know because of the Graham Cracker, also the Graham Diet, which was a vegetarian diet because Graham thought that meat put undue pressure on the male organs and so men had to lay off of it. So then down the road Beard was like, ‘Au contraire, the problem is men aren’t eating enough meat,’ and that the language of nervous exhaustion is something that fit in to all these other discourses about why we have to have football even though some men back the day would lose their lives every year on the college football field, it was worth it because it was building manhood.
Nima: You know, the way it connects with warmaking, especially, you know, from the Spanish American War, from this kind of, you know, Teddy Roosevelt macho imperialism.
Kristin Hoganson: Yeah, during wartime civilians are always asked to give up meat to free meat for military personnel. So in World War I, for example, the National Food Administration had, I think it was meatless Tuesdays and wheatless Wednesdays if I get the days right, and the implication of that was, in the end, that military personnel got two and a half times as much meat as civilians got, which tells you something about the gendering of meat, that it is regarded as something that warriors eat and that you can take it away from women and children and men who are not in the military, because I guess they’re of lesser importance in wartime and that men in the military have to have meat, they have to have red meat in particular to be effective killers and soldiers. So that’s, I guess, one more aspect of the gendering of meat.
Nima: We’ve seen just a complete torrent of articles, talking points, press conferences, tweets, cable news segments that feature people like, you know, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, lamenting the loss of manliness in the US military, or more recently, the CIA, you know, especially in the new kind of recruitment tactics, the recruitment ads that talk about women that try and recruit women to these organs of imperialism and violence, as contrasted with, to Cruz and Hawley’s horror, of course, the recruitment strategies of China and Russia, which have their own ultra-masculine strategies, ultra-masculine propaganda for their own militaries. Jordan Peterson, and his own kind of, you know, pro-meat, anti what he calls, you know, “soy boys,” that kind of rhetoric is still so present all this, you know, we discussed earlier the idea that Joe Biden’s coming to take your hamburgers. What does that say really about how effective this manliness moral panic is in political discourse? Who does it serve? And beyond just being kind of right-wing tropes of crotch-grabbing, and cigarette-smoking Marlboro men, but what is the political utility do you think here as leverage in this discourse? Who does it serve and how does it raise the blood pressure, the red blood pressure of the constituents that are meant to be outraged and moved by them?
Kristin Hoganson: Yeah, those are such great questions. I haven’t heard this “soy boy” reference before. The reference that comes to my mind that is similar to that is Reagan calling Mondale a “quiche eater” back in 1984. I think masculinity is perpetually in crisis, right? It’s a fragile thing and it’s so multifaceted and multi vocal and not set and there’s a sense of hegemonic masculinity, which is the kind of masculinity I’m talking about, but there are so many different masculinities in the United States, in the world, and so I think that when political leaders are making the kinds of claims that you were just referring to, they’re doing so in some ways from a position of producing a hegemonic masculinity that doesn’t exactly exist for many people or communities, right? Because there’s so many other ways of construing masculinity, but it has teeth, and it has legs, and it has political power, which is why I think political leaders have to repeatedly prove their machismo or masculinity, to seem to be credible political leaders, and then you say, well, who does it hurt? Well, it hurts so many people, where to begin, right? It hurts women who’ve been excluded from political power and a lot of this rhetoric that we’re talking about, thinking back 100 years ago, was the kind of rhetoric that was used to argue against women’s suffrage, right? And it hurts people who have maybe more progressive politics, who are concerned about things like the future of the planet. It hurts people who may not be warmongers and you know various moments of time when it is the macho posturing that seems to have political legs that helps people get elected because of the sense that tough talk will win.
Adam: I think there’s an assumption, right, that with this sort of waning moral panic around masculinity, there’s a market for it, right? Politically, it’s very potent. Jordan Peterson is a bestselling author because he touches something unique, right? Something that’s deep down inside, or rather, something that’s, if not uniquely American is, for whatever reason, triggers some part of the brain of a lot of men, there’s some kind of pre-Socratic values of courage and honor that for whatever reason contemporary society doesn’t, I don’t know, appeal to. There’s something romantic about it. And again, this is why all he did for years was say, just eat nothing but raw red meat, and that that sort of played to this kind of stoic pre-Socratic ideal, right? And it’s such a cheap way of motivating people to do shit for you, and I think it may be to some extent that’s even cross-cultural, and I think when you’re trying to problematize the gendered components of meat, it’s almost like you’re banging your head against the wall, because then they’ll just accuse us of being a bunch of soy boys — which is true, I am soft and not very manly, but that’s a coincidence — and I think it’s such a potent political message that it’s almost never gonna go away and there’ll be some new reason for it, again, I think most of it now is, ‘Oh, we’re letting you know, we’re letting boys dress like girls and that’s why China and Russia are going to beat us.’
Kristin Hoganson: So this is all just one teeny-tiny part of a larger politics of identity politics, and deflecting attention from policy towards these issues of cultural affiliation and personal identity, which are just so visceral for so many people that they are compelling in ways that complicated discussions of how are we as a species, for example, going to deal with climate change, which is an abstraction — it’s hard for people to grasp the full magnitude of the problem and all the steps that have to be taken to do something about it and to build a political consensus about that to get different stakeholders, some of them are going to lose out in various ways, to get them to agree on policies, that’s so hard and so difficult and to talk about meat, they’re going to take our hamburgers, it’s a gut punch, right? If you like that kind of, if you’re a hamburger eater, then you’re gonna go to war for that.
Kristin Hoganson: And I just want to say one more thing about masculinity, which is that often it’s defined, I think, relative to others. So masculinity is defined relative to femininity, that men define themselves against other men, they define themselves against animals. I think that’s related to what we’re talking about with meat eating. Masculinity, I think, is also defined relative to children who are still coming into gendered identities more fully and I think historically, in many cultures, in many moments of time, a really important part of masculinity has involved being a provider and a caregiver for children, helping to ensure that your children, if you’re a father, are going to survive to bring them to adulthood, and it seems to me that people who are concerned about sustainability could do a better job pointing out that things like water exhaustion, pollution, soil depletions and CO2 emissions, fossil fuel use, deforestation, biodiversity, waste management, the pathogens that industrially raised animals are spreading and so forth, that’s going to harm kids, that it’s not like they — whoever the they are — are going to take away your burgers, but you’re taking away your own kids’ burgers or your grandkids’ burgers, the burgers, you know, future generations, and they’re not even going to have veggie burgers or lab burgers, right? If we completely trashed the planet, there’s no future for them, and that I think is a gut punch issue too, right? If it’s all about our ability to have meat, then is it going to be a kind of a selfish I’m going to grab it from myself while I can or are we going to think about what does meat represent and how can we make sure that if it represents a food security that this is something that will exist for everyone over the long term?
Adam: Well, yeah, it’s absolutely about individualism, right? I mean, I kind of get annoyed when people focus too much on the kind of settler-colonial mindset. I think it can be a bit reductionist, but I’m going to do it anyway. I think this idea of scarcity and survival and fighting the natives and fighting off nature, it’s, I think, one of the currents that informs the hyper-individual way of approaching concepts of manliness, because you’re right, if you’re really concerned about the manly virtues of providing for your family and protecting your children, you would be very concerned with climate change, but I think it’s fair to say that those who obsess over manliness, the thought of connecting the two would never even occur to them, right? Because it is playing into a very stereotypical, I would say zero sum, settler way of survival, which is ‘I look after my own and everyone else can fuck off’ or whatever.
Nima: Well, right, because it’s not about being a steward, the idea that even when considering how indigenous communities fit into this, that the colonial mindset was not only the taking of the land, but the taming it and the monetizing of it, right? So if you’re kind of surviving in relation to nature, you’re not doing enough to dominate it, and so I think there’s also, you know, extremely racist attitudes about Native people, about First people, about indigenous people in North America that is intertwined with all of this, to your point earlier, Kristin, about bison and then replacement with these European breeds of cattle.
Kristin Hoganson: Yeah, so great talking to you, you’re just so sparky. So two things kind of come to mind thinking about what you’re talking about. One goes back to the idea of the cowboy, as the reference point for me, who is not the family man, right? He’s the lone individual who’s like out on the range with the lads, and why is it the cowboy and not the meat packer who also is super important in the production of meat, when you think about the disassembly line and the industrial production of meat, and that’s not the person who becomes the provider of meat, and it’s because the meat packer is definitely understood as a working class person, often an immigrant person, and as somebody whose life is disposable, which we saw in early in the COVID epidemic when meat was kind of declared an essential industry.
Nima: Yeah, totally.
Kristin Hoganson: And it was highly dangerous to be on the packing plant line, and people were coming down with COVID, and many were quite ill and were dying, but we couldn’t stop the packing lines, and those workers were considered by meat consumers as, you know, I guess the price you pay, their lives are the price you pay for a hamburger. So that’s one thing that comes to mind. And then the other thing is thinking about Native Americans, and how a lot of European settler colonists really, in some ways, value the idea of Native American men as people who were freer and I could go off on the hunt, because in Europe again, as I said, earlier, the hunt is something for men of leisure, for aristocratic men, and so to think that that is something that Native American men could do to provide food. So it was highly appealing, but it was also something that was used against Native American men, because the thing that Europeans wanted was livestock raising, they didn’t want to have to hunt forever, they wanted to produce animals to serve as meat and that took work, endless work to produce livestock, and it really troubled them that Native American men didn’t work around the clock accumulating capital like they did in the livestock industry, that hunting was a different model, and connected to that then are the values that underlie Native American meat consumption and many Native American groups were highly dependent on meat, which was understood as something that men would go out in most cases and hunt and farming was understood in many Native American communities as women’s work and women had a lot of control over agricultural production, over the corn and squash and the beans that they grew, they could allocate that to community members, you know, they had real ownership over land, over fields in which agriculture was practiced and over the fruits of their labor, and it was valued and gave them status in agricultural communities. Some indigenous groups, almost entirely meat-based diets, if you look in the Arctic regions, had a very heavy, meat-based diet, but it wasn’t the industrial food system that we have now. So it was much more sustainable and the politics behind it were very different across different on Native American groups, just much more of a politics of reciprocity, of honoring the animals, of understanding the human relationships with animals. In some mythologies, the ability to go from a human state to animals state to back again, so not this division between us and other animals, but the sense the human world is part of the animal world, and that animals have to be treated with respect, not exploited, and you wouldn’t cage them, right? You wouldn’t lock them up in a cage, in which they’d never see the light of day, their feet wouldn’t touch the ground, you’d sever their beaks and cut their tails off, you wouldn’t torture and mutilate animals, but you would hunt them with respect to use all the different parts of the animal and recognize the kind of interdependence of humans and the rest of the animal and natural world. And that line of thinking, as you were getting at earlier, was just anathema to European colonizers, who had much more of an idea of ‘We’re going to dominate the continent and nature,’ and the diluted thought that we can exist above and beyond nature, and make it bend to our will and do our bidding in perpetuity, which is so abhorrently misguided in our own time.
Nima: I think that’s a great place to leave it. We, of course, have been speaking with Kristin Hoganson, Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of many books, including American Empire at the Turn of the Twentieth Century; Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars and, most recently, The Heartland: An American History, which we have talked about on the show before. Kristin, thank you so much, again, for joining us on Citations Needed.
Kristin Hoganson: Thank you again for having me. It was really fun.
Adam: Yeah, because it’s interesting, you know, we take these concepts, which you could argue are sort of natural processes, where obviously humans eat meat, that’s partly why our brains evolved as they did, again, that’s secondary to whether or not it’s presently an ethical or necessary choice for the quote-unquote “developed world,” we can sort of have that debate. I know we’ve done vegan sympathetic shows before, it’s not really what we’re kind of talking about, I guess we’re more talking about — well, no, it’s very much related — what we’re really fascinated with is the idea of kind of hyper charging that into this proxy ideology of dominance and domination.
Adam: And I mean, the whole concept of waning masculinity is so fascinating, because it’s something which has to sort of constantly reprove itself and there’s a sense of inadequacy and it’s sort of like how empires need to constantly justify their existence and are constantly obsessed with enemies lurking in the shadows, because I think on some level, we know it’s bullshit, or we know that it’s temporary or self serving, and I think to some extent, we know these concepts of traditional masculine behavior are basically just ways of normalizing sociopathic behavior or violent behavior, right?
Adam: And that these ideologies are pretty thin. So we constantly have to rationalize our adherence to them with these very kind of pat notions of manly men eating meat.
Nima: Well right, because it’s also about what is deemed to be traditional, and when those definitions of say, manliness or the American project, or what it means to tame the wilderness, like when those definitions are made, and then how long they’re supposed to hold without being updated. So, there’s this idea that the Teddy Roosevelt version of masculinity is still what we are to, you know, measure that kind of concept against. There’s no updating it. Men in the ’50s and their housewives who were reading women’s magazines and making ambrosia salad, that is still this concept for so many, and I’ll say, you know, mostly on the right, but not necessarily all on the right, at all.
Adam: Well, I mean, but the thing is the Right, the Tucker Carlsons of the world aren’t wrong and that if you want to maintain a violent empire, you probably do need this kind of warped ideology, right?
Nima: Well, because how else are you going to motivate people to fight for that in that way?
Adam: Well, I think liberal imperialists would argue that most of it has been sort of staffed out to drones and technology and psychological operations and clandestine operations anyway, so it’s really not that important.
Nima: But I also think the woke CIA is still the CIA.
Adam: Obviously, it’s a recruiting thing, which is why the whole thing is bullshit, right? It’s like Tucker Carlson and Josh Hawley and all these people that are worried about quote-unquote “woke capitalism,” it’s the woke they hate, not the capitalism, right? I mean, it’s not the CIA they don’t like, it’s the woke part they don’t like, which is to say they don’t like any kind of cultural gesture towards inclusion. So we have this stupid debate where we argue about whether or not the mechanisms with which or the processes with which we recruit for these violent institutions, not the institution’s themselves or their existential purpose, and so, so much of the cultural bullshit is about limiting that debate into these siloed off arguments, which are ultimately, you know, totally pointless.
Nima: Because limiting the debate about what to do about the climate crisis has everything to do with then weaponizing how you’re talking about the cattle ranching industry, how you’re talking about beef consumption.
Adam: Yeah, because one thing we didn’t talk about in this episode, which maybe to a fault, is that we didn’t really talk about the underlying basis for these criticisms of industrialized farming, with respect to the environment. These are real urgent problems we’re having, and, of course, the right’s only responds to that, instead of looking at the science or the data or the numbers and saying, ‘Well, yeah, these are really carbon intensive activities, you’re just a bunch of cultural Marxists, three parentheses going after our red meat.’ I mean, it’s just because it appeals to a very basic, it tickles that part of your brain, right? That very primitive reptilian part of your brain that says,’ Yeah, America is hotdogs and ribs.’
Nima: Right in the same way that like closing coal mines does it, right?
Adam: Yeah and it’s goddamn fucking liberals, Obama’s America is trying to take my burger, it’s all sort of very, it’s literally all red meat, right?
Nima: Yeah, that’s why it’s called that. (Laughs.)
Nima: But that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you, everyone, for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast, all your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded and air no commercials so it is the support of listeners like you that allow the show to keep growing and going and we cannot thank you enough, and as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, June 30, 2021.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.