Past movements for social justice insisted on character in their recruits, in honor, loyalty, and integrity. The culture of resistance created by the Spanish Anarchists valued ethical personal behavior. Writes Murray Bookchin, “They were working men and women, obrera consciente, who abjured smoking and drinking, avoided brothels and the bloody bull ring, purged their talk of ‘foul’ language, and by their probity, dignity, respect for knowledge, and militancy, tried to set a moral example for their entire class.”82 We could do worse. The right will continue to successfully blame the left for the destruction of culture and community as long as the left can’t or won’t stand firmly in defense of our values.
This is probably the right time to defend the concept of a work ethic. The alternative culture of the ’60s was in part a reaction against the conformity of the ’50s and its obedience to authority. In 1959, my mother and her friends decided to start an underground newspaper at their school. Their first step? Asking permission from the principal. He said no. They dropped the idea. No wonder the ’60s happened.
The alternative culture was based on the premise that essentially nobody had to do anything they didn’t feel like doing. A major part of their rebellion was the rejection of a work ethic, always cast as Protestant. But taken to its logical end, this is the position of a parasite. The dropouts either got money from their parents, from friends who got it from parents, or from the state. Eventually, each life has to be supported with resources from somewhere. I have seen a few too many protests and alternative communities surviving on the Mooch Ethic. I have sat on couches that housed rats, eaten off dishes that gave me gastroenteritis, and learned (secondhand, thankfully) that an itchy butt at sundown means pinworms. I’ve watched incredible resources go to waste—houses fall to ruin, land repossessed—for refusal to do basic adult tasks like paying the taxes. I don’t know which is worse: the general ethos’s entitlement, or the stupidity; the smell of the outhouses, the unwashed bodies, or the marijuana.
The rebellion against a work ethic is another characteristic of youth culture. The ventral striatal circuit, which is the seat of motivation in the human brain, doesn’t function well during adolescence, which is why teens are often accused of being lazy. This means that the norms of youth culture will gravitate toward structureless days with no expectations or goals. It also means that the youth culture and marijuana aren’t a good match.
The war on drugs is appalling. It has a corrosive effect on communities of color especially and has also made it difficult for those with legitimate need to get pain relief from drugs like marijuana.83 Medical cannabis is a legitimate treatment for a number of conditions, some of which, like autoimmune disorders, are life-threatening. People who need it should be able to get it, and society as a whole would probably be better off if cannabis was legalized.
But drugs and alcohol have been a terrible detriment to both activist cultures and oppressed communities. I have watched people that I love erode with addiction, a slow death I’m powerless to stop. I am very sympathetic to the straight-edge punks. It was obvious to me at age fourteen that there were two weapons I would need for the fight: a mind that could think and the heart of a warrior. Drugs would destroy the one and numb the other. I swore away from drugs and I’ve never regretted that decision.
Drug and alcohol addiction has had terrible effects on both oppressed communities and cultures of resistance. Such effects are broad and deep: the self-absorption, lack of motivation, and broken synapses create a population in semipermanent “couch lock.” Drugs and alcohol will not help us when we need commitment, hard work, and sacrifice, which are the foundation of all cultures of resistance. Addicts have no place on the front lines of resistance because an addict will always put their addiction first. Always.
I came of age in a post-Stonewall lesbian community that recognized the role that alcohol had played in destroying gay and lesbian lives. Our events specifically avoided bars as venues, and were often labeled “chem-free.” These were and are acts of communal self-care that were linked to survival and resistance. It was an important ethic, and it was understood and embraced. There are parallel calls for a chem-free ethic in some Native American activist groups, and for the same reason: drugs and alcohol have been damaging enough to name them genocidal. The radical left would do well to model itself on these recent examples and to consider an ethic of sobriety as both collective self-care and resistance. We need everyone’s brain. If our goal is a serious movement, then we also need focus, dependability, and commitment. On the front lines, we need to know our comrades are rock solid. In our culture, we need a set of ethics and behavioral norms that can build a functioning community. Basic awareness of addiction—its symptoms, its treatment options—is important both to help the afflicted and to keep our groups safe and strong.
A related issue is the general lassitude caused by poor nutrition exacerbated by vegetarian and vegan diets. One investigator of alternative communities writes, “… for many of the rural groups, common activity is limited to part-time farming. In their permissive climate, there is often a debilitating, low-thyroid do-nothingness that looks like nothing so much as the reverse image of the compulsive busyness of their parents.”84
The diet that holds sway across the left will produce that state exactly. A food ethic stripped of protein and fat may meet ideological needs, but it will not meet the biological needs of the human template. Our neurotransmitters—the brain chemicals that make us happy and calm—are made from amino acids; amino acids are protein. Serotonin, for instance, is produced from the amino acid tryptophan. We cannot produce tryptophan; we can only eat it. Likewise endorphins and catecholamines. We must eat protein to have brains that work. We need fat, too, and you’ll notice that in nature, protein and fat come packaged together. In order for your neurotransmitters to actually transmit, dietary fat is crucial. This is why people on low-fat diets are twice as likely to suffer from depression or die from suicide or violent death. If you need more reason to eat real food, your sex hormones are all made from dietary cholesterol: please eat some. A steady diet of carbohydrates, on the other hand, will produce depressed, anxious, irritable people too exhausted to do much beyond attend to the psychodramas created by their blood sugar swings, which about sums up the emotional ambiance of my youth. And the author’s inclusion of “low-thyroid” in his description is right on the mark. Soy is often the only acceptable protein on the menu. Besides its poor quality—plant protein comes wrapped in cellulose, which humans cannot digest—soy is a known goitrogen. In large enough quantities, like when eaten not as a condiment but as a protein source, it can suppress and even destroy the thyroid.
I’ve been to a few too many potlucks with brown rice, dumpster-dived mangoes, and the ubiquitous chips and hummus. I feel my grandmother’s horror from the grave: why are we feeding each other poverty food? This is the only time I feel sorry for men, watching them repeatedly—and I mean four and five times—approach my pot of (pasture-raised) beef-and-leek chili for more. They’re desperate. They may be getting enough bulk calories every day, but they’re starving. Men tend to crave protein because their protein needs are higher—testosterone means men have more muscle than women, and muscle is built from protein. Women tend to crave fat because our bodies are designed to store fat for pregnancy and lactation.85 The current anorexic beauty standards, besides being a very effective tool of patriarchy and capitalism, also point to a profound death wish embedded in this culture. Humans have been celebrating female fat—a veneration both aesthetic and spiritual—since we created art and religion. Our first two art projects reverenced the lives that made ours possible: the large ruminants we ate and the large women who birthed us.
We must stop hating the animals that we are. Only ideological fanatics (I was the most extreme version—vegan—for almost twenty years, so I’m allowed to say that) will be able to stick to such body-punishing fare for any length of time. Everyone else will “cheat” and feel guilty over moral or even spiritual failings without understanding why they failed. The answer is simple: we have paleolithic bodies, we need paleolithic food. If you’re fighting evolution, you are not going to win. There is a reason you feel hungry without fat and protein, a reason for the exhaustion that aches in your muscles and surrounds you like fog, a reason for the gray weight of depression. A plant-based diet is not adequate for long-term maintenance and repair of the human brain or body, and it has been taking a heavy toll on the left for several generations.