“What frustrates me the most are the so-called moderates, the centrists, who say, ‘Oh that’s never going to happen, ya know, that is too radical.’ If you zoom out a little bit, you see that so many times in history, utopian fantasies have become reality…” “Democracy was once a crazy idea, right? The end of slavery was once a total fantasy. It all happened, but it never starts in the center. It always starts on the fringes where people are first dismissed as radical, as crazy, as lunatics.” — Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists, from his interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
It should be of no surprise that the media finds figures like Bruce Friedrich a more “palatable” subject for indulgent feature stories like the one recently published in the New York Times. Why wouldn’t establishment corporate media find a pro venture capitalist more appealing than, say, an activist trying to do the hard work of changing hearts and minds, a pursuit which he basically dismisses with “been there, done that.” Friedrich is happy to take the credit for the growing market for plant-based products which wouldn’t be what it is today without the hard work of decades of activism. Instead of honoring that, he describes his past activism as a recovering alcoholic recalls his bad drinking days. The antidote to the old, misinformed activism of his youth is embracing the belief that capitalism will save us and, ironically, the animals capitalism exploits, even as media like The Guardian are sounding the alarm that “Capitalism is destroying the Earth. We need a new human right for future generations.”
If Friedrich’s role is simply to facilitate the growing market for plant-based products, that’s great, but that’s not enough for him or the Times. They characterize his market catalyst role as “the new activism,” praising corporations as our saviors or the saviors of our planet or of other animals. Of course, corporations with a legacy of destructive and immoral behavior want us to believe that they are actually forces for good. But, in this context, they are simply making a strategic decision to expand plant-based product offerings in response to growing consumer demand. That’s what businesses do, even the ones that grind up millions of baby chicks, in their pursuit of profit. Meanwhile, activists continue to do the hard work of changing hearts and minds and food corporations will continue to take credit for being the changemakers, co-opting the narrative of change by casting themselves as the heroines. As Anand Giridharadas points out, “Business elites are taking over the work of changing the world.” And they have the financial resources to use propaganda as a powerful tool to advance that agenda.
Finally, it’s important to point out that Friedrich’s platform is based on the age-old “people won’t/can’t change” trope which has been used to try to stifle dissent in many other movements. It is typically those who have a vested interest in maintaining power that benefit from parroting this disempowering and historically inaccurate trope. Popular figures like Friedrich are vulnerable targets who can be easily exploited by corporate PR. The PR goal is to recruit people who are well respected within our movement to become the spokespeople for their message that grassroots activism just doesn’t work. Speaking truth to power, challenging society on its misguided speciesist beliefs, is stigmatized as pushy and ineffective.
Friedrich’s disparaging view of activism is playing out in many other political arenas as well, such as Senator Feinstein famously scolding the young climate activists in her office and condescending to them about how to do their activism (ya know, pushing her own beliefs). In both cases, you have an establishment figure telling young progressives why they know better than them. The problem is that Rome is still burning under the establishment’s more enlightened watch.