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December 2001/January 2002
Editor to Editor

The Satya Interview with Joseph Connelly

 


Joseph Connelly is the editor and founder of VegNews, a monthly national newspaper that focuses on all aspects of vegetarianism, including food, ethics, nutrition, travel and education. VegNews is unique in that it expressly supports vegetarian societies all over the country by designating space for them. VegNews is a sister publication to Satya, so Catherine Clyne had a conversation with Joe—editor to editor—about VegNews and about the connections between nonviolence and the world we live in today.

What’s the story behind VegNews?
I founded a vegetarian society in Syracuse, New York in 1996 and began producing a local vegetarian society newsletter—just like dozens around the country. Within the first nine or ten months, I realized just how fragmented the vegetarian movement was. For example, at the time there were vegetarian societies all over upstate New York within an hour or two of each other; but yet, if a speaker came to the area, the heads of these societies—all of whom knew each other—wouldn’t coordinate to get the speaker to do a sort of mini-tour. Often even people who agree can’t work together to get their message out efficiently. So, I got the idea to try to bridge the gap by doing an upstate New York vegetarian community newsletter. It never got off the ground for various reasons.

With the idea of ‘If you build it, they will come,’ I decided to take the concept of a vegetarian community paper to a national level. I came up with the name “VegNews”—it’s simple, it’s short—and in July 2000 the first issue was published. It’s been going ever since—a year and a half now—and we’re still growing every month.

What sorts of things do you do to reach out to the different vegetarian and animal rights factions?
First, we try to include everybody that we can. For instance, when I was doing the Syracuse newspaper, I noticed that when a new book was published it would be reviewed in a bunch of small newsletters, where 300 or 500 people would read the review. That’s great. But I thought, what if a review appeared in a national vegetarian newspaper and 100,000 people read it? Isn’t that a better use of our resources? At VegNews we have an open-door policy where anyone can submit book reviews, restaurant reviews, etc., so VegNews functions as a community newspaper on a national (and international) scale.

Another way that we reach out to the community is through the “Society Page Network,” where individual vegetarian societies receive a page in VegNews. Instead of producing its own newsletter every three months or so, any vegetarian society can get a copy of VegNews sent to each of its members. It’s not that ‘bigger is better,’ which I don’t believe at all. It’s actually cheaper for us to produce and mail a 44- or 48-page newspaper than it is for a local group to do one on their own. It’s an economy of scale thing. We can reach more people less expensively with a product that I think most people enjoy. That’s how we try to build community.

The effects of S11 are mind-blowing, worldview-shifting and yet can be very subtle. I’ve been trying to encourage people to focus on and support vegan businesses right now, which is something you do in your November editorial. In the wake of S11 and with people returning to their turtle shells, I feel the best way to support a nonviolent community is to do just that—support it. That means educating the public, reaching out to other like-minded people to give and receive support, and…buying cruelty-free stuff—including publications and books. It’s kind of a different spin on our government telling us to go buy stuff to support the economy and keep the engine of capitalism running, to buy a huge SUV with zero percent APR. But is encouraging folks to “buy vegan” so different?
The first thing everybody needs to do after reading this is purchase subscriptions to Satya and VegNews—then the world will be saved!

If the repercussions and the fallout from S11 can in the long run create a world where people are a little more aware and compassionate, then some good will have come out of such horrible tragedy. In the short term, people are stunned and in shock, and the government is trying to convince everyone to go about their business, without much having really changed. We’re spending millions of dollars a day bombing Afghanistan—who cares? Of course, you and I care but most of the people in this country don’t. There’s no denying that. We need to create that compassionate world and we need to figure out how to reach people. That’s why you and I do this work.

You know, Americans getting back to their normal lives may not necessarily be a good thing; it could be construed as the problem. If everything goes back to normal, nothing will have been learned. My biggest fear isn’t really what happens to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban and Afghanistan in 2001. My biggest fear is what’s going to happen over the next, say, 50 years—the rest of my lifetime and your lifetime. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that sooner or later weapons of mass destruction and the ability to deliver them will fall into the hands of an Osama bin Laden or a Saddam Hussein. And if we don’t address that question, if we just continue to think that we can bomb people back to the Stone Age, then it doesn’t really make a difference. Our species is pretty much doomed, and I say that not as a naysayer because I’m actually positive that we can recognize the problem and correct it. But I don’t think we can do it with the current administration—whether it’s Republican or Democrat—and the old-school mentality.

It used to be that somebody could strap a backpack on with some dynamite, walk into a disco and blow up 25 people. Now with a box-cutter you can hijack a plane and kill 4,000 people. What’s it going to be 10, 20, 30 years down the road? When are people in this country going to recognize and realize—and they should read October’s Satya if they haven’t yet—that it’s our government’s policies that create these monsters? We fund them; the weapons are made and sold from this country and have been used in just about every military conflict of the last 50 years.

You just touched on something that is close to my heart but I’m still in denial about, which is last month’s mayoral election here in New York. A lot of my friends were so sickened by the dirty campaigning that they just didn’t vote. Only one person I know actually had the courage to vote for the Green Party’s candidate. I did that with the presidential election last year; but this time around, with the two candidates being so close, I didn’t want to feel the sting of the ‘Nader put Bush into office’ accusation. I now regret pulling the lever for Mark Green because I think you’re right. If we still maintain our complacency and allow this one-party system to continue dictating our internal and external policies, we’re simply not going to get anywhere. And if we don’t start now, when will we? How do you draw that line—voting from the heart and believing it’s going to make a real difference, rather than voting out of fear for the lesser of two evils?
I wish I had an answer. It’s part of the whole education process. Over the last 20 or so years we’ve seen Vaclav Havel get out of jail and become president of the Czech Republic. We’ve seen Nelson Mandela get out of jail and become president of South Africa. We’ve seen the Berlin Wall come down. And we’re taught from the time we enter school at five years old that this is the greatest country in the world and anybody can become president, when the reality is, we are probably the democracy least likely in the world today in which a radical (and those people I just mentioned are radicals) who thinks differently—a Ralph Nader—could actually become an elected official. Because we have this entrenched one-party system and because money controls everything, we have forgotten the radical roots that formed this country. It’s almost impossible to believe that somebody like Mandela or Havel could get to that position in this country today. As sad as it is, I think that if anybody ever came close, they’d be assassinated.

It comes down to what can the people of this country actually do? Can they vote somebody in who would shake things up? In America today, so many people are complacent, they’re wealthy compared to the rest of the world, they’re not willing to shake things up. I think they’re afraid to vote for a third party candidate—the election of 2000 certainly didn’t help the cause.
It gets back to education—of a worldview—an awakening of the whole consciousness, whether it’s towards the planet, the people or the other beings on the planet; getting away from the idea that “America is it” and that’s the only thing that matters.

We were talking earlier about the parallels between the numbness that people have toward animals here, and towards the people that our government’s policies and buying habits affect negatively.

It’s unfortunate that most people in America today feel the same way towards people in foreign lands as they do towards animals in factory farms—almost as if they’re just a means to an end, whether it’s to put cheap meat on your table or cheap oil in your gas tank. Who or what species we need to go through to get there becomes something that people either don’t think about or, if they do, they put it out of their minds so that they can go about their daily lives and comfortable existence.

Carol Adams recently talked about her new book Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook (Three Rivers Press, November 2001). Her idea is that meat-eaters are actually “blocked” vegetarians—repressed if you will. That could sort of apply in the case of our attitudes towards ‘foreign’ people. For example, when people have a compassionate and personal interaction with, say a dog or a cat, all of a sudden, those animals are not considered edible. It’s similar when there are people involved. For example, we in America never really talk about the woes of dropping bombs on Japan. However, we have a whole national museum dedicated to the Jewish Holocaust. Both are tragedies responsible for the annihilation of innocent people who happened to be Jewish or residents of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. In the case of the Holocaust, a lot of this has to do with representation and bringing the value of Jewish people and culture to the forefront of our consciousness. There’s also the understanding that we were not directly responsible for what happened; whereas with Japan, it’s entirely different. There’s no meaningful national discussion about the victims, no major memorial or national museum, and in this case we were directly responsible. What I’m getting at is: Is there sort of a ‘blocked’ socially conscious and caring American in all of us?
It’s basically the old bumper sticker “Why do we call one ‘pet’ and the other ‘dinner’?” It is interesting to look at Carol Adams’ “repressed” vegetarian theory on a larger scale, to ask: Are Americans repressed compassionate people? Because even if we can donate a billion dollars to the victims of September 11, we certainly don’t appear to be compassionate. Every day 30,000 people starve to death. If they’re not within our country, or even if they are, it doesn’t matter. Our values seem to be out of skew. Being the lone superpower and the richest country of all time, are we capable of showing the compassion that we need to bring about equality to the population of the world and every animal on the planet as well, so that we can truly live the way we all say we want to? I hope so. It boils down to: Are people in rich nations willing to do what is necessary to ensure that everybody can live safely, peacefully, without being hungry; and what are you willing to give up to do that?

Obviously you and I, personally, and VegNews and Satya, generally, have big aspirations. I admit that I want these publications to help change the world; and that’s the inherent optimist in me, believe it or not. But I recently interviewed Arun Gandhi, the grandson of the Mahatma (see “A Legacy of Nonviolence” p. 6), who explained why he is not vegetarian. Basically, he feels that many vegetarians are complacent, something you and I have just been criticizing Americans of being. His contention is that some people who become vegetarian—presumably for ethical reasons—feel that the violence that their lives cause has ended. He wants to make the point that there are so many other areas of violence that animal rights people and vegetarians are not immune to—political, social, financial, etc. What do you think about that?
With all due respect to Mr. Gandhi, even if his theory is true, to inflict violence on other beings to prove your point seems counter-productive. He’s like the Dalai Lama and Deepak Chopra—none of them see the connection. We need to see that violence is violence. There have been many great thinkers before the three I just mentioned—whether Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi or Leonardo da Vinci—who’ve all recognized the connection between violence towards animals, violence towards other people, and towards the planet in general. In my opinion, violence towards animals and the planet is at the root of what we need to change in order to attain the peaceful, balanced world we are striving for. I don’t understand the logic behind people like the three we just mentioned who aren’t vegetarian and can’t make that connection. Are they dismissing it as not important?

Arun Gandhi actually said that vegetarianism is the “ultimate level of nonviolence.”
The work that you and I do is absolutely groundbreaking. We’re blazing trails for people to come behind us to see where nonviolence and having empathy for everybody can go. And of course, we have to hope and pray that we are going to be successful. It is important—I believe more so than ever—to encompass all of life because of how far we’ve actually fallen. Our job is to make people see that. To do that, I believe you start with nonviolence in your diet.

There are two things I see in life that every single person, every single being on this planet, share in common: the environment—the planet we live on—and the fact that we all eat. Everybody wants to live in a non-polluted environment and everyone needs to eat. The reason I choose this line of work is because it is imperative to connect the common bonds that people share in order to ignite a movement towards an understanding of where we are today, where we’re headed, and where we can be. Where we’re headed and where we can be are, obviously, almost 180-degree opposites. Vegetarianism or veganism is not a fad or an aside. Veganism, along with environmentalism, (which to me are the same thing—I wish there was one word that encompassed both) need to be the basis for a worldview where people’s consciousness is awakened. I believe the opposite of Mr.. Gandhi. I believe that you can educate people to see the larger picture by focusing on something as simple as what you put in your mouth during the course of your day.

What does the future hold for VegNews?
VegNews is a project of the Vegan News Network, a nonprofit organization that works towards educating in all of the different areas that we have talked about. In five years, I hope that the Vegan News Network is viable and able to produce other VegNews-like newspapers, but for other pieces of the movement, maybe an environmental newspaper or a paper that focuses more on the animal issues. My hope and my goal are to bring these together. I’m not a movement unifier, I just hope to be a piece of it. I hope that there is somebody out there that is able to be the charismatic leader—the Gandhi of India or the Martin Luther King of the civil rights movement—who will be able to unite the people in this movement. Somebody like Julia Butterfly Hill, who bridges both wonderfully, who can show that it’s about compassion and respect for life, and that we can get there. We can change our point of view and live peacefully, and everybody can have enough without anyone going hungry.

To learn more about VegNews and to order a subscription ($20), visit www.vegnews.com or call (408) 358-6478. Joseph Connelly can be reached at editor@vegnews.com. For a free sample copy of VegNews, e-mail subscriptions@vegnews.com.

 


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