Meat-eaters are showing their teeth in the new culture wars

As a gesture of solidarity with the tens of millions of carrots murdered every year to facilitate #Veganuary,” typed failed mayor Laurence Fox while still in his folk music period and presenting as a flaccid tree, “tonight I forsake vegetables.” Then he uploaded a picture of his steak. As a piece of food photography it was poor; as a statement of resistance it was powerful. Last week Fox News apologised after airing a piece titled Up in Your Grill, which claimed Biden wanted to curb meat consumption. This would include, they said, a plan to cut 90% of red meat from the American diet, leaving them with 4lb of meat a year, or “one burger a month”.

It wasn’t true, but that mattered little, because it had the green taste of something true, and it pricked in all the right places. “I’m pretty sure I ate 4lb of red meat yesterday,” Donald Trump Jr tweeted in response, a cry of freedom. Fox’s steak and little Trump’s tweet were self-portraits – food as a symbol of their identity politics. They were grenades lobbed into a culture war that is playing out in meat and soy and sausage rolls, and what it means to be a man.

Such wars are not new, but each battle updates its weapons. Prosaic objects and domestic choices come to symbolise the politics of each side, whether cars, lattes or bras, burned. Food has always been a key marker of who we are and how we see ourselves, so inevitably becomes a marker of identity, especially at a time when so many certainties, the economy, health, the environment, gender roles, are being challenged. When posted with a Veganuary hashtag, a steak is no longer just a steak.

There are battle lines being drawn in gravy. On one side vegans who, despite growing significantly in number, are viewed “more negatively than immigrants,” said a 2015 study. And on the other side meat-eaters who, at a time when the production of meat-based food is (according to a Lancet report) “the largest source of environmental degradation”, see their personal liberty as under threat. They hear the rational argument against burgers, but the confrontation breeds defensiveness. In the US, Ted Cruz wrapped bacon around the barrel of a rifle to cook it; his fans found the juxtaposition delicious. In the UK, the steaks of Fox and meats of Morgan (Piers) are wielded against what they see as an incoming tide of “wokeness”. Morgan, a man desperately moved by the advent of Greggs’s vegan sausage roll, once conjured up the image of a whole coach of conservative media personalities revving up to Farmacy in their jeans and shoes when he asked: “If I was to storm a vegan restaurant and demand meat, would they discriminate against me?” Would they? It’s certainly something to think about, one night maybe, when alone.

The main problem here is suitably chewy – most meat-eaters don’t want to harm animals, but unfortunately they also do want to eat them lightly grilled with a little rosemary. The cognitive dissonance is most clear in the language that turns a cow into beef when hot on a plate. And meat-eating overlaps with so many other of our contemporary anxieties. Thirty years ago, Carol Adams published The Sexual Politics of Meat, linking meat-eating to notions of masculinity and virility in the western world. The idea was that men and meat lean on each other, using the other’s weight to survive like drunk people walking home, both terribly fragile. Since then the need to assert meat as a signifier of male identity has intensified. On her website Adams logs hamburgers “named for rapists – the Harvey Weinstein burger in England or the Bill Cosby in Pakistan”, and maintains that when we remove meat from a meal, we’re threatening the patriarchy. Which, to some, is terrifying.

And to the rest, it’s becoming clear that conversations about vegan sausage rolls are not really about lunch. Sausage rolls are symbols of a changing world. Sometimes the objects are the thing (eating a vegan diet could be the biggest way to reduce one’s environmental impact on earth) and sometimes they’re an expression of the thing. Adams found a political pamphlet from 1902 that called for Chinese exclusion: “Meat v Rice: American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive?” Immigration, it warned, would bring down the American worker, leading to them being forced to give up their meat. She likens it to pro-Trump T-shirts that read: “THIS IS AMERICA. WE EAT MEAT. WE DRINK BEER AND WE SPEAK FUCKIN’ ENGLISH.”

The choice of caps lock is always interesting, isn’t it, as it suggests a level of panic. We are back in the vegan restaurant with our red-socked conservative media personalities, and they are shouting at the waiters and also trying not to cry. There is fear in the caps lock. Though vegans are reportedly viewed negatively, the overwhelming sense is that right-wing meat-eaters are not just angry with them, but scared of the changes they signal.

Could it be that many of the important debates that anchor our culture wars have been passed into legislation (civil rights, for example, however wobbly the legislation itself) and that what’s left to argue about are largely the coffee grinds coating the sink? The rows that refuse to wash away, rows about how to live alongside each other despite our differences. Rows about carrots, rows about steaks: are these simply toy soldiers the right and left have been given to battle with in place of actual power, or constructive debate about immigration, gender? About equality? About the end of the world?