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  • Eat your Vegetables:Courage and the Possibility of Politics
  • Darin Barney (bio)

So let us all mind our own business and have a little fun.

–Alain Badiou, The Century1

In late November 2009, after just ten months in office, US President Barack Obama pardoned a turkey. In itself, the act was not unusual: American presidents have been receiving Thanksgiving turkeys from the National Turkey Federation since 1947, and it was one of Obama's predecessors, President H.W. Bush, who inaugurated the tradition of pardoning the birds to spare them becoming dinner. What was remarkable in this case was the bird's name: the turkey was named Courage. Issuing the pardon on live television, President Obama confessed that Courage had been saved only by the intervention of his animal-loving daughters, "because I was planning to eat this sucker."2 In other words, the reason Obama did not make a meal of Courage was that he did not have the guts to do it. He informed reporters that, following the photo-op, Courage would live out his days in Disneyland. Nevertheless, when it came time for the President and his family to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, turkey was prominent on the menu.3 Obama had managed to save his bird and eat it too.

We can contrast this episode with the truly courageous carnivorism of Canada's former head of state, Governor General Michaëlle Jean who, in May 2009, visited the tiny northern community of Rankin Inlet. Earlier in the month, the European Union had voted to ban Canadian seal products, upon the sale of which many Inuit people depend for their livelihoods. Offered a taste of seal meat during a feast organized to celebrate her visit, Jean grabbed a knife, cut out a piece of the animal's heart and ate it raw, in front of the cameras. The word courage derives from the French coeur, for heart. When an official with the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals decried Jean's "bloodlust," describing her as a "Neanderthal," and likening her solidarity with the Inuit to "taking part in the beating of women in the Middle East because it is part of local practice," Jean replied that those who refused to acknowledge the manner in which ancient hunting practices sustain Inuit communities were "completely missing the reality of life here."4 Here being somewhere other than Disneyland.

This article is not about eating meat. It is about courage, a virtue that Barack Obama parodied in his facetious public display of mercy for a bird whose cousin he would later happily devour in private, and which Michaëlle Jean embodied in eating the heart of a seal to publicly defend the dignity of her country's indigenous people. Ever since the post-9/11 rush to affix the mark of cowardice to America's enemies, and to confirm the identity between America's militarism and heroism, the ancient virtue of courage has enjoyed renewed currency. In early 2010, facing legislators cowed by the electoral implications of supporting a barely-reformist health-care bill, President Obama asked them to forget politics: "We need courage, that's what we need."5 A couple of months later, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) would criticize Obama's weak response to Arizona's racist immigration law in similar terms: "He needs to demonstrate the political will and the political courage to take it on."6 Meanwhile, outside my subway station in Montreal, an eight-story billboard declares courage the pink-ribbon virtue of cancer survival (while beside it, on a smaller billboard, courage does some work on behalf of a popular brand of facial tissue).7 In my Saturday paper, Canadian fashion maven Jeanne Beker, reporting from New York Fashion Week on the replacement of "trends" by "attitude," concludes that "choice will empower consumers—as long as they have the focus, courage and confidence to go with the flow."8

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