The word meat didn't always mean meat. In early Middle English meat meant food in general, anything you ate.
Complete the following sentence, which was spoken by a man on the radio whose name I did not catch: "It's high time we put a tax on …"
The missing word has to be a noun. And that noun has to be a threat to our wellbeing, something that we must put out of financial reach because otherwise we weaklings will be unable to resist it.
So what is it, this black beast from which we must be separated by the imposition of taxation ...
So what is it, this black beast from which we must be separated by the imposition of taxation (with the extra dollars we are forced to pay for it going to the government that we elect to do our bidding, which seems at first glance odd, and at second glance paradoxical)? The answer's meat. According to the man on the radio we need to tax meat.
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The story is familiar. Meat is morally wrong for no end of reasons. It is cruel. It is wasteful. It is an inefficient way to feed the ever-swelling billions of our species. It is environmentally disastrous. So it is time to tax it.
Ignoring the ethical arguments for a moment, let us be practical. Before you tax something you need to define it. So what, exactly, is meat?
The word meat didn't always mean meat. In early Middle English meat meant food in general, anything you ate. That meaning still lingers in the phrase meat and drink, or when we speak of one man's meat being another man's poison. In both cases the word meat just means food.
The Old English word for what we now call meat was flesh, which has a forthright honesty to it. (Curiously, exactly the same shift of meaning has happened to the French word la viande. It too used to mean food in general and in English it still does: it is archaic but still possible to speak of viands, meaning food of all sorts. But in French la viande now means only flesh.)
But anyway, we all know what we mean by meat. Or do we? Is fish meat? If not, explain why not. Is meat perhaps only the flesh of mammals? No, because chicken is meat and a chicken is a bird. Perhaps meat is only the flesh of the warm-blooded? Again no, because if you were to butcher a crocodile and fry it in butter I'm confident you'd think of it as meat. Yet a crocodile's as cold-blooded as the White House press secretary.
So I repeat, what is meat? If you define it as the flesh of anything that once had life then a shrimp is meat, as are the insects that I'm sure the man on the radio would want to promote as food rather than tax. And that definition takes us yet further into difficulty, for it is impossible to deny that plants too have life.
The lettuce on the stall in the farmer's market is every bit as once-living-now-dead as a lamb chop on the butcher's slab. That carrot in your pantry is a corpse. (They used to say that the mandrake root, when pulled from the ground - and the mandrake root, though hallucinogenic and poisonous, is similar to a carrot - screamed.) So I repeat, what is meat?
It is no escape to call it the flesh of sentient beings because plants are sentient. They sense temperature, the composition of soil, the route to sunlight and so on. Their senses may not be our senses but they use them, just as we do, to perceive the world around them.
And it should not be forgotten that plants themselves are meat-eaters. I've buried two dogs beneath a walnut tree on the hill behind my house. The tree flourishes and every year, when I collect such nuts as the rats and possums have missed, I have no doubt I am gathering in the reconstituted flesh of my much-loved dogs whom I am only too happy to consume.
The Bible insists that all flesh is grass. It is just as true to say all grass is flesh. When we eat meat we are merely recycling. Should we tax recycling?
But, scream the militants, meat is murder. Yes it is. And so's a salad. And so's almost every move we make in this world. Rub your eyes and you kill a billion bacteria. Have they no right to be?
He liveth best who loveth best
All creatures great and small
The streptococcus is the test
I love it best of all.
To live is to kill. To eat is to steal another life. As they knew a thousand years ago in both English and French. If the man on the radio really wanted to do the world some good he'd tax children.