The pugnacious James McWilliams at Mad City Vegan Fest

James McWilliams’ faculty profile pic: dead leaves, cold air, raised fist. Photo: Texas State University-San Marcos

This past Saturday I stopped by the second Mad City Vegan Fest, held this year at the Goodman Community Center. In the exhibitor area, I sampled Coconut Bliss frozen dessert and Mary’s Gone Crackers pretzel sticks and caraway crackers, and I got a warm greeting from Annemarie of Bloom Bake Shop who was running the kids’ corner. Outside, I was delighted to have another chance to eat lunch from the wonderfully delicious food cart, IGO VEGO; my meal consisted of an amazing sweet-potato-based burger plus a cucumber, tomato, and kale salad. Since the last time I ate there, I’d forgotten just how fantastic the veggie burgers are from Tammy and her crew. If you live in the Madison area, please stop by for lunch, and tell them I said hello!

The one talk on the schedule that I caught was the one that I was most interested to hear. Having previously read a piece or two online from James McWilliams, I suspected that I wasn’t necessarily going to agree with him but hoped it would be thought provoking. Indeed, it was. McWilliams described his presentation afterward on his blog: “My talk stressed the fact that ethical veganism cannot and should not seek any sort of common ground with the sustainable food movement. The more I examine the rhetorical tactics and promotional schemes of the SFM the more I’m convinced that it poses the most dire challenge to the long term prospects of permanent veganism. So I came down as hard on it today as I ever have. Felt damn good.” As he said during his talk, he believes the argument with the sustainable food movement is “a tug of war and vegans are losing it, and that’s a tragedy.”

During his presentation, McWilliams joked that he was a pessimist and his talk was a downer, contrasting himself with a more positive, optimistic speaker on the afternoon program. That description of himself didn’t seem quite right to me, though. Instead, McWilliams came across as the sort of person who thinks—scratch that, knows—that they are right and that anyone who thinks differently is not only wrong but also either naively duped or cruel, cynical, exploitative, and in either case (obviously) dumber than him. Further, I get the sense that he takes anyone’s disagreement with him as evidence of his rightness and fuel for his righteousness. His blog post about his MCVF talk seems to confirm my read; this is not someone looking to convert the unconverted by meeting them where they’re at and seeking ways to motivate “leaning into change”:

Shouldn’t we be humble, open to the possibility that we’re wrong, willing to see the other side of the issue, and ready to admit the faults in our own perspective?  I think these are excellent qualities to have in most areas of life, but not on this one.  Not this time.

There’s no discussion on the legitimization of unnecessary and intentional animal suffering. It’s wrong. There’s no discussion on the topic of legitimate speciesism. It’s wrong. There’s no discussion on the legitimacy of questioning sentience as the basis of animal rights. There’s no question. There are few things in life so morally clear, so simple, and so worthy of our most impassioned activism. Revolt.

Setting aside his pugnaciousness, I found myself scratching my head during his talk at absurd statements like “the sustainable food movement doesn’t question industrial agricultural.” Um, what? Who in the sustainable food movement have you been talking to? In the end, my notes from his presentation summarized my problems this way: “specious reasoning, faulty logic, suspect conclusions.” Nevertheless, I also noted that he had some interesting points about, for example, the amount of water that animal farming takes, and the role of industrial soy and corn in supplementing the diets of pasture-raised chickens.

For more, head to McWilliams’ blog for lots of posts and links to articles that outline his thinking about the modern food system and the failure of various pieces of the sustainable food movement (from locavores to conscientious omnivores to backyard chicken enthusiasts).

Then for a giant grain of salt, head to this post at Grist from the great Tom Philpott, about whom I just recently posted. Philpott’s Grist piece ends with this:

… the question of morality and meat is a vital one, but McWilliams’ bloodless exposition manages to add nothing new or interesting to it. He acknowledges that factory farming “produces 99 percent of the meat we eat,” but never explains why he spends so much energy (and space in high-end media fora) haranguing the other 1 percent [who humanely pasture-raise animals for meat].

I can think of two genuinely eloquent and effective moral critics of meat eating who train their rhetorical gifts squarely on the industry itself: Nobel Prize–winning novelist J.M. Coetzee and novelist-turned-nonfiction-writer Jonathan Safran Foer. Could McWilliams be following a careerist strategy, a calculation that with giants like Coetzee and Foer stalking industrial meat, all that’s left for a vegan of his stature to do is to go after the little guys?

Whatever his reasoning, this moralistic vegan must live with the fact that the net effect of his public-intellectual work has been to serve the interests of an industry that treats live animals as industrial inputs, ruthlessly exploiting them while trashing land, water, and public health in the process. McWilliams’ career may be benefiting from this strategy, but his stature as a defender of animal welfare is nil.

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7 comments

  1. Charlie Talbert

    My understanding of McWilliams’ presentation at Vegan Fest is different than yours. You attribute his criticisms of the sustainability movement to his career goals. I’m not sure about his career goals, but he did raise a number of points about how “sustainability”, as applied to animal agriculture, is a green-washing term that glosses over the inherent cruelty of killing an innocent sentient being for one’s own sensual gratification. He asked his audience to consider how slaughter for a taste preference could be considered humane under any circumstance. Had Jeffrey Dahmer tried to make you one of his victims, could he have proposed a “humane” method of slaughter that would have persuaded you to accede to his desire?

    • Todd Ingram

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Charlie. I don’t necessarily agree with Tom Philpott’s take on why McWilliams might be expending so much energy going after sustainable food advocates instead of factory farming agribusiness; that said, Philpott seems to be making a rhetorical point. Regardless, I do agree with Philpott’s conclusion that the attack on “the other 1 percent” is a puzzling approach (albeit McWilliams’ prerogative), and that Jonathan Safran Foer makes a more compelling case for shunning meat. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

      • Kelly

        An interesting take! From my perspective, the SFM is anything but sustainable (and certainly not conscientious) on two main counts (I feel there may be more, but I want to *try* to keep it succinct):

        1. It’s currently an elite movement. The larger amount of land resources needed, per animal, to produce such products would not be sustainable if everybody were to start eating ‘conscientiously’. I believe we already use a quarter of the planet’s green land for grazing. If everybody started getting on the SFM band wagon, we simply could not maintain it.

        2. Related to the elitism of the SFM, so called ‘happy meat’ and other ‘conscientious’ animal products are expensive and price a large cross section of the population out of the market. Whilst all animal products continue to exist, and whilst people continue to eat them, whether you believe you are conscientious or not, you are perpetuating the belief that animal products are normal. Whilst this belief still stands, there will always be poorer people wanting to eat meat, and cheese and eggs etc*. and big ag will stay in business. Whether you like it or not, whilst you continue to promote that eating animal products is normal you’re not doing anything to hurt industrial farming.

        * See places like India, where Westernisation is so glamourous but the people remain so poor. People are eating more meat there than ever: http://www.holycowvegan.net/2012/04/vegetarianism-new-tool-for-indian.html

        • Todd Ingram

          Thanks for commenting, Kelly. A few quick thoughts:

          As one example of so called SFM elites, Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman have each in their own way made very clear that they think that the collective “we” need to consume fewer animal products. Folks can fault them for not making the full leap to veganism, but ignoring key pieces of their messages like “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” and going “vegan before 6 pm” is a rhetorical technique that I don’t find remotely compelling.

          Eating vegan in and of itself doesn’t get one out of the industrial food system. If the whole world went vegan tomorrow, I’d bet that big soy and big corn wouldn’t go out of business; they’d just switch from making animal feed to more bioplastics and biofuels. Relatedly, in his MCVF talk, McWilliams railed against sustainable food advocates, mocked locavores, and suggested that big agribusiness wasn’t scared of small farms because the big guys could easily sell pre-packaged mini-farms. If one doesn’t eat sustainably or locally, our choices appear to be eating industrially or growing our own food …

          A hard look at the faults and flaws of the sustainable food movement — including critical issues of food (and more broadly, wealth) inequality within and across nations — is absolutely necessary. Viewing the SFM, not the giant agribusiness industry, as the principal problem to be fixed widely misses the mark.

  2. C

    Philpott has obviously got something in his hat about McWilliams. His critiques of the NYT columns he links to are quite awful. The quote you include above seems typical: ignore the argument and speculate about the motivations of the arguer. We call this an “ad hominem” diversion at the least, if not fallacy. I haven’t read much by McWilliams other than his Just Food and some misc. pieces in the NYT, but my sense is not that he wants to defend big-agriculture from the David’s in the sustaino-loco-organo-natural-nativist food movements as much as expose how often really poor arguments are being used in these debates and the tendency of the foregrounding of these relatively trivial issues in comparison to the huge looming issues–world hunger and the banality of evil in our treatment of animals. If this is right–and I don’t know McWilliams or enough of his work to be confident that it is-then it makes sense to me why Philpott is bent out of shape and is inclined to smear the person rather than really consider the argument (I’m basing that judgement solely on the three examinations of JM’s editorials linked to here http://grist.org/article/food-2010-12-08-james-mcwilliams-meat-industry-defender-and-aggrieved-vegan/

    If I had to speculate about the reasons that JM defends the S-L-O-N-N food movements, it seems likely to me that he thinks that the strongest argument for veganism runs 1) CAFO et al are moral atrocities 2) Alternatives to CAFO’s are not preferable on pragmatic grounds (efficiency, environmental, food safety etc.), nor on moral grounds. 3) Therefore, ethical eaters should opt for the best stable alternative to CAFO’s, that is, veganism, as a starting point for change. And he seems to perhaps hold the follwing corollary (4) Anything else is really self-indulgent.

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