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).
… 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.