Archive for the ‘Activism’ Category

Vegan Products Are Great But It’s A Change Of Heart That We’re After

» January 1st, 2014

The end-of-the-year vegan lists are coming in and vegans are appropriately rejoicing at the plethora of vegan-themed products that infused the marketplace last year.

Vegan restaurants, vegan cheese, vegan mayo, vegan supermarkets, vegan books, vegan shoes, vegan bacon, vegan everything have made it easier than it has ever been to reduce animal exploitation through consumer choice. These developments are fantastic. One of the highlights for me was getting an advance market jar of Hampton Foods’ vegan mayo made from pea plant protein. How cool.

That said, it’s important to remember that veganism is ultimately not about a change in purchasing habits, but rather in a fundamental change in perspective on the human-animal relationship. The idea that we can purchase our way to this kind of enlightenment is an especially American idea, but it’s also one that can easily lead consumers astray from what really matters when we buy these products: the underlying quest to grant sentient beings basic moral consideration.

This imperative is easily overridden when we display vegan products as markers of our identity or ideology. What I mean is that it’s too easy to see a commercial landscape teeming with vegan products and, as a result of those products, assume that we’re making progress toward the deeper goal of reshaping the human-nonhuman bond.

What I’m really saying here is that vegan products are great, but we need to make sure that they are manifestations of a changing mentality rather than commercial ends in and of themselves.

N.B: Thanks to all those who wrote letters to the Times about its moronic turkey leg story.

P.S.: I’ve a new piece up at Forbes on “Blackfish”:

There Is No Righteous Bacon

» December 18th, 2013

“At Olive Hill Farms we believe that belly rubs and behind-the-ear scratches make better bacon.”

This is the maniacal sentence that pulled me into what turns out to be a mind-blowingly thoughtless and ultimately cruel website about a farm that claims to love pigs and then kills them. Check it out here.

“Happy pigs, scrumptious pork,” the farm promises. Note to farm owner (who claims with pride, “this girl brings bacon into the world”): you cannot have pork from a happy pig. Because the day you turn the pig into pork is the day you render all those belly rubs and ear scratches the act of either an Alzheimer’s patient or a psychopath, a psychopath bent on profiting from people who happen to be equally thoughtless and clueless.

Let me reiterate for the umpteenth time: you cannot have happy meat. There is no such thing. Sure, you can raise an animal and treat that animal well while she’s alive but when you kill the animal you kill the happiness, making all previous acts and intentions meaningless; when you eat the flesh of a sentient being you are eating the flesh of an animal whose interest in being happy was deemed less important than your salivating palate. And that’s sick. How hard is this point to understand? Evidently very much so.

In a way I have less animus toward mindless consumers who buy cheap factory meat at the Kroger, never once thinking that they are eating the flesh of a being who suffered (which describes the vast majority of meat eaters). It’s those lunatics who claim to care about the animals they kill, those who photograph their beasts in supposed bliss and use that pornography to sell the animal’s flesh, that turns my stomach and makes me sick.


Who Put You At History’s Helm?

» December 13th, 2013

Here’s Walter Benjamin: “Naturally, one must wish for the planet that one day it will experience a civilization that has abandoned blood and horror; in fact, I am . . .  inclined to assume that our planet is waiting for this. But it is terribly doubtful whether we can bring such a present to its hundred or four hundredth-millionth birthday party. . . ”

Want to experience an existential moment as an animal activist? Ponder the above claim. Read it and internalize it.  The idealist invests everything in the hope for human agency. But Benjamin places hope for an end to violence at the hands of humans in sobering perspective.

Our predilection to violence is rooted in soil whose depth far exceeds the birth of our existence. Benjamin understood this. Hence the “who are we to change millions of years of history” tact. Indeed, who designated us history’s giver of gifts, the past’s and future’s great hope, as if we were assigned to show up to the holiday party with a fine bottle of Pinot Noir and buzz the guests into happiness?

Too many collective habits are the result of the inertia of benign thoughtlessness. Banality of evil and such. How else can lovers of peace and harmony and goodness eat a rueben for lunch before delivering a sermon on live and let live? Four days of blog silence have been spent wondering what’s the point of word therapy when another BBQ joint opens down the road. With a sign that has a butcher’s knife. As if consumers will witness an instrument of torture—and, really, what else is it?— and think, “yes, that will do.” And it will. Surely.

Should we burn the sign? Bomb it? Ignore it? As the classic note that children give to children says: yes? no? maybe?

[New Forbes piece. Please  visit.]

“Did Mom Use Vegan Sugar?”

» November 30th, 2013

With the Thanksgiving feast finally on the wane, as leftovers gradually disappear, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the myriad challenges faced by vegans who participate in the non-vegan world.

By that description I mean vegans who choose, despite their veganism, to remain involved in extended non-vegan family dinners, often in other parts of the country, at other people’s houses, and in settings where vegans are akin to martians. Not bad people, just eccentric curiosities.

Well, that was me. Scenes at my parents’ house on Thanksgiving would make a sheltered vegan’s head spin. At one point I found myself in my parents backyard, sitting on the lowered door of my brother’s pick-up truck, a spread of hunting magazines around me, watching my brother dip a bird powdered in red dust into a vat of roiling peanut oil.

Mind you: if every person in the world went vegan, my brother, an otherwise very good guy, would be the last. The good news is that I have grist for about a dozen posts from that choice experience.

In any case, it was, in this setting, a sign of hope, and also a touching gesture, that many of the nearly 20 people at dinner brought vegan dishes on behalf of me and members of my immediate family. I ate extremely well on Thursday afternoon: Brussels sprouts, green beans, a spinach and walnut salad, a vegan wild rice stuffing, and a roasted yucca root (my thought she’d bought me a sweet potato). Wine.

The night before my sister-in-law, wife of the world’s most dedicated human carnivore, made me a superb vegan lasagna (she needed the personal assistance of a Whole Foods employee to help her find the ingredients), that I’ve been slicing away at for days. In fact, I just had some for breakfast.

One of the Thanksgiving desserts was a “vegan pumpkin pie” made by my mom. I almost never eat desserts, primarily because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. As a result, I’m rarely in the position to ponder the question that someone with a little more vegan knowledge than others asked, tactfully but out loud, away from the crowd: did mom use vegan sugar?  Good question, that one.

Yes, there is non-vegan sugar. And, as it turns out, no, mom had no idea what kind of sugar she used. Mom had no idea she needed to even have an idea. This lack of knowledge, of course, meant that mom most likely used non-vegan sugar. Oh, and I should add, my mom made this pie not for Thanksgiving, but for my birthday, thus leaving me in the position of crushing mom’s feelings or eating a non-vegan pie.

“Awkward . . . ” as my kids would say. I gave the matter some thought, but  not a whole lot of thought, before I ate the pie, thanking mom, digging in, making it official that vocal vegan advocate James McWilliams may very well have not eaten vegan on Thanksgiving 2013.

It seemed to me by instinct to be the right decision to make (although I can already anticipate reader disapproval) under the circumstances, and it’s one that, at this point in time, I don’t regret in the least. Made mom happy. Tasted good. Was well intentioned. Would have gone to waste otherwise. Etc. and so on.

And there’s the upshot: If vegans rampage through life holding our moral flags high and making people miserable—or making ourselves look like assholes— because of the purity of our principles, we’ll never make any headway in putting our ideals into action down here on earth, where decent people sit on the back of pick ups and read up on shooting deer while lowering a turkey into boiling grease.

Sure, I’d love it if the question of vegan sugar was a mainstream culinary concern, but it’s not. In fact, as a Thanksgiving event at virtually any house in America will attest, slaughtering and eating sentient animals isn’t even a mainstream culinary concern. Hell, it hardly registers. If I start yapping on about sugar in this setting, I’d be deemed insane.

So, unless you want to remove yourself from the culinary reality in which we live, forget the sugar when it makes sense to forget the sugar. Regrettably, if we want to make headway on the latter concern—that is, reducing the slaughter of farm animals—we’ll have have to eat some pie and start picking the low-hanging fruit.


Was There Honey in That?

» October 5th, 2013

My daughter was recently annoyed that she ate something at school that turned out to have yogurt in it. Before I reacted to her situation, I had one of those split second conversations with myself reiterating subconsciously that “my answer matters so don’t screw it up.” I told her to not get too worked up about it and, next time, to try and be more proactive about checking out ingredients. Ask a question or two. Conversation over.

Analyzing why I answered this way, and knowing how hard it can be to negotiate a non-vegan world as a vegan, I realized that while I care deeply about not eating animals, I’m not one to freak out if I eat something that I think is vegan, and has every reason to be vegan, but turns out to have a drop of honey or some sort of milk power in it. I’m not going to be happy about it, but neither am I going to pitch a fit or feel guilt or rage.

The politics of personal dietary choices—especially ones that buck the norm in fundamental ways—can be tricky. On the one had it’s important to reveal the dedication of our commitment to the cause of ethical veganism by, for starters, being hyper-vigilant about ingredients. On the other, we have to make sure that our hyper-vigilence does not become more about ourselves and the image we want to cultivate than the larger cause. I’ve had times when, hovering over the kitchen at my brother’s house looking for a vegan foul, I’m told, with good reason, to chill the hell out. Good advice.

One time, right after I’d gone vegan, my mom planned a delicious vegan meal to support my decision. It was a lovely vegetable and pesto soup. I insisted on doing the dishes and, when I went into the kitchen, I saw sitting on the counter two empty boxes of chicken stock. I knew mom hadn’t done this on purpose: habit was habit. She hadn’t thought about it. But intention was intention—this was an innocent foul. What could I do but laugh? I did laugh, and now she only uses veggie stock, even when I’m not around.

But are we cheapening the value of our decision when we react this way? Do we detract from the gravity of the cause? How have you, if you are vegan, handled such situations?

Blame the Messenger

» September 26th, 2013

University of Toronto researchers have recently churned up some rough news for activists and agitators alike: people think we’re assholes. This perception, confirmed through several experiments, is more than an inconvenience. It actually means, as one review of the study puts it, that despite the public’s general openness to being swayed by the content of our ideas, “their unwillingness to associate with such people dampens the likelihood of changing their behavior.” Ouch.

In one experiment, 140 Americans read an article about “the need to adopt sustainable lifestyles.” A third of the readers were informed that the author was a typical environmentalist (read: asshole); another third were informed that the the author was an atypical (less aggressive grass-rootsy) environmentalist; and the final third was told nothing at all about the author’s environmentalist bone fides.

When they finished reading the piece, respondents were asked if they’d now be more likely to pursue obvious environmental actions such as recycling.  According to the researchers: “Participants were less motivated to adopt pro-environmental behaviors when these behaviors were advocated by the ‘typical’ environmentalist, rather than by the ‘atypical’ environmentalist or the undefined target.” The study concludes that this finding applies to other forms of activism as well.

It’s easy, if you’re an activist, to react defensively to this news (thereby, of course, risking exposure to being perceived as even more of an asshole). After all, how frustrating it is to care deeply about a cause, desire its amelioration for the betterment of the common good, and then, as thanks for your advocacy, your toil, your sacrifice, withstand treatment as a pompous blowhard.

Nonetheless, a better response, I would humbly suggest, is to take the finding seriously and ponder ways to ameliorate what strikes me as a very real problem. I think one reason animal rights activists spend more time at each other’s throats than they do seeking a united front against a carnistic society is that, like the respondents in the survey described above, we’re put off by each other’s often aggressive self-assurance and antagonism to different perspectives on the same problem.

My own experience on this score is instructive. The primary reason I’ve gradually tip-toed away from what was once a much more hardline stance on animal exploitation has little to do with any change my belief system. I still believe as devoutly as I ever have that all forms of unnecessary animal exploitation are wrong. Instead, my shift in tone and approach came as a result of my realization—through bitter experiences that make me very sad to recall— that, when it comes to capturing hearts and minds, style matters as much as substance.

So here is where I become especially blunt:  too many animal rights activists wear their moral assurance too aggressively. This is not to suggest that they are not right. But, as someone clever said somewhere at some point: would you rather be right or would you rather be effective? The reality of reality churned up by this Toronto study is that ideas are always conveyed in a social context.  And social contexts are messy and imperfect places. Nice guys fare better in their vortex than do assholes.






The Sysco Hypothesis

» August 31st, 2013

I’ve been thinking lately about how stuff clusters. Vehicles cluster and cause traffic. Ideas cluster and create trends. Cells cluster and cause cancer. Money clusters and create facelifts, contemporary art, and yachts. All biological life seems prone to density. That density can annoy us at times. The periphery seems so peaceful. But density is the pulsing bullseye of change. We spend so much of life analyzing what we do. Maybe where we do it is just as important. Perhaps more.

So I’ve been researching a piece about the industrial food system. I’m trying to map it out in studious neutral terms in order to grasp the sharper angles of its blueprint. I’m both baffled and intrigued by the idea that a stockbroker in Manhattan can eat the same meal, at the same moment, as a slum dweller in Mumbai. It’s a very academic bafflement. But still. Density makes this possible. Density thus demands the bulk of our attention. Our collective attention should cluster around density.

Look at the blueprint of anything. Density means there are nodes of power and nodes of power means there are choke points. Hard not to like those two words: choke points. Which brings me to my Sysco Hypothesis. Sysco is a company that almost single-handedly connects agribusiness to restaurants, cafeterias, and caterers. It’s the food world’s middleman. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sysco makes the consumption of industrially produced animal products possible on a mass scale. Sysco, in other words, is industrial food’s densest node of power.

What if we choked it?  Not Sysco per se (honestly, I kind of admire the company). But what if animal rights activists focussed their attention on Sysco’s meat supply chain? Its meat distribution link?  What if we did a Henry Spira on Sysco’s meat division? Unlike Whole Foods, which depends on the sale of animal products for 21 percent of its sales, I suspect this is not the case for Sysco, which sells everything. Sysco supplies hotels with soap. They sell chopsticks. They sell yucca root. They sell wheat grass for hippies. I suspect it could drop meat and survive. Thrive. Maybe sell some Tofurky or Field Roast sausage instead?

Advocates for animals look out the window of our dreamscapes and see meat consumption everywhere. It seems so ubiquitous. And it is. But the nodes that allow it aren’t. They’re concentrated in offices at the largest food distributor in the world. What if we knocked on it’s door? Bought a share or two and voiced our opinion? What if we turned every ounce of activist attention on one very powerful node? What if we clustered in the right place for once?


“A Certain Degree of Intelligence”

» August 30th, 2013


The Associated Press ran a story yesterday with this lede: “There’s extensive evidence that pigs are as smart and sociable as dogs. Yet one species is afforded affection and respect; the other faces mass slaughter en route to becoming bacon, ham and pork chops.” Pretty amazing, huh? Not that pigs are as intelligent as dogs but that this basic truth is making its way into the mainstream press without snark or snide remarks. I’m aware that recognition of animal intelligence is hardly a barometer for how we treat animals, but it’s not irrelevant either, and thus I was pleased to see this piece. A snippet of hope, this.

At the core of the story is something called The Someone Project. Good title. According to the AP article, The Someone Project, led by psychologist Lori Marino, “aims to highlight research depicting pigs, chickens, cows and other farm animals as more intelligent and emotionally complex than commonly believed. The hope is that more people might view these animals with the same empathy that they view dogs, cats, elephants, great apes and dolphins.”  Of course, we abuse the daylights out of these animals, but at least we don’t raise them by the billions to kill and eat them, so this approach strikes me as useful. Or at least not useless.

Farm Sanctuary is coordinating the project. Bruce Friedrich, of Farm Sanctuary, was quoted in the piece as saying, “When you ask people why they eat chickens but not cats, the only thing they can come up with is that they sense cats and dogs are more cognitively sophisticated that then species we eat—and we know this isn’t true.” And: “What it boils down to is people don’t know farm animals the way they know dogs or cats . . . We’re a nation of animal lovers, and yet the animals we encounter most frequently are the animals we pay people to kill so we can eat them.” Wise words from Bruce.

Perhaps the best part of the piece was watching the pork council veritably squeal in discomfort. David Warner of the National Pork Council said, “While animals raised for food do have a certain degree of intelligence, Farm Sanctuary is seeking to humanize them to advance its vegan agenda—an end to meat consumption” . . . While vegans have a right to express their opinion—and we respect that right—they should not force their lifestyle on others.” Yes, vegan. Don’t you dare instruct others not to kill sentient beings that are smarter than your pre-schooler.  And how dare we meddle with someone’s “lifestyle” or make them squirm with our arbitrary “opinion.” The nerve!

Gwen Venable of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association was even more ludicrous in her logic: “Consumers should be able choose their food based on their own dietary preferences and nutritional needs and without being unduly influenced by any one group’s personal agenda,” she wrote. “We do not feel that Farm Sanctuary’s campaign is reasonable, as the campaign’s ultimate goal would be to eradicate poultry and pork from consumers’ diets.” Well, duh!

Even the pig would get that.



The Narcissim of Moral Clarity

» August 21st, 2013

Moral clarity is manifested in countless atomized ways. There are activists who dedicate their lives to singular matters such as fighting child labor, improving working conditions for adults, ending global warming, closing sweatshops, eliminating sexism, and, of course, stopping the exploitation of animals.

These advocates, in the fierceness of their zeal, will often brook no compromise. They live their in lives in a state of extreme and, no doubt admirable, fealty to the commandments of their chosen cause. The essence of their advocacy is to convince you to do the same—again, without compromise—in the name of some elevated conception of righteousness. One must not, in the glare of moral purity, think in terms of “things getting better.” The social ill under their fire has two states: existent or non-existent.

Nobody, of course, can be a true believer about every cause. Most of us, in fact, can only muster the time and knowledge and energy to tackle one, maybe two issues. For those inclined to seek comprehensive social justice, this reality—the inevitable fragmentation of social causes—can be deeply frustrating in its defiance of utopian fulfillment. When we argue that we’re pursuing “intersecting oppressions” we are, in my estimation, using trumped-up aspirational language to occlude the hard human reality that our moral resources are limited. Anyone who says otherwise has, by virtue of their claim, proven the point.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with thinking in aspirational terms. But such thought should never suggest that we can, as the flawed human beings we are, live our lives with behavioral consistency in the face of multiple moral issues. Let me be clear: anyone who chooses to pursue a cause with single-minded passion is, in my book, something of a hero in our culture of engrained indifference. It’s all too easy to be complacent in the face of injustice. Just cook a hot dog and watch the game and be blissful in your Lazy-Boy ignorance. But those who hit the streets and pursue their chosen cause without ample tolerance for compromise, without room for gradual change, without a deep sense of humility, are activists who allow heroism to slip quietly, and then not so quietly, into narcissism, if not blatant hypocrisy.

To be more concrete, when the activist insists that we seek moral purity with respect to a cause, he implicitly suggests that “his” cause has more value than another ethically fraught cause.  Example: an animal rights activist might condemn an anti-sweatshop advocate who chooses the lesser of evils and eats eggs from chickens she raised with adoration in her backyard. But that same animal rights activist might be wearing socks made in a sweatshop, or made with GMO cotton, and, in turn, equally offend the activist sensibilities of the backyard-egg eating activist wearing clothes made from organic hemp grown alongside her happy chickens. When these earnest-minded activists clash into each other for selling out to the evils of compromise, not only do their respective passions cancel each other out, they reveal the narcissism and hypocrisy at the bottom of their advocacy. (This is, in a way, exactly what’s happening between sustainable foodies and vegans.)

Many readers have wondered why I’ve backed off some of my earlier, and more firebrand-ish claims to abolish all animal exploitation. I hope this post offers something by way of a hint of an answer to my perceived “selling out.” I still feel as strongly as ever that we have a moral obligation to end all animal exploitation. But the more I’ve explored the reality of putting that ideal into action, especially from a historical perspective (which the AR movement lacks), the more I’ve come to realize that the cause I see shining back at me in the pond every morning is not the only cause out there. In fact, it’s one among more than I can conceive. And that’s cause for compromise.




» July 30th, 2013


I just returned from a pecan farm in Caldwell, Texas, where I interviewed a couple of orchard managers for a story I’m writing on the pecan industry. The men were delightful company–smart, funny, and passionate about their product. Much of our discussion centered on the breeding of improved pecans—genetically identical trees selected for a variety of traits such as insect and drought resistance or shell thickness. Fascinating stuff—the stuff I live for. These kind of discussions can be intimidating to a non-specialist, especially when the jargon pump is primed, but my guides were gentle and brilliant and selfless in the clarity of their explanations. Good guys, both of them.

Still, I could not overlook one particular comment. After a lengthy overview of topics genetic, one orchard manager turned to me and noted, as he gestured to the ranch next door, “it’s really just like cattle breeding.”

Ah. Well, at least I know he wasn’t vetting me by reading my blog before our meeting. I didn’t say a word, just nodded, which may seem cowardly—but give me a moment here. Some might say this was a “teachable moment.” Perhaps.  My gut told me it wasn’t the time to declare my stance on the ethics of breeding animals. Either way, driving home I had a lot of time to think about this loaded comparison, one crafted with the utmost ease by a thoroughly well-intentioned botanist who really wanted me to understand pecans, had loaded me down with enough pecans to feed an army, and truly thought cows were a perfect analogy.

Rather than respond directly, I decided to experience the event in a different way, subjecting it to my thoughts here on The Pitchfork and, in turn, suggesting a couple of ways to make sense of the reference. Here’s my glass-half-empty interpretation: we are so inured to animal suffering, so accustomed to animal instrumentality, that we toss off “it’s just like cattle breeding” without in any way considering how pecans and cows might feel about being genetically manipulated and harvested. No surprise, right? And here’s my glass-half-full interpretation: the fact that there is a clear but shared boundary between pecans and cows means we know exactly where to center our attention when we—or at least I—can figure out how to deliver a pointed commentary on animal rights to a man who has sacrificed his afternoon to help me better understand the plant to which he has dedicated his life. Maybe you will this more surprising?

Preaching the virtues of veganism is, for better or worse, a social process. My experience is that some vegans are deeply attuned to the fact that we make our case in a shifting framework of complex social relations. Others are like jackhammers in the library, pounding away at their project to the great annoyance of everyone else. Lord knows the world needs jackhammers to deconstruct the conventions we’ve erected. But sometimes silence is the right choice—right as in polite and, sure, convenient..  Today I chose silence, headed home, and handed my daughter a bowl of fresh pecans.