Extremely Disappointing, Incredibly Predictable

» June 16th, 2012


Yesterday I posted a video of Jonathan Safran Foer, author of a book (Eating Animals) that inspired countless people to go vegan. He was plugging an app that tells consumers where they should buy chicken. The initial impact was as if Martin Luther King, after writing Letter from a Birmingham Jail, had renounced non-violence and taken up arms.

My first reaction, along with many other vegans, was a sort of stupefaction. I’d read Eating Animals. I’d sat on a panel with Foer in Texas and, with him, denounced animal products. I’d listened to friends tell me that he was the bedrock of their veganism. I’d written a glowing review of his book. I thought about all of this as I drove from Louisville to Pittsburg yesterday, passing the time in a state of low-grade agitation.

As the miles clicked by, though, my agitation shifted. It shifted from Foer to myself. Why did I ever imagine Foer to be a vegan representative? Why did I find myself speechless? Why am I overwhelmed with the impulse to call Foer a hypocrite? Why did I go all weak-kneed over this guy? Why did I ignore the fact that Foer was at home on the fence?

Foer never advocated veganism. He rarely engaged the philosophical issues endemic to animal rights. He’s friends with, and sympathetic toward, the “humane” producers of animal products. He has studiously dodged hard questions such as “what should people eat?” (a remarkable accomplishment given that he wrote a book about it). In essence, Foer has never, ever passed himself off as something he’s not. He’s a brilliantly literary guy who wrote a compelling book more or less riffing in fascinating ways about the habit of eating animals. He never decreed squat.

Still, many vegans–myself included–conveniently overlooked these facts about Foer. We came to respect him as some sort of unspoken spokesperson for ethical veganism. But why? That’s the real question at the center of this whole Foer dust-up.

I think our admiration for this talented novelist speaks volumes about our desperation for moral leadership. Perhaps more to the point, it speaks volumes about why the vegan movement lacks its identifiable representatives. I’m well aware that many vegans want a movement without leaders, but my sense is that with Foer many vegans were investing him with genuine vegan-leadership qualities because, well, we otherwise lack a high-profiled and charismatic figure who embodies the values central to our cause.

Again, I know that hierarchy is something many vegans seek to avoid, and for good reasons. That said, the sustainable food movement has its Michael Pollan, and look what he’s done for it. He’s provided vision and clarity. Acolytes rally around him like a guru and charge like a laser into a murky future. The result has been nothing short of profound: the movement has gone from a vague set of ideas to a cohesive and sharply defined ideology with the all the power of a bullet aimed to humanely kill lunch.

But vegans? No such luck. Lacking our Pollan, we seem to prefer fights. And not against the animal exploiters, but with each other. The narcissism of small differences too often wins out over the sensibility of unified beliefs, leaving us rudderless.

Don’t get me wrong—I deeply value our internal debates (hell, I initiate many of them).  But, fragmented as we are, it’s no wonder that we cannot agree on a small set of figures who genuinely embody vegan ideals. It’s no wonder so many of us invested so heavily in Foer. And it’s no wonder that Foer has (temporarily?) fallen off the fence and landed on the side of the happy meat/sustainable agriculture fence. Our side of the fence is jagged and full of mines. Where he now sits there’s green pastures, cool people, sunny skies, and rose-colored glasses to hide the suffering that we refuse to ignore.

23 Responses to Extremely Disappointing, Incredibly Predictable

  1. Rhys says:

    Do you see yourself as eventually becoming that leader/rudder that veganism needs?

  2. Therese Kritzinger says:

    Hi James,

    Let me start by saying that I admire your writing and single-minded focus greatly.

    I think that Foer is trying to get that portion of chicken-eaters who simply scoff at the idea of vegetarianism/veganism to start seeing the chickens they eat as animals rather than objects and to start thinking about their welfare. I might be wrong, but I do wonder if “conscientious omnivorism” can perhaps be a valid stepping stone towards vegetarianism, and eventually veganism. If someone can be persuaded to start caring about how animals live, they may yet be able to start caring about their deaths.

    I just stumbled across Erik Marcus mentioning on Facebook that he had spoken to Jonathan Foer on the phone, and the following is an excerpt:
    “He went on to say, “Ultimate success comes from a variety of approaches,” and then stressed the importance of having an uncompromising base within the vegan community who advocates nothing but veganism at every turn. He understands why this group would speak out against a video like the one he just created.”

    I am reminded of the gradual shift of women around the world from being seen as little more than possessions, to being treated as persons. I think that for many people, a gradual paradigm shift is necessary. Some basic rights are granted first, and then gradually people can start to accept the necessity of granting more rights. I am not saying that I am for the “welfarist” approach and against the “abolitionist” approach. I want us to achieve abolition as quickly as possible, and at the same time I want existing farmed animals to suffer as little as possible (cage size makes a difference to animals’ lives, even if I disagree with them being in cages). It might just be that many people will not entertain the notion of abolition if we don’t attempt to meet them where they are and to try to get them to budge an inch at a time towards considering the interests of farmed animals. But this doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to get people to stop exploiting animals altogether – it does mean that a variety of approaches are necessary to try and reach a variety of minds.

    I suspect that the greatest momentary challenge is education, and Jonathan Safran Foer has done admirably well in that department. I think he has spent a lot more time focussing on trying to get the truth out there than making direct recommendations- perhaps because he has been undergoing his own gradual paradigm shift simultaneously with the writing and release of ‘Eating Animals’.

    In closing: please keep up the good work; someone needs to remind conscientious omnivores that there’s work left to be done; and someone needs to remind the vegan movement to think big and hold on to our ultimate goal.

    Best regards,

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      Therese, as a member of the uncompromising vegan base, I agree it’s important to educate the public — not about the conditions of industrial farming, but on the full reality of nonhumanan experience.

      If consumers only learn farm animals are overcrowded, even that they can’t turn around, they won’t ever be aware of the other major cruelties imposed on them. The “humane movement” will not teach them because if they did, the public and activists would realize how meaningless their campaigns are.

      I’m not familiar with Foer’s work, but if he’s aware of the physical and emotional traumas farm animals are subjected to, it’s beyond me how he can recommend any type of farming.

      What are basic rights, if not the right to belong to oneself? Welfarists have ignored the basic moral rights of nonhumans for the last two centuries. There will never be animal rights on farms.

  3. kathryn shane says:

    I never saw Foer as being a vegan. In fact, I was disappointed with Eating Animals for that reason, but I do see the reach and influence this book has had in helping people to make the decision to become vegans. Likewise with Mark Bittman (vegan until 6 pm). Although he continues to cook animal products on the Today show, he also is doing more vegan cooking, and his NYT opinions are influencing people every day to move towards vegan diets. Both have had tremendous influence helping people to “care” about how animals are treated before they become a “meal”. These are creatures that folks never even thought about as more than a nugget, steak or fillet, certainly never as a living breathing being capable of feeling pain, fear and desperation. Clearly, they’re moving towards some type of connection giving a new found value to animals.

    I recently had a discussion with a group of “sustainable food movement” environmentalists are who listening a bit more to me, the ethical vegan, about plant-based eating. A recent discussion was about how to get a church community to move towards planning all plant based events. I see the SFM, as the sugar to draw people in, and then providing squirts (big squirts) of vinegar through educational programs about health and environment along with discussions of the ethics of taking lives when we don’t need to. YOU are the one who keeps me going each day as I read your posts. I love that you drew a line in the sand after the MAD FEST and agree with all you said. But those in my community don’t. I need to move them along with sugar, always increasing the infusion of vinegar…and you’re the one that keeps me sane enough to not give up…because I see movement happening.

    And I agree totally with you assessment of the infighting within the vegan community. I get so discouraged when someone within the community gets upset with something that I or another vegan has done even though our motives have been clearly for the animals. We just haven’t done it in “the right way”. Your posts bolster many of us who are getting it from all sides every day.

    In closing, I have the urge to respond to your posts every day, but, not being a gifted writer and often not having the time to respond, I don’t. However, it’s important to me to let you know how much I appreciate your posts. Why not have an “l agree!” button on your page so that those of us who support you can give you that feedback quickly on a daily basis. You give me support on a daily basis that keeps me going, and I’d like you to know that, particularly when you’re catching flak yourself for being on the front line! Keep it up James!

    • Therese Kritzinger says:

      Hi Kathryn, I agree with you. Likewise, I rarely have the time to comment on blog posts, but always find James McWilliams’s posts motivating and inspiring. (Thanks James!)

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      Kathryn, I too think it would be great if we could all work together. I don’t enjoy arguing with welfarists, and would much rather spend my time sharing what I’ve learned about other animals — for example, that baby chicks can do arithmetic; that like us and many other animals, birds actively plan for the future; that rats dream; that mice show empathy; that some squirrels are so family oriented, they build nests for their daughters’ babies; and the list goes on. I think there’s a definite need for this because it contradicts the notion that nonhumans are merely objects to be exploited. Opponents of animal rights are devoted to keeping them non-thinking, non-feeling things.

      But I’ve seen too much to ignore the harm welfarists are doing, to grin and work with them. I realize I won’t win a popularity contest for that, but I must continue to oppose welfarism in good conscience.

  4. Ellie Maldonado says:

    Foer may still be a vegetarian — at least for now — but I wouldn’t be surprised if he went the way of Molly Katzen (author of the Moosewood Cookbook), and numerous others who’ve resumed eating meat because farm animals are now “raised and handled humanely”:

    “Molly Katzen’s Eating Meat Now, wtf”

    “Why Vegetarians are Eating Meat”

    The new welfarism encourages meat-eating!

  5. Vance says:

    I can’t get behind this Foer-as-failed-leader notion. I was one of the first people to interview him about Eating Animals (http://articles.philly.com/2009-11-10/entertainment/24987987_1_animal-agriculture-eating-animals-factory-farming) and I asked him point-blank if he was vegan. He said he was actually eating much closer to vegan than he was going to advocate, because he felt it would be easier to reach more people in a hard-hitting way without bogging down in the finer points of whey, casein and other problematic additives. So I took him pretty much at his word, as someone much closer to the “sustainable” side than the “ethically logical” side. This latest foray is noteworthy as a caricature of the problems with that position, but it’s not very surprising and does not rob us of a potential leader – Foer never claimed that spot or nominated himself for it, and good thing too.

  6. John T. Maher says:

    Perhaps Foer believes, like Derrida, that Happy Meat chickys are ethically permissible. Foer, while not an obvious post-structuralist, seems to be backing into some sort of “take responsibility” and “lesser harm” argument which prefers locavore chicky chicky over Purdue or something. I have not reconciled the post-humanist “we all kill anyway” position (Haraway) with my vegatarianism/veganism except as a personal imperative but you are spot on that Foer should not make followers think that any chicky eating is justified. Kudos for holding his nuts to the grill on this one JMAC

  7. kathryn shane says:

    I too saw Foer as more of a sustainable guy when I read the book. I certainly knew he wasn’t a vegan. I wasn’t a big fan because of that, but knew he had a big role to play in educating people, as did Michael Pollan. The Omnivore’s Dilemma opened the door for millions of people who moved quickly through the SFM and are now vegan. I agree Vance that Foer never billed himself as a vegan leader. He can still do tremendous good by not being a vegan..however, I would hope that at some point relatively soon, he will ask the questions that will make the wider audiences question the ethics of killing. Bittman is beginning to do that more and more. James does that now for a smaller, but ever growing audience and that keeps many of us plugging away. We need James, just as the masses need Foer and Bittman to shine that light that moves us forward. All are doing their part to move things along, not as quickly as many of us would like, but forward still. And I agree with Ellie on a few things. I don’t see Foer going back to eating meat as Katzen did and I think you are absolutely right that AR people, whether abolitionists or wefarists, should highlight and educate people about the amazing skills of logic, math, vision, hearing, facial recognition, communication, play, creativity, ingenuity, and tool-building that animals display as well as the emotional and loving bonds they develop with each other, like the goose that stands in front of it’s mate to save him or her, or the raccoon crow that drags his or her partner or friend from the middle of the road to rest him on the shoulder. (Why do you think you see more dead animals on the side of the road rather than in the middle?). I saw a doe trying to push her dead fawn out of the road. We’ve all seen the videos of the mother cow who’s reunited with her calf, of the crow that uses a can lid carrying it in its beak repeatedly to the top of a snowy rooftop to sled down the roof over and over. There are so many films available from PBS, Nova and National Geographic that bring the intelligence of animals to life without threatening the viewer’s whole lifestyle. The words that Ellie use are perfect to describe how most people view all animals except their cat or dog….non-thinking, non-feeling things that (not who) can be exploited. Dispelling that attitude is critical to moving people into a space where they can begin to understand that ethics are even a consideration when it comes to animals. There are a lot of very ethical people out there sitting at KFC right now with a wing in each hand. They just don’t yet know that ethics apply to what they’re eating. I was a very ethical person going about my business eating everything until I picked up The Food Revolution almost 8 years ago. It’s the job of Foer, Bittman,and Pollan to bring ordinary meat eating people like I was to the “sustainable” table as a start, where geniuses, like james, who can really argue the ethical issues, can join them for dessert.

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      Kathryn, I’m very glad we agree that it’s critical to change the still widely held misunderstanding that nonhumans are just ‘things’ to be exploited. I really think it’s fundamental to liberating them.

      And great if the “Omnivore’s Dilemma” opened the door to people who became vegans. I thought Pollan’s book led to the “kill and butcher your own meat” movement, which was mightily criticized by B.R. Meyers in The Atlantic (“Hard to Swallow” and “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies”) and I think rightly so — but if Pollan’s followers opted to become vegans, that’s really great news!

      I don’t see Bittman in the same way. I could be wrong, but I get the feeling he’s obligated by his position at the NY Times to continue to provide meat-based recipes. He still eats meat (so do most members of my family), but I somehow get the feeling his heart is in the right place.

      I know I could be wrong, but not every famous cook is willing to recommend vegan cookbooks, as Bittman has — “Dining With Friends” from Friends of Animals, and others.

      Maybe I’m being too optimistic, since both Bittman and Foer clearly support the “sustainable meat” myth, and they agreed to judge the “ethical meat” essay contest. Even so, I hope, as you said, that Foer will not resume eating meat. That would be even more disappointing! But then who knows? Maybe Bittman and Foer will be vegans someday.

  8. Maybe the overall problem here is the focus on conversion as a strategy for change. People, like all other animals, will usually take the shortest route to their need resources, and eat whatever’s in easiest reach. The vegan movement should thus focus on forcing change in policy and practice at the institutional level, so that people will only be able to reach for cheap, easy vegan food.

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      I wonder if one hand washes the other in this case? The more vegans there are, the more cheap, easy vegan food will be manufactured — and vice versa.

    • Therese Kritzinger says:

      Hi there,

      I meant to reply to your comment previously but accidentally posted it as a comment on the article. Please read my comment below. =)


  9. Therese Kritzinger says:

    It seems to me that, as long as there is no shortage of food, many people consider more factors than convenience when it comes to food (as in many other areas of life), and that committed vegans who were previously non-vegan are evidence of this.

    I doubt that drastic changes in policy can be brought about without the public largely supporting it (except where changes are brought about in order to profit the government)… And for people to support such changes, they will essentially need to have decided to go vegan.

    Back on the topic of conversion – I think Vegan Outreach is doing the most valuable work I have heard of yet, leafletting in colleges all over the US. http://www.veganoutreach.org/

    The UK really needs an equivalent of this group.

    If some subset of new vegans also become activists, authors, documentary makers, or simply public figures willing to speak out for animals, growth of the movement seems certain.

    Lastly I would just like to point to this heartening study: http://phys.org/news/2011-07-minority-scientists-ideas.html

    It’s possible that if we can work towards 10% of the population going vegan for good, we’ll be in an excellent position to sway mass opinion.

    PS: Love your blog!

  10. kathryn shane says:

    That article is very encouraging, Therese. There seems to be a growing number of vegan activist, film makers, festivals, every year and more new vegan food appearing all the time. More people are using the word vegan and more restaurants, trains, planes and ships are offering vegan meals. The movement is growing and wouldn’t it be wonderful to reach that 10%? As I said earlier, people like James keep us motivated to keep at it even when the odds seem overwhelming. I believe it will happen in my lifetime..the 10% at least. A huge thank you to James for giving us the energy to keep talking and talking about animals, ethics and veganism to those who want to listen and to those who don’t.

    • Andrew Ward says:

      It would be good for everyone, vegetarian, vegan and the others, if 10% of the US population adapted a vegan lifestyle. A population segment that size could not be ignored and would compel commercial interests to: (1) offer more healthy selections; (2) improve the quality and the condition of livestock; and (3) encourage / increase farm subsidies for sustainable organic farming. Everyone wins.

      I eat mostly vegetables, fish and some chicken. In the past I raised livestock for personal consumption and proud of the conditions provided.

      That said, I’m appalled by the inhumane conditions of cattle feed lots and industrial poultry operations and the imprudent use of hormones, antibiotics and other chemical enhancers. Consequently, beef and pork have all but disappeared from my menu. These change in my diet directly result from the interaction and influence of vegan and vegetarian friends and colleagues.

      Andrew Ward
      Liwa, Abu Dhabi

  11. Bonnie says:

    I just tweeted the question, “Do vegans need a leader?” I think we do. The civil rights movement had a number of inspirational people. There needs to be a voice that will be heard above the din. Here at the grassroots level we’re doing all we can, but we need a big international presence in the form of someone who can command media time. Not to preach – but to educate – to inform, to take the heat and turn it into ice cubes. We as vegans need to turn up the heat already and put an end to the violence that sickens our souls.

  12. Angel says:

    I think we already have many excellent vegan leaders (or, at least, proto-leaders). Francione, Marcus, Balcombe, Barnard, McDougall, Ellen, Silverstone, Friedman, Campbell, Esselstyn, Adams, and probably tons of others that I’m forgetting. And maybe we don’t all agree about the sincerity or effectiveness of these individuals’ work, but I definitely see lots of potential out there.
    Since there are multi-pronged reasons for being vegan (health, environment, animals, workers, world hunger, public safety, etc.), I think it’s fair to have a multiplicity of leaders.

  13. Martin Rowe says:

    I like to think the movement has many leaders—Victoria Moran, Will Tuttle, Rory Freedman, Kim Stallwood, Carol Adams, etc.—except they don’t fit the model of the clubbable, East Coast, literary-establishment male. The problem is investing JSF with authority because we believe that the individual author who’s published by corporate publishers and necessarily receives the imprimatur of the mainstream is by definition a leader; whereas many authors who publish independently and tour widely underneath the corporate media’s radar are not. I would take the plurality of many “small” voices over the boombox of the single, heroic (male?) voice any day. For one, our model is not a monoculture, and is thus more resistant to the diseases of egotism, vanity, or equivocation that can lay waste to any individual.

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