Next Up on the Ethical Butcher’s Block: James McWilliams

Hellfire if I don’t have a knack for angering butchers. Fortunately, they come at me with words (thus far). What follows is an open letter from Berlin Reed. As I reported in a recent Atlantic.com post (and reposted yesterday on Eating Plants) Reed’s blog, the Ethical Butcher, was recently co-opted by a propaganda wing of industrial agriculture. My reason for mentioning Reed was to show how big agriculture shamelessly co-opts those who purport to threaten it, doing so on the common ground of the basic belief that it’s okay to kill animals unnecessarily. Reed, who certainly deserves to have his viewpoint heard, has this to say: 

Mr. McWilliams, we’ve never met. We’ve never spoken to one another. I only wish you had sought to remedy that situation before writing a treatise on meat consumption using me as an example. I was flabbergasted by the inaccuracies in your article in the Atlantic,but your biggest mistake in writing “What Big Ag and the Ethical Butcher Share” was deciding to build your stance against me based on little more than two lines from my blog bio. I’ve been hanging under the radar, head down on a few new projects and preparing to write my first book, which you have gracefully gifted me an opportunity to mention. Why not attempt to stand on the fortitude of your ideas alone? Or, at the very least interview me so that you could write about me from a more informed perspective. With minimal effort, you could have found a more recent portrayal of my ethos at work,in this interview, which was released the same day as yours, by a writer who did the legwork you blithely bypassed in your fervor to assert your self-righteousness while disproving my methodology.

I pity the limited scope with which you seem to view the world. To begin, your article was a disrespectful disgrace to this nation’s farmers and to the many people working tirelessly to change the meat industry. I would have explained the meaning of “The Ethical Butcher”, had you called me for even a short interview. Since you didn’t, I’ll have to take a step back to explain. First, “The Ethical Butcher” is the title of my project, not a self-assigned moniker. Second, butchery is a craft, a skill. Ethics are philosophy in action. Butchery is what occurs at the block, knives in hand. It is still butchery whether I get the animal from a sunny green pasture or a dismal feedlot. Nothing I can do will make the physical act of butchering itself more or less ethical. The ethics come in on either side of the block. The ethics guide how to choose the animal, how to make use of it and how to relate to consumers in representing the meat, farms and farmers. Not so absurd, after all.

In my opinion, the single most critical element in the perpetuation of factory farming is corporate greed. We must focus on the whole picture: our entire food system. This includes the USDA, the FDA, and in this conversation, the entire agricultural system- livestock, corn, soy, wheat, monocrops, GMO’s, the whole nine. The outdated obsession with meat as the crux of the problem is unnecessarily narrow-minded and closes us off to the advantage of seeing the complex web we are struggling to free ourselves from.

I have never, ever argued against being vegetarian or vegan. I argue against shaming and demonizing something so monumentally personal as food choice. I argue against dogma, against the moral superiority complex that plagues so many herbivores, and against the unrealistic and elitist goal of worldwide vegan fascism. The world is waiting for a better solution. Going vegan doesn’t answer the bigger issues of a fossil-fuel propelled world economy based on the abuse of humans, the destruction of the environment and the unchecked rapacity of a few hundred people. Going vegan doesn’t stop Monsanto from poisoning the earth and our bodies or threatening the very choice to grow food for ourselves. Going vegan doesn’t improve the labor camp living conditions of migrant workers who supply your precious veggies. Going vegan doesn’t preserve generations of time-honored traditions and it doesn’t help us return to a more sustainable and enriching way of interacting with the earth. Most of all, going vegan does not absolve you from participation in the suffering of living beings or environmental destruction.

It is not the eating of animals at issue; that is a reactionary and short-sighted distraction. The issue is the system through which most of the animals we eat are supplied. As this system is tied to a larger system of irresponsible and abusive agriculture, it is absolutely necessary that we seek a solution to the entire problem. I have always said, in every interview and in my own work, that curbing meat consumption goes hand-in-hand with humane treatment of animals and responsible farming methods. I don’t eat very much meat and one look at my latest menu(http://ethicalbutcher.blogspot.com/ ) will dispel your claims that I encourage wanton meat consumption. It will show menus that teem with fresh, seasonal vegetables in all preparations. The photos will display plates with reasonable, some may even say small, portions of meat.
I can actually still count the number of animals I’ve served over the past two years, a feat only possible because of the infrequency and purposeful nature with which I approach the use of meat. I abstain from soy at all costs and I don’t eat any seafood other than shellfish and a very, very short list of truly sustainable fish. As for the CCF connection, the fact that a website lists my blog as recommended reading does not align my philosophy with theirs. Welcome to the 21st century, we call it a blogroll. That list includes many publications dedicated to the subject of meat, animals and farming. Just as you wrote about me without contacting me, those sites are free to do the same. I am in no way connected to CCF, Humanewatch, Meatpaper or any other organization outside of The Butcher’s Guild.

For a long time now, my focus has been on consumer education and demystifying the green-washed marketing that both the government and food industry use to their advantage. The most effective tool for fighting this tactic is information. I will never assume to know what others should do; I find that to be a dangerous mindset. I can only share knowledge and remind people that they can make their own decisions. I rarely get into the ethics behind the actual choice of whether or not to eat meat, and I won’t be baited do it here either. I am in full support of everyone having the ability to make the very personal decision of what to feed themselves and their families. I am not interested in persuading people eat meat or abstain from it. I am interested in where ALL of their food, but especially their meat, comes from. I am invested in helping people to understand how these companies misrepresent their practices and in challenging consumers to make their own choices.

Our responsibility to be vigilantly engaged with the dismantling of the status quo doesn’t end with what is on our plates. We must all continue to vote with our forks, with our legs, with our wardrobes and with the power of our words. Every single day, we make choices about the world we want to live in. I will continue to fight for a world where I can trust where my food comes from and encourage others to do the same. As I funnel the momentum of the EB projects into my book, I am likewise finding a new outlet for an expanded vision of my practice. I have just co-founded 718 Collective, a band of fellow activist chefs, musicians and artists hell-bent on food justice for all. I am thrilled at the potential we have for reaching even more people in the community through the meshing of food, art, politics, music and fashion.
I am fairly certain many of your readers had never heard of me before you named me in your article. Thanks for the mention and this fortuitous occasion to shift from underground grassroots activism to representing a movement on the national stage. It was no coincidence that your article should come out the very day the contract for my upcoming book from Soft Skull Press,The Ethical Butcher: Real Food Rules, arrived on my doorstep. Such a tasty little platter of publicity…I could not have dreamed of a better way to announce the Spring 2013 hardcover release of my book.
Now that we’ve cleared up a few of your misrepresentations, I invite you to prepare your notes, and come at me again.
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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

10 Responses to Next Up on the Ethical Butcher’s Block: James McWilliams

  1. Steve says:

    Did he read the same article I did? In his rush to rationalization, I think he kind of missed your point.

  2. Tim says:

    S0 pathetic to see them, in their desperation, continually attempt to equate their exploitation and intentional (violence) killing of other species with the accidental harm that sometimes may or may not occur with the harvesting of vegetables. Eliminate the most easily eliminated intentional violence first, and we will most certainly work from there.

  3. magpie says:

    Shakespeare said it, ” methinks the lady (in this case ‘butcher’) doth protest too much” Seems like a very guilty feeling character trying to convince himself!

  4. Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten says:

    I read the article original article this is responding to. The point was that small farm meat advocacy will just be co-opted by big meat. The language was sharp in some points, and perhaps could have been softened as to not slight the ethical butcher since that wasn’t the intent, but overall, I didn’t read it as an attack as such. Anyway, onwards to the reply:

    EB- “the moral superiority complex that plagues so many herbivores”

    HE HAS A BLOG CALLED THE ETHICAL BUTCHER! McWilliams has a blog called Eating Plants. No matter how Reed goes about defining what he means by ethical butcher, whether it’s a label, a blog, or a project, there is inherently some moralizing going on. He can’t really spin around and say, “Oh, those vegans, so many with moral superiority complexes!”

    EB – “I will never assume to know what others should do; I find that to be a dangerous mindset.”

    His book is titled The Ethical Butcher: Real Food Rules. Whether “rules” means “a prescribed guide for conduct or action” or “the exercise of authority or control” (Merriam –Webster), it sure seems he is suggesting what others should do. Also, his livelihood seems to depend on being a butcher. McWilliam’s doesn’t really depend on being vegan, he can write about whatever he wants to and may even be less marginalized if he wrote about something else.

    EB – “worldwide vegan fascism”

    I’m not sure that it’s worth even engaging with this individual with this sort of rhetoric. Which vegan organization is campaigning in impoverished countries pulling meat off of people’s dinner plates? I know that there’s plenty of leafleting on college campuses with affluent young people capable of making lifestyle changes. There is Heifer International though, whose mission is to give impoverished people livestock. Good? Bad? Well, there’s some criticism to content with (http://goo.gl/JMV61), but regardless, it’s certainly not a vegan organization.

    EB – “Going vegan doesn’t answer..etc”

    But neither does “ethical butchering” or “avoiding soy.” With the soy avoidance, it’s clear that we’re dealing with the usual WAPF kool-aid. Livestock, even the local “pastured” kind, still consume plenty of cereal crops akin to soy. Even Joel Salatin doesn’t escape this.

    EB – “The outdated obsession with meat as the crux of the problem is unnecessarily narrow-minded”

    If by outdated he means, “advocates who pointed out the problem decades ago,” (you can go back even a hundred years even) that’s not being outdated, that’s being right. Animal agriculture is the number one cause of climate change, deforestation, and depleting fisheries. It’s unnecessary, certainly in the amount that is condoned, and it’s easier to reduce animal product consumption than to “free ourselves” from “the complex web” whatever that even means.

    EB – “I have never, ever argued against being vegetarian or vegan.”

    No, it’s just that vegans have a moral superiority complexed, destroy the world with soy and “precious veggies”, cause animals to suffer (deliberately I wonder?), are “dogmatic,” “elitist,” “outdated,” “obsessive,” “narrow-minded,” “unrealistic,” “short-sighted,” “fascist,” and wronger than wrong, but no, no arguments against being vegetarian or vegan. It all reads like a bullet points from the retarded Vegetarian Myth except he loses a few points for not mentioning that vegans need B12 so it’s unnatural and no society has ever been truly vegan, oh, and something about hunter-gatherers. For extra credit he could have at least mentioned the welfare of plants and microbes.

    EB – “I abstain from soy at all costs and I don’t eat any seafood other than shellfish and a very, very short list of truly sustainable fish.”

    He believes soy is the problem, so he abstains at all costs, which is unfortunate because the comparable costs of meat eating that soybean eating can displace is very high. Legumes also fix nitrogen. Soybeans that feed people really aren’t that big of a problem and of course soybeans can be organically sourced. Most of the tofu and soymilks on the market are organic, all are non-GMO, some brands are even regional/local depending where you live. If you live in New York (Brooklyn), Fresh Tofu Inc. produces tofu for the tri-state region from Pennsylvania and the organic soy beans are sourced nearby. Commercial animal products are a big problem, they make up 99% of the animal food supply, but when vegans abstain from them for very good reasons, it’s “fascism?”

    EB – “Going vegan doesn’t preserve generations of time-honored traditions “

    Who cares when we are reading articles on illuminated screens transmitted through a computer network. I thought we were supposed to be solving big problems, not having cultural day. Can’t cultures honor their languages, their stories, their dance, and dress, even their holidays, maybe that means modifying meals to a vegan menu, maybe they consume animal products on those special occasions. I can only refer to Jonathan Safran Foer who presents the idea that culture is more than what we put into our mouths. Also, since vegetarianism is ancient, it most certainly is a cultural item that can be integrated into most any other cultural milieu. Certainly any cultural people near a decent supermarket.

    Here’s what I find most obnoxious with the notion of time honored traditions used in defending hunting or butchering animals. Long before humans could write they could kill animals and figure out how to consume them. It’s not rocket science. If civilization collapses tomorrow in typical Hollywood fashion, enough survivors will be able to figure out on their own how to hunt, fish, and butcher any animals they may find in order to survive. We don’t really need to practice. If buttery is a skill, it’s one that far less intelligent proto-humans mastered long ago. Chimpanzees hunt and manage meat eating just fine.

    Somehow when vegans eat vegetables it’s, “your precious veggies,” that could only come from the worse circumstances, but then he eat vegetables it’s fine, because his menus “teem with fresh, seasonal vegetables.” Hey, that’s great, but any vegan can do the same if they want to. Also, I’m not going to suggest to everyone never to eat non-seasonal frozen or canned vegetables, because that isn’t really helping anyone to make eating less meat easier. It’s not possible nor desirable for everyone to exclusively eat fresh seasonal vegetables. People should each oranges and other nonseasonal fruits in the Northern winter. It’s healthier (plenty of studies show this) for people to consumer fruit year round and the environmental impact is relatively negligible (compared to any meat eating). Sure, conditions of many agricultural workers are poor, but that’s not inherent to growing vegetables and solutions have more to do with labor and immigration policies.

    EB – “I can actually still count the number of animals I’ve served over the past two years,”

    I can actually still count the number of animals I’ve eaten over the past two years. Zero. Whoop dee doo. A feat only possible because it’s not really a feat at all. It’s fairly straightforward and simple, I wish I had this feeling of moral superiority that people like Reed claim vegans exhibit, but I don’t self-congratulate myself as if I’m preforming some sort of notable or courageous deed. If I had a blog or a new book coming out I wouldn’t title it ethical anything, that’s for sure.

    EB – “I don’t eat very much meat and one look at my latest menu will dispel your claims that I encourage wanton meat consumption.”

    If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they don’t eat very much meat… The point is that ethical butchers become symbols of meat consumption for everyone else whether you like it or not. The proof is Center for Consumer Freedom linking to your blog, but it’s also apparent in attitudes of a majority of indifferent meat eaters. Meat eating can be done right, they have an example in ethical butchers, so all meat eating is justified. These people will wait until the industry reforms itself while maintaining high supply and low prices.

    EB – “In my opinion, the single most critical element in the perpetuation of factory farming is corporate greed.”

    As McWilliams (and many others) have pointed out, that’s where the slow food movement (or locavores, or whatever we want to call it) gets is a bit off. Factory farming of animals is older than people think and it exists because lots of people want to eat lots of animal products and that is the only way to cheaply supply them. The accusation is that corporate greed leads to factory farming. A glib rebuttal could be that greed leads to eating animals when there are viable alternatives and that leads to factory farming.

    EB – “The issue is the system through which most of the animals we eat are supplied.”

    A system that is there to meet demand. It’s not there in a vacuum. So long as meat is promoted, either by small or large scale entities, the demand won’t decrease nearly enough as it should. Does consuming less animal products solve all our problems? No. But it is a very large problem and the solution is “easier” — it’s a social problem, “easier” in a relative sense — to implement than retrofitting our civilization into some sort of primitivism hybrid. That’s a massive social and infrastructure problem; one that is unfeasible.

  5. CQ says:

    Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten, thank you for that excellent point-by-point analysis of EB.

    I’m so glad I happened upon this blog again (after having read it when it first appeared) and found your gem.

  6. Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten says:

    You’re welcome CQ. I’m a big McWilliams fan as well who finally got around to posting a comment. I figure McWilliams has to put up with Defensive Omnivore Peanut Gallery in the comments over at the Atlantic, (Oy, I don’t know how he does it, that’s probably why I’ve never posted there) so I would throw some love his way over here.

    I came down hard on Reed, but he was writing nonsense. I remember him from and interview (http://goo.gl/kDtFX) and even though he’s doing his own thing that really isn’t my cup of tea, he seemed like a cool enough dude and I don’t view him as an enemy. I can appreciate his perspective to a certain degree, again, I go about things differently, but I feel like I get how he got to where he is for the most part. I might even go so far as to say that he’s one of the good guys, so it doesn’t benefit “our sides” to go at each other. But yeah, there’s always going to be a certain amount of friction, especially if his book is anything like that response he wrote. I sure hope not.

    Anyway, I hope Reed can glean some off what McWilliams’ is getting at without feeling too criticized or defensive. It’s hard for anyone to control how others may co-opt your message, but Reed needs to be aware of the phenomenon and be vigilante to at least try to offset such associations (well, if I were him anyway). “Locavores” are generally very resistant to hearing McWilliams out, and that was even before he went vegan. They are ideas I even bought into at one point, that small farming was a panacea to many social ills. A hard look at the data and it doesn’t hold up, and the slow food narrative is more wishful fiction than rooted in fact. So are many bad vegetarian arguments, but I’ll be the first to acknowledge them, because it helps highlight the better ones.

    Until the Center For Consumer Freedom starts linking favorably to vegan or vegetarian material, Reed should try to come to terms with this idea that small-farm animal-use ethics are put into service as symbols to a larger paradigm.

    Maybe he knows, but feels that he’s doing more good than harm. Maybe he is. I hope so.

    • CQ says:

      Why would CCF ever do THAT, pray tell? 🙂

      I don’t imagine the animals Mr. Reed carefully selects for killing, cooking and eating think he’s doing more good than harm. He claims to want to avoid cruelty to them, as he has from his youth, but thinking of them as objects to be used by humans for whatever purpose is where the cruelty and the disconnect starts. From there, it never ends. I don’t mean this as a personal affront; Mr. Reed seems like an upstanding man. He just doesn’t realize how he was influenced by forces outside himself to go down that slippery slope of commodifying his fellow beings. We’ve all had to think these things through. And deep down inside, we all KNOW that compassion and killing don’t mix. Whether we are ready to admit it is another matter.

  7. Jamie Berger says:

    What an interesting series of posts and replies- Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten, great rebuttal.

    Reed was absolutely right that the entire food system–not just the livestock sector–needs to be reformed, but not only is livestock the biggest offender by far, it’s the low-hanging fruit (no pun intended)! As McWilliams has argued many times, cutting meat and dairy out of our diets is the fastest, easiest, and most effective way of voicing our discontent and removing ourselves from the most pernicious aspects of the food system (which are there to meet demand, as Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten points out).

    The “traditions” part of Reed’s argument irks me the most. Traditions are not static; they evolve, change, and, sometimes, become obsolete. Traditions often last for generations before we collectively become aware that these practices are more harmful than beneficial to the individuals (humans or animals) they involve and to society as a whole. The first example that comes to mind is female genital cutting. This excruciating, debilitating, life-altering and sometimes deadly practice has been an important, “time-honored” tradition in many parts of the world for centuries, but religious leaders and matriarchs of societies in which it played a large role in coming-of-age ceremonies are increasingly replacing it with other less-invasive traditions. We should always be critical of our traditions and not let fear of losing them inhibit progress towards commonly agreed upon goals, like restoring the environment and ending unnecessary suffering. McWilliams truly embodies this effort.

    “Most of all, going vegan does not absolve you from participation in the suffering of living beings or environmental destruction.” Isn’t it ironic that vegans never claim to be so holy, perfect, or “absolved” from contributing to this suffering or destruction… it’s the anti-vegans who want to simultaneously give us that quality then quickly snatch it away.

    I would urge Reed to throw out the tradition argument and all the others debunked by Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten. Start with this: “Meat tastes good.” If you can hold that one true statement, which is at the root of everything else you say, up against all the ethical and environmental implications of a continued (and globally increasing) demand for meat, then maybe we’ll be getting somewhere.

    • CQ says:

      Good points, Jamie. I’m sure human flesh tastes good, too. Eating it was once a tradition in some cultures, I am told. And somewhere I read that human cannibalism is still practiced in certain places.

  8. In the Atlantic article, McWilliams says that people who eat meat are voting for this industry. I don’t think it is like that. 80% of the people who eat meat aren’t giving a single thought as to how this food came to be, if it is even good for them, and especially if it is even good for the environment. Really, do you think people who eat at KFC and McDonalds are even aware of what they are eating?

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