On the Butcher Blog’s Butcher Block?: Yep, James McWilliams


More angry butchers. This one said I have “vegan tourettes,” called me a “mendacious manipulator” (nothing more dangerous than a butcher with a thesaurus), and refused (as is usual) to engage the central argument I made in the Atlantic piece.  

(Oh, by the way, I have a student in one of my classes this semester with actual tourettes. For this reason and others, I find the author’s insulting use of the term to be offensive at best.)

Anyway, here we go again:


The Context of No Context: What The Ethical Butcher and a Historian With Vegan Tourettes Have In Common

We promise not to call James McWilliams a mendacious manipulator. He is, of course, but as is his fashion, we will drop that “fact” casually and then tell you that, no, dear reader, we won’t bring it up, because that is a subject for another discussion.

If you haven’t read his convoluted and wholly misguided essay in The Atlantic, “Meat: What Big Agriculture and the Ethical Butcher Have in Common,” take a moment to try to make sense of it.

McWilliams tips his hand by telling you what he won’t talk about, when he introduces The Ethical Butcher: “The Ethical Butcher (a concept I find absurd, but that’s for another post), is a blog run by a guy named Berlin Reed,” he writes.

The best explanation we can come up with is that Mr. McWilliams seems to have vegan Tourettes.

Now, Mr. McWilliams starts his muddled Atlantic essay with the premise that “supporting alternatives to the industrial production of animal products serves the ultimate interest of industrial producers.” And how does he support this thesis? Well, because eating meat is ethically wrong in his worldview. Also, consuming milk, eggs and dairy is wrong.

And, according to McWilliams, those who consume animal products are “providing, however implicitly, an endorsement of the products that big agriculture will always be able to produce more efficiently and cheaply.” Ok, fair enough. But, if they are doing so — providing an “endorsement” of animal products, whatever that means — while loudly proclaiming the problems with Big Ag and factory farming, how is it they are supporting it? By eating meat. And that’s basically where his argument begins and ends.

Then he brings poor Berlin Reed into his argument, muddying The Ethical Butcher by claiming Reed’s message has been appropriated by The CCF (The Center for Consumer Freedom) — widely regarded as an advocacy group backed by, or at least founded by, restaurant, alcohol and tobacco industry lobbyists. McWilliams writes:

But now it’s the CCF — inspired by the ethical butcher’s staunch advocacy of meat consumption — that’s doing the calling, highlighting his website as consistent with CCF’s industrial values.

Go ahead click on the link he embedded there (we have no idea what he means by “That’s doing the calling,” by the way). It’s a blogroll.

On The CCF website there is nothing but a bunch of libertarian jargon about individual responsibility, and seemingly no appropriated language supporting sustainable farming (though if by appropriation you mean emulation, we could handle that). How does McWilliams equate the CCF’s listing of The Ethical Butcher on its blogroll with an appropriation of Berlin Reed’s message?

Just for kicks and because McWilliams didn’t, we called the CCF to ask them why they put The Ethical Butcher on the blogroll for Humanewatch. Justin Wilson, the research director and spokesman laughed, and said for the same reasons anyone anywhere does it: because it was something they saw and thought was interesting. There’s no implicit endorsement in either direction (but then, we’ve seen that McWilliams has an odd definition of endorsement), and the only time the CCF has mentioned The Ethical Butcher other than the blogroll listing is a brief mention when the blog launched in 2009. Wilson says he’s never had any contact with Reed. He did point out, though, that “We’ve cited McWilliams more than we’ve ever cited The Ethical Butcher.”

And herein likely lies the root of McWilliams anger. In fact, the CCF frequently cites McWilliams’ misguided arguments against locavorism and organics in support of its own equally misguided arguments. McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, a tome from which The CCF seems to love to quote. The fact that his own words could be used so often to support an organization that is the antithesis of his vegan wonderland surely raised his ire. So apparently, he tried (badly) to do it to someone else, smearing Berlin Reed because the loathsome CCF had included his blog in its blogroll.

The only thing The Ethical Butcher and the CCF have in common, as the title of McWilliam’s essay proclaims, is “meat.” So is that enough to say one supports the other without citing anything more than a blogroll listing?

But where is the danger? Well, McWilliams has a theory.

He writes, “Right now industry is merely stealing words, concepts, and websites,” though he provides no evidence of any of this aside from the aforementioned blogroll listing, which of course is none of these things. But if the work of organizations such as The Butcher’s Guild, Cochon 555 and The Slow Foods USA has its desired affect and consumers do move toward locally grown and sustainable sources of meats, well, that is what terrifies McWilliams. Why? Because, in his words “what’s to stop industrial agriculture from building a few token sustainable farms where the animals are pastured, pampered, and publicized?”

So that is his big fear. That agribusiness adopt the methods of sustainable farms in a superficial way. His proof is that Big Agg will hollowly appropriate a well-intentioned message is the fact that The CCF, a fringe organization perhaps backed by restaurant industry money, put The Ethical Butcher on its blogroll.

Putting aside his cynicism about whether meaningful systemic change to our food supply is possible, the disaster, in his eyes, would be if people had more choices of sustainably raised meat.

Why? Because people would still be eating meat.

His logic is hard to argue with, but that’s for another post.


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.

One Response to On the Butcher Blog’s Butcher Block?: Yep, James McWilliams

  1. Provoked says:

    Only one thing correct in his assessment of the valid fears of “sustainably raised meat”: It IS hard to argue with. Truth usually is!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: