“Be Good to Ira Glass”: And Other Thoughts Regarding Friday’s Times Op-Ed

Many readers forget this point, but the purpose of an op-ed is not to hand down The Truth from on-high, it’s to provoke.  What else can one do in a thousand words on a topic requiring volumes to fully explicate?  An op-ed that does not provoke is an op-ed that’s failed. By this standard, I’m pleased with the dialogue sparked by my New York Times piece, published last Friday

This one says I simplify, to which I say, of course I do (it’s 1000 words!): http://fromanimaltomeat.com/2012/04/16/mcwilliams-enfant-terrible-and-radical-oversimplifier/ 

I almost choked on my tabouli when I read that Grist’s Tom Laskaway sort of agreed with me: http://grist.org/food-safety/where-the-whole-animal-meets-pink-slime/

This one from vegan.com predicts that Joel Salatin’s going to freak: http://vegan.com/blog/2012/04/12/james-mcwilliams-the-myth-of-sustainable-meat/

And Joel Salatin freaks: http://on.fb.me/HF6I2C.

Oh, but whenever I’m feeling beaten down there will always be this clip of Ira Glass on Letterman to cheer me up, sent by a reader of the blog: http://youtu.be/gP02yahsoCw. WATCH UNTIL THE END. The punch line will blow you away.

Be good to Ira Glass (and Karen Davis).


Conscious Eating Conference: Putting Animals First

Berkeley was great. I spoke at the first annual Conscious Eating Conference, sponsored by several animal advocacy groups, and held in the Student Union. I tweaked my talk the night before to sharpen one point that I think was obscured in the original version.

Approaching vegan education through appeals to personal health and environmental improvement, I now argued, are limited. Important, but limited. By contrast, the path to permanent and ethically grounded veganism will only happen when animals themselves are placed at the center of vegan education. I love animals–and I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. We have to capitalize on this pervasive love. We have to put animals first, highlighting their sentience, sociability, intelligence, emotional lives, and sense of identity. Only when we come to appreciate why animals matter will the call of veganism have the same powerful appeal that the call for the abolitionism of slavery had for many Americans living in the antebullum United States.  That’s what has to happen.

My decision to put animals first was confirmed by Karen Davis’s profoundly moving discussion of chickens. Listen to Davis discuss the complexity of chicken lives (or read her books) and you’ll never look at a chicken the same way again. “A chicken,” I say, because Davis has a remarkable way of reminding humans to look at animals as individuals (which is how they ultimately see themselves). Hopefully, if you’re thinking about keeping some chickens of your own, you won’t, as Davis–who’s president of United Poultry Concerns– makes it brutally clear that backyard birds come from breeders that epitomize all that’s wrong with industrial agriculture.  And if you eat them or their eggs without reflecting on what that animal is like, then you’re simply not eating responsibly.

Re-reading this post, I’m struck by how easily it would be to mock. “Chickens! I’m sure they’re brilliant!!! I prefer them fried!!” I get this kind of thing a lot. So what. In the face of mockery we have to pursuade skeptics to do one thing and one thing only: look. Just look. Given the decency that marks the human heart, I am confident that, as more and more of us look, the appeal of veganism will spread–not because of our health or the environment (important as these factors are), but because we know it’s wrong to exploit a living being with feelings.

The Foodie Lexicon: Obscuring Animal Abuse for a Righteous Egg

One of the major problems I’ve always had with the food movement is the unctuous lexicon of virtue that it insidiously peddles. Conscientious consumers who frequent their farmers’ markets and read their Michael Pollan sputter an earnest dialect of righteousness designed to buffer themselves from the hard reality of animal suffering. This terminology routinely suggests a romantic form of bucolic bliss that no animal could possibly find contrary to his interests. “Family farms” producing “organic,” “free range,” “humanely raised” animal products are thus empowered to sell educated but gullible consumers a pack of palliative lies at a premium.  It’s a shifty little scam.

A conversation I recently had with Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, drove home this point with a depressingly all-too-real example. UPC investigated Black Eagle Farm, a Virginia-based operation marketing itself as a “traditional family farm with a long history of treating our animals and the environment with respect.” Black Eagle further burnished its image by reminding consumers that it was “a sustainable producer of USDA organic, animal friendly natural livestock products.” This was language perfectly pitched to open the wallet and salve the conscience of the supposedly concerned foodie.

But the reality, as Davis discovered, was a farm that was practicing “appalling cruelty.” Investigations starting in 2009 revealed that Black Eagle, whose owners turned out to be absentee, denied 25,000 hens food for over a week and killed emaciated birds by, in the words of a former employer, “burning the hell out of them with CO2.” For birds who did not suffocate from the chemical blast (because they were buried under other birds), they were instructed by an employee to be dispatched in the following manner: “you just pull their heads off.”


The only reason we know about this horrific situation is that UPC happened to take a look. In most cases, the language of virtue, more often than not accompanied with an idyllic image of farm animals roaming a verdant pasture, prevails so powerfully that we think there’s no need to investigate. Words have seductive power. And, lo and behold, there are very few things more seductive than the dirty talk of agricultural pornography. Indeed, turns out even the softest core assurances, when the words are whispered in just the right way, can make otherwise enlightened consumers melt, thereby forgetting the cold truth that an owned farm animal is, ipso facto, an abused animal.