9.2.12

Where Mr. James McWilliams Got it Wrong

This letter is in response to an article in the Atlantic written by James McWilliams, associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.



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.

5 comments:

  1. Right on, Berlin! McWilliams's larger point, that agri-business is appropriating the words and culture of the green movement, gets obscured by his narrow-minded insistence that the ONLY way to beat big agri-business is to abstain from eating meat.

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  2. I just discovered your blog through The Atlantic's article. While I don't entirely agree with the author's viewpoint, especially when he says - "So long as consumers continue to eat meat, eggs, and dairy -- even if they are sourced from small farms practicing the highest welfare and safety standards -- they're providing, however implicitly, an endorsement of the products that big agriculture will always be able to produce more efficiently and cheaply. And thus dominate." - I don't think he misrepresented you quite as absurdly as you describe. I.e. I didn't get the impression at all that your blog aimed to "encourage wanton meat consumption". In fact I looked forward to finding your blog after reading his article. Just my take :) Keep doing your good work.

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  3. Yeah, McWilliams's argument is a little like saying, as long as you vote for Democrat or Republican, you'll never change our political system. The truth is, it's like turning an ocean liner in the Hudson. It's not a three point turn, it's more like a 1000 point turn. It's slow and if you vote for people who are close to your beliefs, then, with some luck and tenacity, you may end up making a difference.

    McWilliams argument is typical vegan utopia hyperbole. I don't mean to be that dismissive but it is. Every time you choose to give a dollar to a farm or shop raising or buying animals raised on pasture, killed as humanely as possible, that is a dollar not given to Big Agribusiness. If I grow some tobacco leaves, dry them, roll it up and smoke it (I'm not a smoker but bare with me), how is that the same as buying a pack of Camels? Because we who choose to eat meat from local, sustainable agriculture sources, we are endorsing all meat? Are you kidding me? Because big businesses can be ass@#$@s and steal words and associate themselves with people fighting the good fight, we should fold the hand?

    You know what else would work, McWilliams? We all just up and move to Argentina. That's reasonable.

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  4. I hereby nominate you for the "One Lovely Blog Award"! You are #4 on my list of nominees, in no particular order. Enjoy!! (http://biocadence.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/one-lovely-blog-award/)... I hope you'll follow the tradition of the "One Lovely Blog Award"... I'd love to see what you do with it!!!!

    -Annie Tichenor

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