Monday, July 19, 2010

Animal Advocacy Leaders Hall of Fail

Animal Advocacy Leaders Hall of Fail

Years ago when I'd first stopped eating animal flesh, the writings of John Robbins were recommended to me by many vegetarians. Robbins is the one-time heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream empire who purportedly walked away from it permanently and completely to

"...pursue the deeper American Dream... the dream of a society at peace with its conscience because it respects and lives in harmony with all life forms. A dream of a society that is truly healthy, practicing a wise and compassionate stewardship of a balanced ecosystem." (Read more here.)
He began his pursuit by writing several books about the health and environmental implications of factory farming, as well as of the cruel conditions under which non-humans are kept on such farms. From what I remember and from recently discussing him with others, he generally dodged using the term "vegan" in his books and either opted for "vegetarian" or referred to following a "plant-based diet". He may very well have been either vegan or a strict vegetarian at some point, but he's been quoted a few places online as having stated in this 2006 interview with Raw Vegan Radio that he will eat animal products while traveling. (I guess it's hard to "respect" others while on the road, as Peter Singer and Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson have also expressed.)

Knowing all of this, it wasn't that much of a surprise to read Robbins' latest Huffington Post article ("The Brutality of Factory Farms: An Inside Look"), in which he unapologetically excludes some animals from his aforementioned dream world. Focusing on the treatment of dairy cows and this or that lawsuit of PETA's (who can keep track?) with which he is getting involved, he asserts the following:
My concern, let me emphasize, is not with small-scale family farms. I have no problem with the many hard-working families who treat their cows well, take care of the land and try to bring a healthy product to market. My problem is with the much larger agribusiness enterprises, the factory farms to whom the animals in their care are nothing but sources of revenue.
He's done a bit of an about-face since insisting on his own website at one point in response to a reader that there is no such thing as a "happy" dairy cow. I guess that this is where things get tricky when you focus on the ethics of how animals are treated, rather than considering whether or not they're ours to use at all. The truth is that Robbins is perfectly OK with animal use. According to one of his websites, he's not even out to ban the billboards referenced in the Huffington Post article. He writes:
My ideal goal would actually not be to ban the ads. My preference would rather be to see the dairy industry reconcile the discrepancy between the conditions portrayed in the ads and the actual reality. If the industry treated cows in the manner exhibited in the ads, I’d drop the suit in a heartbeat.
When I'd originally read a couple of Robbins' books around 15-16 years ago, I was just at the very beginning of a stage of my life where I thought I was making a difference as a lacto-ovo-vegetarian. Part of my motivation to stop eating animal flesh at the time had to do with the health and environmental arguments that Robbins presented in his books. I seem to remember his having advocated a strictly vegetarian diet with some emphasis on the treatment of animals on factory farms. As I learned more about ethics and animal rights, my own way of viewing what we owe non-humans changed drastically, so I left behind Robbins' books and didn't keep track of the path he continued to follow. I'm now really glad that I never bothered.


Eric said...

Yeah. Based on a personal conversation with Mr. Robbins before I came around on abolitionism, he'd call you, me, the whole lot of us animal rights advocates "fundamentalists". He doesn't explain why some animal use is acceptable under his stated concerns about human health, the environment, and of course the violence inherent in killing another sentient being for our mere appetites, but clearly he's more concerned about the "tent" being as large as possible (like HSUS andothers) than he is in challenging the way people view animals.

Abby Bean said...

I don't understand why these people who position themselves as public figures of the movement aren't serious about it. That is what is so infuriating about the term veg*an; it blurs the line and everyone buys it.

On another scale, I attended a cooking class taught by a well-known vegan cookbook author. Even though she makes money off of using the word vegan, she joked conspiritorially with the mostly omni audience about "not being vegan enough for some vegans" (I guess the real ones), as she trotted around in leather shoes. The final insult was when a newbie vegan in the audience explained that her mom, also in attendance, was worried about her nutrition. The response was that it couldn't hurt to incorporate eggs into her diet. Um, what? When I called her on this ridiculous advice, she told me that everyone has different dietary needs.

When we are diluted from "the top", it's no wonder that people think that veganism is a pick-and-choose lifestyle:

The public face of veganism needs to evolve from poser celebrities to the real heroes.

Also, possibly the cutest picture of a cow ever.

veganelder said...

Excellent post and I want to second the observation by Abigail that the picture of the cow is superlative, one of the best I have ever seen. Thanks for sharing.

The Compassionate Hedonist said...

Nice post. I am not in Robbins shoes, so I don't know his motivation for saying what he says, I still think his first book is powerful and a great read for those stubborn omnis we all know. If you don't want to support him, get the book used. My vegan advocacy is all about food and making incredible food for non vegans. You have no idea how many people come around when I focus on the food and afterward focus on what veganism really means and why I am(for the animals).