Special Comment on Summerfest 2009: Heather Mills, Sex(ism) and Animal Rights
With Dustin Rhodes and Priscilla Feral, I went to the North American Vegetarian Society’s Summerfest in July at the University of Pittsburgh’s spacious Johnstown campus. We attended, and participated in, various educational sessions and workshops from Friday evening through Sunday. We brought lots of good stuff and our best-seller was Priscilla’s new cookbook, The Best of Vegan Cooking.
Each year, our appreciation for Summerfest grows. The speakers and participants are diverse, thoughtful, and both interested in and committed to personal and planetary health. We usually come away inspired and invigorated by the whole experience. We’ll certainly attend next year. (If you’re thinking of joining us, note that Amtrak’s “Pennsylvanian” goes straight to Johnstown from points east, and its caterers supply the dining car with vegan burgers.)
It’s especially wonderful to see the strong representation from vegan-organic growers. The presentation by the North American Veganic Agriculture Network (www.goveganic.net) described how organic standards have become so intensely regulated by bureaucracies that “veganic” has become a catchword for peer-reviewed excellence from the creative, community-based movement. From Québec to New Mexico, their work transcends the centuries-old idea that farm animals bring ecological harmony and that it is essential to use animal manures to grow organic crops. Regular organic produce is often grown with animal manure or blood; and if the organic sector expands to cater to a much larger market, there will simply not be enough animal manure available, because too much land would be needed to feed the necessary animals. All life ultimately depends on plants, which do not have to be passed through an animal in order to be effective -- using up huge amounts of resources and conscious living beings along the way. Vegan-organic growers, explained the presenters, represent a way of living without violence or exploitation.
Summerfest is a family affair, and each day, parents took turns facilitating children’s yoga, juggling, food preparation and bubble-blowing tricks. A loving couple -- J.C. and Rae -- exchanged wedding vows and shared a delicious chocolate cake by Fran Costigan (www.francostigan.com). Children gave a performance to the whole crowd on Saturday, keynote night.
In such a context, the keynote ramble delivered by Heather Mills, peppered by sexist comments and the use of a rather nasty substitute for the word “manure,” was especially problematic.
My co-worker Dustin Rhodes has decried the interest in celebrity status so common in the animal protection sphere: “A celebrity is oftentimes famous for being famous, a master of self-promotion. I don't find that interesting.”
Still, I wanted to like Heather Mills.
It’s easy to point out that Mills is likely best known for marrying, and then divorcing, the renowned singer-songwriter Paul McCartney; the tabloids made much of that. But Mills is also known for being personally engaged in various forms of activism, including the effort to ban land mines and the recent opening of the first restaurant in what’s hoped will be a vegan restaurant chain capable of challenging the burger networks. So I focused on keeping an open mind, and hoped for the best.
And it seemed to be exactly the right thing to do. I felt exhilarated when Mills bought a copy of Priscilla’s beautiful new cookbook. And I was delighted to see this person, doubtless the most widely known figure in attendance at the event, take a seat in the audience for a panel (about animal-rights controversies) consisting of myself, moderator Vance Lehmkuhl, and co-panelists James LaVeck and Harold Brown. Even though Mills did “throw a stink bomb” (as Lehmkuhl described it) into a generally well-received panel by standing up to deliver a long whine that we weren’t being solution-oriented enough, I still felt thankful. And as we left the room at the end of the panel, I told Mills so. After all, most famous people just attend their own talks and ignore those of others.
But the keynote may well have soured my view of celebrities at conferences for good. During that speech, Mills told us it’s our duty to feed people, and to feed them products that taste exactly like the animal products they’re being asked to leave behind. In short, give them meat substitutes. And the most important substitute we’re supposed to offer is, evidently, the flesh of female activists. The role of the vegetarian activist, in the world according to Heather Mills, is to attract men.
Here’s how Dustin Rhodes described the keynote presentation, “Together We Can Change the World: Why I’m a Vegan Activist”:
Heather Mills took to the stage after a video, at least ten minutes long, extolled the virtues of Heather Mills. The video featured others talking about how wonderful and inspiring and amazing Heather Mills is. This was followed by a stream-of-consciousness speech in which Mills insulted vegans, women, men and non-human animals in short order. She encouraged the idea of getting one’s “boobies out” because animal rights and veganism need to be “sexy” or no one will care what we have to say. She advertised a brand of activism that relies on dishonesty, proclaiming that it’s fine to distort the truth for a larger cause. And she took full credit for a ban on dog and cat fur imports from China.
The keynote speech was not about animal rights. It was oppressive. Yet Mills was almost given a free pass. Not everyone found the segment disturbing or offensive. Some attendees praised the performance. And some of the people who did so are women. This, despite some insidious messages delivered throughout: distorted ideas about beauty; distorted ideas about women; misogyny and objectification; and dubious concepts of animal rights, veganism, and social movements in general.
And what if some ordinary person said these things? What if I stood on the stage as a male and said no one will care what half the people in the auditorium will ever do or say unless they get straight to shaving their legs, showing some cleavage, and sleeping with people to achieve their goal? Would you give me an award like they did Heather Mills?
I know this is a harsh judgment, but I believe it’s true: People who advocate this kind of manipulation in the name of animal rights are attention-seeking. It’s a desperate scream: “Look at me! Look at me!” I don’t think it’s, “Look at me presenting myself as a sexual object in hopes that you will pay attention to important animal issues.” That’s ludicrous.
Some will say we shouldn’t criticize someone who is “doing something” or simply “trying to help.” I reject that. I have been influenced by and involved by this movement since I was 15 years old. I am now 36. The loudest voice in the movement has always been the one that says to sex it up. I didn’t question this mentality for a long, long time, although I never felt drawn to it either. I have never understood -- I still do not understand -- how or why anyone thinks that objectifying ourselves makes a difference in the lives of animals. And even if it brings attention, which it surely does, what exactly does it bring attention to? Breasts or social justice?
Insofar as North American Vegetarian Society participants, and veganism generally, are being used in order to further models of manipulative conduct, the participation of Mills amounts to a rather disturbing moment in vegetarian history.
It was apparent that Maribeth Abrams and Jennie Kerwood, the moderators of the evening’s presentations, did not anticipate the comments Mills would deliver. Kerwood had the task of giving Mills a lovely, leaf-shaped, glass award for vegan accomplishments. Was it embarrassing to endure this sort of show-must-go-on moment? I hope so, and I think so.
When the keynote speech ended and Mills momentarily went offstage, Jennie Kerwood asked for the lights over the seats to be turned on so that the attendees could be seen. When Mills spoke, only the speaker’s area had been lighted.