On “EATING ANIMALS” by Jonathan Safran Foer
I immensely enjoyed "EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED" (even on the big screen) and eagerly anticipated "EATING ANIMALS" (Little, Brown 2009) by Jonathan Safran Foer.
His writing is beautiful, though I do have to admit that I haven't seen "shit" and its variations so frequently in one printed piece in quite a while. Ever, in fact.
The good news is that if you know someone who needs to be schooled on all of the sordid details of factory farming, and appreciates good writing, this is a great book. Also, if, like me, you know someone who appreciates the things we do with language to mask the reality of our behavior, this is a great book. And if you know someone who still eats fish or anyone else from the sea, this is a fantastic book, as I don't recall anyone giving sea creatures the respect they deserve in a long time (and telling their audience the truth about their lives and deaths). Furthermore, if you know someone who is new to parenting and suddenly confronted with questions of what to feed a child and why, this is a great book. Finally, if you know someone who gravitates toward the philosophical issues around our use of animals, this is a good book. Not great, but good.
I say "if you know someone" because this isn't a book I'd recommend to vegans for their vegan education efforts. The vegans I know would probably find it a bit maddening, and here's why:
- We aren't sure whether Foer is a vegan. He never says he is. He always refers to himself and his wife and his child as "vegetarian." Yet he spends time describing the miserable deaths of day-old male chicks and understands what happens in dairy production, and I assume he doesn't partake of anyone's eggs or milk. But why does he say "vegetarian?" That bothers me, as there's a significant difference in motivation for vegans and vegetarians and he sounds like one, yet calls himself the other.
- Then again, he is not against the consumption of animals, "in general" (198). He is against it for himself and his family. There's not enough evidence for an accusation of moral relativism, but for me the message is a mixed one.
- And what follows, as you might imagine, is his support of "ethical meat" (for those who insist on eating animals). This should come as no surprise as he is on the board of Farm Forward-along with John Mackey and Bruce Friedrich-the latter of whom figures prominently in the book as does his employer, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
- This says it all: "[T]he vision of sustainable farms that give animals a good life (a life as good as we give our dogs or cats) and an easy death (as easy as a death we give our suffering and terminally ill companion animals) has moved me" (242). The Nimans move him, as do several other farmers, including one who "apologizes to his animals as they are sent off to slaughter" (244), as if that's any consolation to someone whose life you are about to take when you don't need to.
If you're a vegan and you read books by vegans and about our relationship with sentient nonhumans, there's nothing new in "EATING ANIMALS." However, I do like how Foer words some concepts that we all chat about regularly. Here are some of my favorite quotes:
- "For thousands of years, farmers took their cues from natural processes. Factory farming considers nature an obstacle to overcome" (34). Of course, the problem here, as in the entire book, is that factory farming is clearly the enemy, while killing animals unnecessarily isn't given any more airtime than Foer's personal, philosophical moments that he doesn't require of anyone else.
- "Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across" (50).
- "Some have tried to resolve this gap by hunting or butchering an animal themselves, as if those experiences might somehow legitimize the endeavor of eating animals. This is very silly. Murdering someone would surely prove that you are capable of killing, but it wouldn't be the most reasonable way to understand why you should or shouldn't do it.
Killing an animal oneself is more often than not a way to forget the problem while pretending to remember. This is perhaps more harmful than ignorance. It's always possible to wake someone from sleep, but no amount of noise will wake someone who is pretending to be asleep" (102). I love that. However, in the context of his book I'd add: "SEE Compassionate Carnivore," and the only problem with that is that his argument, which sounds here like it's against compassionate carnivorism, is actually for it in the end.
- "[N]o fish gets a good death. Not a single one. You never have to wonder if the fish on your plate had to suffer. It did" (193). Note that the "it" after all of that stopped me in my tracks, but what with editors, Foer might not have had control over that.
This is not a book about animal rights, and some might say Foer gets animal rights wrong as his only reference is PETA. In all fairness, most people's only reference is PETA. However, Foer does claim to have spent a couple of years researching and it is odd to me that the only subject of animal rights discussion is an organization that is ambiguous, at best, in its message about animals.
What's most disappointing is that Foer is intentional in his message that eating animals isn't okay for him, but that he is excited to support people who kill animals when they don't need to. I have a difficult time understanding how someone has reached that conclusion after so much deliberation and research. I have a difficult time understanding his borderline fetishizing of several small farms (and a note to all of you as annoyed as I was with "Food, Inc." and Michael Pollan–Polyface gets some harsh criticism from someone Foer interviewed and is portrayed as a bit of a scam).
I simply don't understand the core message of this book–that eating animals can be wrong for one person, yet that same person supports the unnecessary slaughter of animals as long as it's done in a certain way.
Foer does have an answer to that, and it's that the vast majority of animals the average American eats came from factory farms, so if we convince them of the evils of that system they will eat more "vegetarian" meals (again, the focus on flesh bothers me) and they will seek out Farm Forward-approved sources. I don't know if the thesis of supply and demand is true but it sounds good. Meanwhile, Foer admits that the labels we find regarding the treatment of animals are "bullshit," so other than two or three farms that he personally approves of, the reader is left with being a "vegetarian," cutting down on "meat," or doing nothing.
In other words, "EATING ANIMALS" is a remarkably palatable book for the masses. In the end, they can still have their dogs and eat their pigs, without feeling that they are doing anything wrong by favoring one species over another, or taking someone's life when they don't need to.