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On Not Eating Animals

Chris from Beijing wasn't able to comment (Animal Person is blocked in China) but he did write me to say he looks forward to Jonathan Safran Foer's sequel to Eating Animals . . . Not Eating Animals.

Though I haven't been able to surf the Internet that much recently, I have found it difficult to avoid discussion of Foer's book. That has to be good, I tell myself. At least they're talking.

It has to be good.

It has to be good.

It has to be good.

But . . . as I was running this morning, I couldn't help wonder what the difference is between his book and The Compassionate Carnivore and the myriad others written by people who despise factory farming, yet claim to love animals (and of course love their "meat," and find a way to get it while not feeling bad about it). The main difference is that Foer doesn't eat meat (though he does, as it turns out, eat some animal products) and he challenges the cultural assumptions that tell us that some animals are for petting and some are for eating. But the net message is the same: factory farming=bad, small farms=good. In fact, both books glorify small farms (though Foer is more selective), and both have the support of people who create and kill animals. And when you have people who slaughter animals for a living on your side, in my mind your pro-animal message loses credibility.

And when Foer writes that he approves of farms that treat their animals the way we treat pet dogs, that's his real message. It's okay to produce animals to use them and then kill them (or kill them to use their parts as food).

Here's the rub for people like me, which at the same time is what the majority of people like about the book: permission. Foer is saying that he made the decision to not eat "meat" for the various reasons he outlines, but you might make a different decision and that's okay. It's okay to choose violence when you don't need to. It's okay to choose enslavement. It's okay to choose betrayal.

This is the message of animal welfare–there is nothing inherently unjust about bringing animals into this world for your own use and/or profit. There is nothing inherently unjust about viewing sentient nonhumans as commodities. Compassion, as most people define it, is virtuous, but it smacks of mercy, which screams subjection. What animals need isn't our mercy, it's our defense of their right to their lives without our domination.

And once you are on the side of justice, it's impossible to present a rational alternative to animal farming. Once your priority is justice, your message isn't "eating animals" . . . it's "not eating animals."

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. John #

    "Foer doesn't eat meat (though he does, as it turns out, eat some animal products)"

    Not a vegan, plain and simple. I hope he doesn't "label" himself as such.

    November 12, 2009
  2. Mary #

    He always calls himself a vegetarian. In interviews he does say he aspires to be a vegan and that it's a process. For the record (again), the cessation of animal consumption can be achieved overnight. My husband's a great example of that. I'm not sure what's standing in Foer's way.

    If people go vegan because if this book that's fantastic! It would also be surprising, as his conclusion lands firmly at Farm Forward.

    November 12, 2009
  3. For starters, I don't think The Compassionate Carnivore published a pro-vegan/anti-humane meat article by Bruce Friedrich, like Foer did.
    I think you are too harsh on the book.

    November 12, 2009
  4. Mike Grieco #

    Animal Person—You are wonderful! 😉

    Green Party has gone ‘mainstream’ (Whitehorse Star, Nov 6)

    All animal-use industries are inherently inhumane, and there is no such thing as “sustainable” or healthful meat production, as John Streicker, the Green Party candidate for the Yukon, would like the public to believe.Mr. Streicker said these things in a reply to an open letter from me to the leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May.

    Doesn’t the Green (Icon) Party realize that even some pretty consevative environmentalists know that “you can’t eat meat and be an environmentalist”? Industries (and now politicians) have been misleading the public by supporting and promoting the commercial production and consumption of animals.

    The “Green” Party and the Yukon Party appear to be behind on the science that shows the human anatomy does not need meat, milk and eggs, and that these “products” have been linked to many diseases in human beings. Influenza, anthrax and even the common cold virus have adapted to human beings through steady exposure to domesticated animals.

    The public continues to be misled about this. The Green Party is in a good position to take a stand on these issues, but they have decided to go the “mainstream” route instead.

    All animal use is unjust, and this injustice is the leading cause of ecosystem destruction.

    Please see the first section of Animal Rights page – up to the part about the 500-million year plan.

    “They’re sentient beings, not food choices!” – Responsible polices for Animals, Inc.

    Mike Grieco
    Whitehorse, Yukon

    November 13, 2009
  5. If I had to choose between an absolutist vegan who only preaches that everyone become vegan and sells 1,000 books or a bestselling author that will reach millions of people with the truth about how 99% of animals on farms are treated, I think I'd choose the latter.

    November 13, 2009
  6. Mary #

    My point is really that compassionate-carnivore-types get all kinds of ridicule for what they do and how they talk about it, and their net message is very similar (it's okay to use animals as food and they have a way to do it that they are proud of). Meanwhile, Foer has been nearly universally praised for that message by the "animal rights" community. He and Nicolette Niman are two of a kind, but the Niman's aren't treated the way Foer is.
    The messenger makes the difference.

    November 13, 2009
  7. Hella Gamper #

    Once your priority is justice, your message isn't "eating animals" . . . it's "not eating animals."

    Sums it up unequivocally!Any other message is just a lame excuse for self-indulgence & greed!

    November 13, 2009
  8. Olivia #

    It would be one thing if JFS were sliding backwards from veggie-dom to flesh-eating. He isn't. He's not finished with his forward-moving journey. He's letting the world see him partway through it, and that can be seen as good (if you're someone who's just awakening to this subject) or bad (if you see the danger in his giving "permission" to exploit and kill, as you so aptly put it, Mary).

    It would be one thing if he claimed to be an animal activist. He doesn't. Thank goodness.

    It would be one thing if he ignored the plight of the dairy moms-and-babies and egg-laying hens-and-chicks, as if their suffering didn't exist. He lets us know it does. (I watched him on Ellen.)

    All leaders of movements have flaws. It would be ironic if JSF's book ends up tipping more consumers to the non-meat-eating side of the scale than do true-blue vegans with their message — more, even, than Compassionate Carnivore sends scurrying back to meat-eating.

    That said, I definitely "get" all your points. The comment of yours I liked best is that mercy implies suppression (and, I would add, superiority, which enables suppression). I had never thought about that before. Mercy is appropriate if someone who wronged you asks for your forgiveness (or receives it without asking). But the animals have DONE NOTHING WRONG to be forgiven. So I see that justice and mercy don't go hand-in-hand here. Maybe flesh-chewing humans are the ones who need mercy the most, for their carelessly, willfully unjust actions toward animals.

    This long post is a way of reminding myself, more than anyone, that we're all at a different stage on our path, and that we truly DO NOT KNOW either how this famous novelist will keep evolving or how much his book will impact the lives of millions of humans and nonhumans henceforth.

    November 13, 2009
  9. Sure, Foer isn't an abolitionist or even vegan, but he's probably getting thousands of people who never thought about animals to think about them. We'd all prefer if he wrote a book about how using animals in any way is wrong but books like that are, unfortunately, not mainstream.

    I certainly hope Foer sees the error in his ways and actually goes vegan and encouraged veganism in others. I think actually committing to veganinism flips a switch in many people that makes them realize that everyone else should go vegan too.

    November 13, 2009
  10. Mary #

    With the amount of traction this book has, my hope is that many of those in the "conversation" (go to to join the conversation) will stop eating animals. But when the Ellen interview ends with directing people to Farm Forward and "places to buy turkey" who were raised in a way that "reflects your values," I am skeptical. I prefer a message like that in Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home, which, in a most gentle fashion I think, doesn't let you walk away without seriously challenging your current values, rather than sending you home with a turkey from Local Harvest. I'm not sure that the mainstream ISN'T ready for a vegan message (exhibit A: The Skinny Bitch books), though a message about changing the way you think might be a tougher sell than a message about changing your "diet." At the very least, what Foer has done, undeniably, is become the latest person to get people talking about our relationship with animals. I just wish I could get behind his message.

    November 14, 2009
  11. If 3 years ago I could have had a say in what Foer wrote… If I could have been his muse to direct him further – beyond the "Farm Foward" message, I sure would have. But his book is now a reality – We are all given, not by choice – but by fact, his take on (not) eating animals.

    It has at the very least opened the conversation of what *I* don't give permission to. If people have new information which challenges what they do or don't find "acceptable" treatment to nonhumans… *I* can go from there to "unpack" the rest. *I* can ask them why they stop at "welfare"… *I* can – *We all* can – pick the conversation up from some starting point of awareness which did not exist before Foer's book.

    Is it my ideal? No. But it is the reality which is given… I'm inclined these days, to try to make the best lemonade I can.

    November 14, 2009
  12. Mary,
    JSF aims full on at all meat consumption and production, focusing on factory farming because it is 99% of how animals are raised for food (and he includes fishing in that too). He doesn't let "humane" meat off the hook either, and doesn't shy away from discussions of the complexities of these issues. It would really benefit these vegan "critiques" of the book if 1) the book were actually read first, and 2) if vegans keep in mind that issues of animal use are complex and deeply ingrained in the stories we tell about ourselves and the world we live in. Foer is speaking as and writing to people who live in the world where eating animals is considered the norm. It's as much a document of his awakening and understanding of the huge transformation in how we treat animals, as it is a document about that treatment.

    November 14, 2009
  13. Mary #

    I read the book. See my initial critique from October 26, which I believe involves a response to each of your issues:

    November 15, 2009
  14. Porphyry #

    For Foer, he describes vegetarianism as hard, especially through his own personal history. It’s a sacrifice; sure he feels it’s a worthwhile sacrifice, but a sacrifice nonetheless, confirming what nonvegans already believe, so why reinforce it? A vegan diet is something he’s only somewhat gotten to recently, and we don’t get a strong sense that he has a cultivated a appreciation of the vegan perspective on non-exploitation of animals.

    If he lived next to an idyllic farm, we get the feeling that he might eat some meat and certainly buy eggs and milk. He lives in New York City and Manhattan is a great place to be vegan. Park Slope, his local neighborhood, is having a vegan enlightenment with plenty of places to eat, a local pizzeria has an option for non-dairy cheese (though not consistently, but the point still stands). People certainly won’t judge you for being vegan or vegetarian like they would in some other regions of the country. If veganism seemingly isn’t easy for him with the resources of NYC and all that he knows, it’s not a very optimistic message for veganism.

    Since he makes vegetarianism out to be something hard, he offers up the usual age-old distraction. A symbol of possibility that animal exploiters can have their cake and eat it too, since there’s nothing inherently problematic with using animals per se; it’s treatment. One can love animals and kill them (or pay someone else too) and be all the better for it.

    Sure, there isn’t enough genuinely humane animal products to go around, not by a long shot, but somewhere out there the Niman Ranches of the world are doing it right, or almost right, or at least trying. Nicolette Hahn Niman is a vegetarian, so certainly she knows about animal compassion, and in her New York Times op-ed The Carnivore's Dilemma, she says eating meat is okay. It’s no coincidence that this article appeared after the release of Foer’s book. Some fortunate conscientious carnivores may even have the opportunity to buy animals products from a local farmer from time to time.

    Diet Detective: What’s your favorite breakfast?
    Michael Pollan: Fried eggs and bacon. Ideally, from pastured eggs and pigs.


    Yeah, “ideally,” but it’s not mandatory. If ideal eggs and bacon aren’t around, it’s not a big concern; you certainly don’t want to be troublesome or offend anyone or make any substantial changes in your lifestyle that are inconvenient. If you don’t live near a farm or can’t afford grass-fed beef, no one is really expecting anything else of you and you have no reason to expect anything from yourself, just support those who can support small farmers and hope that someday the government can eventually radically change the entire infrastructure and economy of animal food production so that everyone can live near a local farm producing humane meat at affordable prices in a way that even restaurants serve humane and environmentally friendly fare.

    When Foer spends precious pages contemplating animal treatment in his book and not making enough of a topic on use, we see a very familiar pattern.

    “But then as now, the anti-cruelty movement was largely a distraction from the fundamental issue of meat consumption. Urban dwellers were vehement critics of cruelty inflicted for the sake of entertainment, but quite happy for animals to suffer for the pleasure of the table. Meat-eaters drew attention away from the moral implications of their consumption by protesting against what they deemed to be ‘unnecessary’ suffering. The potential challenge to meat-eating posed by sympathy was effectively averted. This situation survives intact today and has its roots in the sentimental culture of the eighteenth century.”

    Source: Tristan Stuart; The Bloodless Revolution — A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times; Chapter Sixteen: The Counter-Vegetarian Mascot, Pope’s Happy Lamb, Page 225-226

    November 15, 2009
  15. Mary,
    I just went back and looked at your review again, and at first (well, second since I did read it before I started on the Foer book) I haven't gotten the same impression from the descriptions of Niman Ranch and the other "family farms" that Foer visits as you outlined in your review. I won't go into it now, since I'm not completely finished with the book, but will post my thoughts – and try to answer your review – when I'm done. I think his depiction of these farms and his own thoughts on the subject are more nuanced than you are giving him credit for.

    Just to make sure this is apparent: I think your review is pretty right on, except for this aspect.

    November 17, 2009
  16. Mary #

    Please note that in this "lament," as Deb Durant called it, I do write: "both books glorify small farms (though Foer is more selective)." Foer isn't pushing for small farms across the board, or "free range," or any other "bullshit" label–many/most would not satisfy him and the people at Farm Forward.

    And the Niman (Nicolette only) similarity is that they are both vegetarians who promote animal products in some way. Nicolette Niman (for those who didn't read the book) doesn't feel comfortable eating "meat" because of the way she feels about animals. And she doesn't believe it's "wrong" to eat them for anyone else necessarily. So that's how they're 2 of a kind. Both have made a personal choice, don't think it's wrong for others to make a different choice, and then actively promote the animal products they themselves are involved with.

    November 18, 2009

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