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On The Omnivore’s Real Dilemma

In yesterday’s continuing discussion, via comments, about the veal "victory," Colleen from Compassionate Cooks alerted us to "Hard to Swallow," in The Atlantic, by B.R. Myers, which is actually a review of Michael Pollan’s bestseller, THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA (the paperback has just been released).

You know how most of the letters you write are to correct or counter what was presented in a publication? Well, here’s your opportunity to say, Bravo! Nice work! What took you so long? (Okay, maybe not that last one.) If you haven’t read the book, subtitled, "A Natural History of Four Meals," and you don’t recall his "Unhappy Meals" in the New York Times from January (which I deconstructed), think Nina Planck, but better educated about nutrition. Myers calls the book, "a record of the gourmet’s ongoing failure to think in moral terms." Read it if you haven’t. (Borrow it from the library so you don’t support the book financially or add to book sales numbers.)

Pollan analyzes four meals adequately enough, but the one thing he neglects to do in 411 pages (that’s for the hardcover) is treat the issue of the morality of slaughter seriously. Yes, factory farming is hideous. He even calls it "evil" (319). But he is easily convinced, by all manner of convoluted logic, that it’s ultimately okay to eat animals, though not factory-farmed ones, because, well, he likes the way they taste and he’s not about to stop eating them.

The omnivore’s real dilemma is whether or not to deny that every excuse he conjures up for continuing to eat animals, from The C-Word (culture) to because we’re smarter (and remember that we’ve designed the test based on our own kinds of intelligences), to because we can to because God told us to, to because we need to (we don’t), will collapse (if they haven’t already due to the weight of how incorrect or irrational they are) the moment we add one more factor to the equation: ethics. Because every usage of a nonhuman, regardless of how she was raised, will end in her death at the hands of another, at that other’s convenience, and in a way that other has chosen, there is simply no way to call the scenario "humane slaughter." Doing so is an insult to my doctorate in Applied Linguistics as well as my ability to recognize rationalization when I see it.

The payoff of the omnivore’s capacity for denial is simple: He gets to eat whatever he wants and not feel guilty about it. Pollan might have temporarily convinced himself and millions of English-speaking readers that they need not consider slaughter in their ethical equations, and he might be responsible for the piffle spouted by "conscientious omnivores," but the jig is up.

Write a letter to the editor at, and thank them for publishing Myers’ review.

UPDATE: I’m a nitwit. Though I linked to Colleen’s site, I didn’t link to her genius blog about this very topic. Check it out!

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well-said, Mary! Yay! The jig is indeed up! I wrote about this briefly on my blog, but you're a much bigger person than I am: I didn't include a link to Pollans' book! 🙂

    August 25, 2007
  2. John J. Foster #

    As an almost 99.9% vegetarian, I must disagree with your beliefs. To lay the groundwork: I do not believe in this mythical god creature that many so bow down to. I make and create almost everything I eat from scratch. From the bread I knead by hand from the grains I milled by stone that I ferment with the bacteria I harvest from the air to the countless other foods I prepare myself for my family and I. I eat out .5 times a year, and there are never any type of boxed food items in my home (from cereal to mac n' cheese).

    I do choose to eat meat on occasion when it has been given to me by a friend who has killed a dear with the bow he crafted himself from the tree he planted himself in exchange I offer some of the alcohol that I have fermented myself again from strains of bacteria I have harvested myself.

    Put simply, your concept of why not to eat animals is an immature one. As our ancestors struggled for survival over tens of thousands of years, they ate meat. As other animals fight to stay alive in this strange world, they eat meat. You would not be here today flaunting your educational achievements if it were not for the efforts of these beings over time… eating meat.

    Is it wrong for a cheetah to track down a wounded or weak gazelle on the plains? Is it wrong for a raptor to swoop down on a smaller bird or fish? These practices have been established for millions of years, and are here to stay.

    Do not mistake me, I am totally against the institutionalized production of meat in our society. I also choose to eat this deer that my friend has killed because I believe there is no difference in this and eating a carrot. Both actions take the life of a another. This may be too strange a concept for some, but there is life in plants, as there is life in the billions of bacteria currently residing in your intestinal region.

    I believe that as long as we tend to and care for life in a sustainable and respectful manner then we can continue to coexist with them as we have done for ages.

    December 8, 2008
  3. John,
    I do not believe in god, so I'm not sure what we disagree on there.
    As for my concept being "immature," it is irrelevant what our ancestors did. We can choose to not take the life of a sentient being when we do not need to in order to survive. I have no idea why you'd call that notion "immature."
    Next, who cares what cheetahs do? They are carnivores, and they kill for their food because they need to. We, on the other hand, do not need to kill a gazelle for food.
    And finally, carrots are not sentient beings with the same capacity to experience pleasure, pain, boredom and frustration as deer have.

    December 8, 2008
  4. Mr. Foster… I have a disagreement in what you define as "sustainable and respectful" as animal agriculture isn't sustainable if/when we reach the 10 billion population mark expected by the end of the century. And I certainly don't see how removing an innocent being from this earth (simply because they taste good) is "respectful". But I suppose these words are not unlike others that are left to perverse interpretations such as "humane" or "compassionate".

    And Mary, I'm glad you addressed the issue concerning carrots today. I just defended eating cabbage yesterday.

    December 8, 2008
  5. Dan #

    If there's no moral difference between "killing" a carrot and killing a deer, then there's no moral difference between killing a carrot and killing the next human who annoys me. The same goes for eating. Your ethics, John, logically permits cannibalism – it is far worse than merely "immature" (and the ethics supporting veganism is anything but immature).

    December 8, 2008

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