Thursday, September 16, 2010

Vegetarian Book Review: Jonathan Safran Foer -- Eating Animals

Thanks to the entry for Eating Animals on wikipedia. 

I was really not expecting to like this book, I hated Everything Is Illuminated, and I was expecting something similarly tragic-cutesy.  Well, I got the cutesy, but I was more moved by the book than I expected to be.  Vegetarianism is a loaded topic, and Safran Foer does nothing to make it less loaded. In fact, the critical reception from the New York Times to the Onion AV Club seemed to agree that Jonathan Safran Foer is way too upset about this whole cruelty-to-animals thing, and should aim his compassion at a more appropriate  -- read human -- recipient.

I can't help but think there's something terribly reductive about that line of thinking.  Why is it a waste of ethical energy to wonder if there might be something a wee bit queasy in having some animals as friends and eating some for dinner?  Did I just miss some sort of mainstream-America memo because I'm Catholic and therefore am culturally conditioned to question the ethics of my pleasures?* Why is it considered too "crunchy granola" and over privileged to be concerned that our taste for hamburgers and hot dogs might be inflicting great pain on creatures who have been proven to feel great pain?  When did it become okay to ignore an ethical quandary because a. there were more horrible things going on in the world and b. because it presented an inconvenient truth?

In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of the book is how Safran Foer illustrates how human suffering and animal suffering often flourish in the same environment: much of the book is spent discussing the damage done to employees of meat packing plants who work for low wages, are subject to hideous on the job injuries,** or the people living around the plant who have to deal with festering pools of shit, as well as how the atrocities present within the meat packing plants affect plant employee quality of life and family time. Aren't these people important? Shouldn't someone be concerned about them? Shouldn't we be ashamed that our craving for cheap chicken and hamburger leads these people to be worked like mules? (And isn't that an interesting way to put it?)

These meat packing plants knowingly hire sadists. Shouldn't we be worried about the correlation between animal abuse and pathological behavior?   For all we know, they could be incubating the next Robert Pickton.

Eating Animals is not a one-sided book.  Safran Foer alternates his writing with the writings of others involved in the factory farming issue. Not just the PETA people, but also the factory farmers, humane slaughter advocates, and vegan slaughterhouse designers who think meat is a necessary evil.  This is not a book that is hellbent on getting people not to eat meat, instead it is a study of all the ways we try to rationalize eating meat, the cultural taboos we put up to make eating meat acceptable, and why the modern factory farm is such a nightmare that all traditional meat eating versus vegetarianism arguments wilt before the agricultrual-industrial complex.  (In which ovo-lacto vegetarians like myself are totally complicit.)

Safran Foer's observations about the ethics of meat eating have been made before, and not just by animal rights activists: Anthony Bourdain (no friend of vegetarianism) discussed the ethical difficulties inherent in killing his dinner in A Cook's Tour, Julie Powell (a butcher) confronted the reality of killing a lobster in her kitchen, David Foster Wallace had very little fun at a Maine lobster fest in Consider the Lobster.  I was a meat-eater once upon a time.  Do I not have the same credibility as those who still eat meat?

*I've always wondered if my ability to give up meat in some way stemmed from the fact that I grew up in a culture where giving up something you desire to accomplish a greater moral good is highly esteemed.

** There's one story about death by pig shit that will probably give me sporadic nightmares for the rest of my life.  And no, I'm not over reacting.

No comments:

Post a Comment