Extremely Disappointing, Incredibly Predictable
Yesterday I posted a video of Jonathan Safran Foer, author of a book (Eating Animals) that inspired countless people to go vegan. He was plugging an app that tells consumers where they should buy chicken. The initial impact was as if Martin Luther King, after writing Letter from a Birmingham Jail, had renounced non-violence and taken up arms.
My first reaction, along with many other vegans, was a sort of stupefaction. I’d read Eating Animals. I’d sat on a panel with Foer in Texas and, with him, denounced animal products. I’d listened to friends tell me that he was the bedrock of their veganism. I’d written a glowing review of his book. I thought about all of this as I drove from Louisville to Pittsburg yesterday, passing the time in a state of low-grade agitation.
As the miles clicked by, though, my agitation shifted. It shifted from Foer to myself. Why did I ever imagine Foer to be a vegan representative? Why did I find myself speechless? Why am I overwhelmed with the impulse to call Foer a hypocrite? Why did I go all weak-kneed over this guy? Why did I ignore the fact that Foer was at home on the fence?
Foer never advocated veganism. He rarely engaged the philosophical issues endemic to animal rights. He’s friends with, and sympathetic toward, the “humane” producers of animal products. He has studiously dodged hard questions such as “what should people eat?” (a remarkable accomplishment given that he wrote a book about it). In essence, Foer has never, ever passed himself off as something he’s not. He’s a brilliantly literary guy who wrote a compelling book more or less riffing in fascinating ways about the habit of eating animals. He never decreed squat.
Still, many vegans–myself included–conveniently overlooked these facts about Foer. We came to respect him as some sort of unspoken spokesperson for ethical veganism. But why? That’s the real question at the center of this whole Foer dust-up.
I think our admiration for this talented novelist speaks volumes about our desperation for moral leadership. Perhaps more to the point, it speaks volumes about why the vegan movement lacks its identifiable representatives. I’m well aware that many vegans want a movement without leaders, but my sense is that with Foer many vegans were investing him with genuine vegan-leadership qualities because, well, we otherwise lack a high-profiled and charismatic figure who embodies the values central to our cause.
Again, I know that hierarchy is something many vegans seek to avoid, and for good reasons. That said, the sustainable food movement has its Michael Pollan, and look what he’s done for it. He’s provided vision and clarity. Acolytes rally around him like a guru and charge like a laser into a murky future. The result has been nothing short of profound: the movement has gone from a vague set of ideas to a cohesive and sharply defined ideology with the all the power of a bullet aimed to humanely kill lunch.
But vegans? No such luck. Lacking our Pollan, we seem to prefer fights. And not against the animal exploiters, but with each other. The narcissism of small differences too often wins out over the sensibility of unified beliefs, leaving us rudderless.
Don’t get me wrong—I deeply value our internal debates (hell, I initiate many of them). But, fragmented as we are, it’s no wonder that we cannot agree on a small set of figures who genuinely embody vegan ideals. It’s no wonder so many of us invested so heavily in Foer. And it’s no wonder that Foer has (temporarily?) fallen off the fence and landed on the side of the happy meat/sustainable agriculture fence. Our side of the fence is jagged and full of mines. Where he now sits there’s green pastures, cool people, sunny skies, and rose-colored glasses to hide the suffering that we refuse to ignore.