Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Safran Foer

Writer’s Block

» July 1st, 2012

Why won’t prominent food writers promote veganism? Why do advocates for reforming the food system such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Jonathan Safran Foer–some of my favorite writers–eschew an unqualified endorsement of a plant-based diet like they eschew the drive-thru lane at McDonald’s?  Why do writers with the power to fundamentally change the way Americans eat continually advocate the reduced consumption of animals rather than an outright ban on eating them altogether?

Generously, one might say that these writers believe that they are moving consumers in the right direction; and for them, that’s enough. Less is better. A nudge is good. As readers of this blog know, this idea, in my very strong if humble opinion, is bunk. Total bunk. Sort of like a slaveowner arguing that he’s moving away from slavery by owning 5 slaves instead of 10. It’s nothing but symbolic change intended to assuage the guilt of consumers. Nothing useful or productive will ever result from it. But still, one might reasonably argue that these writers are genuinely bound up in this naive faith in the pragmatism of their gradual approach. As I said, generously.

Thing is, though, these writers are fiercely smart, too smart to have ignored the contradiction they avoid by not promoting veganism. On the  one hand, they routinely tell us that animals matter. They matter a lot. They matter so much that we should be morally appalled at the suffering they endure on factory farms. On the other hand, it’s perfect okay–so long as they were raised on a small farm–to treat them like objects, ignore their capacity to suffer, and slaughter them when you’re hungry. This is the carnist’s contradiction. (Yes, I just used Melanie Joy’s term!) These writers are well aware of it (Bittman has said as much) and yet they tip-toe around it, writing recipes, promoting apps, and hitting the lecture circuit to urge us to fight the evils of animal agriculture by . . . eating animals. Oy.

These writers are the tastemakers. Where they lead, the foodie universe follows. This is all the more reason to try to get to the bottom of this question: why do these writers continually fail, through beautifully written books, columns, and magazine pieces, to advocate the very idea that’s most consistent with their own discoveries about animal agriculture and animal sentience? Because I have such respect for these writers, I’m trying to avoid the conclusion that they do it because it’s easy to do so, because it confirms the status quo, because it’s exactly what their privileged readers want to hear, and because it serves their professional interests. I’m trying to avoid this conclusion because this is not what real writers do.

“If you can’t annoy somebody,” Kingsley Amis once said, “there’s little point in writing.” I’m waiting for these giants to start annoying people. Because it is only by annoying people that we start to seek real change. As my favorite musician Bill Callahan sings, “you’ve got to bust up a sidewalk sometimes, to get people to gather around.”  (line comes about 2:20 into the performance.) Time for these writers to turn their pens into sledgehammers.

Extremely Disappointing, Incredibly Predictable

» June 16th, 2012


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.

Foer Chicken

» June 15th, 2012

Not sure what to say, other than how paradoxical it is that the person who motivated so many people to go vegan is telling us where to buy chicken. Actually, I’m speechless.


» May 3rd, 2012


Here’s the winning essay from the New York Times Magazine‘s contest to ethically justify eating animals. Hard to believe that Andrew Light, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Peter Singer approved this entry, as it would not have survived the Philosophy 101 class I took in high school. Nothing on animal sentience–this in an essay on the ethics of eating animals. Pathetic. Plain pathetic. I promise you that this contest was driven more by concern for advertising revenue than ethics. Pathetic. Pathetic. Pathetic.  -jm

By Jay Bost

As a vegetarian who returned to meat-eating, I find the question “Is meat-eating ethical?” one that is in my head and heart constantly. The reasons I became a vegetarian, then a vegan and then again a conscientious meat-eater were all ethical. The ethical reasons of why NOT to eat meat are obvious: animals are raised and killed in cruel conditions; grain that could feed hungry people is fed to animals; the need for pasture fuels deforestation; and by eating meat, one is implicated in the killing of a sentient being. Except for the last reason, however, none of these aspects of eating meat are implicit in eating meat, yet they are exactly what make eating some meat unethical. Which leads to my main argument: eating meat raised in specific circumstances is ethical; eating meat raised in other circumstances is unethical. Just as eating vegetables, tofu or grain raised in certain circumstances is ethical and those produced in other ways is unethical.

What are these “right” and “wrong” ways of producing both meat and plant foods? For me, they are most succinctly summed up in Aldo Leopold’s land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” While studying agroecology at Prescott College in Arizona, I was convinced that if what you are trying to achieve with an “ethical” diet is the least destructive impact on life as a whole on this planet, then in some circumstances, like living among dry, scrubby grasslands in Arizona, eating meat, is, in fact, the most ethical thing you can do other than subsist on wild game, tepary beans and pinyon nuts. A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human. This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor-tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human.

While most present-day meat production is an ecologically foolish and ethically wrong endeavor, happily this is changing, and there are abundant examples of ecologically beneficial, pasture-based systems. The fact is that most agroecologists agree that animals are integral parts of truly sustainable agricultural systems. They are able to cycle nutrients, aid in land management and convert sun to food in ways that are nearly impossible for us to do without fossil fuel. If “ethical” is defined as living in the most ecologically benign way, then in fairly specific circumstances, of which each eater must educate himself, eating meat is ethical; in fact NOT eating meat may be arguably unethical.

The issue of killing of a sentient being, however, lingers. To which each individual human being must react by asking: Am I willing to divide the world into that which I have deemed is worthy of being spared the inevitable and that which is not worthy? Or is such a division hopelessly artificial? A poem of Wislawa Szymborska’s, “In Praise of Self-Deprecation,” comes to mind. It ends:

There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.

For me, eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really justsolar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.

Jay Bost, who says he has been “a farmworker, plant geek, agroecologist and foodie for the past 20 years,” teaches at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., and plans to head to Hawaii next year for a Ph.D. in tropical plant and soil science. His deepest interest is in agrobiodiversity, a field he will be better able to explain once he and his partner, Nora Rodli, get their 5-month-old son, Kailu Sassafras, to sleep.

“Perhaps the Only Ethical Meat”?: The “Ethicist’s” Finalists

» April 22nd, 2012

The finalists are in for the New York Times Magazine’s “Ethicist” contest seeking an essay justifying the choice to eat animals.  While there’s little doubt in my mind that two of the judges– Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan–will (based on their previous work) find most of the chosen answers adequate, I’d be shocked if the others– Peter Singer, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Andrew Light–allowed these often thoughtful, but consistently speciesist, accounts to see the light of day. The exception, of course, may be the call for in-vitro meat, which I’ve included below.

The other finalists can be found here:

 From “The Ethicist”:

I’m About to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years

My father was an ethical man. He had integrity, was honest and loathed needless cruelty. He was also a meat-eater’s meat-eater. He loved sitting at the elevated gourmet table (“gourmet” actually meant something back then) at the fanciest hotel in Sydney to take his evening meal.

He hung up game until it “ponged” to high heaven and enjoyed local meat dishes: wild boar in Switzerland, giant crabs on Easter Island and, in the Persian Gulf, sea turtles whose shells he pierced so that he could stake them at the water’s edge, keeping them fresh until they were popped into the pot.

His habit killed him in the end: the first sign of trouble came with gout, then colon cancer, heart problems and strokes, but he enjoyed meat for decades before all that “wretched bother” in a time when ethical issues were raised only by “a handful of Hindus and Grahamists.”

He taught me, the animal lover, to enjoy meat, too. It did not occur to me that while I would never dream of using a firearm to dispatch a deer or a duck, the specialty butcher’s package, with blood seeping through the paper, came from animals who knew what hit them, who saw and smelled it coming, their hearts thumping in their chests, their eyes wide with fear.

I busily ate my way through the animal kingdom. My father and I hunted for mollusks — mussels and winkles — on the rocks around the Cornish coast. We relished organ meats like liver and kidney and even tripe, which my mother cooked reluctantly for us, a hankie covering her nose. We picnicked on raw triple-ground steak, smashing it messily into the palms of our hands, and mixing in, with our fingers, a raw egg, capers and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. If peckish, I would make a sandwich from the roast beef drippings congealed in a pan left in the larder.

Is it ethical to eat meat? Some 40 years ago, I took a long break from eating any animals, but soon I will be able to eat meat again without any qualms, without worrying about my health, cruelty to animals, or environmental degradation. That’s because this autumn, 14 years after it was just a gleam in the eye of the Dutch scientist Willem van Eelen, the very first laboratory-grown hamburger is to make its debut.

Dr. Van Eelen, while a prisoner during World War II, had been badly treated, but what bothered him more was the abuse he saw meted out to animals destined for the guards’ tables. He was determined to find a way to reduce animals’ suffering, and eventually, he and the scientists he inspired all over the world succeeded. It is thanks to him that I can return to the table with my lobster bib tucked into my shirt front, my conscience clear.

In vitro meat is real meat, grown from real cow, chicken, pig and fish cells, all grown in culture without the mess and misery, without pigs frozen to the sides of metal transport trucks in winter and without intensive water use, massive manure lagoons that leach into streams or antibiotics that are sprayed onto and ingested by live animals and which can no longer fight ever-stronger, drug-resistant bacteria. It comes without E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella or other health problems that are unavoidable when meat comes from animals who defecate. It comes without the need for excuses. It is ethical meat. Aside from accidental roadkill or the fish washed up dead on the shore, it is perhaps the only ethical meat.

More Thoughts on “Humane Meat”

» September 19th, 2011


Conscientious consumers have known for decades that animals raised in factory farms are animals that have experienced immense suffering. The litany of horrors hardly needs repeating, but most consumers are familiar with the crushing confinement, the disease and manure-ridden stalls, over-breeding, mechanized fertilization, the incessant dosing of antibiotics and vaccines, the cold lack of affection, and the essential reduction of the animal to the equivalent of a heartless machine.

Although physically hidden from view, the grim realities of the factory farm are now widely known due the pioneering work of an influential cadre of writers. Peter Singer (Animal Liberation), Anna Moore Lappe (Diet for a Small Planet), Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), and Jonathan Safran Foer (Eating Animals), among others, have succeeded in rattling mainstream nerves with their forthright analyses of factory farming. Passively or actively, we have absorbed their messages in all their gory detail and, with good reason, declared ourselves to be disturbed–often deeply so–with factory farming. Consumers are disturbed for the simple but powerful reason that, however unexamined the sentiment might be, we believe that farm animals deserve better.  Deep down–again, however vague the notion is– we oppose factory farms because we know that animals matter enough not to be unnecessarily harmed.

The outrage generated by exposes of factory farming have led to a number of responses, but by far the most popular has been the rise of progressive systems of animal production designed to be more humane. Free-range pork and chicken, cage-free eggs, and grass-fed beef are prime examples of consumer options that have become mainstream alternatives to factory farmed meat. Within these arrangements, farm animals enjoy greater freedom to move about, socialize, eat from the land, interact with other forms of wildlife and, if they are lucky enough, have sex outside.  We purchase products from these farms in part because we believe that an animal raised under such conditions was an animal that lived with dignity. It enjoyed being alive.  And we are, of course, absolutely correct  in these beliefs.

But therein lies a problem.  Conscientious consumers base their vehement opposition to factory farms, and their active support of the alternatives, on the premise that animals have genuine feelings. Presumably, one would care little for the way an animal was raised if it could not distinguish between pleasure and pain, if it could not suffer, or if it did not care wether or not it existed in a crate or on a verdant pasture. But the conscientious consumer cares about farm animals because she believes the exact opposite to be true–again, that they matter. And not just nominally. They matter to the point that they are said to deserve dignity, respect, and compassion. And then we slaughter them. Not because they are old and sick, but we slaughter them while they are in the prime of their lives because they have market value. We boldly declare the moral worth of their lives, vote with our forks to honor that worth, and then render the animals into commodities. This strikes me as a problem.

Indeed, it is hard to think of a food-related issue as ethically charged as the act of raising a sentient being for the purposes of killing it for food we do not need. In an age when we are constantly urged by leading authorities to be thoughtful and deliberate about what we eat, this matter seems as ripe as any for a fruitful and in depth analysis. It is thus all the more surprising to find that the popular writers, journalists, and documentary film makers who urge us to avoid factory farms and support more humane systems of animal production avoid the question altogether. Instead, it is as if an alternative system, by virtue of not being a factory farm, is automatically assumed to be an inherently ethical way to raise animals. Case closed. But this kind of logic is dangerously flawed. So, here we have the elephant in the room: How can one raise an animal under more humane conditions (essentially because he knows that animal to be sentient, feeling being), slaughter that animal for the sole reason that a local restaurant wants to serve it on its menu, and then deem this system compassionate?

It is my firm belief that you cannot.