For those who haven't read Eating Animals (a book I've mentioned several times on this blog), it's Safran Foer's nonfiction account of the harsh treatment of animals in factory farms and a damning indictment of the food industry. It has been extremely influential in winning people over to veganism, including actress Natalie Portman, who, in 2009, said the book converted her to a vegan lifestyle. At the time, she wrote:
I say that Foer's ethical charge against animal eating is brave because not only is it unpopular, it has also been characterized as unmanly, inconsiderate, and juvenile. But he reminds us that being a man, and a human, takes more thought than just "This is tasty, and that's why I do it." He posits that consideration, as promoted by Michael Pollan in, which has more to do with being polite to your tablemates than sticking to your own ideals, would be absurd if applied to any other belief (e.g., I don't believe in rape, but if it's what it takes to please my dinner hosts, then so be it).
|Jonathan Safran Foer, at the time he wrote Eating Animals (2009).|
Eating Animals is a powerful book. It's not the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the Animal Rights Movement (that book hasn't been written yet). But it's persuasive and beautifully written, nonetheless, and it skilfully advances all kinds of sound reasons for adopting a vegan lifestyle, including arguments having to do with ethics, sustainability, the environment and freeing up resources to help feed the hungry around the world. Safran Foer, a young novelist who gained fame as one of the leading Young Turks in the literary world (no small feat in an industry characterized by declining sales and so hard to break into), is a hell of a writer, and he choses each word with passion and conviction.
When Safran Foer endorsed Buyingpoultry.com, which promotes "humane meat" and accountability in the poultry industry (an industry sorely in need of accountability), some vegans and animal rights activists felt deeply betrayed. Safran Foer's promo endorsing Buyingpoultry.com just went up on YouTube the other day (see it above or here). One particularly perceptive critique of Safran Foer's came from one of my very favorite blogs, the Veganomaly. The author described an unforgettable moment when she crossed a line after reading Safran Foer's account:
Several years ago, at about 4AM I got to the part in ‘Eating Animals’ where he shares the stories of the pregnant cows whose calves are discovered inside of them at slaughterhouses. I’m not going to go into more detail here, because it’s the single most upsetting animal-related thing I’ve ever read. Maybe it was being alone in my dimly lit room with an angry rain pounding on the roof. Maybe it’s the way that the dark and the quiet disrobe all the defenses you cloak yourself in during the day. I found myself so sickened, the kind that makes it impossible to think of anything but the suffering you just has described to you. The room spins, your heart unable to take such pain. I remember thinking “We’re told as children that monsters don’t exist, but I’ll bet no one ever asked a farmed animal”. That night, Safran Foer’s work gutted me. A part of me truly died and in doing so, provided a thick, impenetrable layer of emotional cement over my decision to live as a vegan for the rest of my life. (Source)The blogger went on to express her disappointment in Safran Foer, asking whether he'd become "nothing more than a particularly clever puppet for the foodies." Foodies, of course, are people like Michael Pollan and other defenders of "happy meat" and "humane omnivorism." They think that it is possible for human beings to engage in "sustainable" production and consumption of animal products in a way that is ultimately compassionate and shows deep respect for animals.
The blogger's discouragement is understandable. At the same time, as the blogger points out, Safran Foer never embraced veganism and did not consider himself a spokesperson for the lifestyle, despite his book winning over numerous converts. Be that as it may, it is hard to comprehend why someone so deeply aware of the suffering, pain and death that millions of animals endure on a daily basis could defend the so-called "ethical" use of animal products.
We can drive ourself crazy asking questions. Did Safran Foer really believe - deep down inside - what he wrote in Eating Animals? Was this just a cynical ploy by a wunderkind who clearly relishes attention to get even more attention? Does his rejection of veganism somehow negate what he writes?
For answers to these questions, maybe we should look at another author, Upton Sinclair, who lived before the emergence of the modern animal rights and vegan movements. His book, The Jungle, was a horrifying indictment of the meatpacking industry, with some famous passages about the inhumane slaughter of pigs. Many online sources claim Sinclair was a vegetarian. I tried to verify this in a biography about Sinclair by my friend and colleague Kevin Mattson. Mattson mentions Sinclair embracing vegetarianism in 1909 after a visit to Harvey Kellogg's sanitarium (Kellogg was the famous cereal maker), but there is no evidence that Sinclair was a vegetarian his whole life. And there is zero evidence that he was a vegan.
Today, animal rights activists often quote the pig slaughtering scene from The Jungle (I've included it here on my blog) to capture the brutal essence of the slaughterhouse experience. Certainly, Sinclair was no vegan. Nor were a lot of the historical figures that we vegans quote for inspiration. I even found out the other day the other day that a famous Alice Walker quote I often use about animal rights - "The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men" - was actually not her opinion, but her summary of a book she was reviewing, and that animal rights people have been quoting her out of context all these years (she's not a vegan; she's not even a vegetarian). Yet Walker's words, even quoted out of context, leave an indelible impression on people who are quietly contemplating the possibility of going vegan.
I bring up these things to make a point. Safran Foer isn't a vegan, that's clear. But his book - while not a masterpiece - is still a damn good one, and with his high profile, he's able to spread his message to a very large audience, one most of us could never hope to reach. It is too bad he doesn't necessarily practice what he preaches. Alas, a lot of writers do not. What is more important is that he has built a monument, in the form of a book, that will touch countless readers for generations to come, and continue to convert a lot of people to veganism. Of how many people can that be said?