Foer is not actually shilling for the dairy industry, but should he be doing more to chase people away from it? (Original photo by David Shankbone.)
Writer Jonathan Safran Foer’s been getting a lot of media attention lately for the just published Eating Animals, his first book-length piece of nonfiction, which is very much against the eponymous activity. I haven’t read it, and I don’t expect that I (or most SuperVegan readers) will learn much from it that we don’t already know about what’s wrong with eating animals. This is not a book written for vegans. But it’s a book that vegans ought to have some understanding of.
For better or worse, an established literary novelist like Foer can get people to pay attention to what’s wrong with factory farming in a way that more academic or of-the-movement authors such as Peter Singer or Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson cannot. And Foer is relatively folksy and accessible (if not artless) compared to someone like J.M. Coetzee, whose arguments in defense of animals are unapologetically over most people’s heads, and who isn’t about to do a bunch of press interviews.
Foer finds lots of problems with industrial animal agriculture, and with eating meat in a general ethical sense, but he does not come down against non-meat or non-food animal products. This is a book about meat. That’s got a lot of vegans understandably perturbed–an influential guy sets up a strong argument for many tenets of veganism, yet fails to go there. Mainstream media may not care, but it’s important for us vegans to understand why Foer isn’t vegan, and how he feels about veganism.
Josh Hooten of Herbivore attended a talk by Foer last night at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR. Hooten is the right kind of vegan, and he wrote a great report/defense on the talk (which he posted on Facebook, and graciously allowed me to republish here.) Here’s the first and last sentences, and you can read the whole thing below.
Foer isn’t an animal rights person, he is coming from outside our community and perhaps that is why he is getting the attention he’s getting for his new book Eating Animals.
As a messenger getting people to think about this stuff for the first time, I think he’s amazing.
The only published interview I know of that specifically asks Foer why he isn’t vegan is Katie Drummond’s at True/Slant. The upshot is he’s “transitioning to veganism.” (No doubt it’s better to become vegan slowly and mean it, rather than rush into it and drop out again, as Foer’s done multiple times with vegetarianism.) The interview also reinforces that the book is a primarily a personal essay: “I was just trying to record my own thoughts – as a father, not as an activist or an expert.”
Indeed, it’s this arational approach that’s so off-putting for many committed vegans. Foer’s writing about feelings more than he’s writing about science or even ethics. It’s a loosey-goosey, touchy-feely, “truthiness” approach to coping with animal exploitation. It doesn’t appeal to me personally. But I have no doubt it’s doing good in the world.
And of course feelings are important, if only (especially for rationalist ethical hardasses like me) in how we interface with other people over these issues. An excerpt Elizabeth Kolbert plucked from Foer for her review in this week’s New Yorker (which you should read all of):
Two friends are ordering lunch. One says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” and orders it. The other says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” but remembers that there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment, and orders something else. Who is the sentimentalist?
That’s certainly a scenario I can relate to. I may no longer face a dilemma in how I relate to animals, but I bump into trouble all the time in relating to other people about animals. And this is what Foer’s book seems to be about, in addition to detailing the horrors of factory farms and all that stuff we already know about.
Foer isn’t an animal rights person, he is coming from outside our community and perhaps that is why he is getting the attention he’s getting for his new book “Eating Animals.” I saw a lot of people I recognized at the talk, but out of the couple hundred who were there, I knew probably a dozen of them. Which means most of his talk was to people outside the AR community. The people who can actually use the information he has.
I feel like a lot of the frustration people are having with Foer is that we want him to have the AR philosophical line and tell people that animals are not for us to use under any circumstance, and he doesn’t do it. But he’s not an animal rights person and his book isn’t an animal rights book, so I feel a bit like he’s being criticized unfairly for that. As much as I want him to say animals aren’t ours to use for any purpose, it just isn’t what he’s about. At least not yet.
This is probably why he can get a few hundred people to come see him speak and we can’t consistently get a dozen people to come to AR events. What he said to the few hundred people there was about food production, mostly, and not about philosophy. And what he said to those people was probably the most radical stuff they’ve ever heard about the food they eat. The fact that he hasn’t completely gone vegan yet seems trivial to me considering how short of a time he’s had this information, how he is coming from outside of the AR community, and how despite those two things he is writing article after article and on a speaking tour perhaps reaching more people than all of us combined ever will.
– Eggs cause more suffering than beef and if you’re going to give one thing up, make it eggs.
– Fish farms are horrible for the environment and fish always die horribly.
– Turkeys we eat are so fucked up they can’t reproduce naturally and in fact there is nothing natural about them. And that not have a turkey at all on Thanksgiving is a much better celebration and giving of thanks.
– The “good” farms, where the farmers love their animals could never supply us with enough meat to satisfy demand.
– There are farmers who treat their animals well. He jokingly said some treat their animals better than he treats his dog, however, he doesn’t kill and eat his dog and there is something weird in there. And he still wouldn’t eat those animals regardless of how nice their lives were.
– If you still want to eat organic, “humane” meat (quotes mine, not his) you’re going to have to pay a lot for it and your best bet, if you don’t think you have the money, is to eat way way less.
– He said countless euthanized cats and dogs make their way into our food supply because they are ground up and fed to the animals we then eat.
– He described in detail the living conditions of so called “free range” and “cage free” operations and made a point that neither of those words meant cruelty free.
– He described how little space chickens have to live in by holding up his book, and saying “they have about this much space and cannot move and have their appendages cut off.” (i assume he meant debeaking.)
– He said the only way to know about your animal products is to go to the farms yourself because “free range” and “cage free” and “humane” pushers are lying and taking advantage of the public.
– He said if you eat meat you can only be an ironic environmentalist.
– He spoke about how much global warming comes from agriculture
– He said how much greenhouse gas would be saved if we all went vegan one day a week and how many animals would be saved
He said a lot more very informative stuff, the logical conclusion of which is veganism. He didn’t advocate for it, and he didn’t advocate for vegetarianism either really. He just layed out facts and ideas and let people do with it what they wanted. As self-congratulatory as I would have felt if he said “so you’re all going to go vegan after this right?”, I am certain his approach is far more effective.
I think sizing him up through an AR lens is a mistake. I think sizing him up as someone outside this community with a massive, massive audience who he is giving very radical information to and very clearly not preaching to, makes me think he is going to be very effective in alleviating animal suffering, be it by getting people to cut down on meat, eggs, and dairy, or going vegetarian, or going vegan, or at some point going vegan himself.
I also think he has the kind of reach none of us do. If he gets them to think about this information for the first time, many of them will look deeper. The second source of information they get will be from someone a little further down the vegan line hopefully. As a messenger getting people to think about this stuff for the first time, I think he’s amazing.