A case study in activism – a review of ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

Just bear with me a minute before I get started on the book. One Saturday morning in 1996 I set off by bus from Rusholme in south Manchester to visit my mother’s cousin’s family in the northern suburb of Prestwich. At some stage during my journey up Oxford Road the Irish Republican Army detonated their last Manchester bomb and when the bus terminated prematurely nobody knew the reason. The city’s response was still being scrambled and I managed to duck the cordons and skirt across Market Street to the bus station where the situation became clear. From a call box I dialed my relatives but it was sabbath and they weren’t picking up. I arrived hours late and was greeted with the raised eyebrow of a mother used to keeping student time. When lunch was produced I realised with dismay that I’d forgotten to tell her I was vegetarian. Never having encountered liver before, I had to inquire about the greyish lump on my plate. I considered what to do. I hadn’t warned her; in the sabbath-related news vacuum there was consternation about the bomb; I’d been very late; I didn’t want her to worry; I was hungry; the food was nearly spoiled and if I didn’t eat it it was going in the bin. So I ate a calf’s liver without complaint. It was claggy and tasted the way bad breath smells. To this day it’s the foulest thing ever to have passed my lips.

These kinds of dilemmas, arising from “the fact that we do not eat alone”, foment inside Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, a book I read because I received a copy gratis from his publicist to review on this blog. I usually avoid books on this subject because the suffering of the scores of billions of animals farmed and killed each year confounds me to the point of incoherence. But remembering that I read Everything is Illuminated even though the Holocaust confounds me, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close even though September 11th confounds me, I accepted the book.

It quickly becomes clear that Eating Animals isn’t a straightforward case for vegetarianism. Instead Safran Foer, picking a path through this “slippery, frustrating and resonant subject” with discretion, ingenuity, and not a little guile, examines what it entails to eat animals – not only for the animals but also for the eaters of animals. Towards the eaters he extends only gentleness and understanding, and this is the book’s most fascinating attribute given the scale of the death, suffering, and malpractice he reveals. But Safran Foer is not diverted by hypocrisy. Instead he has done what all good activists do: made the object of his activism, the animals, his central concern, rather than the wrong-doings of the people whose behaviour he hopes to change.

My review below is divided into four parts, and as well as the book I also refer to Safran Foer’s January 2011 RSA interview, which I recommend listening to.

Suffering

As in the UK, in the USA most animals humans eat are factory-farmed. These animals have pain and illness bred into them and are disabled from enacting their instinctive behaviour. Broiler chickens whose ability to walk or mate have been sacrified to explosive growth and disabling bodily proportions are one example. Like me, Jonathan Safran Foer wouldn’t describe himself as an animal lover, nor do you need to love animals to object to their suffering.

The accounts of animal experiences in the cage, on the kill floor and being processed are present and graphic, but rather than dominating the book they form a pivot. Although he identifies that factory farm companies rely on ignorance to continue their cruel, unhealthy, and environmentally degrading business practices, when Safran Foer describes the brutal circumstances of these animals lives and deaths, there are no jeremiads and no relish, only a sense of duty to represent the actualities.

He quotes (p228) Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

“The meat industry understands that the more people know about what happens on the kill floor, the less meat they’re likely to eat.”

One of the book’s recurring ideas is the need for advocacy:

“It seems to me that it’s plainly wrong to eat factory-farmed pork or to feed it to one’s family. It’s probably even wrong to sit silently with friends eating factory-farmed pork, however difficult it can be to say something. Pigs clearly have rich minds and just as clearly are condemned to miserable lives on factor farms. The analogy of a dog kept in a closet it fairly accurate, if somewhat generous. The environmental case against eating factory-farmed pork is airtight and damning.

“For similar reasons, I wouldn’t eat poultry or sea animals produced by factory methods.” (p195)

We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference … We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animal?”

Reading that, I thought of Charles Patterson’s book Eternal Treblinka which researches connections between species bias and the extremes of racism, between the slaughterhouse and the industrial genocide of the Jews. 

Here in the UK, as I have mentioned before on this blog, industrial farmers campaign to avoid animal and human welfare regulations which, because they are not global, make their business less competitive. The eaters of animals are so thoroughly insulated from what animals endure between their birth and our plates that we expect our meals to cost a fraction of what they used to cost. The book doesn’t evade the arguments of the factory farmers, but represents them. Safran Foer worked hard to surface accounts from within the industry and to a great extent he considers the farmers to be victims of the system in which they are trying to earn a living. Available on BBC iPlayer, Panorama’s recent documentary on the true cost of cheap food illustrates farmers’ predicament.

Hypocrisy

From these accounts from farmers it becomes clear that a change in consumer behaviour is the best chance for human and animal welfare – but in this respect there’s much that Safran Foer leaves unsaid. His RSA interview confirmed this unwillingness to take on the individual consumer, at least directly. Instead the book is a prelude, an effort to open up a space for decision-making between the extremes of, on the one hand, either eating meat with the defiance of say, food critic Jay Rayner or restaurateur Gordon Ramsay, both of whom spent time at abattoirs in order to achieve consistence in their defence of eating animal – and, on the other hand, eating no meat at all. Safran Foer correctly identifies this behaviour as a visceral aversion to hypocrisy potent enough to overpower all other aversions. Some people in the grip of this aversion will, like Ramsay and Rayner, confront and commit themselves to the violent deaths of animals. Others would prefer to remain fully ignorant rather than confront hypocrisy in themselves. Disgust of hypocrisy becomes an enemy of compassion because the hypocritical space in between the two extremes is an uncomfortable space.

Disgust of hypocrisy is one possible explanation for why consciousness of factory farming fails to penetrate the bovine disregard of the chewing human majority. Another the book doesn’t suggest is the defensive assertion of identity when confronted with a perceived attack on that identity. The main proposition of the book – “to allow ourselves to fill a hypocritical space” – is astute in the light of this psychology. Safran Foer cautions against the moral vanity of putting undue emphasis on the behaviour of single individuals. Single individuals do not change the world but they can become insufferable in the attempt.

So, although Safran Foer makes plenty of forays into dead-pan rationalism – in his case for eating dogs, for example – these are in service of a more profound invitation to consider how what we eat tells stories about ourselves. One key story is that of his grandmother, pursued by the Nazis and on the verge of starvation (p16-17):

“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A Russian, a farmer, God bless him, he saw my condition and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”

“He saved your life.”

“I didn’t eat it.”

“You didn’t eat it?”

“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why?”

“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”

“Of course.”

“But not even to save your life?”

“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

We make categorical decisions about what we eat – the “lines we draw in the sand, lines that if we cross them we cease to be ourselves”. It wasn’t a fear of hypocrisy which compelled her to decline the meat, but a will to lead a dignified, undegraded human existence according to her own principles. This is a key idea in the book.

Pragmatism

Safran Foer doesn’t relish the specifics of animal suffering, but given that he could have written “an encyclopedia of cruelty” with the testimonials of animal agriculture workers, and given these practices are clearly part of a conscious business model, he cannot well leave them out. I’d venture to say that unless he has an angelic temperament, he must have been horrified, sickened and angered by what he saw and read in researching the book. During his talk at the RSA he hinted as much when he told the audience that in writing the book he had sought the “most productive approach” possible – ‘productive’ contrasts here with ‘direct’. I’d say that this book is one of the most heroically un-self-indulgent pieces of campaigning literature I’ve encountered. This is why some of its strongest advocates have been farmers – who, it turns out, feel degraded by the obligation to produce according to Kentucky Fried Chicken protocols – and why when his book was published, the incendiary reaction anticipated by some of his writer associates didn’t materialise:

“It’s not a controversial book because it’s not a controversial subject. If you speak about it the right way. Is it controversial that we don’t want chickens packed body to body in cages? Is it controversial that we don’t want our air and water polluted? It only happens one way: the more you talk about it the less you want it.”

This is how farmers who want their animals to live contented lives before they die came to be some of his most significant supporters, as well as he theirs.

I’m left with the impression of somebody who has assumed the role of mediator. In response to a question at the RSA about whether he kept in touch with the flinty, uncompromising activist whom he accompanied in breaking into an industrial chicken farm:

“It’s good to surround yourself with people who keep you honest, and she – despite my barely knowing her – I wouldn’t consider her a friend and she wouldn’t consider me one – she really keeps me honest – I have her in the back on my mind when I’m getting lazy about choices”.

I find myself wondering whether evoking the idea of Jonathan Safran Foer would keep a meat eater honest, when he makes their excuses so generously, and this question opens up a contradiction, though it’s not a particularly crucial one. Safran Foer recognises that he needs to be kept honest, while he views most meat eaters as deserving of excuses. It also occurs to me that perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way. Uncompromising activists also need to be kept honest – in the sense of grounded and sociological. Safran Foer’s book works in this direction.

At the same time, he allocates the responsibility for animal welfare to the industry’s policy-makers while simultaneously treating the industry as a force of nature responding to the stimulus of consumer preferences, so advancing his argument for consumer empowerment. It is left unsaid that if consumers can change this, then consumers have a degree of equal and various responsibility to change it. In the marketplace of ideas Safran Foer has not considered directness to be the most productive approach for animals. The most productive approach is one which massages us into the hypocritical space – the least uncomfortable and confrontational overtures to ordinary supermarket shoppers with their withered consciences. He would never put it that way. I think he’s right.

Accordingly, although he recognises veganism to be the ideal diet, Safran Foer urges his readers to focus on reducing the amount of animal eaten rather than increasing the numbers of vegetarians and vegans. The illustration he gives is powerful: one less meat meal a week in the US would bring about a reduction in emissions equivalent to taking 5 million cars off the road. “If you can’t eat one less meal a week, that begins to sound pathological”, he told the audience at the RSA.

I appreciate Safran Foer’s talent, which is to simultaneously hold ideas which scuffle – one that factory farming is a locus of atrocity and suffering, another that veganism is the ideal way to eat, and a third being an attitude of straightforward unrancorous remonstrance with factory farmers and consumers. I think this will contribute to something important – a reduction in meat meals consumed.  I also think that it will sow confusion, and in the current circumstances that can only be a good thing.

Another issue Safran Foer didn’t address is the comparative price of nourishing, convenient and delectable vegan food. In fact at the RSA he argued that vegan food was cheaper – this isn’t currently the case. Vegans are either sitting ducks trapped in a niche market, or they are given boring and uncreative alternative dishes at a cost which subsidises the hospitality industry’s meat eating clientele.

Humanity

Beginning on page 181 is a section titled ‘Our New Sadism’. It documents the perversions of violence and sexual abuse which take place in the closed environment of the industrial farm, before proceeding to talk about those which are part of the business plan.

I look at the media. Nigel Slater continues to push animal consumption despite all he has pledged to the contrary. Industrial milk producers are planning a cruel and unnatural megadairy in Nocton, Lincolnshire. One English family farmer given a tour of a U.S. megadairy for the investigative BBC programme Panorama says “This is the way that probably milk is going to have to be produced”. The World Wildlife Fund has commissioned a weekly menu intended to balance sustainability and health which I scan with growing incredulity: every single meal contains animal. There’s plenty of soya – only it’s been eaten by the animal on the menu before it gets to the human eaters. Arthur Potts Dawson of The People’s Supermarket observes the last hours of a dairy farm as it goes out of business. It turns out that most of The Guardian’s so-called ‘New Vegetarian’ Yotam Ottolenghi‘s recipes are so dependent on egg and cheese that on the whole they’re impossible to adapt for an animal-free diet. Chickens continue to have their beaks mutilated because we allow farmers to overcrowd them. The Observer has a double page spread on the premature slaughter of clapped out race horses for Europe’s meat market. In In Denial – Climate on the Couch, the movers and shakers of societal behaviour change are avoiding confronting us with bad news – rather than “Don’t”, they say “Instead”.

Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t go in accusations. Instead he presents readers with a vision of what it is to be human, the humanising act of declining something you want because you know that it is wrong to take it. After all, “We incarcerate people who cannot restrain their instincts to have sex” and “those who eat chimpanzee look at the Western diet as sadly deficient of a great pleasure” (p196)

“I miss lots of things and I feel good missing them. I feel better missing them than I do having them.”

Good things to eat

If like Jonathan Safran Foer you agree that a vegan diet is a good idea but you’re having trouble following one, I recommend you poke around your nearest town or city, not to mention the Web. Today I ate Ethiopian lunch from a vegan place in Brick Lane’s Truman Brewery. I bought solid, therefore unpackaged, shampoo from Lush in Liverpool Street Station. From a vegetarian grocery on Commercial Road something came over me and I bought ginger and orange chocolate and rasberry chocolate from Divine, the Essential co-operative’s chocolate spread (all Fairtrade), the peerless Sojade rasberry yoghurt, Viana hazlenut tofu and Taifun Hungarian-style wieners. As I write this I’m drinking red beer from the Pitfield Brewery near Chelmsford, Essex.

Like Safran Foer, the savoury smells of scorched flesh in street markets make me salivate, and like him I feel better missing meat than having it.

The book requests that we give thought to the life before the act of slaughter which dominates the attention we pay to farmed animals – if you focus only on the slaughter, you cannot attend to the lives of suffering that would have been better unlived. Safran Foer coaxes readers away from the slough of extremes and hypotheticals – in broad and deep ways don’t we all agree? he implores. 95% of people in a survey may say it’s right to eat animals, but who would condone a farm industry which contributes global warming, or pollution, or the increasing ineffectiveness of antibiotics? Who thinks it is a good thing to keep pregnant pigs in concrete crates without bedding and too small to turn around in? On these things all but the most marginal agree, and this consensus is the most productive and promising starting point Safran Foer can identify.
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4 thoughts on “A case study in activism – a review of ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A case study in activism – a review of ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer « Flesh is Grass -- Topsy.com

  2. I see a reference to hazelnut tofu at the end of your article. Animals have to be killed in order that nuts can be harvested. I have several hazel trees which I planted for their utilitarian purpose, for bean sticks and for their nuts. I have never yet had a ripe nut off them, because squirrels take them long before they are even ripe, gnaw a hole in them and chuck them on the ground. Every year I see their numbers diminish, and hope for one nut. But no, the squirrels destroy every last one. I killed nine squirrels the year before last, but still they kept coming. Last year I killed two. They still kept coming. I’m sure professional growers have to use similar methods.

  3. Trofim,

    1. Best thing to do is trim the branches so that the squirrels can’t access the tree any other way than from the ground, and then wrap a wide metal band round the trunk to prevent them scaling it. If you can’t manage that then the best thing to do is feed the squirrels, either by putting food out for them or by companion planting.

    2. At least you have your beanpoles, and you are doing the wildlife a good turn.

    3. A commenter on a post I wrote in 2007 titled ‘Vegan life is not bloodless‘, “All living creatures (whether spiders, lions, vegans or omnivores) have to eat something that’s alive, or was alive, to survive. Being a vegan is about causing the least harm possible, not about starving yourself to death. Anyway, a lot of the grain grown in the States is specifically earmarked for cattle feed. Responsibility for collateral field kill in harvesting these particular grains rests solely on meat-eaters’ shoulders. All of us, by the mere fact of our existence, are responsible for killing other organisms. A vegan tries to minimize the extent of these killings.”

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