McWilliams on Foer: Thumbs Up

I was cleaning up the laptop and found this review of mine, published in the Austin American Statesman in the fall of 2010. That same week, Foer and I sat on a panel at the Texas Book Festival (along with Novella Carpenter and Jason Sheehan). Good times, good times . . .

At a recent dinner party, the host, for whatever reason, started discussing the rodent problems at her farmhouse. She explained how she’d found a humane mouse trap that can catch a mouse without killing it. The weird thing, though, was that she sang the praises of this contraption while standing in her kitchen, holding a greasy pair of tongs, about three feet away from the pork chops she was sizzling to perfection.

Normally, I wouldn’t have thought much about what it meant to express concern for the welfare of a mouse while cooking a pig — an animal that’s likely smarter than your golden retriever. But it just so happened that I was entrenched in Jonathan Safran Foer’s deeply engaging “Eating Animals,” a book that confronts the moral and practical problems of eating meat. “Our relationship to eating animals has an invisible quality,” writes Foer, who proceeds to employ the literary equivalent of a klieg light to make it visible.

Skeptics of animal welfare arguments need not get defensive. This book is not shrill. It’s not out to browbeat or scold the meat eater. Instead, Foer’s approach is sympathetic and stern, respectful of human vulnerability but attuned to ethical consistency. He demonstrates the same sensitivity to the human condition that he displayed in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “Everything is Illuminated” — his two critically acclaimed novels. Foer wants us to think about what we instinctively ignore — to “bring meat to the center of public discussion in the same way it is often at the center of our plates.” Make no mistake, though. He ultimately wants us to do more than just think. He wants us to quit eating the stuff, too.

But he understands. He’s neither naïve nor self-righteous. We are human, after all, and we justify our carnivorous behavior (all of our behavior, for that matter) by telling stories. Anyone who eats meat and even remotely thinks about the moral implications of eating meat tells stories: “Eating animals is natural. Animals were put on earth to help humans thrive. Animals don’t experience pain the way humans do. It’s those people who eat dogs who are barbaric. Could you pass me a pork chop, please?”

These stories have a quietly powerful impact. Foer knows this well, as he has his own story to grapple with: Meat is inseparable from the memories he associates with his grandmother, the love he feels for his newborn son and the future family meals that will unite the generations. These meals have previously centered on meat (specifically his grandma’s chicken and carrots). And so he wonders: Can the “table fellowship” that defined the past survive a vegetarian future?

To answer this question Foer starts with the fattest target in the meat world: factory flesh. Ninety-nine percent of the meat produced in the United States comes from a factory farm. These places exist in a fathomless level of hell. They spew pollution and make the taxpayer foot the cleanup bill. They ruin our health and brag that they’re “feeding the world.” They engage in animal welfare practices that would weaken the knees of Michael Vick. They thrive on perverse subsidies.

Tyson Foods Inc. won’t return Foer’s repeated requests to visit a farm. Undeterred, he joins an animal welfare accomplice (named “C”), and the two “snooping vegetarians” sneak onto a turkey farm in the middle of the night. “The closer I look,” he explains, “the more I see.”

And it’s just plain awful. Readers of the anti-industrial food canon (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “Fast Food Nation,” “Food, Inc.”) will have some sense of what he encounters. Still, Foer covers this unsavory ground in sobering detail, ending with a graphic step-by-step overview of a slaughterhouse (by drawing on industry literature). But what ultimately sticks, much more than any scatological factoid, is Foer’s affecting juxtaposition of production and consumption.

Production: factory farms, manure lagoons, genetically deformed animals, antibiotic-laden feed, a diseased environment. Consumption: a family gathering, “table fellowship,” holidays, warmth, son, grandma, love. Connect the dots across the production-consumption divide and it all starts to make sense: “It’s much easier to be cruel than one might think.” Remembering Grandma’s chicken and carrots is one thing; forgetting what had to happen for it to get to the table is another. When we remember, we also forget.

If you’re part of that privileged one percent that buys meat from alternative sources (free-range, grass-fed, cage-free, etc.), you have a friend in Foer — sort of. Foer met with several producers who raise meat according to strict environmental and animal welfare standards. He makes no bones about his bias — he likes these people very much. He admires their ideals, the respect they have for their animals, their style. In stark contrast to the factory farms, they welcome Foer, hide nothing and tell their stories. In the end, people like Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn — proprietors of the well-respected Niman Ranch label — end up looking something akin to heroes.

But Foer doesn’t let them off the ethical hook. He brings in a PETA representative, Bruce Friedrich, to address the Niman narrative. And boy does Friedrich have something to say. Whether your flesh is factory-raised or free-ranged, he explains (according to Foer’s paraphrasing), “that piece of meat came from an animal who, at best — and it’s precious few who get away with this — was burned, mutilated and killed for the sake of a few minutes of human pleasure.” Foer doesn’t disagree with the assessment.

To his credit, even though he seems to not want to, he goes on to note that Niman Ranch brands its animals for no good reason, castrates without anesthesia and uses nose rings to keep hogs from rooting the pasture. He concludes, “ethical meat is a promissory note, not a reality.” He knows these words will hurt his friends.

But that’s how this book is: bold, honest, thoughtful. We live in an era in which factory farming is becoming less and less acceptable. Still, many ethical consumers find themselves feeling powerless in the face of an industrial agricultural system that’s gone global. Foer reminds us that we are “the powerbrokers that matter most.” We might not like what he’s asking us to do, but it’s hard to deny that he’s right.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

4 Responses to McWilliams on Foer: Thumbs Up

  1. Rebecca Stucki says:

    This is the book that turned me into a vegan in the two days it took me to read it. Wonderful book on a painful subject.

  2. Haven’t read it yet, but it’s on the list. 🙂

  3. CQ says:

    Good for you, Rebecca! I haven’t made time to read it yet. If I do, it’ll be to soak up what James describes as Foer’s sympathetic, respectful, unself-righteous, bold, honest, thoughtful tone. Those qualities must be present in anyone who seeks to inform, inspire and transform others. You’re proof of the pudding that they work their magic on open-minded, ready-to-listen readers, Rebecca.

  4. Provoked says:

    I think Eating Animals has succeeded in it’s mission – Not to be the end of the story… But simply to open up the conversation. Every single review I’ve read on Foer’s work has been a positive step in leading his audience to the information they need to examine their choices. And it’s no surprise – that everyone is particularly thankful of his nonjudgmental tone.

    Because I believe change will happen on multi-levels and in a series of awakenings – I know that Eating Animals is an important part of this progression. Yes, “thumbs up”.

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