Saturday, January 2, 2010

eating animals

I just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals,’ and I’ve been ranting about it to anyone who doesn’t run away screaming the second I bring it up. Now, I’ve been called a cynic more than once (I prefer ‘realist,’ but whatever). I would argue that cynics are the only true idealists; we hold the world and the people around us to a higher standard. Everyone else has settled for second-best.

Here’s something I jotted down a couple weeks ago when I was working on the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ review:

‘The pinnacle of cynicism is over-sentimentalized, emotional manipulation. The huckster attempting to sell us cheaply maudlin, calculatedly heart-tugging schlock is far more cynical than the so-called ‘cynic’ who refuses to be moved by this artfulness. True cynics are truly the greatest, most dedicated idealists--we’re just holding out for the genuine article.’

Quoting myself. Now that is a new low.

Anyway. I bring up cynicism because I almost literally never say things like I’m about to say regarding Foer’s book: ‘Eating Animals’ literally changed my life. I am not easily influenced, and am actually known as a stubborn fuck in some quarters.

You know who you are.

But this piece, if you approach it honestly and with eyes wide open, will change the way you view yourself as part of this strange world we’ve created. You can’t drive past a strip of McDonald’s, Applebees, Wendy’s and Carl’s Jr. without feeling a distinct queasiness. Or at least taking them in in a different way.

Here’s an excerpt, and another piece that offers a Jonathan Swift-like modest proposal.

Foer is a highly acclaimed fiction author (‘Everything Is Illuminated’) who embarked on this, his first non-fiction project, three years ago, after his son was born. He writes that he needed to know more about food and the way we deliver it to the table before making decisions on what to feed his son. He weaves the narrative into his personal history--his grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, and her tales of near-starvation while fleeing the Nazis illustrate how food is much more than fuel for the machine; it is our culture, our history, it is in the stories we tell about ourselves and our self-image.

The food we eat is us.

And so through countless interviews and some harrowing late-night visits to factory farming facilities, Foer begins to illuminate what it is to eat meat from living animals that are treated as though they were a car door on an assembly line, or an Ikea table.

Ever wonder where these new virus strains come from? How about from literally billions of animals packed one on top of the other in cages too small to move in, living their entire lives in their own shit? And keep in mind these animals are genetically modified freaks with virtually no immune system and so must be continually pumped full of antibiotics, as well as the massive doses of hormones that make them grow with such insane speed and to such ridiculous proportions that broken bones are commonplace. Foer’s sources tell him most factory-farmed turkeys cannot even walk.

Here’s something that’ll make you think twice when you’re shopping for chicken: according to industry standards (maintained under the watchful eye of the USDA, as captive a bureaucracy as the SEC and we all know how well they regulated Wall Street) up to 11% of a chicken’s weight can legally be water that the carcass has soaked up after death.

No big deal--so you pay a little more. Except that after the chickens are scalded, often still covered in the shit that exploded out of them when they were snatched up to be slaughtered, they are then dipped in a foul stew of feces, water, and bleach. That’s the liquid that is soaked into them and sold as if it were chicken meat.

Yum. Pass me them McNuggets.

But despite my tone here, Foer manages to avoid shrillness, scolding or excoriation most of the time, despite the truly heinous things he encountered. He managed to write this book in a way that is almost gentle, and is certainly very thoughtful and personal. He says he has a stake in this, as do we all, and that it is our responsibility to at least be aware of what is going on.

It’s important to understand what we are supporting when we buy factory-farmed meat, to realize that the industrialization of raising animals carries hidden costs that go far beyond the cheap price tag on those pork chops, not least of which could be our very humanity. Empathy is a dangerous thing, but it’s what gives us our value, it’s what makes us human.

And while it’s a cute, glib response to say something like, ‘Meat tastes good, and humans were designed to eat meat, and therefore it’s natural...’ (which is an argument I made and still believe to be true) there is not a single goddamn thing that is natural about factory farms. And by the way, labels like ‘free-range, organic, and cruelty-free’ mean very little when the ‘regulators’ are themselves current or former factory farmers.

Blah blah blah. Check it out, please. It’s difficult information to process, but shying away from the truth doesn’t make it any less true. It just makes us more ignorant.


Amy G said...

Thanks for posting this, Kurt. As a vegetarian who's already read all the Peter Singer out there (on-point in terms of clear reasoning, but often one-sided to the point of piousness and so nearly-pornographic with cruelty data that the information is sometimes beyond processing), I picked this up after seeing this blog. Thought the book was very thoughtfully written without being watered-down, and put together in a style I aspire to. Definitely worthy of sharing. You stubborn fuck.

wasabius said...

I'm so glad you felt motivated to read the book after seeing my post! i put off starting the book myself for so long because of fear of exactly the cruelty-porn and tut-tutting you describe. but i think foer was masterful in delivering the message thoughtfully, over and above everything else. i'm about to re-read 'everything is illuminated' simply because of his incredible writing in 'animals.' i've already given away two copies of the book and i have another one on the way. that's how powerful and important i think it is, and i thank you for reading this, reading the book, and commenting as well.
take care,
p.s. wanna get some vegetarian beers sometime? ;)