I don’t mean this dismissively, but I feel like I finally get what Charlton Heston meant when he cried out, “Soylent Green is people!! It’s peeeeople!” Just . . . I don’t know. That movie’s pretty silly, but I keep walking around the house feeling like all those years that I ate meat, I was really eating human souls. And I even knew almost all of this information before reading the book. I know I’m being dramatic, as per usual, but there really is something about food that brings out both the best and the worst in humans. I think that’s part of the point of the title of this book. It’s about eating animals, but it’s also about us being
eating animals. See what he did there? Anyway, I can’t give this book a full 5 stars because I have really high expectations for JSF, and, honestly, this book isn’t extremely well organized. I think the topic of what we eat is probably the most important one in American society today, though, and the dialogue Foer creates is very representative of the arguments that smart people make in legitimate disagreement over the topic of eating animals.
I saw Foer read from this book at Powell’s last October, and the day after that was the last time I ate meat. For a long time I knew about the health and environmental issues of factory farming, but I really love hamburgers, so I thought I would just be really careful about where I bought meat. I realized, though, that I really do care how we treat each other and how we treat animals, and I was not
careful about where my meat came from. I became a vegetarian partly because it’s easier than having that mental dissonance, where I really care about all of the corruption and waste of the meat industry, but I set it aside because something tastes good. Other things taste good, too. It’s not worth the energy. I guess, the other part of why I became a vegetarian is that I forgot how to put up the mental walls between the human behavior that is so disgusting to me that is almost uniformly represented in the food industry and my condoning it by eating its products. The points that Foer read from this book in October just haunt me.
I don’t think that death is the worst thing, and so eating animals doesn’t horrify me because of the killing. I really get that other people do think that death is the worst thing, and I don’t necessarily think I’m right, but that’s the place I’m at in life. My friend pointed out how silly this is of me yesterday when he was asking why I love the movie True Romance
so much. I was talking about how wonderful I think it is, and then I was qualifying it by saying that the part between Christopher Walkins and Dennis Hopper is so racist and makes me really uncomfortable. So, my friend started laughing at me and was like, “So, you don’t care about the total disregard for human life, but it really gets to you that they’re being racist?” What can I say? Maybe someday all of the things I’m offended at will line up really neatly. As it is, obviously it would offend me a lot more in real life to see someone killed than to see someone be really unpleasant, but in movies the opposite is true.
Even then, even in real life, I think that pointless suffering, not death, is the worst thing. And when pointless suffering is knowingly caused by humans, I think it’s bad just for the suffering itself, but also because of what it means for the people causing the suffering. What have we done to ourselves? What have we made each other? There is a letter toward the end of this book, written by a slaughterhouse worker, that describes this slaughterhouse atrocity that is burned into my brain now in a way that I can only think to describe as a Skye O’Malley. But this is a real, true incident, that I’m glad was written because it needs to never happen again. The incident itself was purely sadistic, but writing about it was somehow Important in the way that confessions and justice are important. But also important because although this man is responsible for his own actions and atrocities, people who work in slaughterhouses, like the animals going through them, are some of the most vulnerable elements our society. Both Gandhi and Aristotle are attributed with saying something like, nations should be judged by how they treat the most vulnerable among them. By that standard of judgment, the U.S. is not passing.
One of the major themes in this book is about traditions surrounding food and the way it brings people together in this really wonderful way. I think Foer speaks about family, even humanity, in such a beautiful, nostalgic, and hopeful way that there is something worthwhile about his unique exploration of this topic. It is not a cold, moral topic. It is about our mothers and fathers in the kitchen and our children playing in the yard while we barbeque. But that doesn’t remove us from complicity in what goes on to get the food to the table. It doesn’t excuse us.
There were two points he made about that particularly, which really influenced my decision to become a veggie. I’m going to spoiler them a little bit and probably mangle them a lot, so skip over if you wish. Also, my friend made this homebrew oatmeal stout in honor of his daughter’s birth, and it and its progeny are slowly changing this review into a drunk review, so there’s a chance none of this will make sense anyway.
First, Americans choose to eat less than .25% of food on the planet. Millions of dogs and cats are euthanized every year and the bodies turned into food for our food. It makes no sense for us to eat cows, pigs, and chickens that have eaten dogs and cats, rather than for us to eat dogs and cats ourselves. The reason we do is that dogs and cats are “pets,” and cows, pigs, and chickens are . . . I don’t know. Food? But the intelligence and habits of the animal species are not different than each other. The animals we eat are as smart and social as the animals we refuse to eat. And the system of feeding meat to herbivores because we’ve decided that one species is okay for humans to eat and the others aren’t is so arbitrary and . . . well, gross. The thing that got me about this, though, which we all know is true but I hadn’t really looked in the face before, is that eating a hamburger made out of a cow is not different than eating a hamburger made out of one of my cats. And I really am offended by the idea of one of my cats living the lives that chickens or turkeys or pigs live in factory farms more than I’m offended by the idea of eating one of them. It is appalling! Animals should not be treated this way, and humans should not be in the position that they think it’s okay treat them this way.
Second, there’s a little bit of a How the Grinch Stole Christmas
quality to the book that really gets me. I saw Foer read right before Thanksgiving, and it turns out that the entire end of this book is about Thanksgiving. His main point, I think, is that we associate meat with these wonderful family traditions, but is that why the traditions are wonderful? Turkeys have been genetically mutated and pumped full of antibiotics to the point that they can’t breed, can’t fly, sometimes can’t even walk. Setting aside the fact that the first Thanksgiving didn’t even have a turkey, do we show our thanksgiving best by eating one of these birds or by abstaining from it? Do we show our love for each other by eating animals that have been bred to suffer?
If you want more details on what exactly all this is so appalling to me, I suggest you do read the book. Or, even watch Food, Inc.
, which is wonderful. And movies about the food industry are way more immediately powerful and entertaining than books. Sorry, JSF, but I honestly fell asleep a couple of times reading this book. Not in a way that means I didn’t like it, just in that way that I fall asleep to Blue Planet
or The Vertical Ray of the Sun
or the Documentary History of the United States. All wonderful works of art with magical sleep powers.
There’s one more point I want to make about this whole topic, and then I’ll leave you alone. It’s not my point, it’s the point of this girl who took JSF on his tour of factory farms. We make these justifications for the sense of taste that we make for no other sense. For example, if someone tortured a pig to death for a painting, we wouldn’t justify it in the way we justify torturing a pig to death for bacon. The girl says is, “Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to killing and eating it?” If we would die of hunger otherwise, that might be a difference, but there is a lot of evidence that says a vegetarian or vegan diet can be healthier than an omnivorous one, and none to say they lead to starvation. What I’m trying to say is on a scale of bad, death is not worse than pointless suffering. But why live on that scale at all?
I am so sorry to be proselytizing here. It’s totally unacceptable. Blame it on the oatmeal stout and progeny if you wish. Plus, you know how new converts are. Rabid (wrote “rabit” first. Typing equivalent of slurring my words). All I’m saying is this: people eat more meat now than they ever have in history. And the diseaseS propagated by meat, not to mention the antibiotics made useless because of overuse on animals, make the meat industry possibly the most dangerous instance of institutionalized terrorism that exists in America. Hi, FBI, no offense intended! Even if you (FBI readers included) cut back a little bit on the meat you eat, it makes a huge statement to the meat industry. I came to being a veggie after many years of just cutting back on the animals, and I’m still not a vegan. It’s so doable.
Anyway, my plan is that my next review not be about something totally horrifying. For my first week free from school, this week has been strangely scarring in the reading. I always hope that there are some things that people will not do just because why would you? But I guess the excessive and sometimes ridiculous laws have a purpose. When I get back to school maybe some kind of class action against factory farms for H1N1, MRSA, salmonella, e. coli, and other crimes against humanity? We’ll talk.