BY RITA BOOKE* If Jonathan Safran Foer pisses you off, it’s not him. It’s you. The release of Eating Animals had critics screaming louder than a stuck pig. Rather than critique the content of the book they shoot the messenger, it’s Safran Foer himself who gets the critiqued: He’s an arrogant, condescending, pampered, overeducated urbanite who’s not like us. You know, real people out there in flyover country. It was like Rush Limbaugh had infiltrated the Sunday paper’s arts section. In Eating Animals, Safran Foer presents eating animals as largely a moral dilemma. He was on-and-off vegetarian since at age nine he decided it just wasn’t nice to hurt animals.
The birth of his first child was the catalyst for his return to the green side and the three years of research that inform the book. He includes level-headed essays from cattle ranchers and PETA activists alike, and his own prose is thoughtful and painstakingly researched. Rather than attack or guilt-trip carnivores, Safran Foer actually bends over backwards to EMPATHIZE with meat eaters, arguing that it’s easier for us — himself included — to be lulled into a “brutal forgetting” of how that factory-farmed chicken spent its short, suffering life before it landed on our plate. Yes, he repeatedly reassures us, he understands it’s hard to not eat meat. First off, it tastes good. On a deeper level, we also lose a piece of our past and our cultural connections, when the flavor of grandma’s brisket or dad’s barbeque fades from memory. That’s a tough thing to say goodbye to. He gets it, OK? You’re not a bad person. Just be an informed eater, he says.
Yet the book (or more accurately, its author) is branded as “sanctimonious” and “self-involved” by The Washington Post, whose reviewer couldn’t resist the inclination to then sanctimoniously and self-involvedly add that he read “Eating Animals” while snarfing down some pork tacos. Now that’s some comedy gold for you. The New York Times’ critic asks “how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens … when malaria kills nearly a million people a year.” Plug in other variables into this goofy equation to see how it holds up: “I can’t spend my precious time on frivolities like helping the homeless — people somewhere are dying of malaria, for Christ’s sake!”
Here’s the thing: Just as Democrats aren’t death panel-lovin’, America-hatin’, grandma-killin’ socialists, vegetarians aren’t snooty, self-righteous, food fascists trying to take away your God-given right to hamburgers. (At least most of them … kidding!) And when it comes to the awesome human abilities of caring and empathy, we’re not one-trick ponies. We have the capacity to multitask. So if Safran Foer isn’t snarky or smug, why does he piss people off so much? Maybe because deep down, in the meat-fogged corners of their consciousness, they know he’s right. Understanding the consequences of our actions and making choices accordingly, after all, is pretty fucking daunting. But come on, even if you don’t give a shit about animals or don’t have the inclination to ponder this stuff, isn’t hating vegetarians so 1990s anyway? Seriously, this is 2010 — we have hipster cavemen.
*(aka JOANN LOVIGLIO)