Saturday, March 19, 2011

Meat is worth it. Book Review.

So I just finished reading this book by Jonathan Safran Foer. I am not even really sure why I read it, I usually hate these kinds of things, so why put myself through the torture? I guess I was just curious. After finishing it, I can definitely tell you that it wasn't quite convincing enough to make me a Vegan, but he had some good points that at least made me think about my relationship to my diet and the forces that are at play in the background. Most of his arguments are well framed and logical enough that it would be hard to disagree with any of the content. But, and this is a huge but, the writing style of this book made it a chore to get through. He marries a personal memoir with interviews and research about factory farming in a way that made it really difficult to stomach. Talking about the facts of factory farming gets a little over-emotional because of this, and it gets in the way of a reader really forming their own logical conclusion. At the end it takes a particularly bad turn as he concludes that factory farming isn't just a moral dilemma, but should be altogether illegal. He compares allowing your children to eat thanksgiving turkey with allowing your children to play with toys that have been painted with lead paint. It's not that I don't acknowledge any health risk with eating factory farmed animals, but putting the risk in those terms seems a little over the top, even after reading his compiled evidence.
To the writer's credit, certain arguments he made do make me want to eat less meat in general because of the almost inevitable support you lend to factory farming, which he argues is unsustainable in the long run and overly cruel to the animals. He also got me thinking for the first time about how all animals have different places in all cultures. It would be inhumane to beat a dog into its kennel in the U.S., but not in India where they eat the creature. Transversely, it would be awful to beat a cow in India, and in the U.S. we think of that as a common practice to control the animal. Cultural ideas about the animals generally outweigh logic.
Sadly, at the end of the book, Foer throws water on anyone thinking they can go away from the book thinking that they have learned to eat fewer factory farm animals. He takes a staunch "all or none" position, even dramatically framing the animal rights issue in the same context as slavery and the civil rights movement. He claims that Martin Luther King didn't tell people to only ride buses when it is inconvenient not to, he told them to boycott them all together. The half measure of eating less meat is simply not acceptable to the author. The conclusion is narrow and it seems unlikely that anyone would ever adopt it, and so it makes the reader feel like they have to either be part of the club or have missed the point completely. There is no leeway, and frankly, he just comes off as being bossy or preachy, although well-informed.
The book also has other bits and pieces that bothered me in numerous ways. I found myself either being disturbed at the poor ethics of the factory farming industry, or disturbed by the author's refusal to accept any practice as being ethical. To me, bolt guns on cows seems humane enough, and I can't think of a way to kill a cow more quickly with less pain. Foer certainly doesn't suggest an alternative, but is concerned that sometimes this doesn't completely do the job. I don't know of any method that would be full-proof. Also, he seems incredibly concerned with the castration of cattle, but never mentions whether his dog is castrated, or whether he supports spaying and neutering pets.
The language is particularly grating. Castration becomes "Mutilation". Genetic Engineering creates "Frankenstein Birds". Although I don't argue that these practices take place and may or may not be ethical or sustainable, the language places a sinister undertones on the facts. At one point he describes himself watching youtube videos of people hauling in big fish. He describes the scenes as men congratulating each other as if they had just cured cancer, while women in bikinis stare on admiringly. It annoyed me that the act of catching a fish had to be framed in his book as a typical, stupid American custom, like watching the super bowl or playing poker. Having grown up in Alaska and lucky enough to have a Dad to take me fishing, I never had a similar experience to the one he describes. I am aware that the practice is so much more than a bunch of jocular types on a boat. Painting the picture becomes more important than looking at the situation from all different angles.
Although I overwhelmingly had a negative experience with the book, I would recommend it to almost anybody. I learned a lot of information that I wasn't previously attuned to, and I think that sort of thing only usually happens when you let an extremest lay out their side for you in detail. And honestly, I never did disagree with the idea of eating less meat. It is even within my own religious it was good to have a modern understanding of why this belief is a positive one. If nothing else, reading Foer's book will make you consider your position and work to come up with your own narrative and logic to support it.

Stay tuned for my next book report on Jay-Z's "Decoded". Hahahahaha