- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 5, 2009


By Jonathan Safran Foer

Little Brown, $25.99, 341 pages

Reviewed by A.G. Gancarski

In “Eating Animals,” wunderkind Brooklyn, N.Y., author Jonathan Safran Foer has produced a part-time memoir that evolves into an argument against factory farming and the myriad social ills the practice has begotten in recent decades.

It is an ambitious project, three years in the writing, but not one that the gifted prose stylist is up to, unfortunately. The memoir material is interesting as far as it goes, but the arguments against carnivorism presented here are fairly warmed-over and familiar not only to anyone who has ever seriously considered adopting vegetarianism (or veganism), but to any graduate of a four-year liberal arts college.

The book takes its time getting there, but what emerges by the end of the narrative is a clumsy, forced linkage between animal rights issues and conventional liberalism - which strongly urges the reader to accept that animal rights is linked, ipso facto, to every issue in the Democratic platform. The effect is like nothing so much as college freshman orientation.

The book begins with some engaging slices of personal narrative. The reader is introduced to the author’s grandmother, who survived World War II by eating things that were unmentionable in polite conversation. Because of this, Mr. Foer surmises, she developed the ethos that a fat child was a healthy child. After a time, Grandmother’s best - indeed, only - meal was chicken with carrots. As the book progresses, the reader learns in great detail why the contemporary permutation of that meal would be wholly unacceptable to the author.

The problem, for Mr. Foer, is factory farming, which he estimates is the source of 99 percent of all animals consumed in this country. Appalling news, but the author insists upon credit for openmindedness, maintaining that the book is not a “straightforward case for vegetarianism.” Nevertheless, his use of a quote from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” - “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” - suggests that what is offered here, if not a “straightforward” case for abstention from meat consumption, indeed is an argument made on the slant.

This suggestion is borne out soon enough. The author attempts a Swiftian pastiche, making the case for Americans to eat dog, since the practice “isn’t a taboo in many places, and isn’t in any way bad for us.” This limp tribute to “A Modest Proposal” appeared in excerpted form on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and fell flat, in part, because the device itself is so transparent.

This ersatz provocation is a way for the author to demonstrate our need for a “better way to talk about eating animals,” which, theoretically, the book provides. But not in practice. What we receive in the next 200 pages is a screed against factory farming, predicated on a soupcon of first-hand research, and a compendium of arguments familiar to those who have seen the output of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals through the years. His descriptions of the brutality cows, pigs, chickens and fish are subject to thanks to the factory-farming racket are vivid and arresting.

But most literate people will agree that these arguments, shocking though they may seem to someone without real world experience, have a “been there, done that” quality. People know instinctively that factory farming is a brutal business and that abattoirs are pits of grisly finality. Still, the vast majority of us continues to eat meat.

The greatest problem with this book, beyond the marshaling of information that is already known to those who really care, is the book’s ultimate ideological bias. Mr. Foer’s insistence that the book is not a “straightforward case for vegetarianism” is contradicted by his revelation, near the narrative’s end, that he has been a vegetarian for some time now. An admirable personal choice, one this reviewer has made himself. But where the author goes too far - and tips his hand - is his overt linkage near the end of the animal rights movement to conveniently validated liberal causes from decades gone by.

“We have let the factory farm replace [traditional?] farming for the same reason our cultures have relegated minorities to being second-class members of society and kept women under the power of men,” he writes toward the end of the book, conflating the false authority of the “We” with a more passive and academic voice immediately. Never mind that our president is an ethnic minority and that many of the leaders of the world, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, are decidedly female. What the author chooses to do here is link a noble desire to see animals treated better to causes that are straight out of the left-liberal playbook.

Elsewhere, the author likens boycotting factory farms to the “Montgomery Bus Boycott,” an absurd analogy that does a grave disservice to the civil rights movement itself. In exposing his real agenda, Mr. Foer gives the reader insight into what kind of book this is. It is one for those who need assurance that they are making the “correct,” house-intellectual-approved dietary choices. Buy this book, and you are buying into the liberal agenda. Despite the solidity of certain arguments made here, and the indisputable nature of the facts marshaled at times, it is clear that the author believes that abstaining from factory farm flesh is part of a larger political agenda. The compelling issue of livestock welfare really deserves much better.

A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla.

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