In a version of this alert I sent out moments ago, I flipped an attribution and accidentally suggested a comment by Myers had been made by Pollan. Please read or forward this version instead (or as well.) Thanks Matt (of www.veganoutreach.org) !
The current Atlantic Monthly magazine, September 2007, includes a fascinating review of or commentary on Michael Pollan's book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma." I found the Omnivore's Dilemma to be a delightfully written expose of modern food systems with superb chapters on factory farming. What disturbed many of us is that Pollan dismisses vegetarianism without ever adequately explaining why. We therefore welcome the commentary by another wonderful writer, B.R. Myers, in the Atlantic Monthly. Unfortunately only the first few paragraphs of the article are available on line to non subscribers. It and a few past articles by Myers in the magazine were enough to finally make me subscribe. I recommend you at least pick up the September copy, and I will tell you a little about the article here.
Myers's article is headed, "Hard to Swallow -- The gourmets ongoing failure to think in moral terms."
"For centuries civilized society took a dim view of food lovers, calling them 'gourmands' and 'gluttons' and placing them on a moral par with lechers. They were even assigned their own place in hell, and I dont mean a table near the kitchen: They were to be force-fed for eternity. Not until halfway through the Industrial Revolution did the word gourmet come into use. Those who have since applied it to themselves have done a fine job of converting the worlds scorn to respect. The pleasures of the oral cavity (though we must say 'palate' instead) are now widely regarded as more important, more intrinsically moral, and a more vital part of civilized tradition than any other pleasures. People who think nothing of saying 'I'm not much of a reader' will grow shamefaced when admitting an ignorance of wine or haute cuisine. Some recent movies have even tried to turn banquets into heroic affairs. Advertising has abetted the trend, while political correctness, with its horror of judg
ing anyones 'lifestyle choices,' has done its bit to muffle dissent.
"The sexual revolution went faster than this but not as far, which is why we can still call someone a lecher. Our common language no longer has a pejorative for those who live to eat."
Myers notes, "The idolatry of food cuts across class lines. This can be seen in the publics toleration of a level of cruelty in meat production that it would tolerate nowhere else. If someone inflicts pain on an animal for visual, aural, or sexual gratification, we consider him a monster, and the law makes at least a token effort at punishment. If someone's goal is to put the 'product' in his mouth? Chacun à son goût."
He writes, "Still, people are more concerned about animal welfare than they used to be." He notes, however, "But some things cannot be produced humanely..." and continues:
"Literate opinion therefore suggests that a few dishes should simply be done without. This is where the serious food lover draws the line. 'I detect a backlash among fed up gourmands,' the editor of Best Food Writing 2006 notes with approval,' who refuse to renounce foie gras and caviar just because they are produced by less-than-noble methods.' (That just because says it all.)' The backlash takes the form of pieces like Julie Powells essay 'Lobster Killer,' which the anthology's editor found 'hilarious.'"
Myers quotes from Powell's piece:
"People say lobsters make a terrible racket in the pot, tryingreasonably enoughto claw their way out of the water. I wouldn't know. I spent the next twenty minutes watching a golf game on the TV with the volume turned up When I ventured back into the kitchen, the lobsters were very red, and not making any racket at all Poor little beasties."
And Myers's comments:
"Zoologists have recently discounted the notion that lobsters feel no pain when boiled alive. The gourmets' response is to giggle at the plight of the 'beasties' in the hope that others will follow suit. (With comparable tastelessness, a piece on foie gras in the anthology is titled 'Stuffed Animals.') But when asked to laugh at the suffering of a living thing, or to drown out a moral compunction by turning up the TV, the American meat eater begins to sense that his values are not so far from the vegetarians after all. If food writers want to show what 'a perverse attachment to certain goods' looks like, they are going about it in just the right way."
Then Myers explores the work of Michael Pollan:
"This brings me to a would-be exception: Michael Pollan, the New York Times Magazine writer whose best-seller The Omnivores Dilemma has just been published in paperback. In the first seven chapters, Pollan writes of the role of corn in American life in such an improbably thrilling manner that I have to recommend the book despite my reservations about the rest of it....
After this, though, Pollan moves on to explore what he calls the 'moral and psychological implications' of killing and eating animals. The phrase shows at once where he is headed; the reason those adjectives are so often yoked in contemporary American English is that the second swallows up the first. A moral opposition to the majoritys way of doing things can thus be more easily treated, as it was in the Soviet Union, as a mental- health problem...."
Myers quotes Pollan who writes of a national eating disorder resulting from so many confusing choices, but Myers asks,
"Is our national eating disorder really a matter of people pacing supermarket aisles in an agony of indecision? Or do we perhaps feel too little anxiety about what we eat?"
"Pivotal to the book is Pollans claim that our omnivorousness has done much to shape our nature, both body (we possess the omnicompetent teeth and jaws of the omnivore, equally well suited to tearing meat and grinding seeds) and soul.
"One might as well describe man the way the anthropologist Ernest Becker did, as a digestive tract with teeth at one end and an anus at the other, and claim that the soul is shaped out of that. In which case, I dont want one. But most of us use soul to mean the part of humanness that is not shaped out of that. In contrast to the fearless Becker, Pollan thinks that taking a hard look at human nature is more a matter of leaning over the museum rail at the caveman exhibit. Seeing only the painted mammoth on the horizon, so to speak, he derives the rightness of meat eating from the fact that humans are physically suited to it, they enjoy it, and they have engaged in it until modern times without feeling much 'ethical heartburn.' (Only a food writer would use such an appalling phrase.) According to Pollan, this 'reality' demands our respect. The same reasoning could be used to defend our mistreatment of children: In body and instinct, we are marvelously well-equipped for making t
heir lives hell. If many cultures now object to abusing them, it is thanks to new values, to people who refused to respect the time-honored 'reality.'
"But by reducing mans moral nature to an extension of our instincts, Pollan is free to present his appetite as a sort of moral-o-meter, the final authority for judging the rightness of all things culinary. He shoots a wild pig, for example, hugely enjoying the experience. We even get a spiel about how hunting makes people face the inevitability of their own death. (Psychologists have long asserted the opposite: As Otto Rank put it, and in words relevant to meat eating in general, 'the death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other.') Ah, but then Pollan sees a photo of himself leering over the corpse and feels bad. So is killing pigs right or wrong? Or as he puts it, 'What if it turned out I couldn't eat this meat?'
"Spoiler alert: He could. ..."
Myers notes Pollan's superb chapters on factory farming. But Myers comments:
"The wrongness of factory farming thus established, Pollan heads off to an idyllic farm in Virginia, 'a scene of almost classic pastoral beauty.' For all its relevance to the big picture of American meat production, it might as well have been a place where animals get to die of old age. But gourmets love to preach the benefits of organic fare to the country at large, feigning a childs ignorance of economics all the while; it is the only way they can pass off their pursuit of pleasure as a social conscience."
On that farm, Pollan kills some chickens. Myers writes:
"When Pollan finally cooks a chicken for a few friends, the moral-o-meters reading is conclusive: The meal is 'out of this world.' The only complication is the presence of his friends' son Matthew, 'fifteen and currently a vegetarian,' who 'had many more questions about killing chickens than I thought wise to answer at the dinner table.' Of course! But doesn't Pollan say in his introduction that the pleasures of eating are 'only deepened by knowing'? And if it is so natural to kill and eat animals, and so sentimental to think otherwise, why is the vegetarian the only one who can stomach the details? Pollan cant be bothered telling us why Matthew became a vegetarian. We are clearly meant to take it for a mere teenage phase, nothing a restriction of his options won't cure: 'He confined himself to the corn.'"
Myers also discusses a section of the book in which Pollan shares some of Peter Singer's reasoning in favor of vegetarianism. Myers writes:
"Though Singers reasoning may be inexorable, Pollans appetite is unimpressed."
And Myers shares Pollan's reasoning:
"I put down my fork. If I believe in equality, and equality is based on interests rather than characteristics, then either I have to take the steers interest into account or accept that Im a speciesist.
"'For the time being, I decided, I'll plead guilty as charged. I finished my steak."
Then Myers comments on it:
"This spurious show of open-mindedness recalls Hans Küng, the Swiss theologian who uses a comparable technique when defending Christianity against secular critics. The similarity is not surprising, considering that our dietary and religious habits are both acquired in early childhood, which makes them hard to break no matter what we learn in later life. The Pollan-Küng Technique goes like this: One debates the other side in a rational manner until pushed into a corner. Then one simply drops the argument and slips away, pretending that one has not fallen short of reason but instead transcended it. The irreconcilability of one's belief with reason is then held up as a great mystery, the humble readiness to live with which puts one above lesser minds and their cheap certainties. As Pollan writes:
"'I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris.'"
And Myers comments:
"How arrogant, in other words, how pitifully close to mental illness, to want to be a better person!"
Myers is a wonderful thinker and writer, and I have given only a short synopsis of a review well worth picking up and reading. I was delighted that Myers acknowledged the excellence of Pollan's book, while still challenging some of Pollan's thinking. And as reviews in almost every other publication have commended Pollan's work without challenging it, I was thrilled to see this well-considered piece in the Atlantic Monthly.
I know that not everybody on this list is vegetarian, and some people will be more comfortable with Pollan's than Myers's thinking. It is for each of us to look at our own behavior and decide whether we believe it reflects our values. For many of us that examination leads to vegetarianism, a thoroughly reasonable, logical and increasingly popular choice regardless of Michael Pollan's opinion of it. If that is your choice, please send a letter of support to the Atlantic, praising B.R. Myers's unusual review of "The Omnivore's Dilemma."
You'll find the first few paragraphs of the review on line at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200709/omnivore
And you can send a letter to the editor at: http://www.theatlantic.com/a/submissions.mhtml#Form
Remember that shorter letters are more likely to be published. And please be sure not to use any comments or phrases from me or from any other alerts in your letters. Editors are looking for original responses from their readers.
Yours and the animals',
(DawnWatch is an animal advocacy media watch that looks at animal issues in the media and facilitates one-click responses to the relevant media outlets. You can learn more about it, and sign up for alerts at http://www.DawnWatch.com. You may forward or reprint DawnWatch alerts if you do so unedited -- leave DawnWatch in the title and include this parenthesized tag line. If somebody forwards DawnWatch alerts to you, which you enjoy, please help the list grow by signing up. It is free.)
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Date: Sun Aug 26 16:57:14 2007
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