Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer, and the bigger picture

I had hoped to be moving on from Michael Pollan’s comments on Eating Animals by now, but after I finished composing my last post, I realized that the situation nicely demonstrated a point that I consider important. So I’m back with at least one more post about Foer. At least this post will make a different point.

In the Huffington Post interview, Pollan said, “Well, look, nobody is anti-meat enough for the animal-rights purists, except for someone who says that eating meat is morally indefensible.” There’s probably some degree of truth to this statement. I’m willing to believe that there are animal rights activists who won’t be satisfied with any book that doesn’t condemn meat-eating in absolute terms.

What I think Pollan’s comment lacks, though, is a bit of context. Not all vegetarians are “animal-rights purists.” More importantly, it isn’t just the purists who have criticized Pollan’s stance on vegetarianism.

As evidence, I’d point to the receptions that The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eating Animals have received within the vegetarian community. Although it’s true that Foer comes away from his research as a vegetarian, he certainly doesn’t say that eating meat is morally indefensible. He even calls his book is “an argument for another, wiser animal agriculture and more honorable omnivory” (244).  If vegetarian criticism of Pollan were rooted exclusively in objections to his condoning meat eating, than we’d expect the vegetarians who were frustrated with Pollan to have similar criticisms of Foer.

I don’t think that’s the way things have gone. VegNews Magazine’s review of Eating Animals called Foer “the antidote (and perhaps heir apparent) to Michael Pollan” and described him as “Pollan-esque without the disingenuousness.” At Vegan.com, Erik Marcus wrote that The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a “flawed masterpiece,” but that Eating Animals was “legitimately a masterpiece.”

At least some of the vegetarian criticism of Pollan, then, can’t be explained away by objections to his condoning meat eating in some form. The difference in the way that the two books were received might be explained in part by the fact that Foer makes an argument for vegetarianism, but I think it should not be overlooked that The Omnivore’s Dilemma presents an argument against vegetarianism.  I’ll look at that argument much more closely later, but for now I’ll just say that Pollan doesn’t seem to take the discussion very seriously, even if he devotes a long chapter of his book to it. Early in the discussion he suggests that the spread of vegetarianism might be a product of “the breeze of fashion” (306); he later expresses pity for the “tofu eater” because “Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris” (362). His dismissiveness persists to the present day, most recently exemplified by his review of Eating Animals that showed precious little evidence of his having read Foer’s book.

Pollan suggests that vegetarians won’t be happy unless he unconditionally denounces meat-eating, but I think many vegetarians would give him more credit if he’d engage their ideas more respectfully. And even if there are some “animal-rights purists” who won’t be satisfied until Pollan champions their cause, that doesn’t invalidate the criticisms of those who want him to stop slamming the door in their faces.

1 Comment »

  1. Molly said

    Bravo – well said.

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