Eating and Forgetting

You can stop reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma after Pollan stops writing about corn. That’s more or less the recommendation of B.R. Myers writing in the Atlantic.

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.

Every chance Pollan has to do the real thinking about his choices – undeniably ethical choices about humane treatment of factory workers and animals – he either throws his hands up or obfuscates.

Safran pulls this out for further digesting, and I’ll do the same because I encounter it much more often now that I’m a few years into my vegetarian diet.

 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.

Myers continues by giving a particularly clear example from The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

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.

How arrogant, in other words, how pitifully close to mental illness, to want to be a better person! But this is where the Christian and the gourmet part ways.

If it takes you a few reads to understand what Pollan means, do not be alarmed. If you doubt yourself, give the audio book version of The Omnivore’s Dilemma a quick whirl and you will be simultaneously bored and threatened by the stiff-jawed, urbane and undeniably elitist tone of his work (and the choice of narrator).

Safran also tackles Pollan’s bad breed of logic with this:

There is one other rule to this game: never, absolutely never, emphasize that virtually all of the time one’s choice is between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals.

You cannot be an environmentalist or hold any ground on ethical issues and continue to eat meat.

Some particularly thoughtless moral explorers attempt to navigate this issue through hunting, which Pollan does in his book.

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?”

But Pollan does eat it, and ‘does right’ by the animal by cooking it in pretentious foodie fashion and chewing it a whole lot to experience the pleasure of the animal in his mouth.

If Pollan were at all serious about this dilemma, we should expect a protracted ethical hand-wringing and a pleading for understanding. And you would have to conclude that there were severe moral problems with eating meat under any circumstances, let alone in the ubiquity of today’s factory farmed meat. Not thinking about it is still making a decision, and a worse one that with actually engaging the issue.

And Pollan’s final act of pitiable argumentation comes from not wanting to be a bad house guest (i.e. informing the host that you don’t eat meat so maybe have something not cooked in lard just to be safe?). Because, he says, the French consider it rude to have personal dietary restrictions. Well piff-paw and gfshhaw. If Pollan can make this cavalier announcement about how rude it is to have a personal set of ethics, I will provide my own method of handling house parties. I don’t make a habit of announcing my vegetarianism. Does this make me a poor guest? Probably, and yes, sometimes it’s isolating. But, we’ll get to the sometimes. If my vegetarianism is foreshadowed by others, or known already by the host, I am embarassed but thankful and charitable in kind – in the kitchen helping, offering immediately to clean. When I am fully unannounced, I usually only miss out on a main course and maybe one side dish, but still enjoy a good meal.

I prefer utter secrecy though. If we want to talk about an Omnivore’s Dilemma, let me recount the number of parties where I’ve grimly munched forsaken raw veggie platters and put my host in a shameful spotlight for their inability to fathom keeping lard, suet or grease out of even one item on their spread. I’d rather put off an unimaginative host who can’t concieve of the other choices omnivores have.  Usually a thoughtless (and obese) mid-Western type who’s idea of cooking involves bits of bacon or broth or some other casual usage of flesh, and not sparing them in even a single side dish.

Does this make me a poor guest? Definitely. But I think it says something much worse about the host.

It’s taken me a few months to actually get to this post. I finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma some time in July. Part of why it took me so long, and would take anyone so long, is that Pollan doesn’t really do much with the implication of his title. Usually dilemmas have more than one mutually valid contention that the dilemma parser has to wrestle with. Pollan gives up on this. It took me re-reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals which, for all its new post-modernist offenses, at least plays out some of the really hard thinking on the issue. That’s where the forgetting argument comes from. Pollan chooses to forget (by not even discussing) the horrors he’s seen or heard about in the factory farming system. And his argument for humanely raised meat ultimately drives up the demand for all meat (essentially, all meant means factory meat) – since not everyone can afford Pollan’s palate. When you can’t afford the steaks of the gauchos of the Argentinian Altiplano, you settle for Outback and just forget you ever wanted that thing you can’t have.

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