Tom Scocca: Did they time this whole rollout around Jonathan Safran Foer's vegetarianism book so as to get the maximum number of semi-precocious 15-year-olds to ruin their family Thanksgiving dinners?
Choire Sicha: Well it may just be the need for a Hot New Nonfiction Airport Book for fall, as Malcolm Gladwell only had a "best of" book. And I think David Sedaris is off this year.
Tom Scocca: Nice of J.S. Foer to swing over from the fiction team to fill the gap.
Choire Sicha: He took one for the team.
Tom Scocca: My advice to young would-be reporters is to write a novel, because once you've written a book-length made-up story, you're qualified to write about any sort of factual business you please.
Tom Scocca: Though you do have to be able to get your novel published, which raises a bunch of (sorry) chicken-and-egg questions about how one gets connected enough to get connected.
Tom Scocca: But at any rate, on the strength of two novels and sundry other connections, Jonathan Safran Foer is now an ethical philosopher.
Tom Scocca: He appears to belong to the I-Know-You-Are-But-What-Am-I tradition.
Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about 'eating animals,' they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism. It's a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case.
Tom Scocca: Now suppose we change the subject of the book from vegetarianism to nudism.
Choire Sicha: That sounds neat!
Tom Scocca: I am writing a book inquiring into the justifications for the practice of wearing clothes.
Choire Sicha: Why? Do you hate clothes?
Choire Sicha: I bet you hate clothes!
Tom Scocca: See? You recognize that you secretly hate clothes yourself, and that the wearing of clothing is indefensible. That is why you assume that I am writing my book in favor of nudism, rather than against nudism.
Choire Sicha: Well that would be my, you know, whattaya call it. Suspicion!
Tom Scocca: Does that possibly have anything to do with the fact that most people in most cultures all over the world wear clothing, with only minimal qualms if any about doing so?
Choire Sicha: My expectations are that most people either enjoy clothing or at least do not find clothing objectionable.
Tom Scocca: It is a funny way to ground an inquiry into behavior, this starting from the premise that the majority of people agree that the behavior is wrong, even though the majority of people engage in it.
Choire Sicha: Maybe everyone* has just been ruined by Christopher Hitchens books?
Choire Sicha: *that Jonathan Safran Foer knows.
Tom Scocca: That is an important footnote.
Choire Sicha: Well it always is. It's not like I'm a great pulse-taker of North Carolinian pig farmers or whatever.
Choire Sicha: JSF, having done some hog farm traveling, is probably slightly better off in that department!
Tom Scocca: Yet the hog farms present a whole different problem.
Choire Sicha: But they caused swine flu!
Choire Sicha: That is what JSF said on the Ellen DeGeneres TV show.
Tom Scocca: Foer is very bothered–and wants the reader to be very bothered–by the hideous quantities of untreated sewage that these hog factories produce.
Choire Sicha: I am bothered by those!
Tom Scocca: Natalie Portman was so bothered by reading it, she switched from vegetarian to vegan activist. and is now hectoring her friends to do the same. And the readership of the Huffington Post.
Choire Sicha: Well, it's not a terrible choice, all told! If you really like legumes.
Choire Sicha: And also becoming uninvitable to dinner.
Tom Scocca: But if the hogs are producing as much sewage as major cities, why do hog farms not have municipal-grade sewage-treatment plants attached?
Choire Sicha: I don't know, why!
Tom Scocca: We can probably come up with an answer involving inertia, the creeping innovations of megacapitalism, legislative cowardice, and so on.
Tom Scocca: It seems quite reasonable that they should treat their sewage. I support it wholeheartedly.
Tom Scocca: But what does that have to do with the question of whether humans should eat the flesh (or organs! I do love scrapple) of other animals?
Tom Scocca: Factory farming is disgusting and evil and should be fought.
Choire Sicha: Perhaps they are temporary vegans. Just until the farms are, like, better.
Tom Scocca: That seems not to be the case.
Choire Sicha: One plate of free-range bacon would fix most of them.
Tom Scocca: It is as if an author arguing for nudism were to devote much of his book to an expose of clothing sweatshops.
Tom Scocca: Or it is like the Spartacist Youth Club denouncing the Ku Klux Klan. Or the LaRouchies showing up at the antiwar rallies.
Choire Sicha: He's said that he wants people to "to think, to investigate, to question what's at the end of the fork before putting it in your mouth."
Tom Scocca: And yet he is against Michael Pollan.
Choire Sicha: That's where I get confused as well!
Tom Scocca: In Foer's analysis, that is because you and I are blinded by our sentimental attachment to meat, which is a sentimental attachment to murder, because Meat Is Murder. Q.E.D.
Tom Scocca: Again, it's a pretty bold tactic for the person arguing against eating meat to accuse the meat-eaters (including the non-argumentative ones!) of sentimentalism.
Tom Scocca: And it was pretty telling when he personalized it.
Tom Scocca: Setting aside the incredible condescension toward his grandmother, and by extension toward all peoples of the earth who have not been properly socialized to the most right-thinking norms of 21st-century collegiate-literary Brooklyn.
Tom Scocca: I was even more struck by this, about when a babysitter told him and his brother that chicken came from poor little chickens:
Tom Scocca: I put down my fork. Frank finished the meal and is probably eating a chicken as I type these words.
Choire Sicha: Ha! I think that's actually pretty funny.
Tom Scocca: Sure! Jonathan Foer is not a bad writer, at the level of putting words and sentences together, and he is clever about putting nice things in the foreground. It's down below, where the ideas and values have to go, that things get awkward and ugly.
Choire Sicha: I did get stuck at "The greatest chef who ever lived wasn't preparing food, but humans."
Tom Scocca: This needs to get a little ad hominem, because this is all about a particular homme inflating his own decisions into ethical pronouncements, at the expense of other people. Including his brother. So let's have a look at the Brothers Foer, here.
Tom Scocca: One brother cares deeply about the chicken. He cannot ignore moral issues.
Tom Scocca: The other brother is callous.
Tom Scocca: Now. One brother is Franklin Foer, editor of the New Republic.
Tom Scocca: I make fun of the New Republic a lot, and it deserves a lot of it, though less so under Foer than under Peter Beinart.
Tom Scocca: [DISCLOSURE: PETER BEINART COLD-CALLED ME TO INVITE ME TO INTERVIEW FOR A JOB THERE, THEN AFTER THE INTERVIEW HAD AN UNDERLING CALL ME TO TELL ME THEY WERE HIRING SOMEONE ELSE.]
Tom Scocca: But though the New Republic is over-serious and self-serious at times, it is nevertheless serious. What Franklin Foer does for a living is to weigh great global issues of war and peace, prosperity and poverty, etc., and to try to give voice to people who are trying to address those issues and influence policy, in ways that might make the difference between millions of people dying and hundreds of millions of people dying.
Tom Scocca: What Jonathan Foer does for a living is sit around and write twee lit-fic.
Choire Sicha: Well. Very laboriously!
Choire Sicha: I have a Foer brother sidebar?
Choire Sicha: Remember when Joshua Foer got an advance of $1.2 million for his book, "Moonwalking with Einstein"? That was in late 2006. That book is currently listed on Amazon with a pub date of "Dec 31, 2025."
Choire Sicha: Wouldn't that be wonderful? I am jealous.
Choire Sicha: Anyway, back to those two other Foers!
Tom Scocca: Gosh, yes.
Tom Scocca: So I have trouble digesting an anecdote which is designed to showcase Jonathan Safran Foer as the one of the two who is the more serious thinker about ethics or about the way the world should be.
Choire Sicha: Well, he's always been obsessed to the point of self-demolition with the evils of the world.
Choire Sicha: This is a not-unreasonable quality.
Choire Sicha: And I think this is him actually finally trying to grapple with it.
Choire Sicha: Instead of being paralyzed by it. Because paralysis is something that is natural to him. He's a very anxious critter!
Tom Scocca: Maybe he should have done a little more grappling before he wrote a book.
Choire Sicha: One thing I'm pretty sure of: their kids are going to be sneaking off all through high school to Keens Steakhouse at every opportunity.
Tom Scocca: It's not a very interesting arc of moral inquiry: am I right? Am I really right? Are people who disagree with me really wrong? Why, yes, I am right, and other people are wrong.
Tom Scocca: Oh, the children. That also bugged me.
Tom Scocca: He's going vegetarian now because, how did he put it?
Tom Scocca: The shame of parenthood – which is a good shame – is that we want our children to be more whole than we are, to have satisfactory answers. My children not only inspired me to reconsider what kind of eating animal I would be, but also shamed me into reconsideration.
Choire Sicha: That confused me! But then I don't know anything about parenthood.
Tom Scocca: Here parenthood seems to be a process in which a person who has spent 20 or 30 years perfecting the art of being a child decides it's his child's duty to start off life from that point of perfection.
Tom Scocca: I don't want my child to be more whole than I am.
Tom Scocca: In some sort of endless process of improvement of the line.
Tom Scocca: I just want him to hang in there.
Choire Sicha: Do you think about the meat you put in it?
Tom Scocca: And not to have contempt–loving, delicately hedged, anxious contempt–for his grandparents and great-grandparents.
Choire Sicha: I also did not get the contempt thing for his grandmother?
Tom Scocca: Well, she's wrong and he's right.
Tom Scocca: I don't see how to un-split that.
Choire Sicha: Well some of my grandparents were probably wrong about the blacks!?
Choire Sicha: But that's not equivalent.
Tom Scocca: Right. His grandmother is still serving chicken.
Choire Sicha: I think he respects her greatly though!? But she is still wrong.
Tom Scocca: Well, he likes his brother, too! But he's inciting Natalie Portman against him.
Choire Sicha: Well you know how SHE gets! She's a monster!
Choire Sicha: (Kidding! Don't hurt me everyone!)
Tom Scocca: Well, I fed the kid stir-fried chopped green beans with ground pork and salted duck eggs yesterday.
Choire Sicha: Oh you're the monster!
Tom Scocca: The ground pork was from Whole Foods, for whatever marginal upward pressure that puts on the standards of the meat industry, even at the cost of empowering a rich Ayn Rand nut to meddle in our political system. There are ethical decisions everywhere.
Choire Sicha: Yeah, I did stop shopping there actually, as an ethical decision, despite other good things about that company.
Tom Scocca: And when we leaf through his big book of animal pictures, I point out which ones we've eaten.
Choire Sicha: Ha! "That's a capybara; it's tasty!"
Tom Scocca: I put off shopping at Whole Foods for a little while, and started steering more dollars to the farmers' market, but Whole Foods does have good meat. And when that whole business about the ammonia-treated meat slurry in the industrial beef chain showed up in the Times, I dropped any trace of reluctance.
Tom Scocca: But you and I have different available shopping options, so the cost and benefit of dealing with Whole Foods is different for each of us.
Tom Scocca: And that's fine.
Choire Sicha: Yes!
Tom Scocca: I'm not going to write a book about what a self-righteous asshole your shopping habits reveal you to be.
Choire Sicha: I have RADICALLY different food choices from you.
Choire Sicha: As I live ever so much closer to Park Slope than you.
Tom Scocca: Everyone has principles! I try not to go to Starbucks, and when I do end up having to go to Starbucks, I don't buy their coffee.
Choire Sicha: And everyone has availability. For instance, I can go up and be lectured by those damned sanctimonious brothers at Blue Hill anytime I feel like losing a week's pay on a product that is literally going to be crap in 12 hours.
Tom Scocca: Starbucks used its market power to buy out a much better coffee chain in Boston, then broke its word about keeping that better coffee available. I resented Starbucks for that, and I felt it represented the great dishonesty of consumer capitalism run amok: the allegedly all-knowing free market allowed bad coffee to replace good coffee, and there was nothing customers could do about it, except quietly hate Starbucks.
Tom Scocca: But if you say, hey, let's meet up at Starbucks, that's fine. I'm not going to lecture anybody about anything. They're convenient!
Choire Sicha: But there's a difference between issues of choice–often I am in a town with no decent coffee, the best coffee is Starbucks, though I would rather not–and issues that give rise to abstinence.
Choire Sicha: But I don't know. I guess I appreciate that JSF treats this as a personal issue. For instance, I won't eat ducks. I think they are pretty and I can't eat them.
Choire Sicha: But I ate the holy fuck out of some quail last night.
Tom Scocca: Again, though, if it's a personal issue, why is there a book about it? Michael Pollan is trying to work through the answers for people other than himself. Foer is saying, well, do whatever you want, though in your heart, you know that what you're doing is wrong and indefensible.
Choire Sicha: I think that has to be true. The book seems to be: "I have figured out this is wrong."
Choire Sicha: Not like Pollan, which was: "You are eating like shit!"
Tom Scocca: And let's talk for a second about other ethical lifestyle choices a person makes.
Choire Sicha: Uh oh.
Choire Sicha: Is it.. breeding???
Tom Scocca: Yes!
Choire Sicha: Oh I'm always game to go to town on this.
Tom Scocca: He is passing his righteous vegetarian values on to his two children.
Tom Scocca: Now, I'm not personally going to get high and mighty. I've got one kid, for now, and who knows what the future holds.
Choire Sicha: DON'T SAY THAT.
Choire Sicha: I'm getting you snipped.
Tom Scocca: See? This issue arouses passions.
Tom Scocca: Once you are arguing about greater ethical effects of your household practices, the breeding is a valid subject.
Choire Sicha: Oh it's always valid.
Choire Sicha: Because I have to walk the streets of this world while I dart about, looking for meat to consume.
Tom Scocca: Well, you're also gonna need somebody to change your bedpan. And pay taxes into your Medicare. And good luck finding any immigrants, the way policy is going!
Choire Sicha: Whereas your hog shit pits and your dinner? Not in my face.
Choire Sicha: That is true.
Choire Sicha: Please to make me some dependents.
Tom Scocca: But overall, there is a lot of overlap between the people who argue that meat-eating consumes an unjustifiably disproportionate share of the world's resources and the people who argue that breeding does exactly the same thing.
Choire Sicha: I think Andrea Dworkin and I ended up there!
Tom Scocca: So it would be more interesting to see Jonathan Safran Foer defending his decision to breed than to see him defending his decision to stop eating meat.
Tom Scocca: Or we could consider real estate!
Choire Sicha: Which is theft, as I recall from the 80s.
Tom Scocca: Jonathan Safran Foer lives in a very large house in an urban neighborhood. Apparently his back yard runs the length of a block and is big enough to hold a whole extra house.
Tom Scocca: He has the kind of house that is frequently subdivided into apartments.
Tom Scocca: It is 7,000 square feet.
Choire Sicha: Well, that's about what I'd want for two kids.
Tom Scocca: So he and his family are taking up housing that could hold another five or six households.
Choire Sicha: Though to be fair to your point: even the Pulitzer Mansion was divided into apartments in the 1930s.
Tom Scocca: Because people needed the living space!
Choire Sicha: Well there are always thorny issues of choice in my mind. People don't need to live in Brooklyn! They can go to, I don't know, wherever poor people go now.
Tom Scocca: And this house of Foer's is in a city center, where transit and other density-promoting amenities are available.
Choire Sicha: My carping aside: I think his real estate choices would be ethically troublesome for me, by which I mean, were I him.
Tom Scocca: So five or six families who would otherwise live in the middle of Brooklyn are forced to live further out, which forces other people to live further out, which eventually leads to five or six families settling in crappy townhouses or garden apartments out on the edge of things, in land previously occupied by birds and rabbits, from which they have to travel by fossil-fuel-burning car.
Tom Scocca: All because Jonathan Safran Foer has some vain fantasy of being a "city person" which he insists on clinging to, even as he demands a living space (for his growing family) more consistent with living on a rural manor.
Choire Sicha: Or those people could take the train! Which is, you know, subsidized by the state. Which is to say, taxes.
Choire Sicha: But… yeah.
Tom Scocca: At some point, they've sprawled past the reach of the train.
Tom Scocca: And Natalie Portman!
Choire Sicha: Wait. She has to take the train?
Tom Scocca: You and I could eat at Keens every day for the rest of our lives, and we would not do even a measurable fraction of the damage wrought on the planet by three Star Wars movies' worth of plastic merchandise.
Tom Scocca: And they weren't even good movies.
Choire Sicha: Yeah but I think she sends that money to like Africa or something.
Choire Sicha: Though also to her representatives at ID PR.
Choire Sicha: For a monthly fee that is easily double the monthly rent that you and I pay. But!
Tom Scocca: Well, she makes her choices.
Tom Scocca: But if she's choosing to be a "vegan activist," well, then she's getting prescriptive, and there are other prescriptions to consider.
Tom Scocca: And speaking of lifestyle decisions and Foer's readers, someone at the New Yorker really should have stopped Elizabeth Kolbert from identifying herself in print as yet another chicken-owning staff ladywriter.
Choire Sicha: Ha! That is going around.
Choire Sicha: Well. Ethics. These friends of mine in brownstone Brooklyn have a saying, that resulted from a heated conversation at a dinner party about Iraq and Armenia and Sarajevo and whatever, a conversation that was interrupted and finally terminated by a woman yelling, "WHAT ABOUT THE KURDS!"
Choire Sicha: So now whenever I am in one of these comparable ethics situations, I just scream "WHAT ABOUT THE KURDS!" and then I get to walk away.
Tom Scocca: Or in this case, "WHAT ABOUT THE BEES?"
Choire Sicha: Yeah what the fuck! Remember when everyone cared about the bees for five minutes?
Tom Scocca: Colony-collapse disorder should have finished off veganism as an ethical proposition. Though Elizabeth Kolbert herself didn't quite remember it in her own Foer review.
Tom Scocca: Your vegetables are pollinated by animal slaves being worked to death.
Tom Scocca: The life of an industrial bee colony is far more of a cruel perversion of its natural way of life than the life of a free-range chicken is.
Tom Scocca: There isn't any opt-out.
Choire Sicha: Well aren't YOU a bummer.
Tom Scocca: You are what you eat!
Choire Sicha: Well. I think I'm going to get a sandwich. Which is intensely problematic here in the East Village on a few levels.
Tom Scocca: Maybe I'll dig out some leftovers.
Choire Sicha: Do you think the lobsters at Luke's Lobster Shack died happy?
Tom Scocca: Happier than the ones who died out at sea died?
Choire Sicha: I don't know why I eat those disgusting sea spiders anyway. But that's not ethics; that's just being ruined by "civilization."
Tom Scocca: David Foster Wallace thought pretty hard about it.
Choire Sicha: Well he ended up fine.
Tom Scocca: From a prescriptive-ethics standpoint, he did. No more chickens are dying for him.
Choire Sicha: I would like to be an absolutist. But here I am in my clothes made by slaves and whatnot, heading out to look for something that isn't made of animals that were tortured before they became food product. So I think I'm not going to become a vegan!
Tom Scocca: Because why pretend your work is done?
Tom Scocca: It's a full-time job, ethics.
Choire Sicha: And then you die.
Tom Scocca: And try not to leach too much formaldehyde into the soil when you're done.