Friday, May 23, 2014

Foer and Chipotle Partner to Make Eating Animals a More Pleasurable Experience

It's been a while since I've thought of Jonathan Safran Foer. He last came up in a discussion a few years ago when I had been corresponding about animal ethics with a Jewish cultural anthropologist. My acquaintance had expressed that as long as 1) he "knew" that another animal had received periodic chin scritches while being raised for slaughter, and that 2) as long as most of his dining on animal products revolved around "parts otherwise wasted" (e.g. he would go to pricey restaurants to feast upon a pig's roasted tail or on calf brains, for instance), he felt that he was doing his "bit" to be an ethical eater. He was a huge fan of Michael Pollan's and of the whole "nose-to-tail" part of the slow food movement. He was also a lover of Jonathan Safran Foer's work, whether fiction or non-fiction.

Though always respectful, our discussions became increasingly heated as we spun around in circles. He would rehash the same old, same old arguments commonly raised by "happy meat" proponents; I would volley back with the actual facts concerning other animals' treatment outside of factory farms and would redirect to emphasize sentience and the ethics of use. I teased this Ivy League educated and tenured professor that he couldn't argue his way out of a paper lunch bag when it came to ethics.

Our ethics debates aside, we discussed a variety of other things and he ended up sharing quite a bit with me about Jewish culture and identity. It was Passover and our conversation had shifted to focus on Pesach traditions revolving around food. He was planning to host a Seder for his adult children and his daughter's new boyfriend, as it turns out, was a vegetarian. We discussed the symbolism of the foods served on the traditional Passover Seder Plate and I shared with him the changes some Jewish vegan friends had incorporated into their own annual traditions. My acquaintance taught me about the Haggadah used at Passover Seder and -- see, it really does all tie together -- brought up that Jonathan Safran Foer had just written The New American Haggadah. He forwarded me links to reviews, which helped further explain what the Haggadah means and what it is. (Along with Pollan and Bittman, Foer was also one of my acquaintances ethical food-related inspirational figures. His Haggadah was apparently generally received with a bit of "meh".)

I'd written about Jonathan Safran Foer a few years prior to all of that. When Eating Animals had been released, I had been sent a review copy and after scanning a dozen pages of it, had balked at putting myself through reading a single page more. A few months later on a nearly 24-hour bus trip to Pennsylvania (don't ask), I brought the book to read. I figured that somewhere between snoozing and staring out the window, I could force myself to work through the welfarist text. On the way back, I spent almost 16 hours stranded in a Montreal bus station in a snowstorm, took all of the notes I'd tucked into the book and wrote a lengthy blog post I've never published. Over the years, I've thought of finishing it up to publish it, but all it would point out is how Foer's just one of these sorry excuses for an animal advocate that I'd like to see slip into obscurity. He's non-vegan and has promoted animal exploitation. He has described veganism as an "end goal" rather than a starting point and has publicly dismissed abolitionists as absolutists.

He has come up less and less often in online discussions in recent years, which has left me pleased. His name popped up in my newsfeed today, though, in an article on a restaurant trends site I follow. It seems that Foer has decided to partner up with the welfarist-beloved Chipotle fast-food chain to spearhead a new project intending to feature the words of popular authors on its bags and beverage cups -- Foer's words, as well. I traced a link back to a Vanity Fair article about it.

Foer apparently found himself sitting in a Chipotle restaurant by himself one day, bored. "Why not offer something interesting to Chipotle's overwhelmingly non-vegan customers -- like my non-vegan self -- to look at as they sit eating their animal products? Why not attempt to enhance their experience as they sit and dine upon the parts and secretions of others?" Foer seems to have thought to himself. He soon wrote to Chipotle CEO Steve Ells:
I said, 'I bet a shitload of people go into your restaurants every day, and I bet some of them have very similar experiences, and even if they didn’t have that negative experience, they could have a positive experience if they had access to some kind of interesting text,'" Foer recalled. [...] I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to just put some interesting stuff on [your cups and bags]? Get really high-quality writers of different kinds, creating texts of different kinds that you just give to your customers as a service.’”
Chipotle thought his proposed project, called "Cultivating Thought" was a fabulous idea. Anything to enrich its customers' experience, to make them happy -- to potentially boost sales! And organized and endorsed by none-other than "happy meat" supposed maker-of-vegans Jonathan Safran Foer? How could they refuse. When Vanity Fair questioned Foer concerning whether he, a vegetarian, might have had apprehensions about getting into a business relationship with a company that sells meat?.
“There were things that I had to at least think about, like the fact that they serve meat, and I don’t eat meat,” Foer said. “And the fact that they’re a sizable corporation, and that I don’t tend to get involved with sizable corporations any more than I have to, and the fact that I have no interest in marketing for anyone or endorsing anything.
Oh, where to begin? Maybe with his passing reference to having had an issue with the "meat" Chipotle serves? Foer is, of course, a non-vegan. I don't remember if he addressed this directly in Eating Animals. I don't think so. His focus in the book was mostly on animals raised for their flesh and I seem to recall Foer suggesting (whether in the book or in interviews concerning it) that he would have less of an issue consuming animal flesh if he was 100% certain that the animal had not been factory farmed. So the fact that Chipotle also serves animal products other than meat seems irrelevant to Foer and, given his decision to go ahead with his project, the fact that Chipotle serves meat isn't a serious issue for him, either. (It's still so bizarre to me that so many have credited him with being such a great voice for veganism or animal rights.)

As for his having no interest in marketing for anyone or endorsing anything? His initiating and leading this campaign, in and of itself, is an endorsement of Chipotle. In turn, endorsing Chipotle means endorsing animal exploitation. That's fairly clear. But you see, Foer sits on the Board of Directors of Farm Forward, welfarist animal agriculture facilitators extraordinaire. Farm Forward's mission is to mobilize the general public against factory farming and to promote more sustainable animal agriculture.

Its staff is mostly comprised of overpaid professional welfarists -- a few who have been hands on involved in helping "happy meat" farms become hugely successful. Its Board of Directors includes an academic whose life's work revolved around welfare reform. According to his Farm Forward bio: "In his research, he is developing methods of 'asking' farm animals what they feel about the conditions in which they are kept and the procedures to which they are subjected." It also includes John Mackey, who is Chairman of the Board and co-CEO of "happy meat" market Whole Foods. Chipotle is praised several times on the Farm Forward website for its more "humane" animal product sourcing practices. In fact, Farm Forward's Board of Directors also includes Frank Reese, who owns and operates Good Shepherd Ranch, which according to Farm Forward itself has been a chicken supplier for Chipotle.

No endorsing? No marketing? Albert Camus once wrote: “When silence or verbal trickery helps to maintain an abuse that needs to be ended or suffering that needs to be soothed, there is no choice but to speak out and show the obscenity disguised by a cloak of words.” It's unfortunate that with all of the research Foer completed to write Eating Animals that he was unable to recognize the extent of his own speciesism. Given that it was written in close collaboration with Farm Forward and that it's now more or less treated as Farm Forward's bible, it's not altogether surprising.

It's mostly sad to me that as gifted a wordsmith as he is, he uses his talent again and again to both facilitate and promote animal exploitation. Whether he does so by spreading and sustaining the "humane myth" that there could ever be an acceptable and ethical manner in which to enslave and slaughter others to serve them up at a fast-food joint, or whether he partners up with Chipotle to enrich the experience of those who provide demand for this continued enslavement and slaughter, his writing becomes no more than a weapon used against other animals. "What's the kindest thing you ever did?" begins Foer's own writing piece contributed for Chipotle's "Cultivating Thought" campaign.

What's the kindest thing, indeed, Jonathan?

Monday, May 12, 2014

I Am Not a Vegetarian

I remember with perfect clarity the day it finally clicked for me just how completely meaningless the word "vegetarian" is. It was around six years ago and a friend and I had decided to have a bite and a beer at his favourite restaurant, something we used to do a few times a month. He had been a longtime vegetarian and was a fan of this particular place because it had over a dozen vegetarian appetizers and entrees on its large menu. Also, it was licensed -- thus, there was beer -- and stayed open a little later than most downtown eating establishments. The numerous vegetarian dishes ranged from cheesy artichoke dip to quesadillas. The only two vegan-friendly edibles were the overpriced processed sweet potato fries (hold the pesto mayo dip) and a bland tofu coconut curry dish (hold the buttered piece of ciabatta strangely ordinarily served on the side). I went for the company and nothing else.

My friend was a regular there and the staff was aware of his dietary preferences, so we would ordinarily go and be greeted by a server carrying menus and his favourite beer, and we would be left to suss out what we wanted. (I rarely cracked the menu open, usually resigned to getting the usual plateful of sweet potato fries.) This particular evening, a new server showed up and started rattling off the list of dinner specials, first describing some sort of beef platter . My friend interrupted her politely.

"We don't need to hear the specials," he told her. "We're both vegetarians."

"Oh," she said, looking unsure of what to do.

"Well, I eat fish, but my friend doesn't eat any animal products at all."

The server smiled and looked confused, then left to get our beers.

"I guess you're probably not happy that I'm eating fish again," my friend said, not looking up from the menu. "I'm doing it for health reasons."

"Why would I not be happy?"

"Well, because you think it's wrong."

"I don't control your choices. Besides, there's no real ethical difference between eating meat and eating other animal products." 
At this, my friend looked up, frowning. "So you think that just because I'm not vegan, I'm no different from anyone else who eats meat?"

"I know that you mean well, but there really is no difference. Animals are still used and animals still die and end up served to others as meat in the dairy and egg industries. We've talked about this before. Why don't we talk about something else?"

"So you don't think that it matters that in the 20 or more years I've been vegetarian, I've saved lives by not eating meat? How many lives have you saved in the less than a year you've been vegan?"

"It's not a contest," I told him, uncomfortable with how the conversation was going. "Let's just talk about something else for now," I again suggested.

"At least I'm not eating meat. That may not matter to you, but it does matter and it matters to me."

I couldn't help it and asked, gingerly, whether he thought it mattered to the fish.

"Fish can't feel pain. They're not the same as cows."

Quietly, I said: "They can and they are."

"Well, not all vegetarians agree with that."

"Neither of us is really a vegetarian," I offered, thinking back to his earlier assertion to the server.

"We both don't eat meat," he said to me. "That makes us vegetarian. Would you rather I call myself a pescetarian? That's still a type of vegetarian, just like a vegan is a type of vegetarian."

"I don't see veganism as a subset of vegetarianism," I told him.

I explained to him that "vegetarian" is a blanket term for various degrees of animal use restricted to diet. These days, in mainstream media, those various degrees of animal use have been expanded to loosely include eating fish, but an overwhelming majority of vegetarians disagree with this and see it as a watering down of a term whose original definition clearly excludes eating animal flesh. They disagree with it for two obvious reasons. The first is that it confuses things when they use the term to try to explain what they won't eat (i.e. meat). The second is that many view eating meat as somehow being morally different from consuming other animal products.

"But you don't think there's a difference between eating meat or cheese, so why do you care?"

"I don't, really. I just found it sort of funny that you told the waitress that we were both vegetarians.

"Well, you don't eat meat, so how are you not a vegetarian?"

I explained that since vegetarianism is strictly about diet and since the term is understood to include animal use, even in one's diet, that it has nothing to do with veganism. It has more in common with regular old eating-of-everything-ism, which is also understood to include animal use.I explained that the only morally relevant distinction concerns whether someone is vegan or non-vegan.

"So you think that you're better than vegetarians, then?" he asked.

"I don't think that I'm better than anybody. You know that. But veganism is the rejection of all animal exploitation. It involves avoiding all avoidable animal use and it isn't restricted to diet. To call me a vegetarian would suggest that I might eat eggs or dairy and that it's highly possible that I would -- or at least could -- wear wool, leather and so on. It's a completely useless label for me to use practically, plus it has nothing to do with what I believe in. I don't see veganism as a subset of a diet that involves various degrees of animal exploitation while involving likely animal use in other areas. Veganism is no more a specific subset of vegetarianism than it is a subset of eating-everything-ism."

By this time, our server had returned to take our order.

"So, I guess that you don't care, then, if I order the fried clams and chips?" my friend asked.

"Actually, if you did, I might have to leave."

"Aha! So even with all of this talk, you really do think that eating meat is worse than eating other animal products! I knew it!"

"No," I half-smiled, sadly. "It would just really, really smell."