Let me make a distinction, a personal one that nevertheless applies to and frames the experience of anybody who reads seriously. It has to do with why one dislikes what one dislikes–negative responses are as complicated as adulatory ones. On one side of dislike, there are writers whom I personally find distasteful or don’t consider entertaining or elevating, but whom I nonetheless respect as writers. In other words, although their work isn’t to my taste, I acknowledge that they are doing something worthwhile with language. I place, for instance, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Toni Morrison in this category; other readers will certainly disagree and identify their own outliers according to their standards of taste.
Then there are the hucksters, the charlatans, the low-talent frauds, and the bad thinkers. Here we are dealing not with matters of taste, but with the question of basic talent. Jonathan Safron Foer, Brooklynite, hipster storyteller, media darling, and, now, ersatz moralist, has little to none, and so he falls into this category. Falls hard. Although he does pick nice fonts for his books.
In this essay, Jennifer Reese reviews–and largely eviscerates–his new, fatuous, astonishingly arrogant manifesto Eating Animals. As she points out so elegantly, JSF, reputedly a strong thinker, somehow manages to conflate a perfectly sane argument (industrial farming is ecologically ruinous and morally almost indefensible) and a crude, pompous, whiny jeremiad against people who aren’t vegetarians (actually, aren’t vegans, as Reese shrewdly notes). Eating Animals is a piece of agitprop disguised as journalism, and its “priggish, condescending, naive” tone, notwithstanding JSF’s claims that the book is objective and open-minded, does nothing so effectively as spur reactionary anti-intellectualism:
The populist conservative case against coastal liberals is that they are smug elites who think they know everything because they went to fancy colleges, eat arugula, and name-check Derrida. As a coastal liberal, I think the rap is often cynical and unfair. But Foer’s account of his field trip to the abattoir suggests how a folksy moose butcher like Sarah Palin gets on a presidential ticket.
His is the worst kind of specious argument, one whose high moral seriousness blinds him to counter-arguments that might contest and complicate his own: e.g. primates have always been omnivores (as Michael Pollan reminds us), and almost every aspect of modern life, our clothing, our cell phones, the fruits and vegetables we eat, buses we ride, are part of a manifestly unsustainable economy (see Elizabeth Kolbert on this). Eating Animals evinces a troubling tendency of many of my fellow lefties: a willingness to critique only certain limited, authorized facets of the world we all live within. If Las Vegas is Official Fun, meat-eating is, for some people, ground for Official Opprobrium. Apple makes products that are poisonous out of poisons, but one doesn’t expect JSF to mount an attack on iPods.
Instead, a myopic self-satisfaction stands in for real ethical debate. Did you buy that organic salad pre-packed from the grocery store? Then kudos to you, smiles Foer. Are you a hunter who killed, dressed, and cooked the venison on your table? Do you raise chickens in your backyard? Do you fish? Eat fish? Buy organic half-and-half? Ever step on a bug? Then, he grumbles, you are morally despicable, that is to say not in line with Mr. Foer, whose career thus far provides an excellent example of how readily most critics and readers mistake sputtering emotion for genuine moral passion. Fuck you, you sanctimonious dweeb.
Then again, we should be nicer. After all, in fifty years nobody will remember the poor guy.
PS: Reese’s essay will be one of the last publications of Double X, the online women’s magazine that spun off earlier this year from a Slate.com blog. The editors announced today that they’re shutting down. For the usual current reasons. Double X was never much good–although it was far less inane than glossier, celeb-obsessed Jezebel–but they did publish interesting pieces like this one from time to time. Hard times, folks, hard times, especially if you work in the word business.