Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Omnivore’s Disdain

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan is widely considered a well-written book. I haven’t read it because I have no interest in supporting a man with the values on display in the book, but I have read a lot about it, most recently in an excellent article called “Hard to Swallow” by B.R. Myers in the September Atlantic. I urge people to read this article on the subject of gourmets and morality. My comments on a couple bits from the book quoted in the article follow.

“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.”

While there are some vegetarians who do have a childlike illusion that they’re living a life with no harmful side effects, I’ve found a lot more who have thought much more deeply about these issues than Pollan and act as they do because of their understanding of reality and the consequences of their choices. In any case, his last sentence above more widely and accurately applies to Americans’ view of themselves in the world.

Edited 9/26 to add OOPS! I got the following quote from a blog which presented it as a quote from the book itself, but it is apparently actually from the article by Myers.

“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.”

That is where the atheist and the gourmet part ways as well. I do not believe that all choices are equal, or that a person seeking to reduce the amount of suffering and violent death in the world is pitifully close to being a mentally ill serial killer. But Pollan’s disdain for ethics certainly explains his own behavior.

Yes, on the subject of diet at least, I think I’m a better person than Pollan and make no apology for it. I think the 15 year old vegetarian whose questions about killing chickens Pollan wouldn’t answer at the dinner table is a better person. For that matter, I think the wild pig he shot and chicken whose throat he slit for the sake of his book were also better people. But then, I don’t have very high expectations of someone who believes his appetite more important than ethics, and considers the hurt human feelings he imagines while playing at vegetarian to be of more significance than the lives of the animals he eats.


Jo said...

That was interesting. Thanks for the thoughts!

Terry said...

I finally read the third section of this book, which addresses vegetarianism, many months after reading the first two sections, which address the corn, feedlot, industrial food chain; industrial scale organic farming; and local scale not quite organic farming.

I think it's a shame to not read this book even though Pollan makes some offensively condescending comments about vegetarians. He seems to have made a significant effort to consider the issue, including correspondence with people who I assume are leaders in the vegetarian thinking world.

The book is generally well written, and yet it appears to loose coherence at times in the discussion of vegetarianism, suggesting that this is an issue the Pollan honestly struggles with - not something he's just dismissing in a sound bite.

Although he doesn't say so, he implies that vegetarianism is preferable to eating meat from the mainstream industrial food chain. For moral reasons, not just taste or health. He does defend eating wild animals and domestic animals raised in good conditions. For the latter he uses a farm he described earlier in the book, a type of farm that is extremely rare and certainly not available to more than a tiny fraction of the population.

I read and greatly admire Wendell Berry even though I don't agree with his religious views. I wouldn't put Pollan in his class, but I think he's worth reading nonetheless. The more people who read Pollan's description of the corn feedlot industrial food chain, the more vegetarians there will be.

Cheers -Terry