Review of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer Chapter Two: “All or Nothing or Something Else”

This is the second in a series of weekly posts dedicated to our book club selections. Tune in every Tuesday to discuss the pressing issues raised by these authoritative and popular authors. Whether you have the time to read along with me or not, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Pick up your copy of "Eating Animals", or catch up with the first chapter.

In the second chapter of Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer tells the reader to eat dogs. His reasons are myriad: many cultures around the world have eaten them, and not a few still do. Millions of dogs are euthanized yearly in the United States, and their disposal is an economic and ecological problem. Dog meat is said to be tasty, and the surplus of dogs creates a cheap and easy food supply.

Knowing full well that the suggestion will repulse most readers, Foer is playing a morbid joke on us. He points out that rendered dog flesh is recycled into cow feed, and most people who would retch at the thought of eating dogs have no problem eating cows.

Why are we willing to feed dog flesh to cows, and then consume the cows, but not eat dog flesh directly? He concludes, “Food choices are determined by many factors, but reason (even consciousness) is not high on the list.” (32)

Foer tells a lot of stories about his grandmother, and it is clear that her experiences have had a profound effect on him. She grew up in a Jewish family in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. She tells him stories of running from the Germans, being covered in sores, sick, exhausted and starving. She survived, barely, and now, as a ninety-year-old woman, hordes food compulsively, more than she could ever eat. He uses anecdotes from her life to describe our emotional relationship to food and the irrational behavior that results from it. But her stories aren't just about her, and they aren't just about food. They are about all of us, and the choices we make every day. Behind her stories lies an uncomfortable fact: the Holocaust happened because millions of seemingly rational people were led (or allowed themselves) to believe that Jews were subhuman, due no more consideration than the lowliest animal.

How could this have happened? Hundreds of thousands of people have argued, books have been written, movies have been made, trials have been conducted, all attempting to understand how people could treat each other with such gross neglect and cruelty, denying basic common sense and decency. Foer takes this concern and builds on it to construct a wider picture of the problem. I grew up in an age where human rights were taken for granted (in principle, if not in practice). But, as Foer demonstrates, we still have a long way to go. By pointing out our conflicting attitudes towards animals and the lengths we go to conceal our treatment of them - behind iron gates, behind obfuscating words, behind an opaque shield of denial - Foer is teasing out this stubborn and worrisome propensity of human beings to rationalize the irrational.

The vast majority of the time, we tend not to question the culture we are born into. We assume in the United States, for example, that protecting dogs and eating cows is morally justifiable. Foer is pointing out that in both cases, when we show concern for certain animals and disregard for others, we are acting according to our cultural conditioning, and not according to a deep seated examination of what is right. Our care for dogs, cats and other animals we live with, though it feels sentimentally compelling, will remain superficial until that concern is based on an actual individual realization that all living beings are worthy of our respect.