Jonathan Safran Foer Debates Anthony Bourdain

On today’s CBC Radio Q program, Eating Animals author Jonathan Safran Foer debated Anthony Bourdain about meat eating and factory farming.

You’d think a conversation between two people on opposite ends of the animal use spectrum would quickly turn into World War III, but they remain respectful to one another throughout, and it turns into a productive and even friendly dialog.

What I found most interesting about this debate has to do with the fact that it’s generally vegetarians who are thought of as making emotional appeals, and being guided by passion and feeling rather than reason. Yet in this debate, it’s Bourdain who time and again makes reference to a “magical” sensuous realm, filled with good fellowship toward others,  that can apparently only be entered through consumption of animal products.

There’s something—not much, but something—to what Bourdain says, but his argument is far more tenuous than he suggests, and Foer does a nice job of respectfully revealing its holes. The funniest part is when Bourdain points to grandma’s Thanksgiving turkey as an everyday example of meat’s special powers to deepen bonds between people, and Foer points out that this is a meal served once a year and that Americans don’t eat much factory farmed turkey otherwise because it doesn’t taste very good.

Basically, Foer is willing to concede to Bourdain the idea that meat can be a uniquely wonderful thing that is a sacrifice to give up. But in return, Foer points out that 99 percent of the meat that we eat isn’t eaten within this context: it’s factory farmed crap that we unconsciously wolf down, and it would be better for everyone if we stopped. This is exactly the sort of argument that someone sympathetic to animals, but who uses her love for Thanksgiving turkey as an excuse to do nothing, needs to hear.

Towards the end of this discussion, Bourdain reveals how uninformed he is about vegetarianism by flatly stating as established fact that children won’t thrive without animal products. It’s shocking that one of America’s bestselling food authors could be so ignorant about something so basic. It would be like a top-selling vegan author trying to claim that beef has no iron.

When Eating Animals came out a year ago, Foer could have gone on an eight week book tour, and then abandoned the cause to turn back to full-time fiction writing. I’m so glad he’s continuing to get out there and engage in public discussions like this. For animal advocates wanting to learn how to persuasively discuss animal agriculture, I doubt there’s anyone who is more worth listening to than Foer. (Thanks, Nancy.) Link.

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