We then read food expert Michael Pollan, America’s most well-known omnivore, who in a 2002 essay, “An Animal’s Place,” argues convincingly that “What’s wrong with animal agriculture—with eating animals—is the practice, not the principle.” An animal’s place, in other words, is first on the farm and then, so long as that farm was nice, on the dinner plate. During one class, we watch a video about deer hunting and processing; it shows carcasses that are first skinned, and then run through bandsaws, butchered under the edges of boning knives, and extruded from meat grinders on their way to becoming venison steaks and sausages. One lesson here is that, as with most other mammals we eat, deer undergo a name change while under the knife. We follow the hunting-and-butchering footage with more moving pictures, the 2005 DreamWorks film Madagascar, a fun-for-all-ages cartoon about talking zoo animals. Madagascar, believe it or not, aspires to present a vegetarian utopia to rival those imagined in the books of Genesis and Isaiah, parts of which we also read. The students always seem wonderfully startled to learn that Adam and Eve were, at first, vegetarians.
We continue with novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who in the 2009 book Eating Animals is writing against meat in the context of becoming a new father. “Feeding my child,” he writes, “is not like feeding myself: it matters more.” I ask the class what he might mean by “matters.” They don’t usually have a good answer—nor, I think, does the author. From Foer we finish with South African Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee, another vegetarian fiction writer whose novel Elizabeth Costello takes shape, in large part, as a series of academic lectures delivered by the main character, Coetzee’s alter ego, on the campus of an imaginary American college. In addressing her audience “on the subject of animals,” Elizabeth Costello compares the effect on us of ignoring our nation’s factory farms and abattoirs with the profound sin of everyday Germans and Poles of the Third Reich “who did and did not know of the atrocities around them.” What students don’t always get—Who does he think he is?!, they sometimes snarl—is that Coetzee is making a different comparison here (though only slightly) than the one famously made by his fellow Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer in a 1965 story, “The Letter Writer,” about the character Herman Gombiner, a Holocaust survivor who views animal slaughter as the “eternal Treblinka.” (As you might expect, Singer was, like Coetzee and both of their protagonists, an ethical vegetarian.) And for his part, Coetzee does refer to modern animal farms—factory farms—as “an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end.” Coetzee seems to take for granted the respective brutality of those in charge of concentration camps and factory farms; what shocks him, and what should shock us, I hope, is the complete lack of sympathy it requires to ignore what goes on all around us.
At some early point in the class, often at first blush, someone raises the most basic complaint about our relationship to animals. It’s usually an already committed vegetarian who says, “Who do we think we are?” This I have come to expect. And this I like. After all, few of us have been taught to think of college—or the workplace, the supermarket, or the kitchen—as a place to ask ourselves with any real curiosity the ageless question of who we think we are or, indeed, what sustains us. This question feels like a good start.
What I find disheartening is that after nearly a month of reading and writing and talking about who we think we are, and perhaps who we’ve always been, relative to animals—
and let’s not forget we are relatives—it’s not uncommon for someone to ask this very same question with the very same exasperation again on the last day: “Who do we think we are?” When it comes to examining honest living, I often worry in this class that we’re people who get nowhere. We’re stuck wishing we were still in Eden.
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