Thursday, January 12, 2006

Consider the Wallace

Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who's helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in? I'm not trying to give you a PETA-like screed here - at least I don't think so. I'm trying, rather, to work out and articulate some of the troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and salutation and community pride of the Maine Lobster Festival. The truth is that if you, the festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF begins to take on the aspect of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.

Does that comparison seem a bit much? If so, exactly why? Or what about this one: Is it possible that future generations will regard our present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero's entertainments or Mengele's experiments? My own initial reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme - and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings (a lot less important); and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I haven't succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.

-David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster"

I recieved "Consider the Lobster," a book of Wallace's non-fiction essays, for Christmas this year and I loved it. There are hysterical, thoughtful, deeply weird ruminations on everything from the state of American politics (as Wallace jumps aboard the McCain bus), to the porn industry (as he visits the Adult Video News awards in Las Vegas), to the titular Lobster-considering.

I've posted a small excerpt from Wallace's original, longer piece (for Fair Use reasons as well as reasons of brevity) because it made me think about the torture debate in our country. Mostly, though, I'm posting it because it does what good writing should do - make you think. I can't eat Lobster myself. But I do eat chicken - an animal that's "Debeaked" before being killed. This process is exactly what it sounds like: the ripping off of the beak without anesthetic so that chickens who've been grouped in numbers that tend to drive them insane wn't peck each other to death. That knowledge has kept me outside of KFC for years now, and frequenting Whole Foods and Stew Leonard's, where I know the animals were - at the very least - treated decently before being slaughtered to sustain me.

Here's a link to buying Wallace's book. It's worth picking up, and like his earlier essay collection "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," it's cuttingly well-observed, funny, and provocative.

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