04/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Of Truth and Truthiness: Eating Animals on The Colbert Report

In an age when "reality" means anything but, it was inspiring to see two of our culture's most luminous diviners of truth on the same screen. What Stephen Colbert did for a fear-torn, war-hawked nation a few years ago, Jonathan Safran Foer is doing now for a dietarily-deceived one. So even if it seemed that in the end Colbert preferred eating bacon to Eating Animals, the point was made: our common-sense about what we eat needs a radical cleansing after decades of "food" industry propaganda.

From a media studies perspective, I would say that Foer's approach in Eating Animals is not unlike Colbert's in his show. Admittedly, Foer is somewhat cool-serious and Colbert is extravagantly grandiose in his manner. But both Eating Animals and the Colbert Report are superbly alike on one respect: they turn our sense of reality inside out to show us just how tragically wrong things have gone with it. And that is what sets Eating Animals apart from other works on the subject. It is more than an argument for a certain kind of dietary choice. It is even more than an expose of the horrors of factory farming, as some are describing it. Eating Animals is nothing less than a well-timed derailing of a runaway train of indifference, ignorance, and indeed unnatural cruelty that has crushed our minds, our hearts, and of course, our bodies and our ecosystems, too.

The main target of Foer's well-informed wit is not just the meat industry, but also the culture of complacence that has encrusted our common-sense about its product. In this sense, Eating Animals is a cultural studies masterpiece. It swoops down on us like a truth that can only be felt when its opposite is seen for what it really is. It is not a revelation in a simple sense. We all know what's wrong with what he's talking about. But we have found few expressions of outrage at the enormity of what's wrong with it the way he has. And it is not a loud outrage of the sort proselytizing vegans and vegetarians are sometimes accused of displaying. It is the sort of outrage that is felt simply and quietly when human decency is boiled down to its essence and left with nothing more than its purest ability to say what is what, without any confusion at all. That is why, perhaps, the book is called "Eating Animals," and not eating animals by any other name.

There has been a fair amount of academic and journalistic writing on the meaning of food, especially in these recent years of growing environmental awareness. But there is one line, a bottom-line, even, a tipping-point, or escape-velocity, call it what you will, that Eating Animals has struck. To understand it, we must turn to a simple question that Foer poses:

We don't hurt family members. We don't hurt friends or strangers. We don't even hurt upholstered furniture.

Yet, we continue to live in a world in which we ignore, deny or somehow justify the fact that our life, as we live it today, depends on causing a LOT of hurt to a LOT of animals.

That, I think, is the real story. Everything else we hear about this subject, the McNutrition myths, the happy meal manifestos, the pseudo-religious and ethno-scientific arguments, some of our deepest beliefs, indeed much of our commonsense itself, is manufactured confusion. Foer demonstrates this eloquently when he takes on a belief that is so widespread these days that even calling it a belief may sound odd; the idea that nature is cruel. Our media, our everyday conversations, all reinforce this idea so often. "Big fish eat small fish." "Eat or be eaten." "Survival of the fittest." Even those of us who abhor the thought of animal suffering can easily find our resolve diminished by sayings like this. But Foer makes a key distinction. He writes that cruelty is

not only the willful causing of unnecessary suffering, but the indifference to it... nature isn't cruel... cruelty depends on an understanding of cruelty and the ability to choose against it. Or choose to ignore it.

Mahatma Gandhi would be proud. His greatest ideal, ahimsa, after all, implies not just an absence of injury, but indeed an absence of cruelty too. This is one important distinction that our culture needs to appreciate, and Foer has done it commendably. The day we realize that there is a difference between the violence that survival demands in nature and the willful cruelty of our thoroughly unnatural, modern, alienated and alienating system of food, eating, and ways of thinking about them, will be a day that we can find ourselves closer to Mahatma Gandhi's other great ideal of Truth as well. Until then, truthiness will just have to be our ally, and exercises in looking askance at our rusty commonsense all important. Foer does this when he writes passionately about "a case for eating dogs." Colbert does it just being himself. So perhaps some day, we would have looked so hard and sharp at everything our media and advertisements are telling us about who we are and what we eat and why we eat that we will remake our own thoughts, and maybe even our own world. Maybe in that world, Stephen Colbert will bookmark Jonathan Safran Foer's book not with a strip of bacon as he did this time, but with the ribbon of his Nobel peace prize.