Cuisine may differ from culture to culture, but the epicure is a universal type, and Bourdain is doing his all to shake that uncomely image. When your whole deal in life is the relentless quest for the perfect meal, you have to try very hard to make it appear to be about something bigger than that, picking fights with people who actually have ideas and convictions so that you seem to be a man engaged in the serious debates of our time, giving freedom and lifestyle choice a vigorous defense. You’d better “stand for” something, loudly and abrasively, because otherwise viewers will soon catch on to a libertine and a bully. The only question in Bourdain’s case is how to square the tough-guy persona with a pursuit so effete, and C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, offers a plausible explanation. Gluttony, Screwtape counsels the tempter, is far less a matter of quantity than of particularity, of having our every appetite pleased, and men are the ripest targets:
Males are best turned into gluttons with the help of their vanity. They ought to be made to think themselves very knowing about food, to pique themselves on having found the only restaurant in the town where steaks are “properly” cooked. What begins as vanity can then be gradually turned into habit. But, however you approach it, the great thing is to bring him into the state in which the denial of any one indulgence . . . “puts him out,” for then his charity, justice, and obedience are all at your mercy.
Bourdain and others say: Don’t worry about any of this. Be true to your appetites, and don’t let the fanatics get to you. It will be said of such people, at the end of their days, “They ate well,” or at least they ate whatever they damn well felt like eating. If that is your idea of a life well lived, then Anthony Bourdain is the cat to hang with.
The other path is to show freedom of choice by using it, no matter whether the rest of the crowd is heading that way; to consider bigger possibilities for our lives, seeing beyond the moral problems to a moral opportunity. It is usually the sign of sincere moral effort that it requires doing the harder thing, reexamining a habit or practice, giving something up — if only gradually, in the way of most such striving — regardless of the cynics and moral sloths always ready to tell us we don’t even need to try. That decision, one heart at a time unwilling to abide cruelty, will one day be seen, I suspect, as a natural next step for civilized humanity. If, as factory farmers tell us, “There is no other way,” as a matter of economics, to supply meat to a world of 7 billion, then maybe there is no other way than to give it up, and be free of it all, as a matter of conscience. Don’t pretend it’s all about something else, in any case. The fun, tradition, and togetherness go on without meat and animal products, only better for the knowledge that our pleasure is not extracted from a hidden world of pain. Why is the “killjoy” the one who wants to be generous, letting all creatures share in the happiness of life?
If thoughts of “pain” are what trouble you, “ag-science” can help there, too, with sober studies laboring to prove — usually by means of some god-awful pain experiment on a pig — that farm animals don’t experience pain or even fear. This is a dogma, as British philosopher Stephen R. L. Clarke has observed, that “has never satisfied anyone without something to gain.” But the experts haven’t given up — the grim influence of behaviorism has been just as insidious here as in the study of human beings — and still it is maintained that none of our fellow creatures really feel anything akin to human suffering, or for that matter human happiness. Rather, we are assured, with their squealing, bellowing, bleating, whimpering, and attempts at flight — “avoidance behavior” — animals just sort of “mimic” the pain-and-fear response.
Animal pain is “mere pain,” as the theorists have variously described it, something in the “hardwiring,” an unfelt, “pre-programmed” neurological reflex to “negative stimuli” that silly people still tend to “anthropomorphize” as the conscious experience of pain and fright, comparable to how you or I would feel if we were caged, beaten, and prodded onward toward violent death, seeing ahead of us what was happening to the others. No form of advanced barbarism comes without a patina of scientific sophistication, and where animal suffering is not denied outright, it is declared empirically unprovable, left vague in the literature with a “decide-for-yourself” air of resignation and a prohibition of questions or final conclusions. It is the same general branch of science that gave us those experts trotted out a generation ago to brush off as mere “reflex” or “spasm” — as a fellow creature was “undergoing demise” — the obvious signs of fetal pain in the documentary film The Silent Scream.
In their PR campaigns, it is the all-important mission of both lobbying groups to prevent images like those in that still-unanswerable documentary from getting out. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any two legal enterprises, at least in developed societies, that have more to fear from simple photographic images than abortion and factory farming. So in recent years livestock interests have leaned on legislators to make it a crime to take pictures of factory-farmed animals, and in some states they have already succeeded. Subjecting animals to agonies that would shock and outrage the public if we saw these scenes on film — that, we are told, is nobody else’s business. It’s not the cruelty that needs to be stopped — it’s those damned pictures.