Natalie Portman's vegan vendetta

The actress takes a stand against meat -- and puts her foot in her mouth

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 28, 2009 2:29PM (EDT)

Natalie Portman is through with vegetarian timidity. She is not going to sit quietly and nosh her carrots while you sup on your KFC. And if you’ve ever seen her rap, be forewarned, carnivores, because it’s on. In an Op-Ed in yesterday’s Huffington Post,  the actress explains how reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Eating Animals"   transformed her into a passionate vegan activist, because “some things are just wrong.”

Reminding readers of the cruel and often risky practices that come with getting meat on the table, the Harvard alum treads on persuasive ground. She cites the health cost to humans of factory farming and the widespread torture of animals in the food industry. Then it gets weird.

After comparing factory farming with “misogyny, racism and sexism,” she refers to Safran Foer’s argument that “being … a human … takes thought.” As she explains, “He posits that consideration, as promoted by Michael Pollan in 'The Omnivore's Dilemma,' which has more to do with being polite to your tablemates than sticking to your own ideals, would be absurd if applied to any other belief (e.g., I don't believe in rape, but if it's what it takes to please my dinner hosts, then so be it).”

At which point, across the land, a collective wave of “Oh no she didn’t” went up.

Any other belief? Really? That’s a stretch in and of itself. But to go the extra mile and equate pleasing one’s hosts with a “so be it” attitude toward the kind of violent assault that a 15-year-old girl endured at her high school dance last weekend, the sexual abuse that women and men and children endure every day in their homes and schools and prisons, is so flat-out offensive that to even dignify it with a rebuttal would be like shooting and consuming delicious fish in a barrel. But we'll mention that if you really don't believe in rape, maybe you shouldn't make movies with rapists.

Portman’s galling assumption is that because most of the modern meat industry is notoriously fast, cheap and out of control, there’s no room for cleaner, more ethical practices. That there’s no distinction between the bird that came from a factory and the one that sustains a family farm. It utterly dismisses the efforts of farmers and consumers alike over the last few years to create a healthier, more locally based culture of eating. There’s certainly no mention of any of that in her article.

Portman clearly does walk the vegan walk. A recent interview in the Los Angeles Times began with the actress sitting in a downtown Manhattan restaurant, “nibbling on a soy-cheese sandwich.” It would behoove Portman, however, to consider that for many people who don’t get to appear in "Star Wars" movies, those soy-cheese sandwiches are harder to come by. Veganism isn’t the most budget-friendly path on a recessionary diet. Furthermore, for people like many of the farmers at my own local greenmarket -- people who are trying to raise their animals in uncrowded, antibiotic free conditions -- those creatures are their livelihood. To ignore those realities smacks of a profound out-of-touchness.

No one would suggest that meat-eating is compulsory, or that a vegan lifestyle is impractical. And when Portman asks what we’re doing for “our” children, she raises legitimate issues.

As it happens, her editorial appeared the same day my daughters’ public school had “Take Your Parents to Lunch” day. Thanks to the outstanding Wellness in the Schools initiative, we ate salad, pears and a stellar vegetarian chili prepared by a top New York City chef, a meal that is now regular cafeteria fare.

Overhauling the food industry, and consumers’ relationship with agribusiness, is entirely possible. It comes from action and generosity and getting in the kitchen and making the chili. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing war that pits all of us who put food into our mouths against each other. When Portman launches her diatribe by saying, “I've always been shy about being critical of others' choices because I hate when people do that to me” and “I've also been afraid to feel as if I know better than someone else,” it’s just a setup for her to be critical and know better. 

Most of the vegetarians and vegans I know do, in fact, believe in “being polite to your tablemates,” as do most of the carnivores as well. I have a vegan friend who has a hunter brother-in-law, and if they can figure it out, the rest of us can probably make a go of it, too. We can’t effect change if we’re sitting at different tables. We certainly can't accomplish anything by tossing around rape-centric invective. Because there’s a difference between being kind to animals and talking like a jackass.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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