Foie gras: a parable


On the one hand, I’m very pleased to see that my blog is getting so much attention and provoking such a wide-ranging and passionate discussion.  On the other hand, I do want to draw your attention to my very first post, in which I explain that this blog is intended as an extension of the process of writing about this book.   This means, in the first place, that I don’t have to apologize for referring to my book!  I also don’t feel compelled to apologize — but I will anyway — for not replying to comments in what some may consider a timely manner.  I will try to get around to everyone, but this post is designed to address a good number of the points (as the book did already) and I hope this will be recognized.

It’s probably unnecessary to mention that the blog is also intended as a way of promoting the book.  If the reaction to this post is any indication, it may not be as effective as I like.  The blog have had well over a thousand visitors in the last few days, without any discernable effect on my Amazon ranking.  Now it’s an understatement to say that I am by no means fond of Amazon, and it may just be that some of the visitors have rushed off to their nearest independent bookstores to see what I may have already written on this topic (Chapters 3 and 7, at some length); or it may be that many of them are not so old-fashioned as to buy books at all.

But to return to the issue at hand — which is foie gras — I soon realized that I could also use this blog to explain points that some readers (and some reviewers) may find obscure.  I’m about to do this now with the help of a parable.  My sincere apologies to vegetarians and anyone opposed to cruelty to animals, humans included; if you read to the end I hope you’ll agree there’s something for you as well.

With this preamble out of the way, I’ll begin by saying that there are many good things to be said about living in Paris, and solidarity among mathematicians, and academics more generally, is much stronger than in the US.  But on a few matters I find many or most of my French colleagues obtuse to the point of insufferability.  The reverential attitude of many (or most) of my colleagues to foie gras can stand in for all of these matters.  Because I do not share this attitude — because I have said on occasion that I could live happily without foie gras, and that the overwhelming majority of residents of Chicago or California are perfectly indifferent to foie gras, they assume I am either an abolitionist, irredeemably hostile to foie gras and to French culture more generally — that my “tone” doesn’t really “solicit friendly debate” — or that I am just one more ignorant American in need of further education.  This even though the book I just published contains not one but two lengthy and reasonably well-informed discussions on the general theme of foie gras, which address (perhaps indirectly) practically all the arguments they think I have yet to hear, and I have written on several occasions that — although I wouldn’t complain if it were outlawed on grounds of cruelty — on balance, I think foie gras is a pretty good thing.

(I just made that last part up!)

Faced with this attitude of cultural and intellectual rigidity, which I could call culinary evangelism or the crusader spirit or foie gras fundamentalism, but which I prefer to call militant enthusiasm, four responses are possible.  I could join the chorus; then I would be called a francophile, which would bring all kinds of intangible advantages.  I could simply ignore my colleagues.  If I had Matt Emerton’s generosity and openness of spirit I could engage my colleagues in rational discussion.  (I did try that with foie gras; it doesn’t work.)  Or I could be aggressively contrarian, saying Back off with your mission civilisatrice!  I hear you, I understand what you’re saying, and I have already drawn my conclusions.  Maybe it’s your turn to listen!

Does this sound familiar?


3 thoughts on “Foie gras: a parable

  1. Pingback: Pantheism and homotopy theory, part 3 | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

  2. Tom Leinster

    The blog have had well over a thousand visitors in the last few days, without any discernable effect on my Amazon ranking.

    Yesterday I got my copy from a bookshop in Edinburgh. When I pulled it off the shelf, it fell open at a page about Voevodsky and Univalent Foundations. Maybe another reader of this blog had been there first.



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