Friday, June 21, 2013

Pure Food & Liberal Culture

Jonathan Haidt’s fascinating survey work on the moral foundations of politics identifies a number of dichotomies that define the political culture in the U.S.  These are care/harm; fairness/cheating; liberty/oppression; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity (or purity)/degradation.  Haidt argues that what distinguishes the left and right in America is which of these dichotomies they hold to be most important.  Here is a quote that I take from an earlier blog post:
Political liberals [in the U.S.] tend to rely primarily on the moral foundation of care/harm, followed by fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression. Social conservatives, in contrast, use all six foundations. They are less concerned than liberals about harm to innocent victims, but they are much more concerned about the moral foundations that bind groups and nations together, i.e., loyalty (patriotism), authority (law and order, traditional families), and sanctity (the Bible, God, the flag as a sacred object). Libertarians, true to their name, value liberty more than anyone else, and they value it far more than any other foundation.
One interesting thing that Haidt notes is that conservatives are much better at guessing what values liberals hold than vice versa. 
I am guessing that liberals may be just as bad at guessing what they themselves believe as they are at guessing what conservatives believe.  As I recall, the further to the left you go, the less emphasis you get on sanctity/degradation.  Most on the left, I suppose, would be uncomfortable those terms.  However, anyone who pays attention to the liberal culture in America will note that they spend a lot of time, energy, and money on achieving purity. 
The fair trade culture is one glaring example.  I can buy a pound of “Peace Coffee” at my local coopt.  Such labels as “fair trade” and “sustainable” are nothing if not certifications that the purchase and consumption of a product is kosher.  A couple of articles illustrate the character and the absurdity of this culture of purity. 
Judith Shulevitz at The New Republic exposes the “cleansing” fad as a quazi-religious bit of numbskullery. 
One afternoon last month, I made a nervous visit to the office of Ghiora Aharoni, an Israeli sculptor and architect of some renown. The awkward part was that I hadn’t come to interview him about his work. I was there to hear about his gut. He had just finished a 21-day cleanse, the kind with supplements, protein shakes, and endorsements by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow. (It’s called the Clean Program.)…
What draws sophisticated and healthy people like Aharoni’s friends to commercial quasi-fasts? Cleanses, whether they last a day, a weekend, or three weeks, and whether they consist exclusively of fruit and vegetable juices or just a severe restriction of solids, are quickly becoming a part of what you might call the cosmopolitan diet, consumed in the more urbane sectors of New York and Los Angeles and Austin or wherever you find Whole Foods–levels of gastronomic consciousness and sufficient disposable income…
Aharoni and others made it clear that they fast for more than the mere improvement of their psycho-physiological wellbeing. Aharoni described his cleanses as “journeys” or “traveling while staying at home,” phrases that echoed (to me, at least) the visionary transports achieved by fourth-century Christian desert ascetics and medieval holy women. As it happens, these saints starved themselves only partly out of piety; rejecting food, they also rejected a church committed more to institutional growth than the extremes of religious experience. Another explanation I heard was that people cleanse out of a sense of shame: Their eating and sometimes their lives feel out of control. In the past, this same feeling might have provoked atonement, particularly for the deadly sins of greed and gluttony.  These new cleanses are “religion without theology,” my friend Ruby quipped.
That is how I see it.  Cleansing is religious fasting without the theology but not without the superstition.  The ubiquity of such practices in various religious traditions testifies to the psychology need that it attempts to satisfy.  However, the practice makes a lot less sense without the theology.  It’s one thing if God or my recommends a diet.  But Gwyneth Paltrow? 
A second article in The Atlantic by David H. Freedman exposes the locavore/anti-processed food cult to withering scrutiny.  Freedman is chiefly concerned with America’s big health problem, which is big Americans. 
He goes after natural food gurus Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman.  They peddle the tale that the food and restaurant industries are making us fat.  If only we would stop eating processed foods and eat only something our great grandma would recognize can we burn off the pounds and be healthy again.  Behind them is the establishment press and a range of commercial enterprises (the New York Times and Whole Foods figure prominently). 
Thousands of restaurants and grocery stores, most notably the Whole Foods chain, have thrived by answering the call to reject industrialized foods in favor of a return to natural, simple, nonindustrialized—let’s call them “wholesome”—foods. The two newest restaurants in my smallish Massachusetts town both prominently tout wholesome ingredients; one of them is called the Farmhouse, and it’s usually packed.
A new generation of business, social, and policy entrepreneurs is rising to further cater to these tastes, and to challenge Big Food. Silicon Valley, where tomorrow’s entrepreneurial and social trends are forged, has spawned a small ecosystem of wholesome-friendly venture-capital firms (Physic Ventures, for example), business accelerators (Local Food Lab), and Web sites (Edible Startups) to fund, nurture, and keep tabs on young companies such as blissmo (a wholesome-food-of-the-month club), Mile High Organics (online wholesome-food shopping), and Wholeshare (group wholesome-food purchasing), all designed to help reacquaint Americans with the simpler eating habits of yesteryear…
If the most-influential voices in our food culture today get their way, we will achieve a genuine food revolution. Too bad it would be one tailored to the dubious health fantasies of a small, elite minority. And too bad it would largely exclude the obese masses, who would continue to sicken and die early. Despite the best efforts of a small army of wholesome-food heroes, there is no reasonable scenario under which these foods could become cheap and plentiful enough to serve as the core diet for most of the obese population—even in the unlikely case that your typical junk-food eater would be willing and able to break lifelong habits to embrace kale and yellow beets. And many of the dishes glorified by the wholesome-food movement are, in any case, as caloric and obesogenic as anything served in a Burger King.
In other words, the whole whole foods movement is very well designed to satisfy the desire of a prosperous elite for purity but poorly designed to address the real problem of obesity and hopeless when it comes to meeting the needs of those who most suffer from it. 
Freedman rigorously establishes three points. 
1.        Much of the food peddled by the food revolution is “obesogenic as anything served in a Burger King.” 
2.      The food peddled by the food revolution is too expensive both in money and in time to be available to the obese masses. 
3.      The one institution in America that can effectively address the problem is the fast food industry. 
The last is the most provocative, but that is what The Atlantic is for.  I would add that he is obviously right.  No one is better than McDonalds or Carl’s Junior at making food cheaply and quickly available and no one is better at marketing food to the masses.  Getting the industry to move in that direction is not so hard.  It is already happening, as Freedman demonstrates. 
The desire for purity is a basic human instinct but it is not always a reliable guide.  Modern liberalism has always been an elitist business, yet it purports to care about the many unwashed.  If it is really to make good on that purpose, it will have to take a good hard look at itself.  Don’t hold your breath. 

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