Tuesday, January 12, 2010

True Believers, Doubt, and Clubs I Don't Belong To

I watched Food Inc. over the weekend while devoted partner went to see Avatar (the key to a successful relationship is knowing how to consume media alone that your partner would sooner swallow his own tongue than consume with you and vice versa). If you've read The Omnivore's Dilemma you don't need to see this film (and if you haven't read it, you should). I really liked the book. I mean really liked it. Liked it enough to change my eating habits. Really. And I liked the author, Michael Pollan, for taking the time to research and put together a compelling, intelligent book about an important issue.

Well that was then and this is now.

Remember that South Park episode where everyone gets a Prius and can't get enough of the scent of his own flatulence?...

Well Pollan has gone from someone who wrote a book I liked to someone I cringe at when I see on television. It honestly doesn't help that he looks like a proto-Trotsykite, but he comes across as someone who doesn't allow for modifications to his ideas. Like someone who is convinced that his way is the only way for everyone everywhere and that people who don't agree are not only wrong, but dangerous. He comes across like a...

like a...

like a conservative republican.

For my part, let me say that I don't want to eat cloned food or GMO food or food that comes from McDonald's. Some of these things have good reasons, others don't, but they're my reasons (which devoted partner is sadly subject to more often than perhaps he would like) and I'll live by them. Unless we are ok with the death by starvation of lots and lots of people (Indians, Africans, etc.), we're going to have to come to terms with the fact that GMO food allows us to literally MAKE FOOD WHERE ONCE THERE WAS NO FOOD. I'm sure if you ask a starving person to choose between no food and cloned food, the person will choose cloned food. Even if, ultimately, science points out that this was the wrong decision, for the time being, those are the choices. For poor people. Chalk up another win for being not poor. And frankly, it smacks a little of paternalism to tell poor hungry people that the food we COULD give them is bad and ruins the environment and causes a whole host of problems. That starving poor person DOES NOT CARE. Pollan's argument that we SHOULD pay more for better food is only compelling if you have that option.

So here's the problem: I am a pretty liberal person. I agree with Michael Pollan about a lot of things. But I am unwilling to blindly follow him when I disagree with some of his points. Furthermore my disagreement with some of his points does not mean I don't find MOST of his points highly agreeable. Yet my disagreement with some of his points can lead his opponents to show that there is dissension in the ranks. Dissension, even measured, open-to-debate, searching dissension is a sign of weakness. The traditional wisdom (or traditional politics these days) stipulates that unless you can get on board 100% with your talking head of choice, his message isn't strong enough. Any disagreement discredits him.

Which brings me to the clubs I don't belong to. Spend fifteen minutes with me and you'll probably come away from it realizing I don't like groups. In fact, you might determine that I hate groups. That I think groups are the root of most evils. That were we to come up with a Linnaeus system for culture, mine would look like this: Human -> American -> Dalton Alum. Those are about the only three groups I am comfortable belonging to (an argument could be made for New Yorker, but again, seeing as that, of necessity, includes people from the non-Manhattan boroughs - ok, so I could include Manhattanite, but that would, of necessity, include people like the characters from Sex & the City - see how it gets complicated?). I might agree with a majority of the democratic platform, I might be a registered democrat, but I would never define myself as Democrat. Because in doing so I am telling people something about myself that isn't true: that my identity is mightily impacted by participation in that group. That I see my identity through the lens of that group. See also: feminist, environmentalist, libertarian, jew, liberal, etc.

A lot of this is probably narcissism of the no group defines me I am unique and special unto myself variety, but I spent too much time growing up being part of groups without a choice and I saw exactly how much time was spent ensuring that members of said group remained members of that group. That the primary aim of the group was to remain a group. It didn't take long for me to call shenanigans on that. (It was the same feeling I got when I worked for a non-profit, but my boss refused to take public transportation and instead charged her cabs to the organization - another 30 bucks not used for its mission.)

And this pains me. It pains me because I think Michael Pollan is more right than wrong. Hell, I think President Obama is more right than wrong, but because I, knowing full well that my lack of full-throated support (on the macro level) is ultimately detrimental, can't seem to muster the strength to jump on the bandwagon, I fear that the things I believe in are destined to fail because the opposition is so incredibly willing to blind itself for its causes.

And just to go back to Food Inc. for a second. The moment that really got me, that really really made me shit-tossing mad was this: a statistic was quoted that in 1970 (or 1972) the USDA made something like 25,000 inspections of meat processors and in 2006, they made 9,000 something. In the VERY NEXT SCREEN, we were told that in 1970 (or 1972) there were over 1,000 companies processing meat and that in 2006 something like 98% of all meat was processed by 4 companies. Wait for it...

Wait for it...



[end crazy]

Yeah, what I just said does nothing to excuse the meat companies from continuing to turn out tainted meat, but the statistic that was supposed to make me gasp in horror, was just plain misleading. The kind of misleading bullshit that the right uses ALL THE FLIPPING TIME. I just can't get on board with that. And the fact that a documentary whose sole aim was to say things I agree with would resort to such intentionally clumsy and lazy crap made me want to cram out of season strawberries down my gullet like they were going out of style just for spite. Counterproductive, I know.

So in short, my dear friends, and those new enemies I've picked up in the last paragraphs, I have a Caesar's Wife Should Be Beyond Reproach problem, and it prevents me from getting on board with groups, both formal and informal, whose platforms I agree with. And if I'm having this problem, I suspect others are too. It might be the reason why the left is always accused of being all over the place. We are. Nuance is our vice. Doubt our bedfellow. But I don't think the answer, the long-term answer, is to become as imprecise and disingenuous as the right can be. I'd like to posit an alternative, but I sadly don't have one at the moment. I'm working on it.


  1. I'm not sure how many times I can comment, "I'm with you," but there it is.

    I haven't read Pollan. I've heard him. I've heard Alice Waters. I've heard all the high-minded nonsense about why we should only eat blah blah blah. They annoy me.

    I'm proudly an omnivore and I've got no dilemma. I don't believe in factory raised meat, I do think that there needs to be more of a connection between us and our food. But at the same time, I'm totally offended by the elitist bullshit that is purported as the only possible alternative.

    Regarding the larger point, I'm with you on that too. The 24 hour news cycle and the punditocracy insist that any ideology collapses with the slightest dissent. It's maddening. And why I pretty much don't watch TV news.

  2. Along the lines of dissent, I'll make two points:

    -I'd think inspection should be proportionate to the amount of meat being processed, not the number of companies in the business. I do think that if a company has expanded a hundredfold that its inspections should similarly increase.

    -A good deal of the hunger issues in the world aren't due to a lack of food as much as a marketplace that prevents people from buying it. I'm not sure how I feel about genetically modified food of any kind, but the bigger issue for me is that I don't actually trust anyone producing, modifying or regulating it to actually be looking out for the consumer's health and safety.

  3. Come, join my lizard, I mean robot, I mean, crap, um, enlightened - yes that's it - army.

    But, wait a sec. I won't fall for this. You are attempting to lull me into a false sense of security wherein I will unburden myself of embarrassing secrets such as I don't read the New Yorker or listen to NPR because both are boring and self-important, I don't think David Sedaris is our generation's George Orwell, and I'm not anti-gun. Then they'll come for me.

    Also "punditocracy" = teh awsum!

  4. Clay,
    Agreed on both points. What I objected to in the first was the attempt to make it seem as though a horrible miscarriage was taking place when a non-partisan argument could be made for fewer processing plants = fewer inspections.

    As for the second, it's why I eat and shop the way I do. I trust Dan, my chicken guy, more than I trust Frank Purdue - yet, and here's where I get into trouble, even if there is a .01% death from salmonella rate (which is ridiculously high to begin with) wouldn't I feed starving people Purdue chicken even as I myself wouldn't touch the shit?

    The part of the film I liked best was the interview with the founder of Stoneybrook Farms yogurt who essentially said that his old radical cronies could shove it if they were upset he sold his product at Wal-Mart because if his product is in demand at Wal-Mart it means even Wal-Mart shoppers are changing the ways they eat. He pointed out that if Wal-Mart says they don't want milk from cows with rgbh (which apparently they did last year), pretty soon no dairies will give their cows hormones because Wal-Mart is such a huge buyer and all the dairies want to compete.

    That made sense. Me likey sense.

  5. Am in a hurry, but wanted to make a small comment on your claim of misleading bullshit used by the right. The left also mislead. Politicians mislead. Period.

  6. Dumas, that was sort of the point. That I get hella pissed when the closest thing to "my guys" act like "the other guys." Caesar's wife...

    Crap, now I want to spend the evening watching I, Claudius. Again.