Tag Archives: argumentation

Elitism and food

I’m late to this party, but I’ve been on vacation for a few days. Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen are in a tiff, and the NYT’s former food critic Frank Bruni weighs in. Basically, Bourdain says Deen is destroying our health, and Deen says the expensive-ass foie gras eating foodie elitist isn’t one to talk.

I agree with Jane Black that Bourdain is really not one to talk, although he is of course free to do so. (I also agree that “values, priorities, and taste” may dictate more than “access and affordability” when it comes to our food habits) The CSM also has a reasonably balanced take here. Feministe, aggressive and race/class/gender-y as usual, makes some important points. And as usual, Nestle’s analysis about social movement and elitism-speak is spot on.

But the essence of this piece is that people can’t afford to spend more on healthy food, and in most cases I think think that’s just wrong. But it’s still used as a argument killing catch-all, and it will be until we address the shameful rates of food insecurity in this country.

The foodie-elitist conflation goes way back, and there’s been a lot of interesting pieces on politics and elitism recently. But what really bothers me is the unapologetic know-nothingness of a lot of these claims. They’re usually from the right, and they’re often openly anti-science. But the important point is that these kinds of arguments never get much beyond the base of Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement. (below)

This is no surprise, really. These tactics function as discussion stoppers — essentially the rhetorical equivalent of just telling somebody to shut up. I show this graph to my students every semester, in an effort to get them to argue higher up this curve. If it’s easier said than done in my college classroom, I can see we’re going to have trouble parsing Palin’s “real America” in the 24/7 soundbite culture.

Yes, cost matters. And yes, culture matters. But Nestle, quoting Schlosser, is right: “social movements have to begin somewhere and several began with elites but ended up helping the poor and disenfranchised—the civil rights, environmental and women’s movements, for example.” Addressing these issues will require all manner of solutions, from all manner of perspectives. Branching AmeriCorps off into a FoodCorps, for example, is one small and recent step. But it’s a start.

Oppression-speak and myopic “clarity”

This interview with UChicago’s Robert Pippin got me to thinking about the effects of seeing the world through oppression-tinted lenses, especially after rereading (for class) Jeff McMahan’s recent piece (from which the image above is lifted) on the desirability of mass predator eradication. Setting aside the fascinating discussions on Hegel, art, and modernity, I want to narrow in on how Marx famously ‘turned Hegel on his head’, and the effects of viewing the world through zero-sum oppressionscopes. Viewed in such a light, various complex symbioses can immediately be reduced to hierarchical power differentials of oppressors and oppressed. But is this accurate, and would ‘liberation’ lead to a better world? I’m going to have to equivocate: sometimes symbiosis is indeed mere parasitism, but sometimes it’s commensalism and sometimes it’s mutualism. We want to shoot for mutualism. (Duh.)

(Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of Wesleyan University, and although my major–the ‘dead white men’ College of Letters–set me on its own course, the PCU-ness of many of my classes left an undeniable mark. Personally, I loved being able to study a core of ‘great books’ while being challenged by a range of broadly ‘left’ disciplines in my coursework. While my gripe at the time was more with what I perceived as the nihilist tendencies of postmodernism (we’ve since come to terms, albeit cautiously), the idea that hierarchy and inequality were categorically unjust seemed an unquestioned axiom of many of my peers.)

I’ll start by saying that some forms of human-animal relations are, indeed, pretty overtly zero-sum in this respect. Battery cage egg production comes to mind, as this blog post rejecting incrementalism points out, but this is as much because of the economics of “commodity” production in an age of economic globalization as because of anything inherently wrong with animal husbandry. (There’s a whole literature rejecting ‘humane livestock’ and what Francione terms ‘new welfarism’, and others neocarnism, that would reject animal agriculture as inherent parasitical. I don’t want to get in to that argument right now, other than to say that I think it’s logically coherent–indeed, with the exception of some nutritionally vulnerable groups, we’re not obligate omnivores–but ignorant of “the way the world actually is”. In other words, yes, I’m an incrementalist.)

Maybe it’s because I’m a Rortyan pragmatist who cringes when I hear single-premise constructs about ethics and policy (hence the contradictory ‘myopic clarity’ schtick). Especially in the case of food politics, I don’t see the other 98% of the world agreeing with the vegan ethic’s principle of harm avoidance overriding all of our other distinct moral premises anytime soon.

Maybe I’m cynical, but I’m cynical in the sense that nobody, not even the most dedicated vegan, is truly “cruelty-free”, especially those of us urbanites who live under what Marx accurately termed alienation from the means of production. This even follows from the second law of thermodynamics and the nature of ecological pyramids: in order for us to live, other living matter must die. This is true for any organism that is not an autotroph…so until we start figuring out how to photosynthesize or chemosynthesize, we have to remove energy from the world to live. So yes, we should all endeavor to eat and live lower down on the resource/food web. But these kinds of ethical concerns are distinct from harm/care/suffering, and they need to be balanced against each other.

And I don’t say this as a cheap rhetorical tactic (to merely prop up counterarguments as if they somehow changed the reality in question: see the Dawkins elevatorgate (just Google it) for a primer on how not to say “your issue is unimportant because other important issues exist.” Which often descends into the caricature: “Why care about animals? Kids are starving in Africa!”)

I guess all I’m saying is that I think we live in a tragically configured moral universe (as Sandel said of Isaiah Berlin’s views), and while I’m not a conservative, I have a lot of respect for the Burkean idea that social engineering projects don’t take you where you think you want to go (cue the ecological nightmare that would be mass predator eradication). Then again, if I see compelling evidence that we can restructure the global food system–or global predator-prey interactions–to bring about a broadly sustainable vegan future, I’m down. I mean, if the Vulcans do it…But large-scale veganic agriculture without massive synthetic fertilizer use (and resultant dead zones) and backbreaking stoop labor is not on the near-term horizon. (This also gets us into a whole other debate: the Vandana Shiva small-scale future versus the Economist techno-sustainable large-scale future. Again, I don’t want to go there right now.)

That said, I think the rich world needs to start eating about 90% less meat and dairy, and I think serious policy efforts need to be made to keep the rapidly developing world–especially China–from following in our dietary footsteps. But things aren’t looking good. But just looking at all animal husbandry as equally illegitimate is to paint with a comically wide brush. But I guess that’s why I’m a welfarist. (It’s also because I don’t believe that rights–whether human or animal–are anything other than a(n enormously useful) social construct)…but that’s a topic for another post.)

It’s a stretch to say that the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, but, sadly, Yeats was on to something.