Ever since this piece came out a few weeks ago in the Atlantic, responses and counter-responses have been piling up in my Google Reader feed. Generally, many in the vegan crowd (as an aside: it deserves saying that Erik Marcus just happens to run Vegan.com, but he doesn’t speak for the range of vegan activists–indeed, I’ve read excoriating reviews, Francione-style, ‘accusing’ him of being a compromiser…usually not a good thing in the Manichaean world of animal abolitionists) have, unsurprisingly, latched on to Myers’ broadside… unsurprisingly because Myers is himself vegan, a registered Green Party voter, and passing judgment from the curiously distant shores of South Korea. Locavores and compassionate carnivores like Nicollete Hahn Niman have, also unsurprisingly, taken up arms.
So who has the stronger argument? As with most such broadsides, I can’t help but feel that two vocal extremes are yelling past each other (or, as one of the comments put it, ‘one snobby elite attacking another snobby elite’), with everyone else sitting on the sidelines and scratching their heads. I think the generally angry responses to this piece interest me more than the piece itself, and partly I think it’s because Myers doesn’t clarify that his argument is essentially the same thing that Foer and Scully have said. And Scully actually said it better, if you can get past all the God talk:
Nobody likes being preached to, especially about meals and clothing. I sure don’t, and most of us who worry about animal welfare have learned to let the point [that people should dedicate their attention to 'serious human causes'] go. But spare us the haughty airs. If moral seriousness is the standard, I for one would rather be standing between duck and knife than going to the mat in angry defense of a table treat…In fact, let us just call things what they are. When a man’s love of finery clouds his moral judgment, that is vanity. When he lets a demanding palate make his moral choices, that is gluttony. When he ascribes the divine will to his own whims, that is pride. And when he gets angry at being reminded of animal suffering that his own daily choices might help avoid, that is moral cowardice. (Dominion, 121)
This, to me, is pretty much what Myers is arguing; he’s doing it obliquely, though, and in the process he casts too wide a net, catching sustainability-minded locavores with unarguably good intentions and (somewhat more arguably, but still defensibly) good arguments along with the haute Paula Deen caricatures.
Hahn-Niman’s response closes with the following paragraph:
The odd set of bedfellows—from Palin to Myers—launching accusations of elitism at the food movement share at least one trait: they remain stubbornly, willfully clueless about the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people in every corner of the country who are reshaping America’s food system. Making nutritious, safe, and yes, delicious food available to all people inspires much of their passion. My husband and I have met these people in every region of the country. They are young people setting up diversified farms; chefs dedicated to local, sustainable sourcing; community members establishing farmers’ markets; mothers and fathers remaking public school lunch programs, and on and on. They come from all incomes and every ethnicity. Few have wealth or political power. This is the real food movement, and one Myers should come here to learn about.
This provides a fair defense of food activism’s positive social, ecological, and human health benefits. It doesn’t, however, fundamentally alter the fact that the socially conscious foodie-ism she describes can be most of the above and still be elitist. (And elitism can have its merits! But the resurgence of anti-elitist populism in its various forms is a topic for another day…) Pollan might be right when he says that we should pay $7 for a dozen eggs–I probably would, if I knew what kind of animal treatment I was shelling out for, but also because I buy eggs relatively infrequently–but abstract arguments about negative externalities and economies of scale usually can’t compete with budget constraints.
Locavore-on-vegan infighting aside, the response to Myers’ piece demonstrates that food choices are indeed migrating from the private ethic to the public ethic, pace populists and libertarians, but different actors have very different conceptions of what that ethic should be. And I didn’t even mention the techno-Panglossians or their trade liberalizing siblings.