Writing for the New York Times must be one of the most stressful jobs on earth, given how many of its feature writers seem to be on the verge of psychological disintegration.
Consider the case of Julie Powell. She's worried that the Union Square farmers' market in New York - a perfectly lovely, innocuous, and inexpensive place that I used to visit every week - is "judging" her. Actually, she's not just worried about it; she's angry about it:
My worsening temper can be calibrated precisely not to the longer days but rather to another unrelenting symbol of the season: the blossoming farmers' market I walk through in Manhattan's Union Square. I confess that half an hour browsing in that utopia of produce - or the new Whole Foods Market at the square's south end - often leaves me longing for the antiseptic but nonjudgmental aisles of low-end supermarkets like Key Food or Western Beef.What this aberrant, idiosyncratic reflex has to do with the rest of us is anybody's guess. Most of us, I suspect, understand the desire of farmers to sell fresh produce direct to consumers and the desire of consumers to buy fresh produce direct from farmers. But where normal people see a commonplace free-market tradition going back centuries, Powell sees a conspiracy to make good people (e.g., her own sweet self) feel bad through the promotion of organic farming.
Since she has no rational justification for treating this weird stance as relevant to anyone but herself, she's obliged to conjure one up out of thin air. Thus, we learn that her "worsening temper" isn't caused by (for example) petty, carping priggishness, but by her exquisitely refined moral sense:
[T]here remains buried in this philosophy two things that just get my hackles up. The first and most dangerous aspect is the temptation of economic elitism. Of course, food has always been about class. In his classic meditation "The Physiology of Taste," first published in 1825, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin suggested a series of three "gastronomical tests," menus designed to expose the culinary sensitivity - or lack thereof - of one's dining companions...So we're expected to fret over the clear and present danger of "economic elitism," even though "food has always been about class." I also note that Powell is rapturously conversant with Brillat-Savarin, which is at least suggestive of economic elitism (as are most "lifestyle" features in the Times).
But no sooner does Powell announce that the temptation of economic elitism is the "most dangerous aspect" of organic groceries than she changes her mind:
This sort of garden-variety condescension is eternal, and relatively harmless.Shopping requires time and money, friends; please make a note of it.
What makes the snobbery of the organic movement more insidious is that it equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics. Eat wild Brazil nuts and save the rainforest. Buy more expensive organic fruit for your children and fight the national epidemic of childhood obesity. Support a local farmer and give economic power to responsible stewards of sustainable agriculture. There's nothing wrong with any of these choices, but they do require time and money.
The impossibility of following Powell's argument here makes me wonder if she missed her calling as a three-card monte dealer. Economic elitism is dangerous, but also eternal and relatively harmless. Ethical buying is insidious, but there's nothing wrong with it.
Of course, whether or not eating wild Brazil nuts actually helps the rainforest isn't worthy of discussion, any more than assessments of external costs or government subsidies are allowable when talking about relative prices. The only thing that matters is how your buying decisions make Powell - and the "low-end" shoppers she claims to represent - feel.
Now, there are many, many forms of conspicuous consumption that don't come in for this sort of dyspeptic pseudo-ethical scrutiny in the pages of the Times. What apparently bothers Powell - what always bothers commentators like Powell - is the mere concept of ethical buying. Loading up on status-conferring geegaws out of sheer cupidity is normal and laudable; I suspect that an article on the "insidious dangers" of paying $25,000 for a Rolex would never make it past the editors.
Gratifying one's palate with fois gras or veal or caviar is also normal. What Thorsten Veblen called "the ceremonial differentiation of the dietary" is perfectly acceptable, so long as it stems from hedonistic self-regard rather than from even the most tentative form of social concern. One may shop at Zabar's - or dine at Aureole - without sparing a thought for the clientele of Key Food. It's only when one pays premium prices for, say, fair-trade chocolate that one's motivations must be dissected and one's hidden selfishness or venality smoked out.
When you wed money to decency, you come perilously close to equating penury with immorality. The milk at Whole Foods is hormone-free; the milk at Western Beef is presumably full of the stuff - and substantially less expensive. The chicken at Whole Foods is organic and cage-free; the chicken at Western Beef is not. Is the woman who buys her children's food at the place where they take her food stamps therefore a bad mother?A very touching question. Or it would be, if it weren't for that fact that mainstream American political culture - from the President on down - already equates penury with immorality. Like other propositions of Social Darwinism, it's prominently represented in the GOP's domestic platform, where it serves as an argument against social welfare programs and bankruptcy protections.
Obviously, the mother who buys food at Western Beef or Key Food isn't "bad." But the system that sells her meat that's pumped full of hormones - or worse yet, antibiotics - is very bad indeed. Unfortunately, the fact that it's economically convenient, and therefore morally acceptable, to feed the poor on contaminated low-quality meat is not the issue for Powell. She's too busy worrying whether shoppers at "low-end" grocery stores are getting sneered at by effete upperclass snobs. From there, the oddball anthropomorphic notion that the Union Square farmers' market is "judgmental" is just one blind leap of illogic away.