Monday, August 27, 2007

The Ladder of Perfection

Betsy Hart x-rays the souls of people who buy organic produce, and scolds them for feeling unjustifiably "virtuous."

Buying organics is a simplistic, quick-fix path to self-satisfaction, you see. Achieving true moral excellence requires nobler and more thoughtful efforts (beating up on queers, for instance).

Hart's arguments are fairly standard, initially:

In "Rethinking Organics" by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the doctor writes that while few things make people feel more "virtuous" than eating organic food, there's little evidence that they are either more nutritious or any safer for our bodies than traditionally grown produce with their fertilizers and pesticides.

Gee, you mean "organics" won't save the world after all?
So people buy products in order to make themselves feel better, eh? I'm not sure why this is news, given that we live in a country whose president told us to go shopping after a massive terrorist attack.

Not surprisingly, Hart ignores issues like pesticide run-off, land use, climate effects, and so forth. If each mouthful of organic food doesn't directly reduce your personal risk of developing cancer, there's no conceivable reason to buy it.

I should pause here to mention how tired I am of conservatarian blowhards pretending that some virtually nonexistent belief constitutes an oppressive orthodoxy:
Frozen vegetables — yikes — will typically preserve their nutrients more than fresh ones, of whatever organic or nonorganic stripe. Like any other living thing, vegetables start to break down once they are no longer living.)
Let this be a lesson to all those misguided souls who'd rather eat month-old carrots than frozen ones. (Don't count on organic farms to start selling frozen vegetables, though; it'd interfere with their pursuit of cheap grace.)

Next, we learn that organic produce is expensive. This would be an ideal place to discuss things like agricultural subsidies, antibiotic resistance, monoculture, pollution, the political clout of agribusiness, and so forth...but that'd distract readers from the main point, which is that people who buy organic food are stuck-up stickybeaks. Hart goes on to argue that if these modern Trimalchios insist on buying organic milk and eggs, they'll have less money left over for fruits and vegetables, and thus will end up in worse shape than before. It doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense to me, but she must know what she's talking about or they wouldn't have given her a radio show.

You know what the organic food movement is like, come to think of it? A religion!
But what most bothers me is that some of the claims of organic advocates almost resemble a crusade about saving family farms, and the environment and maybe next our souls by eating organic. Hence the slogan, "Think locally, act globally, buy organic."
So she has heard of the environment, after all. But if you're expecting her to demolish the claim that organic farming has any environmental benefits, forget about it. It's sufficient to say, yet again, that people who believe such things are preening grandstanders who ought to be kicked:
It's so easy to think of organics — or, rather, feel about organics — as some kind of cure-all and inherently virtuous along with things like recycling. (Never mind if the newspapers we self-righteously lug to the bottom of the driveway typically sit in huge warehouses before they're finally burned or buried.) It's no fun to have to think through a cost-benefit analysis. That requires, well, thinking.
On the other hand, it's sheer goddamn untrammeled bliss to be lectured about cost-benefit analysis by someone who believes that the price of conventional crops has something to do with their total cost of production.

After defending rationality by fixating on the haut-bourgeois filth who read and recycle newspapers, and recommending cost-benefit analysis while ignoring the political economy of agribusiness, Hart rejects smug, self-coddling consumerism by presenting it as her own ladder of perfection:
[I]n our culture, it's just easy, it just feels good ... to feel good.

Well, this is one gal who "thinks" it's just fine to buy lots of cheap, luscious-looking produce from the conventionally-farmed-food aisles at the grocery. I'm thinking locally, all right. About what's best for my family.
As you can see, Ms. Hart holds with Tertullian that "no soldier comes out to the campaign laden with luxuries, nor does he go to action from his comfortable chamber, but from the light and narrow tent, where every kind of hardness, roughness and unpleasantness must be put up with."

I hope you'll be inspired by her example the next time you're tempted to take the Easy Way Out.


The Kenosha Kid said...

There's also that whole "taste" thing, as in "free range chicken tastes better." But there I go, being self-righteous again.

Anonymous said...

I *heart* this blog for precisely this kind of post.

Rmj said...

I still don't get it. Why do people care if I spend more for organic foods?

Granted, the parking lot of Whole Foods is crowded with Beemers and Benzes and Lexi, and I remember the "original" Whole Foods (we call it "Whole Floods" because it flooded about once a year, in that location) as a little hippie place where the guy with dreadlocks on rollerblades (back when those were new, too!) carried bags out for you, smiling happily all the way. And yeah, it has become "whole paycheck," but it was always pricier.

But my wife has become a lettuce aficianado, and she points out that the organic from WF is substantially better lettuce, with substantially less waste, than the "conventional" stuff. The meat tastes better, the apples taste better, the milk (even skim, which wife and daughter drink like water) tastes like whole milk, etc., etc., etc.

Am I self-righteous to prefer my food taste like something? Am I arrogant to decline to eat at McDonald's or devour General Mills/Foods products? I mean, really: what's it to you?

And then there's the whole question of pesticides, runoff, global warming (what's the carbon footprint of a piece of fruit from Argentina? Even WF still imports stuff I'd rather wait and get locally and seasonally.), etc., etc.

But there I go again, being arrogant and haughty. I suppose I should keep my head down and eat crap. It's the American Way.

Rmj said...

Me, again.

You know, this entire fixation on food as "good for you" is a very American one. It's what put the name "Post" on everyone's breakfast table (though you'd never know it today).

So it's a funny kind of inversion for Ms. Hart to turn that concern for purity against the people buying organics for just that very American reason. As I mentioned before, I buy organics because they taste better. There's also the added benefit of reducing pesticide usage, reducing reliance on petro-chemicals, etc.

But can we consider the people "feeling virtuous" about what they eat is a very American predilection, and that if people are doing that, it may be because the culture taught them to think of food that way? Can we, in other words, just cut this Gordian knot and focus on sustainable agriculture (which would, of course, require that we focus on raising less livestock and eating more vegetables and fruits; France Moore Lappe had a point, after all) and simply on food that tastes good?

Or is that too un-American, too? What intrigues me is the explosion of interest in food (Food Network alone has made stars of otherwise uninteresting people) and in "good cooking." Yet nobody really seems to be doing anything but salivating at the windows of such cuisine, while we continue to stuff ourselves with...well, with crap. The great irony of this "revolution" is to watch Alton Brown "feasting on asphalt" as he eats nothing but fried stuff and searches in vain for vegetables up and down the Mississippi River. No virtuous dining in America's heartland, nosirree! Just lighter and darker shades of...brown.

But, of course, it's far more fun to mock "elitist snobs", especially having already created them by declaring food not sustenance or even cuisine, but dividing it into "healthy" and "unhealthy."

Feh. I'm adding nothing, now. But the peurile self-righteousness of people lik Hart and Sanjay Gupta just set me off.

Mike said...

It's a whole package thing.

If you are eating organic, you are (GASP) buying into the hippy ethos. As the song in Hair goes

"...we find the purpose of peace..."

you might enjoy your food, and realize that enjoyment is hampered by being dead, and that it might be nicer for some random villager in Vietnam (Iraq is just a bystander in the Vietnam do-over) to be enjoying tasty food than dead too.

Oh, yeah, same goes for sex.

Anonymous said...

What does this dingbat have to say about growing your own? Is that worse than organic? If you grow your own food, you can then choose exactly how to grow it, what to grow and if you wish to give it away when you get 12 tons of zucchini.
And why the heck does she even care who buys what from where? Who died and made her the goddess of shopping? Sheesh.
G in INdiana
P.S. Anyone who wants some zucchini please come and get it!!!!!

BK said...


Why do people care if I spend more for organic foods?

Particularly when so many giant, GOP-leaning firms are cashing in on producing them.

One of the most vocal Whole Foods critics I know has no problem paying top dollar for status-conferring geegaws, but acts like paying for a premium price for heirloom tomatoes is a mortal sin. My theory is that it's not the higher price that bugs them, but the tentative step towards consumer responsibility. To want to do good is a vice, apparently. Still...private vice equals public virtue, doesn't it?

It is all a darkness.

Am I self-righteous to prefer my food taste like something? Am I arrogant to decline to eat at McDonald's or devour General Mills/Foods products? I mean, really: what's it to you?

At the same time, it's not like it's really "virtuous" to eat healthy foods. I'm all for avoiding poison, but I don't expect a badge of courage for it. If you're worried about what you're feeding your kid, that's another still doesn't seem like "virtue," though. I think people are trying to ward off evil, really, and since "good" consumerism is easier than good citizenship, that's the route they choose. Why the Right finds it appropriate to respond with this sort of vulgar-Marxist sneering is beyond me. I think they're seriously misjudging their audience.

You know, this entire fixation on food as "good for you" is a very American one.

It's comforting to think that food can counteract the damage we do to ourselves, living the way we do. Personally, I suspect I'd be healthier and happier eating unwholesome food in a humane culture than wholesome food in a terrified, miserable, angry one.


you might enjoy your food, and realize that enjoyment is hampered by being dead

I think there's some truth to that. There's a morbid, resentful concern with other people's enjoyment behind a lot of this stuff. In Hart's case, the issue definitely seems to be the pleasure she thinks organic buyers feel; that's what she seems to be angry about, more than anything.

G in Indiana:

Who died and made her the goddess of shopping?

Leona Helmsley, maybe?

No zucchinis for me, thanks...I loathe 'em. And my town's up to its armpits in the stuff anyhow.

I'll gladly take some summer squash, though. I'll trade ya 17 pounds of blackberries.