Purify Thyself, and Share Thine Kombucha

By Graham Peterson

Michael Schulson has a piece over at the Daily Beast called “Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience.”  The only thing wrong with it, is that it doesn’t carry its mighty insights far enough.

Schulson’s basic point is that there is as much evidence to support most of the remedies and diet fads at Whole Foods as there is the idea that the Earth was created a few thousand years ago — and that it’s curious that the American Left gives Whole Foods an anti-science free pass while blasting religious conservatism for its psuedo-science.

I imagine that Schulson was using “temple” figuratively when he called Whole Foods one, but the use is properly literal.  Healthy food fanatics feel a moral imperative to constantly purify themselves, and shame and scold and advise others about lifestyle and diet choices, missioning The Truth.

Health food fanatics feel that they are privy to a great politico-industrial-environmental conspiracy against the population.  And the issue isn’t just economic, political, or environmental — it is above all a moral issue.  Communities concerned about moral impurity and injustice design rituals to correct for and cleanse such impurity and injustice.  Welcome to the strange concatenation of social justice politics and whole wheat bread.

It wouldn’t be such a big problem. as Schulson notes, if people kept their OCD political and spiritual hand washing to themselves.  But every sufficiently popular religion missions its message.

Clean Fooders feel an urgent need to lead their friends and family and the entire nation away from temptation and toward salvation, which involves shaming and reprimanding the diet and lifestyle decisions of those around them in concert with what the latest blog on the Paleo Diet recommends.  Moreover, this moral activism, like moralistic anti-abortion initiatives, turns to government intervention: developing countries for instance are banning genetic technologies that could feed people who need that food the most.

It’s worth trying to understand what logic motivates these behaviors.  The lesson here is deeper than “boohoo I don’t like government interference and people annoying each other.”

The organic food movement started in the 1960s, along with the co-opting of Eastern spiritual traditions, and a neo-Marxian revival, at the hands of back-to-the-land hippies who had a hopeful, and fantastically incorrect vision of history.  They concocted a historical myth with a curiously Judeo-Christian outline.

Once there was a garden of Eden, when we all lived in long houses and the whole village helped take care of the kids, all of our food was local and organic, and everyone spent their free time getting spun on Ayahuasca and connecting with the life force.  Then we ate the forbidden fruit and descended into a world of industrial sin, that is, profit.  But the second coming would not result from organized labor and communism, they would create heaven on earth with transcendental meditation, worker co-operatives, and a return to 15th century agricultural technologies.

Buried in all of these rituals is a theme of intimacy — intimacy with one’s own body, intimacy with one’s food and the neighbors who grew it.  The opposite of intimacy is alienation, and alienation of course comes from egoistic profit seeking.  With egoistic profit seeking comes big anonymous cities, a stranger growing one’s tomatoes, and (gasp!) machines.  Machines don’t milk cows with the dutiful and caressing love that Billy Joe did once on a resentful and freezing December morning, while he worried that his thin grain stores would last the family through the winter.

Highly educated, upper middle class white suburban Americans finally awoke in the 1960s to the reality that they were being transparently exploited by a cabal of agricultural industrialists who had lowered the price of food exponentially, improved food’s quality such that life expectancy had nearly tripled, and freed up incomes for existential consumption.  These forces were working to sully and poison us both biologically and socially.  Sullying and poisoning calls for purification, moral and physical.

There are three great ironies in this movement.  Firstly, the people who live on and spread terrific fear of modern technology and production processes, and who champion a return to rural village life, craft production, and other social and physical technologies of the 15th century — consider themselves not astonishingly conservative — but indeed society’s leading progressives.

Secondly, as Schulson deftly points out: there is buried among such “progressives,” a pseudo- and anti-science bias that constitutes a glaring double standard with evaluations of the ethics of the political Right.  The double standard, like most double standards, leads to an incoherent dehumanizing of formal and informal expressions of the political Right.

And thirdly, the outlet through which they express their simultaneous moral superiority and indignation, is owned and operated by an outspoken libertarian, John Mackey.

One thought on “Purify Thyself, and Share Thine Kombucha”

  1. The Schulson piece annoyed the hell out of me (yours not so much), and not because I align myself with the Clean Fooders. I think his priorities are wrong.

    As with most religions, of course, adherents to the whole food movement tend to be Sunday-morning, Easter-and-Christmas practitioners. Their hypocrisy is not only their faith in pseudoscience vis a vis food vs. their insistence that science prevail vis a vis science classrooms (I actually hate almost everyone on the atheist side of the public Creation v. Evolution debate, but that’s another topic). When you look at their practice rather than just their professions, Clean Fooders reveal a surprisingly weak faith in the whole food, anti-GMO, anti-corporate agriculture credo. Just as the overwhelming majority of the world’s Catholics don’t actually practice Catholicism except just a little, the overwhelming majority of Whole Foods customers – and people who espouse Clean Food doctrine – don’t actually live according to their professed credo, except just a little. In part because it’s virtually impossible to do so in our miraculously famine-free, big-ag First World society, but also in part because the vast majority of apparent Clean Fooders profess their faith far more than they practice it, and at the end of the day prefer convenience to creed – they still do a big bulk of their shopping at places other than Whole Foods. (The # of people who shop exclusively at Whole Foods or organic grocers/co-ops is extremely small.)

    And not all pseudoscience is created equal. This article annoyed me because it didn’t, as you say, take itself to its logical conclusion. If it had, it would have been forced to retract some of its jabs against, say, Ezekiel bread (which is marketed, correctly, as a healthy bread substitute for people with a gluten intolerance). Just because something is based on the Bible doesn’t make it “mystical” or nonsense. And where would we be without a little mystical nonsense in our lives? Does the author want the “kosher for passover” labels removed from our fine secular grocery stores every spring? Jewish dietary laws are more irrational than belief that Ezekiel bread is easier for certain people to digest. (They have Ezekiel bread in South Dakota, btw, which is roughly 3,000 nautical miles from the nearest Whole Foods, a place where uttering the words “I prefer organic” or suggesting the slightest hesitation about the ethics of large-scale corporate farming is likely to get you hanged upside down naked in a cornfield, or just plain shot. So this is hardly a Whole Foods-exclusive product. Full disclosure: I’ve never eaten Ezekiel bread. I prefer a diet that most enhances my odds of getting Type II Diabetes.)

    In short, many people we’d file under the “Clean Fooder” label are just cautious about what they eat, prefer “organic” produce for non-ideological reasons (I prefer in-season, “organic” tomatoes because anyone with eyes to see and tongues to taste knows they are 1,000x more flavorful than their cheaper, flavorless, white-pink cousins; same goes for most 100% whole grain bread, which is rarely available in the bread aisle at your typical grocery store), and believe GMO-products should be labeled not because there’s anything inherently wrong with GMOs, but because it’s good to have information about your food. I wish all food came with more information about its production and distribution. I wish all produces came with such information. Education about the scope and shape of the marketplace is healthful and produces a more informed society. I’ve lived in big cities and small farming communities; most people in the cities have no idea where their stuff comes from, and most people in farming communities have no idea where their stuff ultimately goes – including many of the farmers.

    In short: a better version of the original article would take into account the many gradations of belief among Whole Foods shoppers.

    Anyway, the trouble with articles like these, and with much of the neo-atheist movement, is that they conflate rationalism/reason (systems for organizing knowledge, the former with a French accent and the latter with a British accent) with science (a disinterested method – an activity – for producing knowledge). If a rational being strives to live and act within an accurate, consistent, reality-based framework, then he probably fails at least five times before breakfast. We all have habits and beliefs that, if investigated scientifically, would prove deeply irrational. Our lives depend on a degree of irrationality. Cognitive dissonance is a useful survival mechanism. [Sidebar: I don’t mean “rational” in the economic sense, but in the broader philosophical sense, a la rationalism as a reliable system of organizing knowledge that offers reliable access to truth/reality. If I understand the economic definition of rational behavior correctly, irrational behavior almost never occurs; what seems irrational on the surface is actually rational.]

    Anyway: if a person sets out to combat irrationality, he is doomed to fail. If he sets out to combat pseudoscience, it’s best to hem as closely to the science as possible. So many of these creationvevolution debates are conducted on non-scientific terms, because creationists move the terms as far from the scientific method as possible, forcing publicity-hungry public intellectuals away from the simple reality that speciation by natural selection is not merely a demonstrable fact, it is the underlying theory of all biology. They wind up arguing ontological or epistemological questions about the existence of God, which means they wind up boxing simultaneously above and below their weight. If I were a public intellectual in the natural sciences, I’d be far more concerned that the public understand of what science IS (not a thing in itself about which you can say, “this is scientific” or “that isn’t scientific,” but a method through which knowledge can be produced, tested, and retested over time – an activity) than with creationists who clearly have no interest in science.

    Because then you wind up with articles like this, which take on easy targets – people who shop at Whole Foods, only slightly less easy to mock than young earth Creationists (re: Portlandia, 99% of all comedy, 95% of all conservative political rhetoric) – and create the impression that, because the belief that GMOs are evil and post-industrial agriculture hurts us is both irrational and unfounded in science, they are therefore hypocrites for mocking Creationists…that Clean Fooders and Creationists are somehow equivalent. They’re not. I like your history of the Clean Fooders movement and I think, on the whole, it’s accurate. Their Edenism parallels all the other Edenisms that arose from 1960s New Left (the 1960s New Left can be defined, at least in part, by the replacement of Utopianism with Edenism).

    But Clean Fooders’ beliefs are founded in faith and/or faulty nutrition science, a branch of human physiology, a sub-branch of biology. Nutrition science is still young and constantly undergoing revision. Creationists’ beliefs are founded in faith and opposition to the single underlying and unifying theory of modern biology. One is demonstrably more irrational than the other, and one does more abuse to the scientific method than the other.


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