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.