Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Food Made Visible?

The opening section of Michael Pollan's piece in the latest New York Review, "The Food Movement, Rising," is entitled "Food Made Visible." He is writing about political visibility, and his description of the increase of this visibility took me back to my high school days. Actually, the trigger came not from Pollan himself but from one of the books he cited, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, whose basic argument was surprisingly well dramatized in Richard Linklater's 2006 film of the same name, because Schlosser himself cited a source that had a major impact on my high school study of American history, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair.

I suppose it was through my high school teacher telling us about this book that I first became aware of the concept of political visibility. He was less interested in what the book had to say than he was in the impact it had, more specifically its impact on a single person, President Theodore Roosevelt. As my teacher told the story, when Roosevelt read the book he "hit the ceiling," thus putting the wheels in motion for Federal regulation concerned with the food we eat.

As is the case with many high school narratives, this one was over-simplified. More accurately, Roosevelt had proposed such regulatory legislation before the book appeared but had to contend with a Senate that, as a whole, had little interest in such matters of regulation for the public good. According to Edmund Morris' Theodore Rex, Doubleday actually "cannily timed" the release of The Jungle "to coincide with Senate debate on a pure-food bill." Roosevelt did not "hit the ceiling" out of rage; but he probably reacted enthusiastically to the public support for this bill that was raised through the success of the book. It certainly helped him to enhance his reputation as a proponent of progressive thinking.

I raise this contrast between "high school myth" and reality as an example of just how elusive the concept of political visibility can be. The fact that the chief virtue of Fast Food Nation is the extent to which it retells much of the message of The Jungle may support the hypothesis that there is a "half-life" to progressive ideals, according to which they decay with the passage of time. Indeed, progressivism itself has decayed so much over the century since Roosevelt's presidency that one can barely detect it with a Geiger counter. The very concept is as much anathema to the Democratic Party as it is to the Republicans; and it is interesting to see that, while the current President labored long and hard to push through health care reform, any connection between food consumption and the need for health care seems to have been relegated to the First Lady.

More troubling is that Fast Food Nation, like The Jungle, is not just about the problems with the food we consume. Both books are also about the food production process, not only in matters of contamination but also regarding the alienating nature of the work itself. As the lack of health quality in what we eat that has faded from visibility, so has the deterioration of working conditions and the connection between that deterioration and general eating habits. Pollan summarizes this nicely:

The picture of the food company Schlosser painted resembles an upside-down version of the social compact sometimes referred to as "Fordism": instead of paying workers well enough to allow them to buy things like cars, as Henry Ford proposed to do, companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald's pay their workers so poorly that they can afford only the cheap, low-quality food these companies sell, creating a kind of nonvirtuous circle driving down both wages and the quality of food.

The decay of progressivism thus reflects the attrition of attention directed towards a deteriorating life style that benefits the rich and mighty at the expense of everyone else. It is the ultimate triumph of our consciousness industry, aimed at the "learned helplessness" of those not part of that "rich and mighty" of "the American ruling class." As I have previously suggested, such helplessness runs the risk of leading to rage; and that rage can just as easily lean against progressivism as towards it. Is it any wonder that what will probably be Tony Judt's final book carries the title Ill Fares the Land?

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