Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Doubling Down

What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.

“What the hell is it?” said Jimmy

“Those are chickens,” said Crake. “Chicken parts. Just the breasts, on this one. They’ve got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit.”

“But there aren’t any heads,” said Jimmy. He grasped the concept—he’d grow up with sus multiorganifer, after all—but this thing was going too far. At least the pigeons of his childhood hadn’t lacked heads.

“That’s the head in the middle,” said the woman. “There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump the nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those.”

“This is horrible,” said Jimmy. The thing was a nightmare. It was like an animal-protein tuber.


“Picture the sea-anemone body plan,” said Crake. “That helps.”

“But what’s it thinking?” said Jimmy.

—Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake


A few months back, KFC (neé Kentucky Fried Chicken) rolled out its
Double Down "sandwich" nationally. In case you've somehow missed it, which seems unlikely given the shitstorm of coverage this release engendered, the Double Down consists of two slices of bacon, two slices of cheese, and some kind of mayo-like sauce, all sandwiched between two chicken breasts, either fried or grilled, in lieu of bread. There's something wrong about it: when KFC was test marketing the Double Down last year, the commercial they ran found its way online, and many people -- myself included -- believed it was a fake. But, even in my incredulity upon learning that it actually existed, my concern that its existence testified to some terrible cynicism, I couldn't help but wonder: Could it actually be good? I might have sworn off chain fast food years ago, but the sheer wrongness of this beckoned, a bit.

Mark Morefored,
writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, sounded one of the more indignant alarms:

You got your chicken-like creature, your pig-like creature, your dairy cow-like creature, all wrapped in a $5 fistful of nausea, ready to strangle your heart and benumb your brain. God knows what's in the "special sauce." Maybe some sort of fish byproduct, just to round it all out. It's like a wild kingdom in your mouth! It's like a toxic zoo in your colon! It's like a suicide note from what's left of your brain! "If you eat this, you are a complete and total idiot, and we're through. Signed, You."

[...]

You [fast food executives] convince the less educated and the gullible that they are wrong, that this crap is actually a good value for your family, nutritious and safe to feed to children, even as you manufacture all the flavors, smells and meat-like textures in a giant lab and sell truckloads of the crap to the poorer classes, until they get fat and sick and die. Meanwhile, you employ cute cartoon characters and bright, funny mascots to lure in the next generation, to keep the cycle going.

Moreford's column, even as it attempts a structural critique (albeit one reliant on notional fast food magnates), expresses a clear sense of contempt for the people who would buy the Double Down. They're stupid, they're fat, they don't know the joy of eating like Alice Waters has taught. In many ways, it's the same critique Jamie Oliver
is levelling in his new show. It's quite easy for those of us who know better to sit back and laugh at the great unwashed and their stupidity.

Which reaction, you may note, mirrors the progressive response to the Tea Party movement, and, in both instances, bespeaks a major problem with the progressive response. That is, there's a reason people are drawn to the Double Down, just as there are reasons people are drawn to the Tea Party movement. Those who are offended by these things best try to understand those reasons, lest they only strengthen them though their condescension.

***

A few more words about Oliver's Food Revolution. Now that the six episode miniseries has run its course, anyone who watched all the episodes won't be too surprised at the outcome.

Further, the charge that Oliver levies against the whole of Huntington (and, by extension, America) is essentially one of laziness and ignorance: a modicum of personal responsibility and self-education about food could change the world. There's something to this, putting aside for the moment how such prescriptions ignore any structural or systemic critiques in favor of placing the onus on individuals. What troubles, though, about this one, is that Oliver's own ignorance about the systemic issues is used as a dramatic and rhetorical device: he doesn't know about the USDA guidelines that school lunch programs must adhere to, he knows only that these guidelines seem to stand in the way of his improving the food.

By valorizing his own ignorance, Oliver makes it much harder to criticize the ignorance of others as a moral failing.

One of the show's most telling moments comes in the second episode when Oliver performs "an experiment" that he has, he explains, performed several times before in England, an experiment that "never fails." (If the outcome is forgone, it is a demonstration, one wants to tell him, but "an experiment" it is.) In front of a group of children, Oliver butchers a chicken, removing the breasts, thighs, legs, and wings from the carcass. (No offal is discussed; certainly he isn't about to even bring up notions of chicken liver.) The children agree with Oliver that the parts removed from the carcass are the "good parts," he then proceeds to grind the carcass and the meat remaining on it -- bones, connective tissue and all -- in a food processor, and adds stabilizer and preservatives. He breads the paste, and fries it: he's demonstrated how a chicken nugget is made. And, contrary to his past experience with this experiment that never fails, the children all want to eat the chicken nugget he's just made in front of him. Is it manipulative? Of course it is, but it gets to a fundamental truth about the American consumer: origins don't matter.

I used to work in a restaurant that specialized in sausage. We prided ourselves on making it all in-house, grinding pork butt and mixing it by hand with spices before stuffing it into casings. Contrary to popular belief, it's not a gross process as long as one is comfortable with touching raw meat (which, if you're not, you perhaps should reconsider eating cooked meat, too). Still, customers would invariably assume that because of vaguely repeated (and largely accurate) tales of industrial sausage production, left over bits comprised the bulk of our sausage. More than once I heard customers suggest that they were probably eating pig anus, but at least it tasted good. Out of sight, out of mind then: even knowing that something's origin is probably stomach churning isn't enough to make the finished product unappetizing. At least, it's that way for a while. We have to be conditioned to reach that point of disinterest where a McDonald's burger can sound appetizing, even if we know what's probably in it, and the American food industry works hard to perpetuate such conditioning. Only after one undertakes a concerted effort to change does the burger start to sound less good. And, speaking from experience here, even then the thought of a Big Mac, in all its standardized, synthetic umami, can be pretty tempting. And I swore off chain fast food years ago, a promise I've kept, with I believe two exceptions, for at least five years. That smell, so tempting in my youth, still beckons, even if every rational chord tells me to resist.

Unintentionally, Oliver, by performing his failed "experiment," demonstrates one of the most troubling yet pervasive characteristics of the American mind: its irrationality. Knowing that something's bad or wrong isn't enough. Not when it tastes okay, at least.

***
On October 20 [1963], UN Day (which the far right answered by declaring "U.S. Day"), Adlai Stevenson, leaving Memorial Auditoriam after giving a speech, had been clomped on the head by a yelping picket wielding a sign reading "DOWN WITH THE UN." Stevenson insisted on confronting the woman before policemen whisked her away. "What is wrong?" he asked. "What do you want?" Mrs. Cora Frederickson, forty-seven, her face contorted, responded with gnomic fury: "Why are you like you are? Why don't you understand? If you don't know what's wrong, I don't know why. Everybody else does."
—Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm, 239.

The week following the passage of Health Care Reform rattled me, as it rattled many Americans. The vigilantism, the racism, the homophobic slurs, the bricks through windows—surely this is not my America, I thought. I was, of course, in denial. This is my America. My America is where Sara Palin's book is a best seller and she implores followers to reload, where Michael Steele's RNC website pictures Nancy Pelosi in front of a flaming background like some kind of she-demon, where Glen Beck can, with a straight face, explain to his audience that when detractors compare him to Father Coughlin, they couldn't be further offbase because Coughlin preached "social justice." This is my America.

Frank Rich, responding to the ugliness, penned a worthwhile column that suggested the rage of the Tea Party faction echoed the rage of some factions in the early 1960s, and represented a recognition that America was changing:

If Obama's first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House -- topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman -- would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It's not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver -- none of them major Democratic players in the health care push -- received a major share of last weekend's abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan ''Take our country back!,'' these are the people they want to take the country back from.

Rich's suggestion that the Tea Partiers represents not substantive objection to Democratic policies should be obvious, but the language with which he expresses it is worth noting: the Tea Partiers (and their fellow travelers) are not a movement which need be reckoned with, they are "a dwindling and threatened minority." Forget for a minute that racism and sexism and homophobia still exist—it's hard, I know -- and recognize what Rich here is suggesting: the gains made by marginalized groups in the past decades threatens those who perceive those gains as threatening their own privileged position. The Tea Partiers' rage is about a world in which merely being a white American who represents certain values will no longer be a source of privilege: they are watching their power dissolve as we move towards a more pluralist society.

There are a number of problems with this argument, not the least of which is how, by historicizing civil rights struggles, it suggests that America has achieved racial, gender and sexual-preference-based equality. The biggest problem is that, by so historicizing the struggles, it suggests the battles are over, and the vocal opponents of these groups will inevitably fade. In this, it is Rich who evokes the 1960s, and not his subject: his words echo those of the liberal intelligentsia who did not foresee that period's radical right reshaping American politics.

In The Radical Right, a 1962 essay collection he edited, Daniel Bell published an essay titled "The Dispossessed." By 1962, the John Birch Society had burst into the public consciousness, and Barry Goldwater had become, in some circles, a folk hero. What is most striking, to a modern reader of Bell's essay, is how familiar they immediately sound: if one didn't know they were in reference to the early 1960s, one might easily mistake them for a line from a recent column about the Tea Party movement.

I believe that the radical right is only a small minority, but it gains force from the confusion within the world of conservatism regarding the changing character of American life. What the right as a whole fears is the erosion of its own social position, the collapse of its power, the increasing incomprehensibility of a world—now overwhelmingly technical and complex—that has changed so drastically within a lifetime.

The right, thus, fights a rear-guard action. But its very anxieties illustrate the deep fissures that have opened in American society as a whole, as a result of the complex structural changes that have been taking place in the past thirty years or so. And more, they show that the historic American response to social crisis, the characteristic American style, is no longer adequate to the tasks.

Just as Rich would decades hence suggest Tea Party rage proceeded from the social changes anticipated by 1960s legislation and the civil rights movement, Bell argues that the rage of the 1960s radical right stemmed from rise of a new generation whose sensibilities were shaped by the New Deal.

While the Roosevelt administration created a host of new regulatory agencies, the judiciary, in its values and social outlook, largely reflected the ancien régime, and even though there was no entrenched bureaucracy [...] that would impede or distort these reforms, the lack of a broad intelligentsia made it difficult to staff the regulatory agencies without drawing in the business community, the trade associations , and the like. Thus, while the enactments of the Roosevelt administration seemed to many conservatives to be startlingly revolutionary, the business community—the main group whose power was abated—could, through the courts, Congress, and often the administrative agencies, modify substantially the restrictions of the regulations.

The paradoxical fact is that while the New Deal has lost much of its meaning on the ideological or rhetorical level, the fabric of the government, particularly the judiciary, has been rewoven with liberal thread so that on many significant issues—civil rights, minority-group protection, the extension of social welfare—the courts have been more liberal than the administrations. Only Congress, reflecting the disproportionate power of the rural areas and the established seniority system, has remained predominantly under conservative control.
Reading Bell nearly fifty years later, we see what he did not. The radical right would shape the political agenda in the ensuing decades. That a supposedly liberal President in the 1990s would finally undo the New Deal would seem a culmination of this agenda, were it not for the President who followed him in the Aughts. Indeed, the radical right of the 1960s, even if it never elected Goldwater, sewed the seeds of of the movement that would elect Ronald Reagan and, later, George W. Bush, precisely because of these politicians' rhetorical appeals to Americanism. This shouldn't have been so hard to see.

But the American left, in the early 1960s, was not quite ready to look ahead in such ways. In 1949, Lionel Trilling, in a colossal misstatement, suggested that "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation." Of course, five years before Trilling wrote this, Hayek published The Road to Serfdom; half a decade after Trilling's proclamation, William F. Buckley would found National Review. What Trilling meant, of course, is that it was the plain fact in 1949 that nobody Trilling and his circle took seriously conservative ideas. While the radical right that would manifest itself a decade later might very well have been the result of what Trilling did allow for, the conservative and reactionary "impulses [that] are strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know," the intellectuals who wrote the right of as mere "impulses" didn't recognize that, through that impulse, a distinct intellectual tradition would be embedded in the American consciousness. Even if a John Birch Society member believed in the paranoid conspiratorial tales the organization's founder Robert Welch disseminated, and even if those tales were, to any onlooker, obviously only shared by a lunatic fringe, this fringe's support of other politicians would help to calcify American conservatism. By writing this fringe off as evidence only of an impulse, the American left set themselves up to lose ground they have yet to regain.

***

Let's look a little bit at that impulse. Let's pretend for a second that, even if we find ourselves put off by it, it maybe makes sense. Let's try to empathize, rather than merely pointing fingers.

By way of example, I offer the following story.

I support gun control laws—not a radical position, I know. I also, until 2002, had never fired a gun. That was the summer when my neighbor Matt, an affable drunken twentysomething, asked me if I wanted to go shooting with him and some friends, a group of Irish girls all living next door to us for the summer. "We can't do this in Ireland," one of the girls explained, "so it's on our list. And it's Ladies Night! We get free gun rentals!" Looking at my Irish neighbors, I decided I couldn't say no.

We got to the range safely—I mention this only because the likelihood that Matt, our driver, was intoxicated seems, in my memory, quite high—and procured our firearms and several boxes of ammunition. "Have any of you here got experience with firearms?" one of the range attendants asked, and my neighbor, the drunken one, volunteered that he did. "I grew up in Georgia," he offered. The attendant was satisfied: "You'll all be listening to him then." So it was my neighbor, the one who I had to physically restrain from fighting with a bouncer after he got thrown out of a club, the one who didn't remember it the next day, but thanked me because his girlfriend told him to—he was the one who taught me how to fire a gun.

The experience of firing a gun didn't shake my faith in gun control laws. What it did change, however, was my conception of those who shot guns, and of what they saw in it. Because, holding that Glock? Squeezing the trigger? I felt a sense of power, of control unlike quite anything else I had ever experienced. (The .22, the first gave such a little pop; it wasn't until I moved up to the larger caliber that the charge came.) It wasn't exactly sexual, but I believe that, as passé as it might be to invoke Freud in explanation of such experience, it might also be accurate. Beyond that charge, I felt powerful. Nobody would challenge the man holding a loaded weapon in his hands, not when the holes on the paper target testified to his capability. An hour before, I'd been a lefty slacker; now, I was a marksman.

As we piled back into Matt's car, I realized what people meant when they talked about prying their guns from their cold dead hands. Obviously I couldn't quite fathom what it would like for guns to be my way of life, but for a second, I think, I glimpsed part of why they attracted people, and what peopled feared loosing because of gun control. While those who supported gun control talked about statistics, about violence, those who opposed it talked about values, about tradition. And neither side could hear the other, because neither side was actually speaking to the other's concern.

***

I recently moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn. A few blocks southwest from my apartment lies Ditmas Park, "up and coming," in real estate parlance. (The Observer says it's the lesbians who are the indicators of ascension, though I'm inclined to believe it's more accurately The National.) Where I'm at, though, is a little different. West Indian restaurants line Church Avenue, and distinctive Caribbean patois and creoles echo through the streets. When I tried to subscribe to the New York Times, I discovered I'd need to give the carrier a key to the lobby—I'd be the only one in my 40-odd unit building who subscribes.

There were other signs that I was a new element in the neighborhood. At Stop & Shop, the nearest full-service supermarket, the shallots I bought were rotten, as was much other produce. (I learned quickly to buy my produce at the vegetable stands on Church Avenue, at least until my CSA's season starts.) Still, I find myself at Stop & Shop at least once a week, usually to buy pantry staples or beer, and I, of course, look into the carts and baskets of those around me.

Many of those carts contain giant packages of toilet paper and paper towels, and I get the sense that there must be good prices on same, for on some days it has seemed every other customer had them. (For my part, I live alone, so I have no need for a 48 roll package of toilet paper; where would I even store it in my apartment?) As to foodstuffs, a relatively high percentage of customers pay using food stamps (or, I suppose, the electronic benefit cards that replaced the stamps).

And there was that night, I cannot forget, when the obese woman in front of me purchased over $60 worth of soda, each variety of which contained HFCS, and paid with her benefit card. And I felt myself starting to feel contemptuous, to feel indignant that, indeed, state benefits can be used to purchase products that, far from sustaining one, actually increase one's health problems. (I was not so angry over the story a few weeks ago about hipsters on food stamps, though I gather I was one of the only one. But, really, if you can use your food stamps to buy rabbit meat and tarragon, why not?)

The thing that the $60 of corn syrup-rich soda drove home to me was my own ambivalence about personal responsibility, because, for all the comfortable left's talk, in its discussions of the food supply and public health about how obesity is a class issue, it is hard to look at someone in a different class than yourself and feel empathy when they choose to do something that you, in your own cultural position, would consider, for lack of a better term, wrong. That test of cultural relativism is always harder than it should be, and this is what gives me pause: the sense of superiority that I couldn't escape feeling at that moment, even as I knew that I only arrived at that sense through the luck of being born into the class I was, and exercising the social mobility that accompanied being this class.

In a series of commercials funded by the Corn Refiners Association, the message that HFCS was no less healthy than sugar, and in the most troubling of these, the message is put in explicitly racial terms. The white woman who would tell the black woman the stuff she's feeding her kids is bad for her? She's the dumb one in the ad.

Some years back, a PBS documentary, People Like Us: Social Class in America featured a scene at a food bank, where one of the workers explained that, while the bank received donations of whole grain bread from a local bakery, it was the white, Wonder-like bread that was always the first to go. Sure, the donated whole grain bread would sell for several times the cost of the white bread, but those patronizing the food bank actually preferred the white bread.1 The lower classes have been culturally conditioned to prefer the food that was bad for them. And, now stories about how high-fat foods actually alter neurochemistry have begun to gain traction, and even those who can't be bothered to read Michael Pollan can get the thumnail sketch after watching Food, Inc., perhaps the tide is changing.

I suppose I represent one of those insufferable types who conflates healthfulness and political good in the food he eats.

And, if healthfulness becomes some kind of moral virtue (as, I'm afraid, it unconsciously does), then what of my exercising, my running, my cycling?

And it isn't, I might add, that I never ate fast food or led a sedentary life. Growing up, my father worked several jobs with odd hours—community college football coach, prep sports stringer—that kept him out of the house in the evenings. (During the day, he taught high school.) After my brother and I got off school, my father would pile us in the car and take us to practice for the evening, or to the game he had to cover for the newspaper, and we'd almost invariably eat something from a fast food drivethrough. As a teenager, I continued to eat this way, spending innumerable weekend evenings in a car parked in some half-empty parking lot, a bag from a drive through on the floor, arguing away the night with friends. I weighed about 230 pounds when I graduated from high school.

In six months I spent away at college, I lost about 50 pounds. I ate less there, and of what I ate, far, far less was fast food. Of course, I also started smoking cigarettes in earnest then, a practice I'd continue for the better part of the next decade. I mention this only to say, who am I to to judge how someone else lives their life? I'll be the first to get in line to call out the open secret of racially motivated menthol cigarette marketing, but that guy buying a loosie for a few coins in the bodega? While I might find myself physically repelled by the smoke—few things are more sanctimonious than an ex-smoker—I have a hard time looking down at the man buying the smoke.

***

The Tea Partiers have no clear analogue in what I've thus far discussed. Indeed, the largely nonwhite urban poor I notice in my neighborhood have little in common with the largely exurban and suburban Tea Party contingent. However, while the people in my neighborhood may be at a disproportionate risk of obesity and obesity-related diseases, those in my neighborhood are hardly the only ones. For if the progressive view maintains that obesity is a class issue, this view lacks a proper apparatus to explain those for whom class cannot explain their obesity.

These are the people who, effectively, chose poor health. I recognize this is not, in many circles, a popular statement. I know some would hear it, and would likely condemn me for my fat phobia. (Others, like Michael Ruhlmann, might applaud it.) But there comes a point when we have to say enough. Yes, the American food system is unhealthy. Yes, it's easier to eat fast food. But if you have the means to know better, and the means to eat better, will I feel the same sympathies if you develop Type 2 diabetes as if, for class reasons, you remained ignorant of these things?

For all the data served up in the much discussed New York Time/CBS News poll of Tea Party supporters, perhaps most revealing would have been what the poll didn't include: geographic data. The numbers tell a story of the Tea Partiers as cloistered amongst themselves: when 82% of them said the Tea Party movement represents the views of most Americans, it is clear that they do not know much about "most Americans," preferring instead to assume those they are surrounded by to represent "most Americans." And, of course, the data about who Tea Partiers most trust on the subject of the Tea Party bears this out, too: 45% most trusted other Tea Party members, to 37% who most trusted TV or Newspapers, though Nate Silver helpfully parsed the data to reveal quantitative evidence of Glenn Beck's influence.

I mean, it's not like eating bad food is limited to the willfully ignorant. Hell,
N+1 loves the Schnitzel & Things truck, and these are the people who offer not only a deep fried "schnitzel burger" but, prompted by all the talk around the Double Down, offered their own "Schnitzel Down." Thought to compare the handmade food of Schnitzel & Things to the industrial product that KFC sells may chafe, I would wager that the Schnitzel Down clocks in at a minimum of several hundred more calories than KFC's juggernaut. Is it only okay to gorge yourself it you do it knowingly? And how is that different that KFC in the first place?

Because the thing about the Double Down that its critics seemed, foolishly, to miss was that it was about being wrong. The sandwich wouldn't exist if it didn't seem somehow obscene. For many Americans, including, at times, a lot of foodie-types, that kind of excess may be justification for itself. You can't counter a desire to engage in unhealthy behavior by merely pointing out that the behavior is unhealthy, not when someone's aware of that desire. The unhealthiness is built in: take it away and you lose the desire, too.

***

It's not like I've got a solution to this. The data that revealed that, surprise, a plurality of Tea Partiers have actually more education than the average non-Tea Partier challenged notions that they're all just ignorant (though, I'll say for my part, I'm weary of education attained as a metric for intelligence or engagement or all that, even if there are correlations). Really, it's that they're actively wrong: they've been taught, whether by school or society or each other the world view they hold. That this world view is actually proud of its rejection of voices that might be able to offer compelling reasons it may not be right is, indeed, one of its characteristics.

This is a world view that assents to Sarah Palin's claims that it was environmentalists who led to the Gulf Coast spill. This is a world view that calls for less government while simultaneously looking to crack down on immigration. It's all rife with contradictions, but it's the very contradictions that provided the identity.

Perhaps it's all started to wane, anyway. It wouldn't surprise me. While the Glenn Becks and Sara Palins may have stoked the Tea Party fires, the lack of a proper leader basically ensured that unfocused rage couldn't last forever. Even historically, populist movements never lasted too long, be they led by William Jennings Bryant or Father Coughlin or Ross Perot. Always the pendulum swings back. Self correcting, and all that.

But even after the return of normalcy, the re-attainment of equilibrium, something ugly is left behind. The Tea Partiers, whether or not they're attending rallies, will have revealed something about themselves, and about America. They can learn and move on, but their hate will remain a scar.

There's something about ignoring reason that seems to mark Americans. It could have been one of the Four Freedoms—Freedom from Truth, or at least Freedom from Evidence. For we have all been told enough times that we are individuals and free and smart enough to know better.



----

1 That poor, nonwhite people may prefer unhealthy foods may, in fact, be a trope of discussions about class and health. In the Times' 2005 series about class in America, in one story following three heart attack victims of various classes and ethnicities, fiancée of the middle class African American man, a man whose affinity for fried foods the authors suggest is cultural, says of whole grains, "That we've got to work on...Well, we recently bought a bag of grain or something. I'm not used to that. We try to put it on the cereal. It'O.K."