Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.


Mea Culpa: Cowardice and Politics

Readers of this website, if indeed any remain, deserve an explanation, if not an apology, for the long, unannounced, and unjustified hiatus this website has taken. I would like to spend a few words discussing why I stopped writing and where I find myself beginning again. I would like to think that my absence has been due to overwork and to a perhaps unhealthy obsession with the U.S. Presidential races. It is true that I have been both busier and more distracted this term than ever, but the real reason is, I daresay, rather more interesting than that.

I.

I noticed back in November that my writings here, and those thoughts that I found myself wanting to put down, had taken an unexpected turn from food law and policy particularly toward, for instance, community planning and urban design; poverty and subsistence living; feminism and the politics of domestic labor, and I didn’t like where this writing was taking me. I found myself saying in person and thinking about writing here some Unserious Ideas of the sort that No Reasonable Person Thinks. Thinking and writing against the conventional wisdom. I started to think thoughts that I worried were radical. I was worried that I could start sounding like one, or indeed that I could become one, and that following food politics as I had could easily turn my writing on food into a continuous jeremiad against contemporary modes of being and behaving rather than a discussion of law and policy.

In December I experienced, without really knowing it, a certain deeply-ingrained cowardice of thought, and it was that cowardice which has made me stop writing.

Part of it is law school, to be sure. One of my professors joked a few months ago that our law school (which, it must be said, is a rather well-regarded school) is really good at churning out insurance lawyers. Despite its rhetoric about “Making a Difference” we are all far more likely to succeed in the current system than to change that system, and therefore, to the extent that the system is not good, to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Over lox and bagels one Sunday my roommate said much the same thing in a different context, about law school making cowards of us all. Law school teaches us to reflexively support the system. Show me a rule, a law, an institution, and law school has conditioned me to believe that rule, law, or institution does more good than harm. How could it not? The system works. If a law were doing more harm than good, it would be repealed. Law school teaches us to keep shifting in scope — where a policy clearly harms, for instance, a neighborhood, we shift to arguing that an alternative would harm the state. Law school makes us slippery, but it makes us a particular kind of slippery, a kind which supports the existing order in return for prestige and responsibility and a great deal of money.

All of these observations have been observed more cleverly and more convincingly elsewhere. What is bothersome to me is the realization that they could apply to me, and that they could apply unconsciously, insidiously. The choice is rarely so stark as being called into the darkened office of the powerful man and being offered a briefcase of money: that scenario is unsubtle and stupid. The choice is more often whether we will say and do the things that we think are true or right without considering whether they fit neatly into the conventional wisdom and the received order. This is the sort of lesson that we often think applies to teenagers and smoking, for instance, but I see no reason why it fails to apply to adults and professionals.

For me, I was uncomfortable presenting myself as a lawyer, even pseudonymously, who believes that our food system is dysfunctional from top to bottom. Lawyers who want to be taken seriously don’t advocate that people should cook their own meals, in their own kitchens, from food grown in their own gardens and towns and communities. Lawyers who want to be taken seriously don’t challenge the reality that all adults have to work outside the home. We don’t challenge the reality that our economy is built on our inability to say, “I have enough. I don’t need a new car, a new house, a new video game system. I don’t need a television at all.”

Lawyers don’t challenge these realities because there are no clients who represent the interests of having enough. There are no clients in favor of putting away or throwing away the television set and spending that time putting in a garden. The local economy, the family-owned restaurant, the farm, the local manufacture of goods for local consumption — these things do not support the lawyer with his three hundred dollars an hour and his very expensive suit.

II.

I am reading a friend’s copy of Wendell Berry’s excellent collection of essays, Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community and last weekend I came across, in the final and eponymous essay, the following paragraph:

The “conservatives” promote the family as a sort of public icon, but they will not promote the economic integrity of the household or the community, which are the mainstays of family life. Under the sponsorship of “conservative” presidencies, the economy of the modern household, which one required the father to work away from home — a development that was bad enough — now requires the mother to work away from home as well. And this development has the wholehearted endorsement of “liberals,” who see the mother thus forced to spend her days away from her home and children as “liberated” — though nobody has yet seen the fathers thus forced away as “liberated.” Some feminists are thus in the curious position of opposing the mistreatment of women and yet advocating their participation in an economy in which everything is mistreated.

(To be sure, Mr. Berry is making the mistake of assuming that feminists who argue that woman should have the right to work outside the home are also arguing that woman should in fact work outside the home, however I can think of a significant number of feminists make exactly these two arguments, side by side. Mr. Berry’s greater point seems to be that participation in the larger economy opens oneself up to mistreatment, whether one is a man or a woman.)

It seemed to me that Mr. Berry was quite concisely making a point that I had clumsily hoped to make in Feminism v. Locavorism, and I felt suddenly ashamed. I had plowed through the preface to the book, “The Joy of Sales Resistance” with great relish and satisfaction (although I do not quite share Mr. Berry’s distain for hypertext). It is always heart-warming to find an author or a musician with whom one feels kinship, and I felt that in this book. But the further I read the more I realized how cowardly it was of me to have stopped writing here.

III.

I think that as adults, we are inclined to discount the effects of peer pressure as something that only works on children. I think this is because we confuse the term “peer pressure” with the activities being pressured, and once we are no longer of an age that we can be pressured into those activities, we believe that we can no longer be pressured into any activities. We believe we are immune.

Moreover, because we associate peer pressure with teenage vices, we assume that, if an activity is good or at least morally colorable, peer pressure isn’t and can’t be the mechanism that encourages us to engage in the activity. We don’t want to think that we have to be coerced into doing what’s right. If it’s what’s right, of course we were going to do it all along, and not because we were pressured into it.

It gets a dirty name, this kind of pressure, because we are conditioned to see its presence only when its effects are bad, but the pressure has all sorts of effects. It socializes us. It protects us from offending others, and keeps us swimming with the school. I suspect that social pressures do a lot of good in the world in terms of making sure we get along as well as we do.

Wendell Berry again, from the same book:

A conservation effort that concentrates only on the extremes of industrial abuse tends to suggest that the only abuses are the extreme ones when, in fact, the earth is probably suffering more from many small abuses than from a few large ones. By treating the spectacular abuses as exceptional, the powers that be would like to keep us from seeing that the industrial system (capitalist or communist or socialist) is in itself and by necessity of all of its assumptions extremely dangerous and damaging and that it exists to support an extremely dangerous and damaging way of life. The large abuses exist within and because of a pattern of smaller abuses.

You see where this is going. What’s acceptable and unacceptable — the way we’ve been pressured into behaving — has a dark side in the area of consumption, in the way we act in an economy. Nobody wants Exxon-Valdez, but everybody wants to drive their own car. Nobody wants the last manufacturing plant keeping the small town alive to shut down but everybody wants to pay less and less and less for household goods. Nobody wants to work a 70 hour week, but everybody wants a big flat-screen tv in the living room, and surround-sound, and better clothes and a new car for every driver every couple of years, and we want to replace them all cheaply when they break or when something new or different is sold (see, e.g., the early obsoleting of DVD by Blu-Ray, or any of a thousand other consumer goods advertising arms races).

I don’t mean to say that we fail to connect the dots between cheap goods from overseas and crippled local economies. Many people are able to see the causal links, but are unwilling to pay the social costs inherent in changing their consumption habits. And those who insist that we should change those consumption habits are ridiculed as anachronistic, as unrealistic, as overburdened by an embarrassing devotion to the natural world. (See, for instance, the characters portrayed by Jason Schwartzman and Mark Wahlberg in the film “I [Heart] Huckabee’s.”) The notion that we should all stop driving, for instance, is dismissed as unrealistic without an examination of why it is unrealistic.

The dismissal extends, I should add, all the way up to policy decisions on the international financial level. According to economist Ha-Joon Chang, from his fascinating book Bad Samaritans:

“[Proponents of the neo-liberal free-trade agenda] like to present globalization as an inevitable result of relentless developments in technologies of communication and transportation. They like to portray their critics as backward-looking ‘modern-day Luddites’ who ‘fight over who owns which olive tree’ …. It is argued that there is only one way to survive the historic tidal force that is globalization, and that is to put on the one-size-fits-all Golden Straitjacket which virtually all the successful economies have allegedly worn on their way to prosperity.”

IV.

Of course, it is indeed unrealistic to suggest that USians give up their cars and stop buying so much stuff. The system has been stacked against those options, with the result that people who argue for these things come across as radicals. “I live 15 miles from where I work, and in the afternoon I drive my kids between oboe lessons and soccer practice. How can I give up my car? And who has the time, anyway, to buy and prepare local food?”

It’s a real, and valid, question, but it also reveals something of how our choices contribute to the system. The thing is circular: the system which makes unrealistic certain lifestyles is only a system because so many people are already making choices which contribute to it. I emphasize that I am not saying that there is anything wrong, in the abstract, with living 15 miles from where one works, or taking the kids to oboe lessons and soccer practice. I am, however, saying that these decisions have effects which, when aggregated, may and probably do cost more than they benefit.

However the argument that we should choose to limit our participation in “normal” activities is not an argument that people who want to be taken seriously are able to make. It is an argument against not the excesses of our economy but against its ground-state.

This is precisely the sort of argument that feels unseemly for a law-student to make, not only because it is the sort of argument that people don’t take seriously, but also because it runs against the existing order and subverts the conventional wisdom about freedom of trade and lowered transaction costs, about opening borders and the global economy. About, quite possibly, strong property ownership rights being a prerequisite for other human rights. It runs against a lot of things that I tend to believe, actually.

So I stopped writing. And while I would like to say that I stopped writing out of a genuine conflict of values, it seems to me that such a conflict would probably make for some pretty good blogging, and that the conflict wasn’t the real reason to stop writing. I think that the real reason was that, as a law student, and as someone who was, and is, looking for work in the legal community, I did not believe that I could continue to pursue this line of thinking and questioning, even in private, even under a false name like this.

V.

The upshot of all of this — and I hasten to add this so as to avoid politically devastating charges of “elitism” — the upshot of all of this is not, I hope, for me to be relentlessly critical of virtually everything that U.S. and probably most first-world consumers (that is to say, “people” — and I often wonder at the objectification inherent in so ready a substitution) do on a day-to-day basis. I mean this on two levels. First, I would be deeply remiss, in the context of this sort of a mea culpa, to start pointing the finger around at other people for the simple fault of responding to the economic and social pressures that surround them. Certainly not after having spent so many words describing my own cowardice and how I believe it has operated in the context of writing on this website, to say nothing of how it has operated in my own consumption choices.

Second, it is important to distinguish between evaluating a person qua person and evaluating a person’s actions qua actions. This distinction is often missed in discussions of these sorts of categoric reforms by both sides, but more often (and, I suspect, deliberately) by those who argue in favor of the lifestyle quo ante. It is a rhetorical move that unfortunately seems to have a great deal of traction, and I hope to discuss it in a subsequent essay. For now suffice it to say that these arguments, the ones I have been barred by cowardice from making, should in no way be construed as critical of individuals or indeed of the larger institutions that make the first world such a varied, safe, and comfortable place to live.

The critique that others are making, and that I hope to add to, is of the systems put in place by those institutions, and of the culture fostered by those systems which serve not to increase an individual’s (particularly economic) choices but to limit them to the set of choices rigorously enforced by economic and social pressures. I hope to discuss these limitations in future essays, as they are numerous and complex.

This critique, as expressed in the world of food and food policy, has wound up creating some tentative alliances that make little sense in the current political spectrum. In an interview with “Crunchy Conservative” Rod Dreher, Michael Pollan apparently was “amused to learn that he’s got a following on the [political] Right … but he said that the more deeply he goes into writing about food culture, the more he’s discovering things that resonate with traditional conservatism.” To me, this is both intuitively correct and one of the best arguments that the traditional left-right categories are breaking down along new lines. Our politics will perforce evolve with our polities.

All of which is perhaps my way of saying that I am back. I hope to write three long-ish pieces a week and at least five smaller ones in between. I will probably have a few more editorial-type pieces to write as I try to come to terms with this new politics of food, but I have every hope of returning to writing about food and the law in short order. Thank you for coming back, and I hope you’ll stay.

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5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I’m glad to see you’re back. I almost took you out of my RSS reader. You have one of the more interesting blogs.

Comment by Nick

Great writing. I’ve been thinking about many of the same things as I consider law as a potential path.

Comment by Melissa

[…] presuppositions I’ve identified here are as good an indication as any of arguing against the excesses v. arguing against the ground-state. It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are positives to sending someone else to the […]

Pingback by The Power of Just-in-time Logistics, in the Palm of Your Hand « Law For Food

Thank you both for your kind words. I have missed being here.

Melissa: it is a difficult decision to make. Good luck to you. The question that seems the most relevant to me, and the one I should have had asked of me before law school, was “which of your goals can you accomplish without being a lawyer?”

I don’t know if I would have chosen not to go to law school, but I suspect that it would have made my time there more purposeful. Again, good luck to you.

Thanks for writing!

Comment by lawforfood

I’m glad you’re back, too. (I’m about a month behind in my RSS feed readings, or I would have replied sooner, and boy howdy I hear you about the involuntary hiatus thing, even as I find hope in the fact that you seem to be ending yours with awesomeness.) The other point of this comment is to recommend the book Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt (full title and shameless Amazon linkery: Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives). Long story short it’s about how graduate/professional school creates and reinforces the kind of intellectual cowardice you write about so eloquently here. Later on it’s about how to resist, but I haven’t yet read that far. All of which is to say: thank you for writing, and I look forward to reading more.

Comment by Tracy




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