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Are You What You Eat? Is that all?

The Washington Post today discovered the book/movement known as "Crunchy Cons," which is the term created by Dallas Morning News opinion editor and former New York Post columnist Rod Dreher for the "Birkenstocked Burkeans" who combine their cultural conservatism with a certain measure of environmentalism, living small, no TV for the kids, old-fashioned religion, etc.

I’ve been fascinated by the "Crunchy Cons" because it reminds me of some of the truly fascinating figures in the history of conservatism, among them Karl Hess, who wrote Barry Goldwater’s 1964 convention speech and then moved to a kind of earthy libertarian radicalism that turned him into, of all things, a community organizer in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington. (Hess’s theory was that the far left and far right converged, but he ultimately became a figure of the New Left.)

I don’t expect the careerist Crunchy Cons (who may or may not consist of more that Mr. and Mrs. Dreher) to be undergoing half the crazed odyssey of Hess, but it actually turns out that their movement amounts to basically nothing more than standard conservativism + shopping at Whole Foods.According to the Post, that’s the Crunchy Con difference: they like to eat tasty organic food. And apparently, at least according to the Post, most conservatives don’t: I guess they like their food steeped in petrochemical byproducts, just like they like their baby seals processed, reconstituted and frozen.

This is what passes for a movement or an ideological position these days? First, who doesn’t shop at Whole Foods? A lot of people: people who can’t afford it. But among the minority of us who benefited from the Bush tax cuts, we are all beneficiaries of a great change in the availability and variety of healthier foods. I’m very happy that I can buy a chicken that’s not from Frank Perdue and I’ll pay more for it because I can.

But that is not a political stance. It is the mistaking of a consumer preference -- and a preference that is limited by economic inequality -- to some sort of public action.

My friend Kevin Mattson wrote an essay on the Commondreams website recently, based on his fine new biography of Upton Sinclair. He points out that Sinclair’s expose of the meat-packing industry in The Jungle was intended to be, and was, a spur to public action: passage of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. But Sinclair, he writes, was disappointed because he hoped for more sweeping change, gave up on reform and instead turned to dietary fads in a personal search for "perfect health." Kevin writes, "Sinclair’s experimentation in lifestyle change has replaced the more public solutions captured in the Meat Inspection Act and Sinclair’s dream for socialized slaughterhouses. This displacement suggests a wider transformation in the American conscience. We seem to have a hard time talking about public solutions for the many problems we face....“Lifestyle” politics – symbolized in the “whole food” markets that dot America’s suburbanized landscape – serve as the easiest means for people to feel that they’re doing something about the politics of food. Buying organic substitutes for considering ways we might improve the way we make and distribute and eat food collectively."

What’s amazing about the "Crunchy Cons" 15 minutes of fame is that we don’t even realize how far this is from a political stance. And if we don’t challenge the idea that your personal shopping preferences are a political act, we really can’t make the case for a politics of "common good" with much substance.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 4, 2006 | Permalink


Where you asleep when they invented political correctness? Of course boycotting Nike is political. Choosing a Prius or a bike over a Hummer could be political. It's just a politics that doesn't make use of our democratic system. Your complaint should be that it's inefficient, or sad, because you like our system and want to see it used. Or maybe you could justly complain that people are thereby fooling themselves into thinking they're making a difference when they're not. Maybe, maybe not. In event, it's unjust and unproductive to deny them credit for behavior that is at least partly motivated by a desire to change society in a good way and which does have some effect in that regard.

Posted by: MT | May 4, 2006 8:37:39 PM

I always feel I'm behaving politically when I shop at my local food co-op (or at a small neighborhood grocer) instead of the big grocery chains, and even more so when, as much as possible, I buy locally produced, small company produced, fair trade, in season organic foods. It's true it's tough for some people's pocketbook to shop this way, but I get the feeling a lot of people spend money on lattes and dining out and other "stuff" when they could be buying quality food. If we had more organics, they would eventually cost less, or we could broaden the scope of the food stamp program. Occasionally I see a Bush/Cheney bumper sticker in the parking lot at the food co-op and at first I really puzzled over it, but then I remembered that few of us like everything about our candidates, and perhaps these people value healthier food (and maybe even care about the land), but also thought Bush would "keep us safe." Buying organic isn't a substitute for political action, it is a partial response to a terrible food growing system we have created the last 60-70 years. Buying local, from small producers and organic isn't new, it's old! Feedlots, gas guzzling tractors, poisons (pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers), monocultures -- these are the new and radical ideas, and they are hurting our animals and destroying our soil.

I heard Michael Pollan speak on the radio recently about his new book The Omnivore's Dilemma. He described Whole Foods as simply an upscale shopping experience, not much different than a regular grocery. I think that's a bit unfair, since their products are quite different and their staff usually know something about healthy eating.

Of the posts that I have understood, this is the first time I am rather puzzled by what you wrote.

Posted by: Anne | May 4, 2006 9:38:14 PM

Au contraire, if your lifestyle reflects your vision of the future, you won't be as disturbed by the approach of that time as the people around you.

If you have your urban job and residence, and ride a bicycle or public transit, you are probably not hoist on the cruel petard of rising gas prices.

To me this seems so obvious almost as to preclude further comment.

Posted by: serial catowner | May 6, 2006 11:31:05 AM

The question 'whether you are what you eat' can be further illustrated by the statement, 'You are what you say you eat'
A concept that might be thought a touch Monty Pythonesque, for any readers who remember. But read the 17 page paper written by outstanding Astrophysicist Edward Kolb on the value of the Hamentaschen and the Latke and you will understand.

Posted by: bigboss | May 7, 2006 10:25:36 AM

Crunchy Cons seem to spend alot of time demonizing the left which, I suppose, validates the Con part of the moniker. Their real complaint should be against the rhetoric of the right that associates the things they love with knee-jerk liberalism. If the CCs want to profess a sort of green facism it's their right but their aim is no better than Bush's who wars with a secular nation in response to an attack by a theocratic terrorist.

Posted by: LowLife | May 8, 2006 9:04:32 AM

Not to offend anyone who has commented but the very idea that someone would puzzle over why a Bush/Cheney voter would shop organic seems to validate Mark's argument. Are we really so immersed in identity politics that we can't imagine people shopping like we do but voting differently?

Also, while I agree with some commenters that consumer choices are, or can be, a kind of political action, I think Mark's point is that they don't go all that far. I live and work in Berkeley, CA, where there is a lot of really good, organic and/or local produce, and it doesn't necessarily cost all that much. But Berkeley is also an expensive place to live, and it's got more than its fair share of people who seem to feel that if their lifestyles were emulated by everyone else on the planet, all our problems would be solved. That's not a plan for collective action. I enjoy buying, cooking, and eating good, healthy food -- that's a big part of why I like living here. I don't own a car -- mostly I get around on bike, foot, and mass transit, and I am a member of the local carshare nonprofit. I have made, and continue to make, choices that are consistent with my way of thinking, and of course I think my way of thinking is a good one. But . . . my life does not a political program make.

Posted by: Mary | May 8, 2006 8:26:09 PM

I have to agree with some of these other comments here. It seems like pretty much everything we do today is a political statement. I mean, wherever your money is going is going to support something, and those companies may in turn be supporting something that you are now supporting through buying their product! So, although I'd like to believe that what I wear and eat is not who I am, I think in actuality it does say a lot about my political views!

Posted by: techwreck | May 9, 2006 5:57:33 PM

The Crunchy Con paradigm addresses sensibilities other than food preference. I am someone who is both an ardent environmentalist and a political conservative (dating to 1964). In Dreher's view (and mine), I am a Crunchy Con. I arrive at my environmental views through consideration of science and aesthetics, a belief in the primacy of local communities, and the concept of stewardship of Earth (which, in my case stems, in part, from Biblical precept). I have worked diligently with others on open space preservation, biodiversity protection, and the like, people with whom I would find every reason to disagree in the realm of political and social values. I feel an obligation to seize every attempt at making common purpose when circumstances allow. To do otherwise will lead to still more social fragmentation.

Posted by: Leo | May 9, 2006 11:05:16 PM

Ah, Karl Hess. I was just reminiscing a bit about meeting Hess in the early '70s, when he was clearly "hunting where the ducks were," specifically, he seemed to think that the most likely converts to his own form of libertarianism would be the Randites. He may well have been correct; a lot of them joined him for discussions after his talk.

I suspect the times were particularly ripe for that particular appeal. It's one thing to praise corporate capitalism when things are on an even keel; it's quite another when there's a war on that seems hungry for your blood, with the government and the corporations in obvious agreement as to whose blood it should be...

Posted by: James | May 12, 2006 7:49:16 PM

picking whole foods over, say, safeway (or, better yet, wal-mart) is entirely political. just as picking your local food co-op over whole foods is political. it's similar to making a donation to a political candidate -- you're choosing who you give your money to. are you giving it to a large corporation with right-wing values, an independent small-scale farmer, a progressive corporation that encourages ecological growing practices, or a company that relies on sweatshop labor. all of these are overtly political decisions.

an interesting book that deals with the political nature of eating is michael pollan's "the omnivore's dilemma." i highly recommend it. pollan is a fantastic writer, and the book makes some really interesting observations about this country's agricultural practices.

Posted by: dan | May 14, 2006 6:49:52 PM

To address the question in the title of this post... No, you're not what you eat. Ever. In fact, I think the real quote (not the mangled "You are what you eat") is much more instructive when considering the "Crunchy Cons":

"Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are."

Posted by: Bolo | May 18, 2006 5:17:00 PM

"who combine their cultural conservatism with a certain measure of environmentalism, living small, no TV for the kids, old-fashioned religion, etc."

I would like to point out that turning off the TV is also very much political. As is pointed out in this article by Robert Putnam, TV destroys social capital, and social
capital is essential for democracy to exist.


Also these Crunchy Cons by having no TV for the kids are improving the wellbeing of their children (perhaps their kids will grow up to be Democrats).


Also no TV means that they and their kids will be less consumeristic than they would otherwise be:







Remember TV = Soma

Posted by: Terry | May 22, 2006 4:08:28 AM

I liked Anne's comment - local food in UK doesn't work out too much more cost wise. There's more to what we eat than price. Tell that to the battery hen or the intensively farmed turkey. www.thelocalfoodcompany.co.uk

Posted by: Devon Girl | Jan 8, 2007 5:01:02 PM