Archive for December, 2010

A note about elitism

When I started this blog back in May, I was very deliberate in my choice of names for the blog. I chose to call it, “Say what, Michael Pollan?”, rather than “Eat what, Michael Pollan?” because I intended to write about Pollan’s words, rather than his choice of meals. Truth be told, I don’t care what he eats.

However, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between what one eats and what one writes about eating. If I were to walk past North Gate Hall, home of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, and see Michael Pollan with a bag from McDonald’s, I wouldn’t write about it. On the other hand, if I learned that Pollan actually ate a diet of “mostly plants”, outside of the meals he writes about, I’d continue to stand behind the criticism in my last post, that he “writes surprisingly little about the plant-based foods that he consumes.”

For better or for worse, Michael Pollan has established himself as a prominent advocate for better food in the United States.  His effectiveness as an advocate will be determined not just by the things he says as an advocate but also by the implicit messages in anything else he might write. When a prominent advocate for eating “mostly plants” describes his weekend of meat-based meals in detail, tweets a link to videos of butchering techniques, and never says much about the plant-based meals he eats, one gets the sense that he doesn’t think that plant-based food can be worth writing about. That kind of attitude can only be a barrier to general acceptance of a diet of mostly plants, which is why I offered to introduce Pollan to some plant-based food when I wrote to him over the summer.

When you combine an apparent lack of interest in plant-based food with Pollan’s acknowledgment (in the CBC interview quoted in my last post) that responsible meat-eating will be less democratic, it begins to feel like Pollan’s recommendation to eat mostly plants is a case of a rich guy telling the common people what to do.

Of course, this is hardly the only way in which perceptions of insensitivity to issues of social class might arise in the context of Pollan’s work. Indeed, TreeHugger writer Lloyd Alter wrote of The 36-Hour Dinner Party” that “in an issue [of The New York Times Magazine]…that talks about the importance of making real food accessible to all, it just doesn’t fit.” Last month, University of Washington epidemiologist Adam Drewnowski said to Newsweek of that piece, “Pollan is drawing a picture of class privilege that is as acute as anything written by Edith Wharton or Henry James.”

Now, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with Pollan eating like somebody who has a lot of money. What gets to be a bit bothersome is when he chooses to publish an account of his meals in a publication like The New York Times Magazine. Such a decision rests on an assumption that people are interested in reading about a bunch of wealthy people spending the better part of weekend preparing and eating expensive food. Moreover, when such a piece comes from a leading advocate for eating better, I worry that it distracts from the fact that food that is healthy and environmentally-sound is not the same as expensive gourmet food.

Of course, discussions of the class issues faced by the movement for better food tend to focus specifically on the fact that eating better tends to cost more. Social class, however, is about more than just money. It’s also about how people interact with each other. Thus, it is particularly ironic for Pollan to respond to concerns about the cost of good food by arguing that people waste money in other parts of their lives. That kind of judgment of the spending habits of those who are less affluent than he is precisely the sort of thing that will tend to foster perceptions that the food movement is elitist (as Jason Sheehan demonstrates).

Whether or not such statements are rooted in elitist attitudes could probably be the subject of a lengthy debate. However, I don’t consider that debate to be worth having. I have avoided taking a position on whether Pollan is elitist because I don’t think it matters. What I think is much less debatable is that insensitivity to the less wealthy can do the food movement no good. Indeed, it is doubtful that, in evaluating Michael Pollan’s message, most people will engage in a lengthy discussion of whether it is elitist. However, it strikes me as probable that some people are less likely to listen to somebody who judges their spending as wasteful while flaunting his own privilege in the pages of The New York Times Magazine. It is for this reason that I have taken the trouble to comment on questions of elitism. My intention has never been to simply argue that he is elitist or hypocritical, as such an argument would serve no purpose.

I would stop short of arguing that Pollan has an obligation to choose his words to maximize the effectiveness of his message. However, he has taken the trouble to advocate publicly for better food, presumably because he cares about the harm that our current food system does to public health, the environment, and animals. If he cares enough to speak out, it seems reasonable that he should want to do so as effectively as possible. That would entail acting on an understanding that good advocacy requires more than just describing a problem and telling people what to do about it. I can think of no better way for him to accomplish that than by talking about some inexpensive meals that are compatible with his dietary advice.

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