Monday, September 05, 2005

I'm an elitist? No . . . you're the elitist!

Thanks to Amy of Cooking with Amy for noting this one: Julie Powell (of the old Julie/Julia Project blog) has a recent New York Times editorial ("Don't Get Fresh With Me", 22 July 2005--okay, so maybe it isn't so recent, but I just read it for the first time) claiming the organic foods movement is "elitist", and this has created quite a hullaballoo on the blog circuit.

I don't want to get in the middle of the spat, but I do find it curious how everyone is throwing around the "elitist" label and trying to make it stick. Powell begins with the simple organic food costs more and there's snob appeal in buying it line, but her reasoning goes beyond a step further: "[the organic movement] equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics." By buying rainforest nuts and expensive fruit, organic food adherents place themselves morally above those poor schlubs shopping at Safeway. So, it's inherently elitist, see?

Many of the food bloggers who responded to Powell rightly point out that this is a straw man argument and that most organic foodists aren't sneering at low-income parents buying corporate food with WIC stamps. And, of course, they turn the elitist argument around and try to tar Powell with it. My favorite retort is Barbara Fisher's on Tigers & Strawberries:

I believe that the true elitists are those who shop at the cavernous, air-conditioned local grocery store and demand that completely unseasonable produce be available to them at all hours of the day or night, at prices that are kept artificially low by subsidized water, international trade agreements which squeeze small farmers out of business and cheap petroleum. . . . American consumers demand cheap food. They don't necessarily care if it tastes good, or is produced ethically or safely, but by God, it had better be cheap.

Somehow I doubt the typical American grocery shopper actively has the Guatemalan laborers in the front of their mind when deciding whether to buy grapes or not, and I doubt very many ever explicitly think, "I don't care what it costs the environment and foreign workers to produce my food as long as it's cheap because I am better than they are and I deserve it." Most, I figure, are probably just thinking, "Look--cheap strawberries!" and the source of such fruits never enters their mind.

Which brings up an interesting question: can you be an elitist and not know it? It seems to me that if someone is truly an elitist and you accuse them of being an elitist they will say, "Of course I am. That's because I am better than almost everyone else." Or, at least they will be thinking that but won't actually say it because of a sense of decorum or a desire not to get punched in the nose. I don't think either side of the debate falls into this category.


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