The Washington Post today announced the start of a biweekly column on "the politics of food." At a time when news divisions are cutting back on nearly all forms of coverage, domestic and international, that in itself is an interesting bit of news. The first column by Ezra Klein is entitled "We're Getting a Bad Feeling About Our Food," which - by way of focusing some attention on the film "Food, Inc." - at once recognizes the legitimacy of contemporary concerns about the status of the food as well as what he sees as an element of fear-mongering in over-stating the dangers that lurk in our refrigerators ("does for the supermarket what 'Jaws' did for the beach...").
Klein (perhaps in the spirit of the PoMoCons) tut-tuts the fear-factoring that seems to be informing films like "Food Inc." or books like Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore's Dilemma." "The sense that something is wrong with our food quickly blurs into the suggestion that everything is wrong with our food." Still, he acknowledges that much of the growing concern about our food stems from a sense of deep ignorance and even alienation from the sustenance we put into our bodies: "We know rather less about our food than our grandparents did. In part, that's because the process of creating food in a lab is less familiar than the process of growing it in a garden."
While dismissiveness toward over-blown concerns might be the response of someone who can cite various studies about food safety, farm productivity and a general sense that things are generally just fine, all of that glosses over the deeper significance of the growing self-awareness of our profound disconnection from the sources of our sustenance. One sees this anxiety in the efforts to find out more about our food - including the desire to see and speak with the farmers who grow our vegetables or slaughter our meat at Farmer's markets - and in the quite amazing response to Matt Crawford's book Shop Class as Soul Craft (N.B.: I will be hosting a week-long symposium on the book in a week or two over at Front Porch Republic. Stay tuned).
I think these are signs that we are entering a time of reaction against the "blessings" that were bestowed upon my own generation in the form of a release from having to get your hands dirty. The children of those grandparents who knew something about food grew up in a period when - with America regnant - it was believed that we had a unique opportunity to unburden ourselves of the old connections that brought us closer to the world of stuff. We would be spared the burden of knowing how to raise some food, care for chickens, fix an engine, darn a sock, mend a dress,make strawberry preserves. Seen as a gift by a generation that swam in a sea of cheap oil, they in fact bequethed a profound sense of ignorance about the stuff of the world, a sense of disquiet about our incompetence, a profound anxiety about our inability to care for ourselves. And - unlike the false fear of the beach that the film 'Jaws' induced - this anxiety reflects our genuine condition. Within a generation most of us have lost the generalist skills and knowledge that was a matter of birthright to every previous human generation. We wuz robbed....
Interestingly, just below Klein's column was the story of a retired CIA operations officer who has, at the age of 55, begun farming his 11-acre yard. The article notes how hard the work is, and how much the new farmer, Jim Dunlap, has had to learn in the past few years. It also notes how difficult it would be for someone not in his rather more privileged position - with savings, credit history and a pension - to start the kind of work he's doing. Still, he's like one of thousands upon thousands of individuals who - confronting that same feeling of helplessness and disinheritance - have started in some way, larger or smaller, to re-learn the forgotten knowledge of our forbears, to repair the broken connection that was intended as a gift, but which we increasingly understand to be a curse.
It is a mistake to regard the current anxiety as nothing more than a fear of sharks. It is a deeper response of our human imperative to know through the actions of one's hands, through habits learned from standing beside one's mother or father, and through our own sense of accomplishment at task well done, that we live in a world that we know and understand and with which we are deeply connected. Dare one say, it is our own nature reasserting itself after too long engaging in its denial, aided by the ease and distraction that our destructive conquest of nature had briefly permitted, if briefly, and the temporary illusion that we had overcome that need to know?