What do Tea Partiers and Jonathan Safran Foer have in common?

By Scott Korb

One afternoon last week, I read both Ben McGrath’s recent New Yorker piece, “The Movement,”about the rise of American Tea Party activism, and Michael Pollan’s new pamphlet-book Food Rules. Both are well reported – or, for those of you who have read The Omnivore’s Dilemmaand/or In Defense of Food, you’re asked to think back to the reporting behind those books while reading Food Rules. If you haven’t read those earlier books, Pollan asks you to trust him; indeed, that we ask journalists to tell us how to eat is one of his great American gripes. (And yet, here he is, telling us once again.) And both McGrath’s piece and Pollan’s book are worth reading. What’s more, each should take you about the same length of time to read.

Food Rules is little more than a list of 64, well, food rules – or what he calls “personal policies” – divided into three categories that will also be familiar to anyone who’s read Pollan before: I. Eat food. II. Mostly plants. III. Not too much. (This was originally formulated on the cover of theTimes Magazine as “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” which has a poetry to it that Pollan himself is sensitive to when people get it wrong.) And so we find here what he calls “pieces of food culture,” pithy lines such as: “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t” (#19); or, “Eat animals that have themselves eaten well” (#27); or, most simple of all: “Cook” (#63). This is, indeed, the definition of pithy.

Although in Food Rules Pollan is most concerned with returning culture and tradition to a central place in our meal planning, the needlessly complicated (in his view) questions that have shaped Dilemma and Defense – and before that The Botany of Desire – are just as often answered with a healthy serving of evolutionary science. For instance, it’s not that animal rightists such as Peter Singer and Jonathan Safran Foer are bad guys; it’s just that when they argue – with a “deep current of Puritanism” – against eating animals and in favor of what Pollan calls a “vegan utopia,” well, those animal philosophers “betray a deep ignorance about the workings of nature.” Again, Rule #27 of Food Rules begins with the words “eat animals” – just be sure that those animals have eaten well. This principle is as much about living with animals as we’ve evolved to live with them as it is about the nutritional quality and healthfulness of the (very little) meat we raise outside of the industrial food chain. It’s just this sort of material – from his wholehearted embrace of evolutionary science to his often skeptical approach to nutrition science – that Pollan has trimmed away from his arguments to create Food Rules. This doesn’t even seem like an argument any more. It’s a diet. And like all good diets, it’s nothing less than a way of living.

So what does any of this have to do with Ben McGrath’s New Yorker article about, as he calls it, “the social movement that helped take Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat away from the Democrats, and may have derailed the President’s chief domestic initiative”? As I said, the article is worth the under-an-hour you’ll spend on it. And unlike Food Rules, there’s nothing pithy about McGrath’s political reporting from Northern Kentucky and New York State’s District Twenty-three.

And yet, one thing the article does is to introduce your eponymous New Yorker reader (and reporter) to a right-wing world that, on the one hand, is just as Puritanical and utopian as we probably imagine it to be (so with Pollan and the lefty animal rightists), and on the other, is just as liable to surprise us as any claim that Peter Singer might just be an ignoramus. Standing in the first exhibit of the Creation Museum, the $27-million creation of Australian-born biblical literalist Ken Ham, McGrath reports: “The first exhibit showed two paleontologists, a Darwinist and a Biblical literalist, examining a fossil. ‘Depending on what your world view is, and what you believe and what you’ve been taught, you can look at the same thing and come to a different conclusion,’ [Tea Party activist Don] Seely explained.” This sounds to me like some deep ignorance of the workings of nature. (It sounded the same way when I visited the Creation Museum in December 2008. The museum claims there were “about fifty kinds” of dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark. About fifty?) And what’s more – perhaps worse – it sounds like deep ignorance of the workings of mythology.

At yet, at the same time, it also sounds not so different from Pollan in Food Rules, where he writes that science and culture represent “two different vocabularies, or ways of knowing.” And while Pollan would probably find a description of a 6,000-year-old earth profoundly stupid – much, much stupider than any animal rightist’s arguments against eating animals – its essential problem is the very same Puritanical utopianism that, in an animal rightist, results in a “decidedly citified version of ‘normal life,’ certainly one no farmer – indeed, no gardener – would recognize.” And what Pollan and McGrath have in common – and, believe me, had I not read these things the very same afternoon I doubt I’d be comparing them now – is a willingness to see people on their own terms, in their own country lives. Which is also a quality McGrath showcases in one of the country lives he writes about. McGrath encounters a man he calls the “Soros grumbler” at a Tea Party meeting in Boone County, Kentucky:

When he saw my notebook, he turned to Seely and asked, “Where’s he from, supposedly?” Informed that I live in New York, he replied, “There’s a nightmare right there.” What he had in mind was not a concentration of godless liberals, as it turned out, but something more troubling. “Major earthquake faults,” he said. “It’s hard in spots, but basically it’s like a bag of bricks.”

In other words, the problem with New York City is not that it’s a modern Gomorrah, it’s how closely – if you look under the surface – it resembles modern Port-au-Prince.

Pollan and McGrath don’t write without judgment. They just tend to be judgmental about the same thing: ignorance of the workings of nature and of our own human nature. They seem to understand that, despite the stupidity that we regularly have to pound our heads against – say that John McCain is a Communist or that for a domesticated chicken “the life of freedom is to be preferred” – as Pollan wagers, the “choral voice” of traditional and cultural wisdom often has a great deal more to teach us “than the voices of science and nature and government.”

Ultimately, what’s noteworthy about McGrath and Pollan is that they recognize that we have different vocabularies, and that, in the end, very few of us care enough to learn about each other. It’s easier to assume what is easier to believe. And it’s always easiest to believe what we already believe and what we’re told we’ve always believed. Who knew that Puritanism was the easier path?

Scott Korb, a writer and documentary editor, is coauthor, with Peter Bebergal, of The Faith Between Us and associate editor of the Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, the first and possibly only papers collection that will ever exist of a woman held in slavery. His latest book is Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine (Riverhead, March 2010). Scott currently teaches at New York University.