Hedgehogs

October 5, 2014

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Isaiah Berlin popularized this aphorism from Archilochus in his discussion of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history. I’m going to borrow from Berlin, but if you want to follow that tangent, you’ll have to fire up Google, because this is the Thornapple blog, where allusions to BIG THEMES are conscientiously left obscure. We’re here to talk about food.

But I do have some friends who teach about food who are hedgehogs.

And not to be entirely obscure, this means that no matter what the subject matter of “today’s lecture” there is always one take-home message. You want to talk about “going local,” or “eating organic” or “fair trade” or “gluten-free” or “sustainable” or “food safety” or “humane” or “anti-GMO” or whatever-hyphenated-anti/free-food-flavor-de jour? Well take your pick because for hedgehogs, the point of having this conversation is always the same. Now to be sure, the message that is the same may vary a bit from one hedgehog to another. Thank God for that little bit of novelty in the food movement. But if pressed I bet I could name at least a half dozen hedgehogs for whom the central message is remarkably similar.

So here’s one variety of that message: All of these adjectives that get introduced for discriminating between the good foods that we should be growing, purchasing and eating can be re-interpreted, twisted and re-deployed in support of powerful economic interests. No matter what scheme you come up with for sticking it to The Man, resisting oppression and saving the environment, the big boys of the industrial food system will find some way to profit from it. Are you pledging to buy only those “alternative” brands that are committed to healthy diets and fair treatment of their workforce? Well not so fast, Chucko, because Coca-Cola or General Mills will just find a way to buy them out. You can’t resist it. The power of the industrial food system is so pervasive that they will always find a way to pervert and control every strategy that arises to combat their domination.

Now lest I be misunderstood, my hedgehog friends are not endorsing this, much less trying to play Darth Vader: “Give up, Luke. Your anger only brings you closer to the Dark Side!” No, they believe that they are telling our impressionable undergraduates something that they did not already know. Heck, they think that they are telling me something that I don’t already know. I have to confess that I may not get it. My reaction to this kind of message is, “Well, duh! Doesn’t everyone who lives in an advertising rich social environment already know that?”

But au contraire, being informed of the pervasive nature of capital in our current milieu or its ability to shapeshift in response to every superficial trend in popular culture is supposed to be news. What I am compelled to take from this is that one of the following things must be true. It’s possible that my hedgehog friends have so little faith in their fellow human beings that they suppose them to be spectacularly stupid. And I must confess that there is depressing confirmatory evidence to be found for such a hypothesis, so how can I blame them? The alternative is that the hedgehogs themselves have had some transformational experience in which they were awakened from a prior state of naiveté, and they want to share that with all of us. I can relate to that, too, being awakened from a prior state of naiveté almost daily after my third cup of (industrially controlled and morally compromised) coffee.

But after I’m awake, I tend to be foxy. Did I miss something?

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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