“Blood and Soil”: Lierre Keith, Michael Pollan, and the Trouble with Locavore Politics

          Until very recently, the terms of what we might call human species right – the perceived, autogenous Recht of our species to appropriate, exploit, torment, and kill other sentient beings for any and all purposes, forever – were seen as natural and immutable, and so went unquestioned.[i] In the late 20th-century, however, an international social movement for animal liberation arose to challenge the terms of this presumed right, suggesting that it is both possible and desirable to forgo enslaving and killing other beings, for our sake as well as theirs. Yet even as that movement struggles to find its way in the teeth of government repression, widespread social prejudice, and an entrenched corporate-capitalist system based in animal exploitation, a group of intellectuals has risen up in determined political reaction against it. Like those who earlier mocked suffragism, opposed the abolition of slavery, or lifted their pens to decry civil rights for blacks, today’s anti-animal critics would discredit the movement before its critique can gain traction in the wider culture. Despite the shoddiness of their arguments, these critics find credulous readers, not because of the quality or novelty of their ideas, but because their prejudices happen to coincide with the bad conscience of the majority.

          The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith, is a recent entry in this new genre of apologia for human empire. It is noteworthy for showing us that that majority now includes a portion of the radical Left, which has received Keith’s intellectually dishonest book with apparent enthusiasm (enthusiastic blurbs from Alice Walker and Derrick Jensen accompany the book). With the wind of the locavore movement at her back and food writer Michael Pollan as her lodestar, Keith, a radical feminist turned animal farmer, sets out to destroy vegetarianism and, en passant, animal rights. The author’s own vegetarianism almost killed her, she tells us, and unless vegans and animal rights activists are stopped, they are going to destroy the earth. This frankly apocalyptic narrative sets The Vegetarian Myth apart from scholarly critiques of animal rights by philosophers on the Right. The Vegetarian Myth may be many things – a paean to diet fads, a primer on the sins of agriculture, a primitivist anti-vegetarian screed, a Bildungsroman of Keith’s passage from infantile veganism to the “adult knowledge” of the necessity of killing other beings. But as a literary form, its nearest cousin is the millenarian tract. With its determination to divide the world into friends and enemies, its willingness to scant reason and traduce fact to compel the reader to its fevered conclusions, and above all its steely determination to abolish a civilization it deems hopelessly corrupt and wholly evil, The Vegetarian Myth ultimately has more in common with John’s Revelation than with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Apocalypticism in leftist discourse is not new – but the use of apocalyptic rhetoric by an avowed leftist to attack a radical social movement may be. It is worth examining Keith’s arguments in some detail, if only as a symptom of the overdetermination of some quarters of contemporary leftist thought by capital.


Locavorism and the American Pastoral Ideal


Most of the educated public is by now familiar with the term “locavore.” Dovetailing with the urban guerilla gardening movement of the 1980s, the locavore movement in the US came to the fore of popular consciousness in 2006 with the publication of Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Behind the movement is a well-meaning desire for healthful, ecologically sustainable, socially just, and above all locally grown foods. Locavores favor small farms over big ones, organic and sustainable agricultural techniques, and backyard plots filled with chickens and other animals for DIY slaughter. Some locavores (like Keith) also subscribe to bioregionalism – the idea that we should only, or to the extent possible, consume foodstuffs that are native to our particular biotic region. Eating locally and growing one’s own food is said to build community and encourage sustainable farming practices. Prima facie, the virtues of locavorism are clear. Supporting local farmers, or family-owned farms, makes vastly more sense socially and ecologically than does supporting corporate giants like ConAgra or ADM. Moreover, like its sister Slow Food movement in Europe, locavorism is as much about affirming a communitarian ethos as an environmentalist land ethic. While locavorism is generally depicted as a progressive or leftist movement, however, that movement is more ideologically ambiguous than it at first appears to be.

          It first bears recalling that objections to industrialized agriculture have been with us for some time. In 1934, Lewis Mumford in Technics and Civilization noted the fallacy of equating mechanization of agriculture and commodification of food with social progress. While canning and refrigeration make sense, he wrote, “as a means of distributing a limited food supply over the year, or of making it available in areas distant from the place originally grown,” using “canned goods…in country districts when fresh fruit and vegetables are available comes to a vital and social loss.” Anticipating the objections of today’s locavores to excessive “food miles,” Mumford observed that there was “no virtue whatever in eating foods that are years old or that have been transported thousands of miles, when equally good foods are available without going out of the locality.”[ii] Public suspicion of corporate agriculture prompted others around the same time to sing the virtues of independent farming. In 1940, E.B. White gently mocked the “self-sustaining farm,” as he called it in a review in Harper’s of a popular book entitled, Practical Farming for Beginners. According to the publisher’s blurb on the book, Practical Farming “will be welcomed by ‘an increasing number of American people who, fed up with the pressure of city living, are going back to the land for their livelihood.’”[iii] Referring to the book’s author, White wrote, “Mr. Highstone’s book presents a formula for subsistence farming, that is, farming for consumption rather than for profit, farming to produce all one’s needs.”[iv] Highstone outlined an animal-based farm economy which fiercely proscribed the feeding of grain to livestock. “Mr. Highstone will have you buy nothing; and he is very stern about that. It’s forbidden, and if you start slipping and buy a bag of grain, the whole structure will topple.”[v]

          But Highstone’s book merely riffed on an age-old theme in American culture. A century earlier, Henry David Thoreau had offered his own version of the self-sustaining “gentleman farmer,” in Walden. Even then, the idea of the self-reliant agriculturist was a hundred years old and already deeply rooted in the American mythology. Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the first to make the American pastoral ideal into a full-fledged intellectual sensibility. In a letter in 1795, Jefferson tells his correspondent how much he enjoys his withdrawal from public life, which he “‘never liked,’” and how he has returned to his sheltered home “‘with infinite appetite, to the enjoyment of my farm, my family and my books, and…determined to meddle in nothing beyond their limits.’”[vi] Remarkably like Lierre Keith, who implies that we should break off all trade with other nations and peoples and even with other bioregions in North America too–she writes that we should consume only foodstuffs found within our own bioregion, which in my case, living in Massachusetts, means dandelions, burdock, and chipmunks, among other delectables–Jefferson tells a correspondent of his wish that the new American states “‘practice neither commerce nor navigation, but to stand with respect to Europe precisely on the footing of China. We should thus avoid wars, and all our citizens would be husbandsmen.’”[vii]

A renaissance of the Jeffersonian ideal of agricultural self-sufficiency can be seen today, in such phenomena as the vogue for local farmer’s markets, the food intelligentsia’s critique of agribusiness (films like Food, Inc. and Our Daily Bread), and in the popularity of FarmVille, the world’s most popular video game (played online by hundreds of millions of digital farmers on Facebook).[viii]  At times, the new “urban” pastoralism takes the form of anti-corporate critique. At other times–or even at the same time–it tends toward the right rather than left end of the political spectrum. Indeed, the locavores’ ideal of self-reliance, suspicion toward cosmopolitanism, and the fetish of the local into some deeply conservative strains in American culture.

First, proponents tell us that the solution to the ills of civilization are ready at hand, and that they can be discovered in voluntarist and individualistic actions whose aim is individual self-reliance. This is, at root, a libertarian vision rather than one of collective political action. Thus, we learn from one recent news report, more Americans are keeping “farm” animals and turning to home-grown killing to last out the economic recession, perhaps “to instill an invaluable sense of self-reliance.”[ix] As a sales rep for a large poultry supply company observes, “‘People are buying up guns and chickens and seed….That tells me people are wanting to depend on themselves.’”[x]

          Second, the organo-libertarian narrative of self-reliance is meanwhile connected to an identity-based aesthetic of self-realization. Food not only tastes better when it is locally grown; being “in touch” with the land bestows existential authenticity on the act of consumption, grounding it in ostensibly unmediated relations with producers. This fetish of the local can drift uneasily toward nativism:  native plants, native peoples, those who belong and those who do not. Even in the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson’s local-first attitude coincided with what Leo Marx describes as widespread “pious” popular aversion after the Revolution to European “sophistication, aristocracy, luxury, elegant language, etc.”  This was the period when the slogan “‘Buy American!’” was first heard in the streets, a slogan which signaled “that crude local products were preferable (on moral grounds, of course) to European finery.”