One Straw Man Leads To Another

I quite admire Ramesh Ponnuru and am not especially inclined to get into a blog spat with him, but there is much in in his take on my take on Julie Gunlock’s take on Alice Waters (got all that?) that I have trouble understanding. He complains that I’m setting up a “strawman parade”, and that comparing Ms. Gunlock to my “putatively dimwitted and shallow students” is “unparodiably condescending”. But of course my students aren’t dimwitted or shallow at all, and I never implied otherwise: they’re perfectly intelligent and often hard-thinking Berkeley undergraduates whose convictions about the nature of value happen to find some parallels in some of Gunlock’s phrasing. Similarly, the claim that I was arguing that “only members of [my] crunchy-con club are allowed to venture criticisms of foodie celebrities” is as straw-mannish as they come: my point had only to do with the fairness of the criticisms, not with the imaginary club-memberships of the people who might want to offer them. And when Ponnuru objects that “Gunlock didn’t say […] that we shouldn’t pay ‘attention to taste’ or have ‘respect for the wisdom of the past’ with respect to eating”, I can’t help but feel that the parade is just continuing: for I never said that she said that, but only suggested that such considerations were being given unduly short shrift, and being set into an unnecessarily stark contrast with issues of cost, in her essay. As Ponnuru puts it about one of my alleged misrepresentations, “that’s just not the same thing”.

Was some of my phrasing snarky and condescending? (The tone of much of Gunlock’s essay – see for instance her second paragraph – strongly suggests to me that it simply could not have been unparodiably so.) Well, perhaps, and given that my central complaints had to do with Gunlock’s tone I’ll humbly apologize for my own. And if Gunlock really would agree, as Ponnuru says she would, that some foods are better than others, that “culinary excellence” is important, and so on, then I’ll happily second her on all of that. But then the problem is that if Gunlock agrees with me on those things then on most of the crucial issues at stake she will be agreeing with Alice Waters – or at least, with the flesh-and-blood Alice Waters whom I occasionally see at the grocery store, in contrast to the straw-stuffed figure who shows up in Gunlock’s essay. Does Waters – like, apparently, all the rest of us – have a way of putting things that can sometimes be clumsy, grating, even condescending? Surely. And can her take on what ails this world reasonably be judged a bit naive? Again, no doubt. But it’s possible to make these complaints while also acknowledging that much of what Waters is saying is quite important, that we do need to take more seriously the questions of what we eat, where it comes from, where we buy it, how we cook it, and whom we eat it with. And absent such an explicit acknowledgment of shared conviction, Gunlock’s combination of snark, condescension (I should know!), and paeans to the cost-cutting power of industrial agriculture reads like little more than an attempt to score a few rhetorical points by belittling those from the other side of the political aisle.

And that, perhaps more than anything else, is something that my prior experience with the politics of food – not to mention the politics of a whole host of other things – has left me with very little patience for.