Paula Deen’s Downfall and the Food Movement’s Future

I went walking with my mother yesterday, and the subject of Paula Deen’s sudden career implosion came up. My mom doesn’t follow food politics nearly as closely as I do, but she offered a perspective that I think is more perceptive than any journalistic analyses I’ve yet encountered of this past week’s events.

Regarding the abrupt unravelling of Deen’s career, in which she lost the contracts with The Food Network and Smithfield Foods that have made her a national figure, I thought the weirdest part of the story was the passionate outpouring from her fans, who have resorted to inept social networking campaigns in a doomed attempt to get Deen reinstated. My mother’s response to all this: of course these people love Deen, because she’s the ultimate enabler for unhealthy eating. She’s somebody who gets on TV and encourages people to load their diets with bacon and butter, and she makes people feel good about eating in the most decadent and health-destroying ways imaginable. Go ahead and eat yourself to diabetes or a stroke, and Paula Deen will cheer you on every step of the way.

To call Deen an enabler is the most insightful take on her fanbase I’ve yet heard. Deen, really, is the embodiment of everything abhorrent in America’s food culture. Her entire approach to diet is a throwback to the days before the rise of the modern food movement, which has turned into an unstoppable force ever since the 2006 publication of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

I regard Pollan as the flawed hero of the modern food movement—a man who had done tremendous good despite his frequent fetishizing of meat, his well-known disdain for engaging with animal advocates, and his remarkably careless approach to the facts. No matter Pollan’s shortcomings, his famous admonition to base your diet on “mostly plants” has gained rapid public acceptance in a way that a more overtly vegan message never could.

However deeply I disagree with ethically engaged food writers like Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Tom Philpott on important points related to the consumption of animal products, at least these people are all urging mainstream America to eat lower on the food chain—and to abandon factory farmed animal products entirely. By vegan standards, none of these people go far enough. But by the standards of the current American diet, their positions are probably as radical as it’s possible to be while still resonating with the general public. There’s a reason, after all, that no vegan writer is a tenth as popular as Michael Pollan, and it has nothing to do with writing talent, or the ability to articulate a well-researched and defensible position.

But while the core of the modern food politics movement led by Pollan stops too far short of perfection, Paula Deen represents the know-nothing, do-nothing, care-not-at-all approach to eating that in its own way is far more radical than the most fire-breathing vegan. When assessing the food politics movement, it’s useful to view diet as a spectrum, with Paula Deen on one end and the most obdurate vegan rhetoric on the other. Using this standard, we can reasonably place Pollan et al. on the vegan-leaning end of the spectrum, say around the 70 percent mark.

Maybe it’s more than 70 percent, maybe it’s less, but where exactly you’d put Pollan on the spectrum isn’t all that important. What is important is that, however much vegans might object to some of Pollan’s positions, at least the people in his camp are somewhat willing to engage on issues of animal cruelty, environmental concerns, and human health. Paula Deen, on the other hand, embodies the antithesis not just of veganism, but of meaningful dialog on the subject. The real problem with Deen isn’t her reliance on gobs and gobs of butter, but rather her outright refusal to even halfheartedly address any of the important issues of food politics. If Pollanism represents a willingness to engage on the most pressing food politics issues, Deenism represents an unyielding refusal. Bring up the ethical issues of gestation crates to someone in the Deen camp and what you’ll likely get is a Butthead-style laugh, and a response along the lines of, “But bacon is so tasty.”

Paula Deen has long been the least conscientious omnivore on the planet, someone only too happy to sell out to red meat and diabetes drug companies alike. And that is precisely why her audience adores her. Choose any food politics issue that matters—beak searing, methane production, antibiotics misuse, or whatever— and people in the Deen Camp will basically cover their ears and yell “Butter” over and over again until you go away.

And that, in the post-Pollan food era, no longer cuts it. As Steven Pinker suggests, the arc of history bends slowly toward ever-greater consciousness, decency, and non-violence—and an ever-increasing willingness to base our choices on information rather than ignorance.

None of this analysis is intended to demonize Paula Deen as a human being. Like everyone else, she surely has numerous virtues, and she’s undoubtedly a kind and loving person to her friends and family. But perhaps one’s stance on food politics can serve as a litmus test for the degree of consciousness you’ve attained in life. If that’s the case, it’s no wonder that it’s Deen, and not Pollan, whose career has self-destructed for using the N-word. No ethical issue is an island, and it’s impossible to completely ignore the issue of food politics without that moral lapse making itself evident in other important positions you hold.

By contrast, if you’re willing to engage the issue of food politics, even moderately, you’re almost certainly giving attention to the other key social issues of our day—whether we’re talking about race relations, gay marriage, drug policy, or whatever. A refusal to even entertain the ethical arguments on food is, increasingly, a sign of a person who is out of step with the arc of modern culture. And I believe we’re heading toward a time when refusing to think meaningfully about food politics will create a stigma that no public figure can afford. After all, factory farming’s future hinges on the existence of a supply of people who refuse to give food politics the slightest consideration. And the public is only getting less tolerant of animal cruelty, and the people who perpetuate it by refusing to pay attention.

So everyone concerned with food system reform can justifiably celebrate the fact that the most prominent advocate of willfully ignorant eating has lost her platform. It’s probably too great a stretch to hope that the Food Network will replace Deen with someone from the vegan camp, but food activists of every stripe should push hard for someone with at least Pollan-like sensibilities to take Deen’s place. With that accomplished, we will have reached another crucial milestone in the history of the food movement.

It’s important not to view the Deen empire’s disintegration with shadenfreude. What’s relevant here isn’t the meltdown of Deen’s career, but rather the marginalization of everything she represents. It’s precisely because Deen’s slot will no longer be filled by someone hostile to food industry reform that the events of this past week are a watershed in the food movement’s history. Never again will a person so adamantly opposed to considering the ethical dimension of food attain such a prominent position within America’s food culture.

We could look at the end of the Deen era as the exploding of the Death Star. Animal agribusiness’ leading promoter of unconscious eating has been obliterated, but the Empire remains. With Deen’s departure, it’s Anthony Bourdain who probably now personifies the extreme end of willful ignorance within our food system. He shares with Deen a more-or-less outright refusal to think seriously on important food issues, although he’s far more articulate than Deen and lacks her monumental stupidity. Bourdain is therefore a more formidable enemy of the food movement, as he’s far less likely than Deen to blunder his way out of the national spotlight.

But the growing size and power of the food movement means that the sun is setting on Bourdain as well. Bourdain will doubtless continue the Deen tradition of dodging every effort to talk seriously about the ethical issues related to food (the difference being that Bourdain sneers at the topics he wants to evade, whereas Deen ignores them entirely.) Regardless, it’s now clear how America’s conversation about food is likely to play out. Veganism represents the more conscious end of the spectrum, Bourdainism represents the least conscious—and the Pollan camp is guiding mainstream America away from meat-centered eating. In the years ahead, Bourdain and his followers will be increasingly marginalized by a society that is recognizing that how we eat is one of the key moral decisions of our time. Willful ignorance, where the ethical dimensions of food is concerned, is at long last in retreat.

Erik Marcus tweets from @Vegan. He is the author of Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, & Money and The Ultimate Vegan Guide.

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