On Consumption

and its lack of moral meaning.

I will make no statement about the moral character of people who vote for Joe Biden tomorrow, or who have done so already in early voting. There is diversity there, no doubt. I will, however, make the statement that the people who have or are going to vote for Donald Trump really fucking suck and don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves (unless it’s to fuck those other people over). Trump stands for white supremacy, patriarchy, general incurious stupidity, and about a million other terrible things. But I guess that’s also pretty synonymous with the United States project as a whole, so can I blame people?

I don’t make personal judgements on beef consumption because it’s ingrained in U.S. society, enforced through various cultural, traditional, and economic means. Can I blame people for being hungry when someone like Trump serves them precisely, if more openly and less respectably, precisely what the nation stands for right on a platter? I think so, yes; in this case, it works. It’s a matter of the brain, not the gut. Both, of course, are matters of the wallet.

This is all to say that voting for Biden or Trump (if you’re able and/or willing to vote, which I don’t believe is “harm reduction,” as too many have been saying) is a moral matter, but what you stuff down your gullet is not.

As Carla Martin told me in last Friday’s conversation, “If you go into a store and you buy food, you should be able to be assured, just in buying it, that it was somehow good for people, the environment, the economy, etc. That is not guaranteed in any way.” People are set up to fail in their consumption choices; this is the moral concern that should be up for discussion. Even the most conscientious consumer will trip up, whether out of ease or need or simply a desire for some sort of pleasure. Indeed, even I have eaten an M&M during the pandemic.

When the New York Times published a quiz using readers’ fridge contents to ask if people could distinguish between a Biden or Trump fridge, I was livid. I made some tweets about why that I deleted. I didn’t and don’t understand the political point of asking people to judge who would make the right or wrong choice in a moral matter by what they choose to buy at the grocery store. I write all the time about how individual consumption does matter, yes; it is support for the kind of world you want to live in, if you have the economic means and the time to prepare food from scratch. Most people do not live in that world. That’s a moral issue that needs to be rectified, along with the incredible government subsidies provided to agribusiness, not the purchase of gallons of milk. (As a vegan-leaning vegetarian, it does, on a personal level, hurt me to say this.)

What really got to me regarding the political point of doing this a week before election day is that I am concerned that people who do believe that their consumption is a moral matter might find common ground with Trump voters. We have the knowledge that 53% of white women voted for him in 2016. There are class- and race-based interests stoked by the realization that Trump voters aren’t all eating in whatever low-wage-induced manner might exist in the liberal imaginary. It makes people realize what they have in common with fellow citizens who do not care about the environment or climate change at all but might like the same yogurt. What, again, is the political point of this? It’s liberal optics, to make people realize they’re wrong about Trump voters, who can also be affluent—what purpose does this serve? There has already been so much softness in the media’s approach to these people, these open supporters of abject evil. (My thoughts on the Democrats—a center-right party at best—aren’t much kinder, but their corporate, xenophobic, imperialist, pro-police, pro-prison policies are the literal least we can hope for, apparently. AOC, though not as radical as lunatics on the right would want most of the country to believe, is good on this subject.)

I don’t think this quiz is going to change the outcome of the election, but I do think it points to considerations that are lacking when taste comes up. It’s a topic that people love to discuss but that literally means nothing. There was also the recent matter of Drake’s birthday menu, which was low-hanging fruit for public discussion and ridicule. It was, as Vice culture writer Bettina Makalintal pointed out, simply “suburban” food: the kind of stuff you may have thought was fancy when you were 10 years old. I maintain that this is the worst grounds for an argument because it doesn’t say anything about character, only cultural background, class, geography, etc.—basically, things that are fixed. It always kind of backfires, to my mind, to judge or even converse on these matters. You’re always going to alienate someone in conversations about taste, likely who was on your side on actual ideological matters.

As Elizabeth L. Cline recently wrote in her piece “The Twilight of the Ethical Consumer,” we must work toward thinking publicly rather than privately on matters of consumption—communally rather than individually. “Taste” can be a funny topic of polite conversation, but in the public sphere, it draws unnecessary lines and makes individual choice a reflection of something deeper—it’s not.

I don’t take this as a justification, as Cline does, to not make “ethical” choices as a consumer when possible, but I do agree that the fact that we have to make choices on these things is a massive public failure that was foisted upon us.

Ethical Consumers are a byproduct of epic neoliberal economic changes that took place in the 1980s and 1990s. Republicans staged a backlash against what they saw as government largesse, progressive overreach, and the mass movements of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War era (Democrats later jumped on the bandwagon). Neoliberalism spread the mantra that human needs and even solutions to social problems are best met by the marketplace and by capitalism—not government, civil society, or collective action. Out went strong environmental regulations, social welfare programs, labor unions, and, most crucially, our generations-long history and culture of how to make change through public rather than private means.

It shouldn’t be your choice whether to buy responsibly sourced items made by workers paid a fair wage; they should simply be ethically produced, which would mean there would be a lot less to consume at all, which should be the goal—how to survive without being consumers, because being consumers kills the planet. Let’s recall “Revolutionary Letter #17” by the recently departed Diane di Prima:


What am I saying? I think that we give both too much and not enough significance to what food means in U.S. culture. We want our consumption choices broadly validated, to mean that we are good people, but they don’t mean that. These choices signify themselves, nothing else. I don’t eat meat and I buy all sorts of stuff that has been sourced through the most ethical possible channels, that support agroecology. Am I a good person for that? No, I’m doing the actual least I can do as a person with some spare cash, a deep concern for the environment and small farmers, and no desire to eat animals. I really should be doing so much more on a real political and social level to change the food system. Food matters so much in terms of ecology, labor, animal welfare, economics—the list is endless. Where food doesn’t have moral value is in whether it tastes good to you or not. Which is all to say, let’s not care so much what other people eat. Let’s care about what they do.

On Wednesday, I will present to paid subscribers the first of my three gift guides: Cooking, Drinking, Reading. We’ll start, of course, with Cooking. These will all be recommendations for really well-made things that will last, and books that will be stained and referenced constantly.

Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature John Birdsall, author of the new James Beard biography The Man Who Ate Too Much.

For Good Beer Hunting, I wrote about how we’ve been drinking through the pandemic. An interview with Haley Nahman for her Maybe Baby podcast.

This section is going to be dull until I finish book 2 of My Struggle, which I am thoroughly enjoying. How does this man manage to pull me into Sweden while describing such a narrow experience? I don’t know! Never ruin Knausgaard for me, though—thank you. I’ll hear no hate.

More jackfruit biryani, à la Dishoom’s cookbook. Spicy zucchini. Black bean tacos galore, because they’re easy. I bought two of the best avocados I have ever had in my life at the farmers’ market last week. They were $3 each, and you know what? I was like, finally someone is charging what food is worth here, because often I am worried about people selling their food too cheaply. Anyway, this is a complex issue that I shouldn’t be talking about casually.