Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Food Stamps, Book Deals, and Prigs

I don't know why I continue to look at stuff like this: CNN Blog: Living on Food Stamps. I get mad when journalists discover what poor people have to do without. Fresh fruits and vegetables? Lean meat? Sushi? We had no idea humans could live without these things! Now, on to the latest fashion trends. Even when someone researches and writes a thoughtful analysis, like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, the press coverage devolves to "It's no fun being poor--who knew?"

It never occurred to me that these bone-headed "special investigations" were self-serving until I read Thoreau's Worst Nightmare by Michael Agger, who points out that "lifestyle experimentation" authors are striking a pose to get feature articles and book deals. Agger identifies Henry David Thoreau as the granddaddy of this genre:

After 150 years, Walden endures as a monument to frugality, solitude, and sophomore-year backpacking trips. Yet it's Thoreau's ulterior motive that has the most influence today. He was one of the first to use lifestyle experimentation as a means to becoming a published author. Going to live by the pond was a philosophical decision, but it was also something of a gimmick. And if you want to land a book deal, you gotta have a gimmick. Recently, with "green living" having grown into a thriving and profitable trend, the sons and daughters of Thoreau are thick on the ground. Not many retreat to the woods anymore, but there are infinite ways to circumscribe your life: eat only at McDonald's, live biblically, live virtually, spend nothing. Is it still possible to "live deliberately"? What wisdom do we take away from our postmodern cabins?

I read Walden as a teenager, at a time when the "young folks" were heading "back to the land" in a big way, and I felt like the only person in the world who wasn't moved by it. Now I find out I was on the same page as Robert Louis Stevenson.

....every ascetic choice implies a critique of those who aren't following the same path: I am giving up my car, therefore you are a selfish, earth-destroying auto addict. Also, extreme conservation...can turn people off to conserving at all. Thoreau took it on the chin from Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote of him, "So many negative superiorities begin to smack a little of the prig."

It also explains to me how so many bloggers and print authors get under my skin while writing about topics that ought to have my hearty approval--conservation, frugality, and country living come to mind. It's hard to avoid hinting that "If you're not doing it my way, you're naughty, wrong, and bad."

Hannibal blogger Larry Ayers recently referred to Agger's article: On Frugality and Anti-Consumerism. He has some interesting observations and a discussion among his commentors including one in verse by Joan.


Larry said...

Thanks for the reference, Rebecca!

I was a part of that "back-to-the-land" movement back in the 70s and 80s, and there now seems to be something of a revival going on these days.

It's difficult to resist the tendency to come off as "holier than thou" when you are resisting the strong consumerist trends of our society, especially when you are young.

I've been there, done that, and after more than thirty years of living in the sticks I'm enjoying the contrast of small town life. I've become more social as I've grown older.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Hey, Larry, I worry that I'm going to turn into a hermit, but I really like it out here on the ridge. Sort of the opposite of your situation. I lived in Washington D.C. for 15 years, and it was fun...for a while.

I grew up on a farm, and when I moved to New England, for grad school, I thought I'd fit in with the back-to-the-land hippies. Unfortunately, if you actually knew how to raise a garden, preserve produce, and milk goats, you were just too low class to tolerate.

You're right about that "holier than thou" attitude--it's hard to keep in check, and hard not to tweak when someone else shows it. Different times, I've thought about participating in some of the "frugal skills" websites, because I do know how to stretch a dollar, but I'd be sure to say the wrong thing and offend someone, somehow, and get into a flame war.