The organic vs. the undeserving

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, August 31, 2009 13:27 EDT
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Ed Kilgore has a really great must-read article about how the Republicans are pretending to be fans of Medicare to red-bait and race-bait elderly white people and others with good insurance on health care reform. It’s the same image of the “welfare queen” that Republicans (and neoliberals) have been humping for decades now, and of course it’s racist. The regular invocation of laziness to describe people considered unworthy—in this case, of buying insurance—is a coded racist stereotype. The mere whiff of the word “lazy” sets off the Republican base at this point to think of black people, though it’s worth noting that Ronald Reagan, who really took this kind of race-baiting to a new level, was more overt, using geographic signifiers and terms like “young bucks”, so there was no doubt who he was talking about. That it’s Michael Steele pushing this message changes nothing, and it just reminds me of how the conservative movement employs a small army of women to argue that women shouldn’t have very many rights.

A couple of good quotes from Kilgore’s piece:

But in all the well-deserved mockery of Steele, what went largely unnoticed was his implicit attempt to stoke resentment of the uninsured by the insured – more specifically, those insured by what Republicans normally call “socialized medicine.” He referred to retirees, present and future, as “the greatest generation” (a rather anachronistic reference since today’s 65-year-olds were actually born in 1944) whose right to exactly those Medicare benefits they currently receive should not be sacrificed to Obama’s “healthcare experiment.” At another point, Steele suggested that Democrats were trying to ration healthcare so as to make procedures less available to seniors, and more available to “young and middle-aged people.”…..

What’s most interesting, and dangerous, about the new “welfare wedge” is that it’s not about poor people who don’t work for a living. After all, most very poor families often already have health insurance (depending on where they live) via Medicaid, and those who don’t work these days generally don’t have the option of working. The target of “welfare” shouters seems to be the working poor, or middle-class minority families who are struggling to stay in the middle class.

Which is why the arguments that the uninsured are lazy and worthless really can’t be much else besides race-baiting, because the uninsured are mostly people who work, and mostly people who are either laid off and actively seeking work, victims of corporate policies that will get you to work 39 hours, 59 minutes a week (but not a minute more), or people working in small, entrepreneurial businesses. In other words, these are all people that are absolutely, 100% necessary to keep our economy running the way it does, unless you think we don’t need people such as construction workers. Yes, even the unemployed are necessary, since economists assure us they are necessary to restrain inflation. As a group, the uninsured are a whole lot less white than the protesters.

But we’ve been over this ground plenty on this blog, so I’d like to address the other “undeserving” narrative that’s cropping up, and it has its own kind of classism—the idea that the only thing that health care reform will do is redirect money from the healthy to the unhealthy, and that the unhealthy brought it on themselves. Digby posted a quote from Ashton Kutchner trotting this crap out on Bill Maher’s show.

“Frankly, I don’t want to pay for the guy who’s getting a triple-bypass because he’s eating fast food all day and deep-fried snickers bars. I don’t want to pay for him! Whether he’s wealthy or he’s not!”

Of course, Kutchner is paying for that guy. The mega ingestion of Snickers bars leading to triple bypass surgery is not a behavior confined to the uninsured, but I’d imagine is something that mostly happens amongst people with full-time jobs. Certainly the sort of sedentary desk jobs that are leading to these sorts of health problems are also the very jobs that are most likely to have good benefits. But obviously the narrative he’s plugging into is one floated by conservatives who expect you to picture poor people who live on unhealthy, high calorie diets because produce is forbiddingly expensive, or because they live in neighborhoods with no grocery stores, but that have a McDonald’s with its dollar menu on every block. I fail to see how this attitude isn’t just an updated version of the industrial age belief that the poor were there to be worked from childhood until they died in their early 30s, preferably while working.

But it’s apparently an easy trap for a lot of yuppie liberals to fall into, presumably because they’re involved in the cult of healthiness. Which is too bad, because I’m a cult member of good standing, though I’m not really an obsessive about it, and you’ll find me training for a marathon the day after you find me pulling my toenails out with a pair of pliers. It’s easy to slip from thinking that because you eat right and exercise, you’re never going to die—or that you’ll pass away quietly in your sleep sometime after you turn 100. Cause of death will be having finished all your work here. And if you think that I’m overstating the issue, I present to you exhibit 1: The anti-vaccinations nutters, who are almost all liberal yuppies who’ve convinced themselves their pantries full of organic food negate the need for vaccinations.

Which is why I was disappointed to see Michael Pollan defending Whole Foods against the boycott. Not that I think the boycott will amount to anything, since most boycotts don’t, and nor do I think that there’s any value in targeting businesses for right wing views, or else you’d have to disengage from pretty much all of them except Time Warner and some Microsoft products. But I appreciated the Whole Foods boycott, because I think it was a symbolic reminder that eating food labeled “organic” isn’t some kind of health tonic that will negate your need for health care. John Mackey’s opinion on the whole health care debate was only deemed important because Whole Foods is associated with healthiness, and therefore the whole thing was a way to strengthen the belief that the only reason we need universal health care is that “some people” are lazy and inattentive to their health. Of course, there’s lots of ways to get sick that have nothing to do with where your apples came from. The recent death of Ted Kennedy, who got brain cancer and didn’t die from any kind of abuse of his body, should be a somber enough reminder of that.

Of course, Pollan supports health care reform—and actually makes good points about how health care reform could lead to food reform—but the problem with these sorts of things is that most people just remember that Pollan defended Whole Foods, and thus feel reassured that their beliefs that the non-organic-eating don’t deserve health care are sound. Pollan’s more subtle message is going to get lost in the chest-puffing healthiness contests.

This is a little off-topic, but what the hell: Of course, I’m personally indifferent to the Whole Foods boycott, since I shop there maybe twice a year, and it’s almost always strictly for food that’s really bad for you, namely something from the epic candy/bakery section at their flagship store here in Austin. I buy most of my food from Central Market, which is a cheaper but way nicer version of that kind of grocery store, and from the farmer’s market. (Pollan would be happy—ours takes food stamps, and people do use the program.) That said, his full-throated defense of Whole Foods cracks me up. My grocery store has a lot of the kinds of products that the existence of Whole Foods has brought into being, and even though the word “organic” is stamped all over them, I have to say that they don’t fit even remotely in with Pollan’s rule about your great-grandmother recognizing it as food. (Or someone’s great-grandmother, at least. My great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize couscous as food, but a lot of great-grandmothers would.) For instance, yesterday at Central Market I saw this huge display of organic Pop Tarts. They were called something else, toaster pastries or something like that, and I almost took a picture of the display, since it cracked me up. Organic high fructose corn syrup is still high fructose corn syrup. And Whole Foods has been instrumental in the process of taking the same old crappy foods, repackaging them as organic, and convincing their consumers that this makes them somehow healthier.

I’m sure there’s an organic Snickers bar out by now, isn’t there?

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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