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Help for the too-conscious liberal

Guest Blogger

Are you a Whole Foods-loving, hybrid-driving, solar-paneling, CFL-light-bulbing liberal? Must feel good. If you don't think too much about it. Cuz once you start thinking about it, it all gets a little muddy. That's the starting point for Fran Hawthorne's "The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism," due out from Beacon Press in April. Hawthorne wondered, How can I keep true to my values -- be a virtuous consumer whose choices don't encourage overseas sweatshops, support unfair trade, spoil the planet, give support to dictators? The deeper she looked the more complex it was to do the right thing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A couple of years ago, after I finished my third book, a colleague who shares my basic liberal worldview told me, “You ought to write a book about how great Whole Foods is.”

“Great?” I replied, aghast. “It’s a terrible company. It’s expensive, it’s a union-buster, and it puts local health-food shops out of business.”

“But it’s great because it sells organic and vegan food,” my colleague insisted.

You might expect liberals and conservatives to disagree on consumer issues like whether to boycott Wal-Mart or own a gun or buy a hybrid car. (Actually, even those distinctions are disappearing; more on that topic a little later.) This, however, was a debate between two liberal/progressive/environmental types.

That got me thinking about what other issues crop up in daily life where the “liberal” choice isn’t so clear -- or where there are too many, conflicting “liberal” choices. How do people resolve these contradictions? If I did some research, could I help them (and me) find a way out? When I asked friends to share their experiences, I was bombarded.

Here’s one example: A food coop seems like the epitome of politically correct/green/socially responsible living. It buys from local, organic farmers and distributors. Members work together to keep it running. How could any liberal oppose it?

Well, when the 15,000 members of my local coop each spend three hours a month stocking shelves, sweeping floors, and ringing up purchases, we are taking jobs that otherwise would be done at a supermarket by approximately 380 union workers.

Oops.

Contradictory demands pour out of the socially active woodwork – all of them swathed in self-righteousness. You should put solar panels on your roof. Plant a “green” roof. Don’t eat red meat. No, no, eating red meat is good for the planet if the cows graze on grass. Eat organic. But not imported organic.

It’s not just liberals who are pummeled by these contradictions. Concerns like clean air, healthful food, recycling, and supporting the little local business have become bipartisan values. Who wouldn’t like to bite into an apple that had no weird chemicals, hadn’t been trucked hundreds of miles, and didn’t cost more than some factory-processed version (if we could only find one)? No Democrat or Republican really wants to pay high gas prices or prop up petro-dictatorships.

And of course, the more mainstream these values become, the more businesses realize there’s money to be made in catering to such consumers -- thus making the values even more mainstream. Now Wal-Mart sells CFL light bulbs. McDonald’s stops carrying milk with genetically engineered hormones. BP gas claims it’s actually not about petroleum. (Never mind that its main product is derived from – um -- petroleum.)

Yet what amazed me most, as I dug further into my research, was how, even while the torrent of demands grew and grew, there seemed to be no common-sense relief valve, and no concern whatsoever about day-to-day costs. “The Overloaded Liberal” acknowledges that well-meaning people face conflicts, guilt, and quandaries in real life; that we can’t be socially perfect about everything, we can’t afford 100 percent virtue, and we certainly can’t put solar panels and green turf on our roofs at the same time.

Some of the ways I’ve resolved these conflicts in my own life will probably surprise or even annoy readers (from all sides of the political spectrum): I choose Costco over Whole Foods, any gas company over Lukoil (because of its ties to the Russian government), and while I try to avoid shampoo that’s tested on animals, I’m not vegetarian. I think community-supported agriculture groups are unrealistic. I’ll stay in my food coop despite my guilt over the union jobs issue, but I would walk out in an instant if the coop ever passed a proposed boycott of Israeli products. Hmm, am I an overloaded liberal or an overloaded conservative?

Then again, that’s the point of my book: Liberal or conservative, many of us are trying to live by our values, and none of us can do it all.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  March 8, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: liberal shopping; earth-friendly consumerism; liberal decision-making  
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Comments

Here is another example. Most liberals, who are not their customers, think that rural cooperatives for electric, telephone, etc. are great. I have been a customer of theirs for a long time. They provide poor quality, over priced service. They also engage in for-profit business, whose profits go to employees and board members not coop members. They are not democratic, the election for board members is as tightly controlled as Iranian elections. And if you think that they are liberal, most of the people who run them are political conservatives who curry favor with conservative politicians.

Posted by: Desertstraw | March 8, 2010 6:55 AM | Report abuse

Whole Foods is expensive? Well why don't you come to Vermont (which is Whole Foods-less) and sample one of our many co-ops and we'll see if you still consider Whole Foods to be expensive. No one seems to care since the consumer base of co-ops is dominated by flatlanders (out of staters) that moved from more urban areas (generally NY, NJ, CT, etc.) in search of the "better life." They also tend to be fairly wealthy or have a trust fund.

I have plenty of friends like this and when I complain about what a rip off my co-op is they seem bewildered. They think that doesn't matter (money isn't an issue for them) because they're doing something good for the environment, and of course it's local. Having said that, I guess I must be super-conscious, but not so liberal. I cut out the middle man (co-op) and go directly to the source, the farm. It's cheaper and I often barter services with the farmers. Once in a while I send a wealthy flatlander friend up to a farm. They come back wondering why the farmer was dismissive and gave them a strange look. They don't seem to understand how weird it is to a native to see someone drive several miles on dirt roads in a BMW (or a hybrid) to a farm then talk to the farmer about how great it is what they're doing for the enviroment and the local economy. A lot of people fail to realize that many farmers go organic because they cannot afford the GM crops and pesticides. Anyway, many liberals are super conscious but super spaced out and have no concept of how annoying they are to people in the communities they relocate to.

Posted by: justinshs | March 8, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Kudos to Steve Levingston for spotlighting an essential book on the persistent vexations of the modern liberal intellect! Every conservative will love it and every liberal should read it.

Posted by: dudefromthebronx | March 8, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

How 'bout liberal darling Steve Jobs, the billionaire who dodged child support for years (he was just a millionaire then) and had to be taken to court repeatedly for modest support payments?
and who eventually convinced millions of people to pay 99-cents for songs they were finding free online for 'copyright' infringements - that benefitted Apple as much as the artist? can you say monopoly?
and how now runs a company with proven Asian sweatshop factories that pollute and use/abuse child labor? all so the liberal darlin' can run a company with a 40% profit margin? that is theft, not business.
this is liberal and cool? what is cool about an iPad that blocks the video format that 80% of online videos run? trying to force you to use iTunes exclusively? why should the consumer have choice? is that cool?
snookered liberals. Steve Jobs has yours in a Dixie cup.

Posted by: FloridaChick | March 8, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

Nobody ever said sainthood was an easy career choice, but if you want to look down on others from above it will take a lot of work. Doing "the right thing" is only a small part of the burden, the really time-consuming part is making sure that everyone else knows what a good person you are.

Posted by: pyellman | March 8, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Who cares if "380 union jobs" are displaced by a co-op? If the co-op sells at exorbitant prices or treats workers badly, certainly we have a problem. But the jobs alone? The purpose of a business is to provide goods and services, not jobs. If you push for pure job creation as policy or as an ideal you'll end up with at best inefficient, at worst completely needless and money-losing industries. It may feel good to bring down the sledgehammer and cut straight to jobs, but in the long run you'll create more enduring jobs by (whoa, counterintuitive, I know) dropping the focus on jobs-at-any-cost.

Posted by: rockopete | March 8, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

You used an interesting phrase - "the torrent of demands grew and grew" - in your article. Perhaps you are starting to see what one writer refers to as "The soft tyranny of Liberalism" - whatever you may be doing, it will never be "good enough". As soon as one issue is addressed, another one will come along to take its place.

Now you know why us bible-clingin', gun-lovin', knuckle-draggin', cousin-kissin' folks look so happy - we don't worry about ridiculous things like this (and many, if not most, of us have a college education - I studied Civil Engineering). Jeez Louise - save yourself some time and grief and become a Conservative already! As the T-Shirt says: "Come to the Dark Side - We have Cookies".

(In the interest of full disclosure, I shop at Whole Foods Market every week - not because of their environmental practices, but because they carry an extensive line of good-tasting Gluten-Free foods; we have several family members with Celiac Disease. Trust me, the minute my local grocery store starts carrying more GF foods, I am outta there - I've never seen such a conglomeration of UNHEALTHY looking people in one place in my lifetime!)

Posted by: teresakoch | March 8, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

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