Help for the too-conscious liberal
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.
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.
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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