Mark Oppenheimer at the New Republic has a new piece on parenting, liberalism, and the new Puritanism of liberal parenting, which is just an extension of the Puritanism of liberal consumer culture at large. His key point is towards the end of the essay:
I am only suggesting that we resist thinking of Puritanism as the only, or optimal, parenting style for liberals, for two reasons. First, thinking that Puritanism—whether a preference for organic foods or natural fibers or home-birthing—is somehow constitutive of a liberal politics is rather insulting to liberalism. Most of the middle-class “liberal” parents I know have allowed lifestyle decisions about what they wear, eat, and drive to entirely replace a more ambitious program for bettering society; they have no particular beliefs about how to end poverty or strengthen the labor movement, and they don’t understand Obamacare, or really want to. It’s enough that they make their midwife-birthed children substitute guava nectar for sugar.
But more important, realizing that Puritanism does not equal liberalism liberates us to think of another way to be liberal: by rejecting the kind of stress that comes from Puritanism. They say hygienic reform; I say the 30-hour work week and not stressing if my children eat Kix. Liberalism, as the political philosopher Corey Robin has recently argued, should be above all about freedom. The best reasons to want a labor union, or universal health care, or Social Security are to be free of worry, want, and privation, and to be out from under the hand of the boss. It makes no sense to re-enslave ourselves with fear, worry, and stress. That is not liberal but reactionary. Just because Big Brother is inside us doesn’t mean he’s not still Big Brother.
I’ve discussed the problem of mistaking consumer choices for politics before, most recently here. I’m not saying I’m not complicit in this system at all. In fact, the little sister likes to tease me about my penchant for cooking weird things like whole wheat blueberry pancakes. They turned out splendidly, but she has a point. I cook “weird” pseudo-healthy things (there is nothing healthy, no matter the ingredients, about pancakes) in part because that’s what our culture suggests is the thing to do. I gave up drinking soda in large part because I got fed up with people telling me how bad soda was, once memorably right after I bought one that I then tossed because I was so angry about getting judged. Petty, I know, but it’s all part of the culture of anxiety and judgment that Oppenheimer describes. And it’s easy to mistake the cultivation of certain consumer choices–sustainability, localvore movements, slow food, slow fashion–for progressive movement towards social justice. Some of these movements do an enormous amount of good, but buying more expensive clothing does nothing to address the factory system in developing nations.
Indeed, most of these movements simply side step the issues. For instance, eating healthier and exercising and instilling those habits in your kids will probably make all of you healthier. It won’t, however, solve the obesity problem for a number of reasons. First, obesity is linked to poverty. Banning soda does not solve the problem of impoverished kids and parents forced to make food choices based on what’s cheapest. Second, the BMI charts used to calculate obesity was designed by Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet in the nineteenth-century to measure obesity at the population level, not the individual. It was then popularized by actuaries not health care professionals. Now, I’m a Victorianist, so I like the nineteenth-century, but I find the fact that we’re using the BMI measurement still remarkably silly. The Victorians just did not have our understanding of the body. These are also the same people who thought measuring brain size revealed information about character and intelligence level. Perhaps we shouldn’t be using their statistical models. The other issues with the BMI are listed here. Revising the instruments used to measure obesity would be an excellent start in accurately measuring and then addressing the issue. Third, eating healthier and exercise doesn’t mean you’ll never get sick, and eventually, you’ll need adequate health insurance to help when you do get sick, preferably health insurance that won’t drop you for pre-existing conditions or other issues. Your individual consumer choices help you, but issues like the obesity one are collective action problems, not ones that can be solved through individual consumer choices.
In Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (2004), Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argue that the counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s in fact fueled a change in consumer culture. In other words, capitalism, that ever changing thing, simply began making the things counterculture consumers wanted. Now, I don’t entirely agree with Heath and Potter’s argument that “The culture cannot be jammed because there is no single such thing as “the culture” or “the system” (8). I mean, I don’t think culture can be jammed. I’m not even sure what that means. Yet, we do have a common culture, but the problem that Heath and Potter examine is one based on Raymond Williams’s notion of tea shop culture, a culture of exclusion. What Oppenheimer points out is how that culture of exclusion can be mistaken for political choice and how it causes anxiety because the borders of that exclusion have to be continually policed.