This Is My Racism

In recent months, “race relations” has been in the news a lot here in America due to “racially-motivated violence”. We’ve seen videos of innocent black citizens gunned down by the police that is supposed to protect them. We’ve seen a community devastated by a terrorist attack that can only be described as pure, premeditated evil. We’ve seen numerous examples of peaceful protests turning ugly, with attendees being beaten, mocked, and abused by government representatives. As these events unfolded, I have for the most part been a spectator. What else could I be? To be sure, I’ve retweeted the requisite amount of condemnation, and penned my own 140-character expressions of grief, but this is a mere echo of a thought, too frail to stand even in aggregate against a tidal wave of injustice. And so for the most part I have remained silent, trying simply to fathom the extent of the twistedness we find ourselves in, and failing, or being distracted, even in that small effort.

Recently, it occurred to me that there is something else I can do. Something that won’t fit in a tweet or be very popular. Something that might be long, hard to deal with, or uncomfortable to read. Something that may or may not connect with any audience. But there is something that can help me, at least, plumb more of the depths of the dark cancer that gnaws at the heart of potential reconciliation in our country. I can talk about my racism. I can talk about what part I play, or have played, in this drama that we’re so shamefully writing as a society.

“Hold on a minute”, everyone who knows me will say. “Isn’t this just some kind of false humility, or publicity stunt, or exercise in link-baiting? You’re the last person I would call a racist!” And indeed, there is much to my credit, both ideologically and in my actions, with regard to love and respect for people of all races and persuasions. I live in San Francisco, arguably the least ideologically-racist city in America. I’m a software developer, working in a field that many like to think of as a meritocracy. I’m a fan of diversity, inclusion, and non-violence. I talk to everyone I meet on the street or in bars or restaurants with respect, regardless of their skin color or social position. I’m what many would consider a radical feminist, acknowledging the unjust system of male domination that has irrevocably shaped the workings of society since the beginnings of society (a system, I would argue, that has deeper and stronger roots even than racism). I lived in Kenya for almost a year, volunteering to help make the lives and prospects of African orphans better. I did my best to learn Swahili so as not to participate in the implicit colonial narrative of a white person in Africa. I became a vegetarian because the children I was with could not afford to eat meat. Ask any of my friends, and they’ll tell you that I’m an all-around bridge-building type of person. So in what crazy possible world would I be counted among “racists”?

Unfortunately, that world is all too actual. Racism is not just about our beliefs, what we would claim, or even our conscious actions. It’s much more often implicit, pre-arranged; it’s in the air we breathe. The world comes to us racist. The structures of society are set up as positive feedback mechanisms, and those of us that benefit by being on the upward spiral can easily go through life without seeing how those benefits are often powered by some form of racism or sexism. This is just the way things are set up. Of course, these structures encourage narratives that can birth a more overt form of racism as well.

I grew up in North-Central Texas, in a small town outside of Dallas. Neither of my parents were from Texas, and we didn’t move there until I was 6, so we didn’t feel very “Texan”, but I soon learned about the centuries-deep furrows that “race” had carved into the social soil. My Junior High and High School were pretty diverse, with (I think) less than 50% White students, and substantial Black and Hispanic populations. It was also highly segregated. Friendships did not easily cross racial boundaries, and while there must have been one or two, I can’t remember specifically any interracial romantic relationships. Neighborhoods were also fairly segregated. My neighborhood (predominantly White) bordered on another neighborhood (predominantly Black). I remember the first time I was driven to a house in that latter, poorer neighborhood. It was made obvious to me through what those around me were saying that this neighborhood was “worse”, that it was dangerous, and that our friends who lived there were surely only doing so because, as poor missionaries, they couldn’t afford to live in a “better” area. Why was the neighborhood worse and dangerous? There may not have been an explicit link, but it was described as being a “Black” neighborhood. As a result, I believe that my first racist feeling was one of fear. Black people were dangerous, and I shouldn’t go to this area on my own.

And so, in my experience, Black people were talked about in general as a “they”. They were a “they” because we didn’t have Black friends, and it allowed us to lump all of these people together in our minds according to this one attribute that they shared: skin color. And again, because we didn’t bother to differentiate between this or that Black person (which we could have done by making friends with Black people, for example), many negative adjectives (“dangerous”, “low class”, “aggressive”) were taken to apply not just to this category of people, but back again to individuals. This is how a stereotype succeeds in its self-sustaining reaction: the two reagents (“white” and “black”) were close enough to combust, but not close enough to forestall a meltdown.

In Junior High, I made a friend on the school bus. We both played trumpet in band, and liked to read books, and we began to sit together on the way to school. He was Black, though, and I soon discovered the awkwardness of enjoying being with him on one hand, and then on the other hand listening to my White friends making fun of him behind his back. Some of it was normal kid stuff that I also suffered—he was a “nerd”, and he had a funny last name that led to the kind of crude and cruel puns junior-highers are known for. I also had to deal with this kind of thing. But some of the mockery was about his appearance, specifically his “huge lips”, which was derogatory code for his being “really Black”. I’m deeply sad to say that, in the face of this kind of social pressure, I increasingly avoided him until we no longer spent any time together. It’s this kind of non-action, not any overt pro-action, that characterizes my racism, and much of the implicit racism in our culture. Did I personally make fun of him? No. I even said (feebly), “Hey, he’s actually pretty cool” one or two times. But at the end of the day, did I disturb the status quo for the sake of a promising geeky friendship? No. And so the train rolls on, and the wheels bite ever deeper into the grooves of the age-old carnival ride we wish we would end.

It’s not just about staying quiet while my friends told racist jokes, or when they laughed about what some “crazy nigger” did, or when they viewed a Black woman as a totally different kind of sex object than a White woman. It wasn’t just how I contributed, because of my own sharp need to be accepted by my peers, to the endemic racism in our society. It was also what I missed out on! How impoverished was I, who could have experienced so many more kinds of relationship in life! But it’s not that simple. By the time you’re a teenager in a society like this, race-driven “culture” has shaped you just as much as latent ideas about race itself. For a few weeks in a row, my family went to a nearby Black church. I’m not sure why. Maybe (let’s be generous) we were moved by a desire to see the unity of the Church crossing racial boundaries. All I can remember is being terrified—the only White kid in a sea of Black people, everyone looking and waving and Hallelujah-ing at me the whole time. I felt embarrassed both by their exuberance and then by my own cultural faux pas of not jumping and raising my hands in praise. Race aside, I found it impossible to connect with the culture of that place. I couldn’t understand or affirm the constant shouting and hand-waving. I couldn’t understand or affirm the expensive suits and showy preaching. And so on. To an introverted geek, it was a cultural nightmare.

Reflecting now, it may also have been exactly the kind of thing that my 14-year-old self needed in order to become a less withdrawn, lonely, and isolated kid, but that ship has sailed. My point is simply that living in a segregated society from early on, and the early whispered conversations about Black people as a “they”, set in motion a force very much like compound interest. By the time I was 14, Black culture was already so ineffable and threatening to me given my own cultural background that from that point on I haven’t really been able to make any Black (that is, culturally “Black”) friends. “I just don’t get the culture”, I’ve heard myself say in the past—this coming from a person who’s traveled the world, lived abroad, and studied many cultures, including in Africa!

But you know, society has conspired to keep me from having to really look at that head-on. I left Texas before my Senior year of High School, and headed to Florida, where the race dialogue was different (and I spoke Spanish, so no problems there). Then on to sunny, perfect, California for college and most of the rest of my subsequent story. I now live in San Francisco, the techno-Mecca where as a society we’ve gotten rid of everyone, like most Black people, who can’t afford to “pay to play” (except for the homeless, who from many citizens’ perspectives just haven’t had the good grace to shuffle on).

It was only recently, when White-on-Black police brutality and terrorism began to surface in the news, that I was turned on to a stream of different voices. Reading the #drivingwhileblack tweets, for example, helped me begin to understand the basic experience of life from a Black perspective, and how different that is from my own. Ultimately, it motivated me to share my own small, ugly story. Just a drop in an overwhelming sea of ugliness, to be sure, but a drop nonetheless. I have no illusions that these confessions or reflections are valid penance, or that penance is even what is necessary. Nor am I writing out of “White man’s guilt” or “White man’s shame”. Nor do I deny that I have been bullied by Black kids while growing up, in situations where it seemed to have been at least partially racially motivated. Racism, as I’ve pointed out many times, is a systemic as well as a personal issue, and it emphatically must be spoken to and about on that systemic level. But I think we have the best chance of facing the systemic issues effectively when we’ve already faced them in our own hearts, and our own bodies, and our own relationships. 20 years ago, with my Black friend on the school bus, I was not able to “speak truth to power”. Today, I might be one small step closer.

I don’t think the conversation in America should be about whether so-and-so is racist, or even asking the question, “am I racist?” I think we need to readily acknowledge that we are racist, and quickly move on from there to ask the harder, more revealing, and more powerful question: “what does my racism look like?”. We need to go from denial to doubt to admission to finally getting our hands dirty with the realities of our individual racisms. The amazing thing is, if we can deal with this, I think we’ll be able to see more clearly how racism is just one species of otherism, the fundamental pushing-away and dehumanizing of those who aren’t “like me”. I think we’ll be more willing to see, then, our own (and society’s) fundamental misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc… I sincerely hope that one day I can live in a world where my own brokenness (as I’ve described above), or the brokenness of the system, or even the brokenness of someone who is doing me wrong, don’t mean that I’m forever closed to the way someone else sees the world. In that scenario, we all lose.

I am not here to heap guilt and condemnation on someone who’s not ready to acknowledge what lies in their own heart. I am here to engage in an act of public confession, hoping that it will lead, not to others’ similar confessions, but to my own redemption. What I’m doing now takes infinitely less courage than to face the murderer of one’s family and say, “Since Jesus forgives you, I also forgive you”. But I hope it is an incremental step in my own journey of becoming more courageous to act and speak in situations where an individual or a system threatens the personhood of one of my fellow human beings, especially when that fellow human being is difficult for me to understand or to love.

The antidote to my—indeed, our—racisms is not for us to become “color-blind”, but rather for us to hear the stories, and acknowledge the realities, of people of all colors, to allow their Otherness to penetrate through the scars of our own wounds and suffocate the worms of fear, guilt, and shame, fertilizing with their decomposition a new soil in our hearts. Only then will we see others with respect, and only then will we be able to be something more than a land void of racism. Then will we enter the promised land that Dr. King foresaw, a land defined not by the absence of hate but by the presence of love.

[Photo: a street in the author’s Texas hometown]
[Edit: Some discussion is happening on Hacker News]

Election Night

A poem I wrote after watching the election coverage last night. There was a lot of happiness and heartbreak for two political parties. But who are the real winners and losers in this hyped-up sporting event for “the greatest country on Earth”? Who stands outside the door while we spend billions lionizing/demonizing politicians?

Bring me your tired and your poor
    But not too close.
Stand just there and watch
The winds of freedom dance
    Through our summer party

Our honored guests arrive on time
    One lion, one demon
Which will we choose this year?
Let's play the fool's charade
    As if it mattered

For edging down the knife of time
    Is hard enough sober
And lions and demons exchange
Their masks so rapidly
    Who dares even try?

Now the winds stir the leaves
    The debt of freedom
A hint of invisible winter
But the show must go on!
    Shut eyes, dance faster

Laughter turns to drunk dismay
    Freedom's angry flood
The pitiless pitied above all
Drink and life sunk below memory
    The outcasts looking on.
    But not too close.

Observations of the Customs of a Certain Temple on a Certain Feast Day

I rise. It is a feast day, a holy day. I blink sleep away and begin to prepare a special savory treat to commemorate the end of the traditional annual fast. Outside the window I see a man walk by, his body making jerky lunges in random directions, seemingly at war with specters. His mind is shackled by some demon or other, and awareness of his prison lessens the savoriness of my treat slightly.

My wife and I have been invited to a temple where this holy day is celebrated, the day which proclaims that death is only a hiccup of our existence. We walk to the temple amidst a sleeping city which has not altered its pattern for the sake of today’s holiness. Closer to the temple, we observe disciples in expensive clothing (a tradition I do not understand) making their way to the entrance, where we are all greeted by smiling acolytes who hand us papers on which are inscribed the details of today’s ceremony. Inside is a joyous throng of worshippers, eating more savory treats, drinking a bitter, black tea, and greeting their friends. The fine clothing is impressive, but more so the beautiful faces and radiant smiles of the crowd. In stark contrast with the streets outside the temple, there are no demons to be seen here, just the medley of colorful garments and the exuberance of the end of the fast.

The ceremony begins and we hurry to find our place in the giant indoor amphitheater. Hundreds, if not thousands, have come to celebrate this holy day, and all faces are now focused on one priest on a central stage (he is dressed like a successful merchant). He lifts his hands and calls upon the divine presence, then cedes the stage to a differently-accoutred priest holding an instrument like a lute. This second priest leads various musicians as well as the gathered audience in songs written for this annual feast. But for the words which are sung and the clothing of the audience, I would struggle to know whether I am in a temple or a house of music where the traveling bards play less holy music upon a similar stage.

Soon, a third priest (the high priest of this temple, also dressed like a merchant) takes the stage in order to deliver a speech, after the fashion of this temple and others like it. The speech reminds me of the debates of the University, if they (in foolishness) had only one participant, and if others present were mute. The audience listens in silence, and thus it is difficult for me to discern whether the priest’s speech is being met with agreement or not (as this seems to be the point of it). I see that his heart is pure in his belief, but true to his choice of clothing he wields logic like a merchant. In his effort to convince those of the throng who do not yet belong to the temple to adopt its hopes, he makes several points, and I wonder if anyone has chosen to change his mind as a result.

My own mind wanders to the story which this day celebrates, about the man who died and then was raised by divine power back to life. The high priest in his speech reminded us that the news of that man’s new life was couriered by women (in a society where they were considered insignificant). I ponder the honor given to these women in the story as my wife shares in whisper an irony: the cadre of priests at this temple consists entirely of men! So much for women bearing good news.

I am brought back to the ceremony as the cadence of the high priest’s lecture signifies that he is about to finish. The next ritual is one with which I am familiar, though at this temple it is also rife with irony. Led by yet one more priest, it re-enacts another part of the story of the resurrected man, where, at dinner with his friends, he uses bread and wine to prophesy his death. Owing to the size of the crowd, the re-enactment looks more like a display of martial discipline than a meal. Small wafers and tiny cups of sweet wine are delivered with impressive efficiency, and the worshippers swallow the bland morsels as the musicians play music designed to inspire contemplation. Truly, the music is more reminiscent of the intimacy of that first meal than the small food bits which are intended to symbolize it.

For my reflection, I contemplate death. I contemplate my fear of it and search for that seed within my belly that says death will not be the end of me. I contemplate the story of the man who was raised from the dead, and wonder at its place in history and what it means if it really happened. I contemplate the beauty of the gathered worshippers contrasted with the ugliness of the streets outside. I contemplate a world that doesn’t know what to do with death (physical or psychological), and so inflicts it on others, runs from it, or denies its reality altogether through a steadfast focus on present pleasure. This contemplation submerges me into the deep pool of longing which has always existed in the center of my being, and I am moved in wordless ways.

The amphitheater emerges back into view as the high priest returns to the stage to intone a farewell benediction, accompanied by more music. He then directs those in the audience who are parents to collect their children from a holding area. I realize for the first time that, despite the varied ages of the disciples, no children were present during the ceremony. I can only imagine that they were sequestered so as not to be bothersome, or perhaps because children are thought not to be able to understand the high priest’s lecture.

After the ceremony, we make our way to the temple doors, passing clumps of worshippers (organized by some social principle or other) discussing various topics unrelated to the rituals of the temple. Back on the streets of the city, the people we pass seem to be going about their business in ignorance of the day’s holiness, particularly those who, being deformed and unable to work, beg for money. Without further event (save for seeing several citizens wearing masks with the ears of a hare, presumably about to act in a comedy) we arrived home and began to prepare the traditional feast: a combination of morning and mid-day foods.

Reflection: Why “It’s Complicated” With Facebook

When my wife and I got married at the beginning of last August, we decided not to use Facebook or do (practically) any e-mail during our month-long honeymoon, since we wanted our vacation to be free from social distraction. Afterwards, once we got set up in our apartment in Oxford, I gave myself a little challenge, on a whim: not to open up Facebook until I had a need or strong desire to. While the need was realized once or twice (I maintain a Facebook application called BookTracker, and had to update and test some code, which required going to the canvas page for the application), the strong desire wasn’t. Thus it happens that, 5 months after my Facebook hiatus officially ended, I still haven’t updated my status (although updates are made automatically when I publish a blog) or seen anything in my news feed. Somewhat humorously, Jessica and I haven’t even bothered to update our relationship status from ‘Engaged’ to ‘Married’! What follows are a few reflections I now feel prepared to make about Facebook (and a fortiori much of social media in general), given that I’ve had a decent amount of time to differentiate from it:

  • Facebook is distracting. Even though I had heavily curated my news feed, ruthlessly eliminating ‘friends’ to keep them from crufting it up with FarmVille updates, I now recognize that Facebook was a habitual distraction. Whenever I paused in work or lost a train of thought, I’d mindlessly navigate to Facebook and get even further away from what I really needed to spend time doing. I still have other such distractions, e-mail being the most major. But in resisting the urge to click my Facebook bookmark, I really do save time and brain cycles. I think the mode of distraction goes deeper than individual distraction experiences, however; more on this in further reflections!

  • Facebook discourages extended or systematic discourse. I’m the kind of person who likes to share thoughts and ideas, and sometimes I even think others appreciate them. What Facebook (and moreso Twitter) encouraged me to do was to compress these thoughts into something that could fit into a status update. I realized that this bite-size style of communication had two effects:
    • My desires to share thoughts/ideas were satisfied by publishing these snippets, and I therefore had less inclination to try and say something that took time to post on my blog. Why would I try to make a complex and nuanced contribution to a conversation when I would get ‘liked’ just as much for saying something short and snarky, or simply passing on a link?
    • The things I said were less useful or interesting to others. While there is indeed value in saying something concisely, there are a lot of valuable things that can’t be so stated (hopefully this post is among them, for example). Some arguments that merit attention are extended!

    A systemic corollary of this, I think, is the general reduction of people’s willingness to engage with complicated ideas that take time to explicate and understand. I think it’s obvious why this is a problem—one has only to look at any hot political issue to see what happens when debate devolves into slogan-shouting (i.e., status-update-slinging)!

  • Facebook is shallow. I mean this in a number of ways. The previous point elaborated on the shallowness inherent in the sharing mechanism, but I believe it extends to the quality of relationships maintained on Facebook, and in general the content which is produced (‘social’ apps tend to exacerbate this problem, as they try to spam the news feed with meaningless achievements or updates). I think this point is a strict consequence of other things I’ve been saying, but I wanted to sum it up under one adjective.

  • Facebook technologizes relationships. I hope that this entry will be the first of many to come relating to the philosophy of technology, and so I don’t want to go into a lot of detail here. Basically, Facebook is an instance of the technological paradigm in that it commoditizes the goods it claims to procure for us. Ostensibly, Facebook’s goal is merely to provide something like ‘frictionless online connection’ for pre-existing friendships. However, let’s face it, what people use Facebook for is ‘connection’ simpliciter, and often not even in the context of a pre-existing relationship. The ‘connection’ that Facebook procures for us in this regard is the mere composite of the sharing and consuming of personal information, rather than the appropriate synchronization of sharing/consuming which engenders true connection. These two behaviors (sharing and consuming) are disconnected in such a way that everyone is talking, and everyone is listening, but nobody is having a conversation. And yet, in the way that high-fructose corn syrup fools our bodies into thinking they have ingested something natural (sugar), I notice that, for the most part, Facebook users believe this flood of voices projected into the void constitutes legitimate connection.

  • Facebook facilitates strange interpersonal behavior. Has anyone ever had a Facebook friend post something to their wall which should have more appropriately been sent as a private message? I have, and much more often than experiencing the equivalent real-life behavior (i.e., communicating personal information within earshot of others) or even the equivalent e-mail behavior (i.e., cc’ing people who really don’t have anything to do with the private contents of the message). Has anyone else noticed a growing tendency in users to share fairly personal and/or awkward updates to their entire friend list? Facebook provides tools to moderate who sees what, but few if any people make use of these tools, with the result that most users’ friend lists are undifferentiated masses of relationships, probably not all of whom should be informed at the same time about, say, a miscarriage! Are these things Facebook’s fault? Not directly, perhaps, but the ecosystem has somehow bred this kind of culture, perhaps because the disembodied nature of Facebook relationships makes it easier to forget who exactly you’re speaking to.

    One more personal example: mere hours after our wedding, my wife and I were tagged in Facebook photos of the event (nevermind the fact that our invitation explicitly asked guests not to do this!), which of course are visible to God-knows-who. We were faced with the decision of waiting to relive our special day through our wedding photographer’s photos (which would take a few months to arrive), or seeing people’s crappy cameraphone pics immediately, in all their poorly-lit glory. We chose to ignore the Facebook photos, and in fact I still haven’t been on to see any of them. My point is: when did it become socially acceptable to publicize photos of a bride and groom to the wider network before said bride and groom can even realistically be expected to be able to see them?

  • Facebook is the best tool on the internet for making stuff ‘social’. Let’s face it, we all use the internet, and we’re not going to stop anytime soon. A lot of what we do online is socially oriented, like sharing photos of weddings and parties and vacations with friends. If we ignore the strange social behavior I claim is encouraged by Facebook culture, there’s nothing wrong at all with sharing photos with friends. This is one of the few things I’ve missed about using Facebook, though I guess I could post everything to Flickr and link it up here on my blog, hoping people would find their way to the photos. Likewise, Facebook is the best avenue I know for reliably blasting information to the widest audience I have; that is why I decided to let my blog posts automatically generate updates on Twitter and Facebook. I don’t think it’s hypocritical to suggest that these channels are in principle good things.

I think it’s clear that, overall, I’m pretty happy with my time away from Facebook. It’s enabled me to recognize some of the weird things that happen in its ecosystem, whether or not they are explicitly encouraged by Facebook itself. I also have substantial worries about what social media in general is doing to the concept of real friendship and embodied relationship. I think these are broader worries about the pattern of technology which hopefully I’ll be able to explicate in future posts (my ultimate goal will be to blog through a book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Society, by Albert Borgmann, which has radically reshaped my thinking about the nature of technology). I also hope I don’t need to make an exhaustive list of qualifications, e.g., people are weird without Facebook too, and so on—I simply think there is a definitive pattern of engagement we can discern through observation of social networks, and it’s worth taking a critical perspective on that pattern, in order to inform our decisions about how we want to relate with networks like Facebook.

PS: Justin has reminded me that our friend Jesse Rice has a book about how to engage with social media in a spiritually healthy way: The Church of Facebook. I haven’t read it, but it looks interesting! Comments from anyone who’s read it?

Reflection: Food Ethics and Genetically Modified Corn

When I was young, my family had little money, and eating out at all was a luxury. When we did eat out, we tended to frequent such fine establishments as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, or (for special occasions) Golden Corral (not sure if they ever made it out of Texas). The evidence of this can be seen in my memories of my 12th birthday dinner (on our birthday dinners we got to pick the meal): I chose a 20-piece box of McDonald’s chicken nuggets. Yum! What a tasty treat!

Thankfully, most of the time I ate my mom’s cooking, which, while not engineered specifically to crank my food pleasure sensors into panicked overdrive, was at least healthy. Living life on my own in college and afterward, I actually cooked for myself, and by ‘cooked’ I mean ‘prepared a box of Tuna Helper’. When I moved back to Palo Alto, I discovered the endless joys and conveniences of Trader Joe’s, and the boxes I purchased went from advertising such bland American fare as “Creamy Tuna” to exotic culinary experiences like “Pad Thai”. At no point did I ever think about (a) any kind of ‘health’ properties of the food, e.g. number of calories (I was active and naturally burnt calories through constant nervous beard-twisting), or (b) any (what you might call) ‘food ethics’, e.g. the provenance of the food, whether it was ‘fair trade’, ‘organic’, etc… I cared about two things: price and flavor!

California has this way of sort of oozing ‘organic’ ideology into your body if you’re not careful, though, and soon enough I was vaguely aware that I was supposed to feel that what I was eating was bad, tasteless (in both senses), and just wrong! I have to say, I didn’t care that much. Then I went to live in Kenya for a while. While there, I (and my housemates) decided to be vegetarians, in a sort of solidarity with the orphans we were living with (they were too poor to eat meat except on Christmas). For 2 months, I ate exclusively locally-grown vegetarian food, because that is what was available. Also, we were training for a marathon, so I was eating lots of it. Anyway, at some point I had a brief trip back to the States, and stopped at a McDonald’s during a road trip. I didn’t want to give up on the vegetarian solidarity, so I had them make an Egg McMuffin with no meat. I started to eat it and immediately stopped. It was nauseating. All I could taste was fat and flavor—and the thing that they said was an egg was certainly not an egg. For the rest of the trip I became sort of a snobby vegetarian person of the kind I would have mocked a few years earlier, all because real food had spoiled me. It just wasn’t fun to eat crap anymore, I guess!

A few months later, after returning to the States for good, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. It’s a really good book, and you should read it. It’s all about food, and how it’s produced and manufactured according to several different ‘food frameworks’ (industrial, organic, industrial-organic, hunter-gathering, etc…). It blew the door to questions of ‘food ethics’ wide open in my mind, and, for better or worse, I can’t go back. On top of that, I’ve married my wife Jessica, the Queen of All Things Organic Even If There’s No Hard Evidence To Suggest They’re Any Better. Between her and Michael Pollan (or maybe because of Michael Pollan and despite her efforts to convince my recalcitrant self otherwise), I now exhibit the following characteristics:

  • I look at all ingredients in food products before I buy them, and reject any food which contains non-natural ingredients.
  • I’ll spend more money to buy organic food if it is available.
  • I’ll spend more money to buy local food if it is available.
  • It feels like a serious moral dilemma (because I actually believe it is) when different bits of the ethical food pyramid collide: what’s more important? Fair wages for producers or food production which doesn’t harm the environment?
  • Slow food is where it’s at. The process of producing, gathering, cooking, and eating the food is a sacred one that shouldn’t be rushed.
  • …and so on.

Essentially, I’ve become just the sort of California wacko I never understood before, and find myself on the other side of the same arguments I used to have with Jessica! Strangely, it feels like what I have is a great and integrated way to relate my body to both the world and other people. One other benefit of this approach is avoiding a lot of the crazy things that can happen in the world of highly-processed food, like what I learned with great sadness is how they make my precious McDonald’s chicken nuggets. A bit of news that inspired me to write this entry: apparently a recent study claimed to find significant links between genetically-modified corn (the kind of corn which has been genetically engineered in order to withstand the pesticides which are most effective) and several serious disorders in rats. Not surprisingly, trace amounts of the pesticides were found in the rats’ bodies after ingesting the corn. I guess it makes sense: if you make corn immune to Roundup (a particular popular pesticide herbicide), you will probably use Roundup on it. But Roundup is not good to eat. But, hey…the corn survived and looks good, so let’s eat it! Mmmm, Roundup! … I don’t know, but to me the whole idea seems a bit stupid.

Another point that Michael Pollan made in his book is that we might want to be a bit careful of genetically engineered food for reasons other than possibly ingesting pesticide residue. We’re discovering that our bodies have evolved in a complex symbiosis with our natural foods, and that, while we can perform chemical magic and make our bodies think they’re eating well, after a long time it can lead to degeneration. I’m neither doctor nor chemist, so I don’t want to overreach my authority, but it does seem like a decent point to consider: at what point does fiddling with the genetic makeup of our food pose a threat to us as eaters? How many generations do we need to test the food on in order to discover whether it’s safe? A few, at least, I would think. And all the data I’ve seen about people who eat “that kind” of food suggest that obesity, diabetes, and cancer are what may indeed result.

Anyway, all this is to say that food is worth thinking about deeply. Not only is it important for the very obvious reason that we need it to live, but it is connected on the level of essence to what makes us human in so many strata other than the biological: it motivates work, drives and sustains social experiences, procures meaningful, enjoyable, and lasting experiences, echoes deep theological principles, and teaches us about our limits and our needs. I hope to write more about this stuff as Jessica and I continue to explore how we engage with food, in a world no longer set up to make the answers to some of our questions obvious. I guess, from the point of view of reflection, that’s a good thing!