Mark Bittman on food and all things related.
Countercultures and alternative systems can be nurturing, educational, illuminating, inspiring — and these are not small things — but they do not bring about fundamental change. Food co-ops, for example, make a difference, but they won’t much alter the way Big Food operates. Historically, the route to fixing broken systems goes through struggle, confrontation and even revolution.
Those scenarios are spreading because, as Naomi Klein wrote in The Guardian last week, “[E]veryone can see that the system is deeply unjust and careening out of control.” The struggle for positive change is being defined by groups as diverse as the revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt, the strikers in Greece (“Erase the debt and let the rich pay”), the indignados in Spain, the misled but occasionally well-intentioned members of the Tea Party, and certainly those occupying Wall Street (and, in case you missed it, some 1,500 other places, and growing, as of this writing). Now it’s even being embraced by the Democratic leadership.
What we need are more activists who are interested in food than “food activists.” Whether we’re talking about food, politics, healthcare, housing, the environment, or banking, the big question remains the same: How do we bring about fundamental change?
Some criticized the Wall Street occupiers for having no demands (“Anyway … it’s not the Brookings Institution,” quips The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg), but their position is clear: the Obama administration bailed out Wall Street without reforming it, allowing it to thrive while median income falls. (Europe is following suit: investors will make a killing on Greece and the other “Club Med” countries, at the expense of the social welfare of the continent’s non-rich.)
Indeed, at first the occupiers appeared to be building a counterculture. But on Sept. 29 they accused Wall Street of supporting foreclosures, encouraging inequality, undermining the agricultural system and poisoning the food supply, stripping employees of healthcare, pay and negotiating rights, determining “catastrophic” economic policy, blocking alternate energy sources, and more. (I didn’t see “sabotaging efforts to deal with climate change” in their declaration, but it noted — not without humor — that “these grievances are not all-inclusive.”) Who among us, except those who benefit from these practices, is not in agreement with at least some of this?
“We Are the 99 Percent” encourages us to demand of those in power, “Are you with the 99 percent or not? And what are you doing about it?” And the “99 percent” slogan is not only all-embracing but nearly correct: the system is working for far more than one percent of us, of course, but how much more? We are the most class-divided of all the world’s “developed” nations, though in my travels through five countries I’ve seen and heard about life-altering cuts everywhere.
Protest is such a no-brainer that support for the occupiers now comes even from labor union leadership, along with every progressive in the country. Happily, the right is unhappy. Herman “Get a Job” Cain calls Occupy Wall Street “un-American,” which is just stupid. Mitt “Put the Dog on the Roof” Romney calls it “class warfare,” but that’s as American as the struggle for justice; it’s just that the wrong class is winning. In fact there’s no more American action than this one; its roots are in the populist, suffragist, labor, civil rights, women’s, anti-war, environmental and even food movements. Unlike the Tea Party, funded as it is by wealthy reactionaries like the Koch brothers, “Occupy” is sustained by energy, frustration, anger, perception, pizza and apples paid for by supporters or donated by farmers and, ultimately, by its daily growth.
Like my colleague Gail Collins, I was part of a like-minded movement that peaked more than 40 years ago. I had really long hair; I went to a lot of meetings; I ran a tiny newspaper. After I had children, developed a career and gained the trappings of a successful American life, things seemed less black and white. Probably they are.
But if ever there were a time for outrage, this is it. And in stark contrast to those of us who came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s — before the decline of American economic hegemony — today’s youth have a frighteningly more difficult future. But it’s not just young people, as the We Are the 99 Percent tumblr reveals. These are the stories, writes Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein, of “people who played by the rules, did what they were told, and now have nothing to show for it.” How many Americans fall into that category, and how many more are on the precipice?
The occupation of Wall Street may end with the first extended cold rain. But the renewed understanding that collective struggle is a key component in meaningful change — inspired by things as diverse as the Tea Party and a Tunisian fruit vendor — could not be more important. A movement that questions everything — from food justice to economic justice — is a fine start, and if Occupy Wall Street can push the Democrats as the Tea Party has pushed the Republicans … well, hooray.