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Head Like a Whole

August 19th, 2009 · 20 Comments

I think Radley Balko has said almost everything I’d want to about the Whole Foods/John Mackey/Obamacare op-ed debacle—in two excellent posts here and here, so I’ll just add some scattered observations. What I find interesting is that the “boycott” doesn’t make a lot of sense in the traditional way: Usually the point is to pressure a company to change some offensive business practices. Here, the actual company seems to be at least as well behaved as the competition, and the focus is on the apparently offensive political position of the CEO.  I guess he could announce he’d suddenly abandoned his longstanding views and done an about face on health care reform, but it would be transparently disingenuous, and I can’t imagine anyone really expects him to do this. Yglesias thinks it might be useful less as a specific way of pressuring Whole Foods than as a general warning to CEOs to stay out of politics, but I’m at a bit of a loss as to why that’s supposed to be desirable; isn’t it more interesting to have them publicly explaining their thinking rather than just throwing money at lobbyists? The tenor of the boycott language, in any event, seems more punitive than strategic: This is a bad person I don’t want to support with my money. Fair enough if that’s how you want to make your shopping decisions, I guess, but it is a little odd: Most people, including most people clamoring for a boycott, probably normally make those decisions on the basis of the quality of the product and the actual behavior or practices of the company, not the personal opinions of the management. So something else is going on here.

The first is that with Whole Foods in particular there seems to be a sense of betrayal: the company was, as I saw one Twitter user I saw describe it, “pretending to be progressive.” Now that’s odd, because Mackey’s always been a pretty vocal libertarian. What I think they meant was that the company branded itself as eco-friendly, supportive of humane animal treatment, decent to its workers, and so on, and these are things progressives care about. On the apparently widespread assumption that anyone who thinks these are good shares a standard set of views about what the government should do to promote these goods, then of course you’d infer progressive politics from the private practice. On the same assumption, opposition to Obama’s health reforms can only be explained by a cold indifference to sick people, and so any previous appearance of idealism from the company must have been a clever ruse. The possibility that someone sincerely wants to make the world a better place but has different ideas about how to accomplish that just doesn’t compute. So now he’ll be punished for his deception.

This is, I think, a special case of a bipartisan inability to conceive political disagreements in anything but crudely moralized terms. You see it in the reactions to the subprime crisis too: Either it’s the fault of irresponsible “loser” homeowners or venal financiers who were knowingly risking collapse in pursuit of a quick buck. The possibility that a lot of people just screwed up, maybe for complicated institutional reasons that don’t easily reduce to a story of personal wickedness, doesn’t seem to get anyone’s blood flowing.

Anyway, I’m somewhat satisfied to report that a trip to the Logan Circle Whole Foods earlier this week—it’s not a show of ideological solidarity; they’re just convenient by bus and have a wide selection of fake meats—found it quite crowded indeed, in a city where everyone’s politically hyperattuned. So maybe this is just so much noisy Internet wankery after all.

Addendum: I should mention that Mackey has given money to my erstwhile employer, Reason, and paid for a nice dinner at Nora’s some years back… though I suspect the net lifetime flow of cash is from my wallet to his.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Sociology



20 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Aurich // Aug 19, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    I’m definitely voting wankery, but well stated, that whole deal mystified me somewhat.

  • 2 Doesn’t Quite Have That Cesar Chavez Feel To It « Around The Sphere // Aug 19, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    […] UPDATE #2: Julian Sanchez […]

  • 3 Nick // Aug 19, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Mm hm. Speaking as an avowed liberal, I thought this idea was basically batshit. We do, though, tend to feel a sort of “ownership” over practices that are environmentally sound and worker-friendly, and I don’t know that that’s necessarily ridiculous. We’ve spent a long time being forced to defend being nice to your workers or maybe not chopping down all the forests (aside, check the fifth track here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/eelwaxjesus) against people who seem morally offended, not by the legislating of these things, but by the very idea that people should care.

    It’s obvious with a moment’s thought that there’s no reason a libertarian can’t be into organic produce, but in a nation that treats “arugula” as a smear against liberal sensibilities, caring about this sort of thing has come to be seen as a signal that one thinks a certain way; conservatives would probably react the same way if the head of NASCAR turned out to be an anarcho-communist. It’s like finding out our members-only club is actually open to anyone who buys the jacket.

    Again, not a reasonable response, but I think the more general assumption that Whole Foods represents progressive values in some way is understandable in the political clime, and I don’t think progressives are the only ones who thought that.

  • 4 Franklin Harris // Aug 19, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    “So maybe this is just so much noisy Internet wankery after all.”

    Much like the Internet hype that somehow failed to make a box-office hit of “Snakes on a Plane.”

  • 5 RickRussellTX // Aug 19, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    “The possibility that a lot of people just screwed up, maybe for complicated institutional reasons that don’t easily reduce to a story of personal wickedness, doesn’t seem to get anyone’s blood flowing.”

    Dude, CNN is *never* going to make you into a star news journalist with that attitude. Go apply to the Newshour or something.

  • 6 Steve M. // Aug 19, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    But when I bought the jacket, the clerk said that that the jackets were for members only! No one would ever lie to make a sale!

  • 7 nick // Aug 19, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    suppose the boycott worked to the extent that Mr. CEO decided the price of his political speech, in lost sales, exceeded its value to him (since it has value to him; he’s trying to influence the powerful). so he didn’t write any more libertarian op-eds. what would be wrong with that outcome? nothing. In my view, as a progressive, that would be a positive outcome. of course, a much better outcome would be if many people realized how lifestyle politics without some kind of structural change is just a way of keeping the status quo intact, and a thousand co-ops groceries bloomed…..

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Aug 19, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Nothing would be “wrong” with the outcome in the sense that everyone would be acting within their rights. I think it would be an unfortunate outcome because I’d rather live in a world where we don’t make it a goal to deter people from expressing views we disagree with.

  • 9 the teeth // Aug 19, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    I wonder how many of the boycott advocates were already ambivalent-towards or predisposed-against Whole Foods. While Whole Foods is as ‘good’ a corporate citizen by lefty standards as any similarly sized food retailer to which it can be fairly compared, there are plenty of good reasons to be uncomfortable with them. I’d guess that some large-ish minority of the boycotters avoided Whole Foods (out of principal) to begin with, and saw in Mackey’s declarations an opportunity to convince other people not to shop their either.

  • 10 Nick // Aug 19, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    I seriously doubt that any of those people were in principle opposed to Whole Foods, although this was poorly timed after a couple of recent pieces indicating that “organic” produce is not actually any healthier than regular (inorganic?) produce.

    What’s more likely is that a handful of us more wonky lefties find Mackey to be personally frustrating and disingenuous, and that has metastasized in response to a more general loony conservative opposition to health care. Putting out a hit piece on the legislation right now, unfairly, makes it easy to conflate him with the death-camp-health-care-racism loons.

    We’re entering a war of the idiots here, partly because the Republicans heavily deployed the moronuclear option first.

    In all seriousness, if we could rely on business to run the way that Whole Foods does, Mackey’s ideology would be largely correct.

  • 11 sidereal // Aug 19, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    I think it would be an unfortunate outcome because I’d rather live in a world where we don’t make it a goal to deter people from expressing views we disagree with.

    Really? In the interests of pre-emptive maximum Godwinization, you’d rather live in a world where no one made it a goal to deter someone from writing a Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for the destruction of the Jewish people?

    I think it’s an open question whether a WSJ op-ed actually moves any votes, but the conceit of the little sandbox of US political warfare is that it’s an influential soapbox. And many of Mackey’s customers don’t want him using that influence to advocate for a policy they disagree with, else they will sever their business relationship with him. Seems fair enough to me.

    What surprises me is all of the grandstanding about other peoples’ shopping decisions.

  • 12 Joe R. // Aug 20, 2009 at 12:38 am

    “What surprises me is all of the grandstanding about other peoples’ shopping decisions.”

    Yes, you poor progressives. Those vile libertarians are out to control your spending!

  • 13 Julian Sanchez // Aug 20, 2009 at 1:40 am

    OK, sure, fair enough: There’s a bar of obscenity where I think there should be strong social pressure to keep certain really beyond-the-pale views under wraps. If someone wrote something that would make me walk out of the room in disgust, I would probably not want to support their company either. But I’m also pretty glad that’s not our default response to political disagreement, either as consumers or employers.

  • 14 the teeth // Aug 20, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    “I seriously doubt that any of those people were in principle opposed to Whole Foods.”

    Really???? I spend a lot of time w/ lefty foodie types, and the general consensus is Whole Foods is ‘evil’. I share this view, at least where ‘evil’ means — it allows you to make irresponsible food decisions, (ie, food that’s produced unsustainably or cruelly; your definition of irresponsible (and unsustainable, and cruel, may will differ from mine)) and imagine that you’re behaving well. Which isn’t to say that I (or most of these lefty/foodie types) don’t frequently make ‘irresponsible’ food choices, or shop at whole foods now and then (and I certainly think the boycott is at best silly) … but I do believe that Whole Foods’ main product is reassurance that you’re buying responsible (or ‘virtuous’, or whatever) food, while selling irresponsible food.

  • 15 Emily // Aug 20, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Yeah, I was completely baffled by the boycott, especially as I read the op-ed only after hearing about it. Certainly stuff I disagreed with in there, a few lines I might consider dickish, but talk about misdirected anger and energy. That’s it too, I think, in addition to the crude moralization and the need to feel righteous indignation. Maybe some of my fellow progressives feel impotent about getting their views represented on the issue in the face of all the truly gross right-wing distortions, so they want to do SOMEthing, anything. Like kicking over a chair when you’re mad about your boss, which just gives you a stubbed toe and no place to sit down.

  • 16 Nick // Aug 20, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    So, the teeth, what you’re telling me is that Whole Foods is what we’d call a “grocery store”?

  • 17 the teeth // Aug 21, 2009 at 10:21 am

    Nick, I’m not sure what to take from that, other than that you probably believe you’ve said something cutting.

  • 18 Max // Aug 28, 2009 at 10:30 am

    The boycott was something I didn’t care at all about until conservatives started writing about it ad nauseum. Now that I’ve read the Op Ed I understand. If I shopped at Whole Foods, I would stop. Furthermore, this campaign has been entirely successful in stopping companies from lobbying against universal healthcare.

    What is so ridiculous about people stopping buying goods from a company that espouses opinions they strongly disagree with? Especially with a brand like Whole Foods where customers pay a premium as a way of supporting the values the brand represents.

    Personally, I thought the whole “it’s really sick people’s faults they are sick. All of us should be healthy so long as we exercise and eat, etc.” argument to be so stupid and mean spirited it alone would stop me from shopping there.

    I’ve done the same thing with Oberweiss milk, which spends money to lobby against gay rights. I don’t like the idea, so I don’t buy the milk. Is something wrong with that now too? I don’t appreciate their right of free speech? Give me a break.

    I don’t associate with people generally that hold opinions I very strongly disagree with, either. Why in the world would I?

    This is like finding out that Crest toothpaste is strongly against any solutions for global warming. It has nothing to do with the product, but I would stop buying it immediately. This is the most natural thing in the world.

  • 19 kelly // Aug 28, 2009 at 10:36 am

    jesus h, the self-important hilarity of you people. It’s just a grocery store. Their policies are mainly window-dressing to fool stupid people like you, who think if you turn out the lights for an hour of “solidarity with the planet” you are actually affecting the climate of Earth.

    And your delusions that _anything_ you do, whether shopping or not shopping at a place like Whole Foods makes a difference enviromentally, socially, politically or in any measurable sense other than in your own, tiny, pointed head, is risible.

    Liberals: empty gestures that make them feel smug and superior, but actually are of any consequence in the real world, if not actually counter their expressed intent.

    Kind of like electing Obama 😉

  • 20 Jenny // Dec 24, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Kelly, shopping/voting for what you value is one of the core advantages of capitalism and democracy.

    Anti-abortion conservatives vote for legislators who vote anti-abortion. Folks whose friend owns a restaurant eat at his place him instead at Chili’s. People enamored by Apple’s design philosophy buy iPhones and iPods. The environmentally concerned buy solar panels and locally grown food.

    And the rest of us who don’t make the same choices for the same reason don’t need to feel offended. None of these folks necessarily does so “to make them feel smug and superior.” It’s entirely possible that people shop or vote for what they like, and don’t think twice about whether they’re superior to anyone else.

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