I've been thinking a lot about awareness lately. I made the mistake of listening to Democracy Now! one afternoon not so very long ago, and it's stuck in my craw ever since.

The episode in question was about raising awareness of the problem of racism in America (they were, of course, speaking only of white folk who mistreat black folk, in case you were silly enough to think there might be some other kind of racism). The examples were predictably heinous--crimes committed and not prosecuted, aggressive prosecutions for crimes not committed, crosses burned, hatred spewed--but I found that I've lost my appetite for sitting at home and shaking my head over the ever-increasing brutality of my fellow human beings.

I'm tired of being made AWARE. Impotent rage no longer entertains or inspires me. Listening to accounts of children being blown up in Iraq and sold into sexual slavery in Thailand and shooting each other in Florida and going to bed hungry in so much of the world is like watching my house be set on fire, then being handed a moist towelette with which to put it out. I don't like being made to feel so profoundly helpless.

And so it seems to me an incredibly hollow gesture that so many organizations spend so much time and money simply raising awareness about this problem or that. They've built an entire consumer industry around "awareness" products: ribbons and magnets and tee shirts and coffee mugs and logo tote bags and color-coded doggie bandanas for people to buy to advertise how hiply yet compasionately aware they are. We've created a society of folks who confuse being aware with actually doing something. No need to volunteer with the local Hospice--that pink ribbon lapel pin already tells the world I'm down with the cancer patients. And a culture that believes the mere demonstration of solidarity, the simple gesture of awareness, is as valuable as actually standing on the picket line or ladling in the soup kitchen is a culture that has given in to virtual reality. When pretense is all even your most diehard "activist" neighbors can muster between work and soccer games and playdates, who could possibly be expected to actually fix any real problems? Hey, at least you're aware.

But then I remind myself that there's a very slippery slope here, and I don't know if solid footing is to be consistently found on any part of it. It's very easy to criticize the awareness crowd for doing too little. (It's also very easy to empathize with anyone paralyzed by the sheer scope of the problem, whichever problem that might be. There are a lot of really, really big ones out there.) But once one finds a cause and takes it to the streets, they might have left behind my Awareness? Bah! Humbug! cynicism only to run right smack into another scrooge.

In the pages of Gastronomica's Summer 2007 Politics of Food issue* (whose depths I only just finished plumbing), I found a few critiques that raised my eyebrows perhaps as much as my anti-Awareness stance raised yours. More than one writer takes pot shots at Michael Pollan and his ilk, that current crop of foodies promoting the purchase and ingestion of whole, sustainable, locally-grown meals.** The critique is that these writers--and, by extension, those among their readers who take their advice to heart--aren't doing enough. Merely buying local bread, organic apples, or hormone-free sausage is irresponsible, they argue. You should also be petitioning your Senators, bringing suit against Monsanto, maybe even monkeywrenching a few Twinkie factories. Aaron Bobrow-Strain, an assistant professor of politics at Whitman College, charges damningly in his piece that these writers offer "not so much a revolutionary emergence of new ways of thinking ethically about our lives and world--a new way of imagining the politics of food--but rather a mind-numbing repetition of the same old atomized and egocentric vision of Homo economicus engaging the world through solitary acts of consumer choice." E. Melanie du Puis, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz, echoes: "Rather than making political choices, we pretend... that our dietary choices will solve our personal and national problems." (Guess the personal isn't really the political anymore...)

One can certainly do too little, but now we're finding that one can also never do enough. I'm pretty pleased with my small efforts over the last year or so to shop locally, but in this context, I should be flagellating myself instead for not reaching the heights of locavorianism achieved by Barbara Kingsolver or the Roadkill Chef. Come to that, add a few licks for still owning a car, still throwing away plastic bags after only one or two re-uses, still buying non-organic cotton, still not composting my own feces. You see where this could lead?

Awareness without action grinds down my soul. The infinitely high standards of "proper" action feed the greedy little mushroom of guilt. Neither of these is a wise or sustainable place to be.

But here's the rub: When presented with a problem, I need to fix it. Or at least ameliorate what I can. But what we have on our hands in this age are problems that just might be too big to fix. Do you honestly believe that I can sway a Senator's opinion on the Farm Bill in the face of a herd of deep-pocketed lobbyists from ConAgra? Do you really think that any amount of letter writing will retract the long claws of American military imperialism that are dug deep into the flesh of so many nations? Short of flying across an ocean to bust heads with my jack-booted outrage, what on earth could I possibly do to save one child from an Indian brothel, one little girl from the circumciser's knife, one boy from being hung just for the "crime" of being gay? My much-belittled "solitary acts of consumer choice" at least make me feel a little less part of the problem. None of the dollars over which I still maintain control will support a sweatshop. It's not enough, but it feels like all I have--which puts me right back in that helpless place all over again...

And you wonder why I don't watch the news?




*Incidentally, anyone interested in food politics is well-advised to pick up a copy of this issue. It's a dense read, but diverse and engaging. I don't think it's ever taken me two months to digest a magazine, but it's that filling.

**I know I'm not the first person to have made this recommendation, but if you haven't yet picked up The Omnivore's Dilemma, you really must. It just might make you give a damn about the Farm Bill.

Views: 25

Comment by chantal on November 24, 2007 at 4:35pm
A predicament well stated, Jessie.

I'm not sure whether I balance the 2 -- awareness and action -- very well either. For me, focusing on local issues rather than the stultifying weight of the global ones makes taking action a bit easier. It also makes me feel less overwhelmed by the amount of work needing to be done.

One step at a time, sista, sounds like you're doing it.

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