Our Quest For Purity

17 Aug

I consider the TED series of lectures a candidate for the “Highest and Best Use of the Internet” award, the greatest realization of the Information Revolution’s potential to inspire and educate. I reference TED semi-regularly (note: Buffalo’s own TEDx experience is coming in October), and please allow me to do so again to set the stage for our discussion.


There is a lot we could pull out of those 18 minutes, but let me narrow the field to work through what I consider the freshest idea presented: the morality of Purity.

Jonathan Haidt lays out five pillars of morality: Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, In-group Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity. Conservatives value all five fairly equally, Liberals put far greater emphasis on the first two. But conservatives and liberals alike, and the moderates in between, all put some weight on Purity. As Haidt describes, Purity is one of the five moral pillars we are born with, pre-programmed to recognize and value. Haidt notes that while conservatives tend to follow a more traditional religious sense of Purity, the Liberal Purity path exists, is growing and has a new object of its affection: food.

I don’t mean to definitively link Foodie-ism and Liberalism in any sort of causal or predictive relationship, though the demographics of both (white, wealthy, urban-focused) certainly coincide. Nor is this a fact-based argument about the actual merits of tying Foodie-ism to Progressive thought – its hard to extol the virtues of your electric car with a straight face when you dine on foie gras shipped in from half-way around the world (but more on that later). Instead, let’s talk about the moral feelings that drive the wildly different ways a segment of our culture focuses on food – local, organic, sustainable, free-trade, heritage and quality worthy of Foodieville restaurants hardly all have to mean the same thing (why is free-trade coffee more likely to soothe the Foodie’s discerning palate?), though they are often mistakenly intertwined in the mind of the slumbering general public. 

"Techno Buddha" by Nam June Paik

As Haidt alludes, food isn’t really the point. The morality of purity lying behind the food is really about focusing on what one puts into one’s body, the cleanliness of the lifestyle. The sacredness is found in the purity of the food, but that purity can be found other ways. To extrapolate, the point is finding sanctity in a secularized, post-religious culture in order to fulfill the human need for Purity.

Astrophysicist, atheist and NPR contributor Adam Frank recently addressed this topic when he sought to commandeer the word “sacred” to describe any awe-inspiring experience. Noting that it should be all but impossible to be Spiritual and Scientific, he was still at a loss to explain the feeling he gets when walking into a church, or (I assume) looking into space. Purity is still a moral pillar for the atheist scientist, and a little word twisting secularizes an ancient term for an experience that his deliberate conscious brain has rejected but pre-programmed mind still craves. 

Everett Ruess

How else do we secularize the sacred in our modern world to fulfill this basic human need? Finding the most pure lifestyle choice is a trend in modern life. Christopher McCandless read enough Tolstoy and Emerson to seek to purify his spirit in the wild. He walked into it, but never walked out, starving to death in an abandoned bus in Alaska, joining a long list of wilderness-philes who literally disappeared into the sanctity of nature.  The urban/suburban debate often is imbued with a moral overtone that overwhelms any rational fact-based comparison of the sustainability/lifestyle merits of either living arrangement.  Melissa Coleman recently wrote a memoir about growing up on a 1970’s Maine hippie commune where the adults attempted to divide their lives into three: one third of their time farming and doing manual labor, one third on family and child rearing, one third on reading and study. It imploded like many other such experiments at that time, but at its heart it resembles Elbert Hubbard’s “Head | Heart | Hands” mantra with the Roycrofters in East Aurora nearly a century earlier. Gene Rossellini moved to the wilds of western Canada for twenty years to try to teach himself to re-enter the Stone Age (he ultimately gave up and went home). Even exercise routines are overcome by quests for purity: the simple act of escaping from the doldrums of daily life is no longer enough. Now runners want shoes that are leaner, five fingered, or not present at all, and gym buffs lift rocks instead of traditional weights. They are called Caveman routines, and they have Paleo diets to go with them. And they are everywhere.     

These may be more extreme examples, but at their core they are attempts to fulfill that fifth moral pillar in a secular way. Today, in 2011, the sacredness of food has grown into a number of manifestations that pervade our culture and thus more mainstream. No longer the exclusive purview of Whole Foods and Wegmans, even Tops has half a rack (!) of organic produce for sale. The local/organic/fair-trade/heritage trendsetters (again, not all the same thing of course) have moved well on past Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) to barter-based homesteading, urban chicken coops, splitting cows and raised bed farms in emptied city neighborhoods. I myself have an ancient apple tree that provides many bushels each fall, plus cherry and pear trees and a garden full of zucchini, tomatoes, rhubarb, squash, green beans, sweet peas, strawberries, and leaf lettuce. And I’m seriously considering raising rabbits (don’t tell my neighbors). And yet…

My maternal grandmother is an Albrecht. For over half a century (and well into the 1970’s), the E.J. Albrect and Sons Poultry (or, “the chicken stand,” as it was known in my family) was a fixture on the south end of the Broadway Market. Our family was proud of the work, but also sought to evolve past raising and slaughtering chickens in the backyard. It was seen as progress to separate the home and cultivation of food. How far has the industrialization of food gone, how disconnected are we from the glossy, neatly rowed identical white breasts in the convenient jumbo pack that urban chicken coops became a general cause célèbre?

And does it matter if the actual sacredness is often a false veneer? The food itself may be pure, but the process to make it so hardly aligns with Liberal principles. Organic farming reduces crop yields in a hungry world. Studies have found local food can have a higher carbon footprint than economically mass-produced varieties. The search for sacredness and purity among the religious and those on the right (often the same thing in the United States) is hardly rational; at its core it is a fulfillment of prejudicial pre-determined biases and needs. Why should secular and left-leaning attainments of purity be any more consistent or logical?

6 Responses to “Our Quest For Purity”

  1. Ethan August 18, 2011 at 12:54 pm #

    I think that reducing yields is supposed to be good in that it creates a need for more farmers, which also means more employment.

    A question I’d ask is, why hasn’t religion seized the Foodie opportunity to de-secularize the notion of purity?

  2. Brian Castner August 18, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    My rough understanding is that about a billion people currently do not receive proper nutrition, and its not clear that we could feed the world using the current available land and the most modern (read: petro intensive fertilizers and pesticides) techniques. Or to put it another way, we either need to go back to using fallow farmland (in the US and elsewhere) and efficiently farm, or come up with new ways to raise yields, if we just want to feed the people we have now. Reducing the unemployment rate by taking a step “backwards” seems secondary to that, even if its true.

    I’m not sure if its in that Economist article, but I read somewhere that the amount of land required to grow organic turkey for every American on Thanksgiving is rough equal to the Amazon river basin. In other words, we just can’t currently afford to do it – organic is a priviledge of the wealthy.

    On the second question, I don’t think organized religions have ever been very good at thinking in terms of opportunity and competition. When Eternal Truth is on your side, why do you need to seize back anything? Or perhaps I misunderstand your question.

  3. Ethan August 18, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    Maybe our demand for turkey is the issue then. Or maybe for the entirety of human history a lot of people have starved? What I’m getting at is only that if modern (and we now think unsustainable) techniques can’t feed the world then we have bigger issues, no?

    Yeah, that thing on religion was a bit tongue-in-cheek… but not entirely. I mean obviously theology is necessarilly a somewhat conservative endeavor, but at the same time, the Catholic church at least has dome some evolving on their positions.

  4. Brian Castner August 18, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    True and true. Fortunately, our world population is supposed to peak in a couple decades and go back down, easing food pressures. And as a Catholic (by birth, anyway), I can guarantee the church only evolves after being left behind by much of the world. In this case, however, it is struggling to remain relevant in a science based world – Protestant Christianity is secularizing itself (see: Prosperity Theology), not reclaiming Purity territory. The pendulum has swung too far, IMHO, for that.

  5. Ethan August 18, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    I’m just trying to eat less overall. Also, less restaurants of any type- so much waste!

    For myself, I can also say that I don’t see the pursuit of quality food as being best categorized along the lines of Haidt or morality. I just want to be relatively healthy, -er.

  6. Eisenbart August 19, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    I was under the impression that the entire thing about the government paying farmers to not farm was a thing of the past. And that due to climate changes farmers are having a more difficult time producing as much as they used to. At this point farmers are putting so much pressure on their land to produce food that it’s stripping it bare. Now discussions are starting to point to subsidizing fertilizers and other nutrients to farmers who can’t afford them.

    For us in America it’s easier to make these choices because we have so many choices thanks to complex distribution networks, factory farms, and subsidies.

    In Africa for example, they don’t have any of these things. They had white farmers through out Africa that are being run out of town under the guise of racism. In some cases it was the legal system, or driven under financially by the government, and other cases where mobs of natives simply run them off. In almost all these cases the government decides to divide up the land equally to the native population. Long story short starvation is hitting unbelievable levels there and are only expected to get a lot worse in the coming years. Cutting your nose to spite your face type situation.

    I was just talking to a “super liberal” about veil. He went on and on about how awful it was and that it should be outlawed. Well, that’s a great opinion but veil and beef also subsidize things like milk and dairy products. He just couldn’t connect that the two were related even after pointing out his the factory for his free range dairy supplier practices this. Did he honestly think farmers can be able to keep every male cow that is born? This isn’t Charlotte Web, its the real world and people need to be able to afford to eat and farmers need to make choices to stay afloat. Then he started talking about factory farm cruelty and I think I lost it. What does he want? poor people to starve to death?

    There are so many things that bother me about these types of subjects I feel like I could ramble on and at this point I think I’ve lost my point.

    Oh and one more example is that recycled coffee cups turn out WHITE and cheap but a company will dye them brown which makes them expensive just so people know their freakin coffee cup is made of recycled paper. Really? **hulk rage flips the table over**

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