Madeline Holler at Salon has a rather cute essay about her failures at becoming a radical homemaker. On my first quick skim through it (it was sent to me by several readers, so thanks!), I was inclined to give it a total pass, because I found myself rather liking Holler, and sympathizing to an extent.
At least she was trying to live on a comparatively lower income. At least she made the yogurt. If she really hated it, well, at least she was sort of trying to live up to her principles – something all of us have a tough time doing. I may make my own bread, but I have my own hypocrisies.
My family’s $36,000 was tight and did not include a garden — or France. I marveled at the fact that we managed. Also? I sort of hated it.
I hated the insecurity, that we weren’t funding our retirements, or college or savings.
I hated being left behind. By then, our friends had settled into careers, started families, entered escrow. While they drove new hybrids all over town hunting down backsplashes for new Viking stoves, I was loading up on two-for-one gallons of milk or racing to the zoo before 9 a.m., where I had heard the parking lot attendant would wave me in for free.
In the drop-off line at preschool, tiny mothers climbed like mountain goats into SUVs the size of K2. Our lifestyle came off as quaint or quirky, and these moms sweetly waved down to me in our ’97 Nissan Altima, the difference in altitude fitting.
Which is a terrible attitude for a borderline radical.
I left it up on my screen, though, for a few minutes, and happened to read back through it again, and the second time it troubled me more. Yes, it was cute. Yes, she gets some credit for trying. And yes, few of us can fully separate ourselves from the status issues we’ve been inculcated with, and confessing that is ok, even good. There’s no reason for all of us to be walking around pretending that we don’t sometimes feel crappy when we look poor.
And yet, where have I heard this one before? Why does this part sound so familiar to me?
Not exactly. What I am is ambivalent. In the last few years, even mainstream culture has been all about green living, hyper-locavorism, Michael Pollan and his five ingredients. Even the biggest corporations attempt to tread lightly on the planet — BP being a notable exception. Really, there’s never been a less embarrassing time to drive a ’93 Ford Festiva, which I sometimes do. The economic meltdown has made frugal living fashionable, purposeful and much less quaint. But go radical? I just can’t.
I wasn’t raised on a farm (Hayes was), and I’ve never kept a basil plant alive from one caprese salad to the next. I don’t trust myself with a bread starter, much less livestock. Imagining total reliance on a backyard farm makes me cry for my starving children. I am comforted by our growing 401K. And I can’t help it: A little piece of me dies when I notice the baby sitter drives a nicer car than us.
Hayes has an answer for my reluctance: Radicalizing one’s homemaking is a process. First, you renounce (Satan’s not the boss of me! Fuck Crate and Barrel), then you reclaim (you learn how to can). Finally, you rebuild, which means convincing others to radicalize, too. No one gets there overnight. Or, in my case, ever. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Like a majority of Americans, I’ll always prefer direct deposit to getting paid in chicken eggs. I’m comfortable with the smile-and-wave relationships I have with most of my neighbors. While I share the Radical Homemakers’ family, environmental and social justice values, the way they propose bringing about change requires too much of the kind of work I frankly don’t want to do. I’m fine giving up stuff. But I can’t imagine spending afternoons rendering fat and lacto-fermenting cucumbers. That would be too much like shoveling rocks, even if it wasn’t for Satan.
Oh, wait, I remember. I’ve heard it from assorted guys over the years, who just grin and shrug and say “I’m just not good at doing laundry.” Or “I never get the diapers changed properly, they always leak, so my wife does it.” It reminds me of an ex of mine who, when I asked when it would be his turn to clean the toilet he said “I just don’t notice the toilet and you do.” Mmmmhmmmm…
But this isn’t just about men. This is about privilege – and privileged women do it too. “Oh, I just never get the floors as clean as Maria does!” “I don’t have the patience to be with my kids all the time, plus I didn’t spend so many years in graduate school to wipe noses all day.”
There’s a kind of willful incompetence that is endemic in our society, and it is the territory of privileged folks who characterize basic, functional human work as something you need a special gift for. And this serves them well As long as you don’t know how to do something, and can naturalize your “flaws” as just “how you are made” you don’t have to apologize for the fact that you are sticking someone less privileged with your work. In fact, you can totally sympathize with them, and totally care about justice for people just like them – at the same time that they get paid badly or treated badly for doing work you could do too.
If these are innate personality factors, there’s no reason to ask the question, why is it that Mrs. Sen is always so much better than you at wiping behinds, and why it is your wife doesn’t have the same problem with diaper leaks?
In a society that in no way stigmatizes most kinds of manual incompetenece, these naturalized categories manage to reinforce divisions of class and race and social justice. Thus, Madeline Holler can totally share Shannon Hayes’s values and take full credit for that sharing.
The problem is that she’s just not radical enough in her makeup – she just can’t help dying inside because someone has a better car than she does. But she’s a really good person and wishes she was different – she really, really cares. And presumably, even though she can’t actually lactoferment cucumbers, her caring extends, then to the industrial food worker (probably not white) who will lactoferment the pickles she eats. She presumably cares about that person’s class and social standing, and justice for them – just not enough to do anything about it.
And as long as this is purely an issue of personality, of hating or loving a particular kind of work, and the right to only mostly do things you just love, that’s cool. But this only works because you leave out all the context, and all the things that can be conveniently unsaid. After all, she tried making the yogurt. She didn’t enjoy it. It wasn’t as good, and that’s where her responsibility stopped. .
Except that not liking domestic labor does not mean your family stops making use of domestic labor – in fact, all of us use a whole lot of it. And it always has to get done by a person – there are no robot maids. Holler would rather die than lactoferment her own cucumbers, but there’s no evidence that she and her family don’t eat pickles. She doesn’t want to make bread, but she presumably eats it. She can’t keep a basil plant alive, but she speaks of salad caprese in way that suggests she likes to eat basil.
By framing this as a purely personal issue “some people are just made in a pickle-making kind of way” and as a matter of competence “I couldn’t possibly grow a cucumber, that must be the territory of other people, raised on farms, whose social status is already determined…” we led implicitly to assume that the pickles that she then eats will be grown and made by people who just love growing cucumbers and making pickles – that there is a natural sorting into “pickle people” and “nonpickle people” in the world, and that this is good and just and everyone is happy. Except, of course, that’s bull.
Maybe Holler is one of the rare people who is sufficiently affluent to buy every single thing she owns ethically. Maybe she gets her bread from the local craftsman-baker and the pickles from the farmer’s market where there’s someone who lovingly grows and makes them – those people exist. Maybe she gets everything that way – fair trade and ethically produced and local. The problem is that the pickle maker and the craftsman demand a fair prices for their labor, and that’s hard. It is hard when you also have to buy a more expensive hybrid, pay the Nanny social security, make sure the lawn guy gets a living wage from the service… Living fairly is pricey if you are going to pay someone else to cover all your domestic labor.
The thing is, most people don’t have that kind of money, but there’s nothing magical about our lives that made the hard domestic work go away – we still eat, we still use the toilet, we still have to get things cleaned, managed, taken care of. So we pay people to do this work – but almost none of them make a truly living wage. Maybe we make our choices in one place, buying the good bread, but then we cut corners in another, not paying a full wage to the Nanny or buying the cheap mayo. We spend a lot of time pretending that the whole industrial system isn’t fully of poorly paid people less privileged than people like Holler, and that we’re not participating fully in it.
So what happens if Holler’s family has money issues (which she leads us to believe she does) and not enough millions to pay everyone fully and fairly – like most of us. Will her pickles be made by people who love pickle making and are innately talented at growing them?
Well, maybe. But odds are not. Holler’s family’s pickles will probably be grown and picked by migrant laborers working for virtual slave wages in the hot sun. They won’t get paid for any that don’t fit the precise specifications of the pickle factory, even if they do the work of picking them. They also can’t miss work, often have inadequate sanitation, can be fired for being sick and often deported for being them.
The pickle pickers get exposed to pesticides and get physical injuries from squatting in the field, always under high pressure to harvest more and more for the pickle companies. It may well be that these folks (it is entirely a coincidence that they are not white, of course) always and only dreamed of being migrant laborers, and think that’s what they are best at, and dream of for their children. It may also be the only kind of work they can get, even though they are not innately talented at it – maybe even less talented than Holler is at this.
The pickles will be made by poorly paid food workers who stand for many hours sorting cucumbers or with their hands deep in brine that causes sores and makes their skin break out in rashes. They will get repetetive strain injuries from sorting cukes. It is possible, of course, that they love this work and dreamed their whole childhood of being a pickle maker, of the pride and status that comes with doing that for a major corporation. It is also possible, of course, that they didn’t.
Again, it will be totally a coincidence that the people who do this are poorer and often not white. And total coincidence that they get paid so very poorly, and probably drive worse cars than Hollers – after all, they should have been born the kind of people who hate pickle making and feel ashamed of their cars!
Now again, we know that Holler shares the values that Shannon Hayes has, the goals that she articulates in her book about trying to achieve a more just society. We know this because Holler says so. In fact, Holler presumably believes deeply in them. And she’s willing to keep believing just as hard as she can that these values are really important. She’s definitely out there caring, all day long, and even spends some time each day feeling bad when she hears about injustice, I’m sure. And because she’s done the hard, exhausting work of caring and feeling bad and believes that things should be better, she totally should get a pass from the fact that she’s not actually doing anything to deal with issues of the environment or social justice. Anyone who feels that hard should definitely get the credit!
Now radical homemaking is not the only possible solution to the problems of the world, but it is one part of one – a way of taking responsibility for your own consumption and your own messes. If you are not affluent enough to pay people fairly for their work, if you are not going to be able to buy the pricey hybrid, maybe you can still do something besides waiting for your lottery number to come up so you will then be able to save the world. You could make your own pickles. You could drive less. You could scrub the coop toilets. It might not always make you feel good. You might not always like it, or feel that it was work worthy of your august self. And yet, it might still be the right thing to do.
Moreover, it might not be an issue of competence, personality or affluence at all. Sometimes it is a matter of right and wrong For example, I don’t like to sew. Given a choice, frankly, when my kids rip a pair of jeans, I’d like to throw them out and buy a new one, rather than spend fussy hours repairing them. But those jeans came from cotton, grown in the third world, heavily sprayed by chemicals that contaminate the soil. They were made by shop workers who were also tired, and also put in long hours. If I go buy another one, I support the industry, I support the cotton spraying and the child labor and the sweatshops. I know that. So let’s think – whose pain and suffering is more important, mine or the 15 year old girl in the sweatshop? Mine or the peasant farmer in Benin spraying toxics without even a mask? I might have to spend a whole half hour doing something I really hate – obviously, it is me who needs liberation. Besides, I suck at sewing.
Of course, that’s because I’m allowed to suck at sewing – this isn’t rocket science, but because no one ever made me learn (ok, I’m pretending that I never had my seventh grade home ec teacher, bless her), it is just too hard for me. Never mind that there are plenty of things that I’m not particularly talented at that I’ve somehow managed to learn to do over the years. Never mind that we assume that everyone, barring a disability, regardless of mathematical talent, needs to learn things like arithmetic and basic algebra, and that even people with disabilities that make it hard for them need to learn to read and write. We never ask “are you talented at these things, honey…no, ok, pass.”
I’m sorry, but any idiot can grow a basil plant. Any idiot can make pickles. Any idiot can bake a loaf of bread. Any idiot can repair a seam. You may not like these things. You may find it frustrating and difficult to master the skill set, and you may hate being bad at them for the time that it takes to get good. Trust me, I’m right there with you. You may not choose to do them because you may find other ways to live ethically in the world than doing them yourself. But you do not get to pretend that they are just too hard for you. You do not get to pretend that you are just not the kind of person who loves picking cucumbers, and that the people who do it for you do it from love and joy. You do not get to pretend that those people are not fully real, you do not get to erase the environmental, personal and economic harm you do in the system because you don’t want to do something.
Willful incompetence and the framing of these issues as trivial ones of personal taste and choice masks the real and deep issues that underly our “personal choices.” Hayes makes very clear in her book what these issues are – and offers an out. Holler seems to have missed that part of the book, along with the part that talks about domestic equity. There’s never any mention of the possibility that her husband could have made some yogurt or planted a basil plant. He’s there only as the inadequate breadwinner, making it hard for her. But that’s not the kind of marriage – or the kind of homemaking Hayes is proposing, nor what I propose when I talk about creating a real home economy. It is a full participant project – and both of you can grow the basil, or even do it together.
Holler gets a pass here from most people because she’s free to fail – we’ve managed to conceal the environmental costs of our “personal choices” so well that we don’t really think very clearly about them. We carry a cloth bag and crank up the a/c at the same time. These are, after all, just statements of who we are – we’re both environmentally conscious and terribly heat sensitive.
Holler can lament how hard the work is to find a coffee table on Craigs List or scrub the potties at her coop preschool – because we are not required to think about who will scrub the toilets at a school she sends her kids too where all she has to do is drop a check. We are not required to ask whether the wood in the Crate and Barrel coffee table came from tropical rainforests being deforested, or whether the people who assembled it were treated fairly or even adults. If we care about those things, those too are just personal choices of ours – we’re identifiable as having a set of cool values, being part of the cool environmentalist crowd. But we could just as easily choose to be the kind of person who cares, but doesn’t do jack – and that’s ok too. There’s no real hard moral choices here, no right, no wrong, no good, no bad in this view. Of course, that’s a lie. But it is a common and persuasive lie.
I’m ok, you’re ok, and why are those poor people working so very hard? Why don’t they just pay someone else to clean their toilets, take care of their kids and make a salad caprese? Could it possibly have something to do with the fact that you’ve outsourced your domestic labor to them and pay them badly? I’m picking on Holler here, but only because her essay is such good evidence of the fact that we’ve erased all moral qualities, all right and wrong, and vast inequities into the culture of personal choice.
I tried, says Holler, and those like her. I cared, says Holler. I just wasn’t good at it. It takes a special person to both give a shit and try and live their convictions, and I just wasn’t made that way. But if I was, I totally would do it, and so I should definitely get the credit for almost caring.