How We Learn What Matters


When Aaron Newton and I conceived _A Nation of Farmers_ we began each chapter with a framing image from World War political posters about food, energy and gardening. We wanted to bring home the point I make in writing in _Depletion and Abundance_ - that at critical moments in our history, including times of war or great economic strain - ordinary daily acts are transferred from the private sphere into the public one. That is, the act of eating, or buying clothing, or travelling from one place to another becomes not a "personal choice" but part of one's basic participation in civil society, and heavily freighted with the good of society. Doing things like shifting one's diet to eat more potatoes becomes an act of patritiotism - wasting food or buying on black markets becomes a shameful act.

In fact, there's nothing magical or special about a difficult period in history that makes how far you drive or what you eat a question with deep implications for civil society as a whole. In fact, those "personal acts" *always* have profound implications for our society. That is, it isn't that during wartime, when supplies are constrained, that it suddenly matters what you do. It is only that during wartime those connections between ordinary acts and social goods are made explicit.

What's really interesting about this is that during wartime and times of other crisis, both governments and corporate industry work very hard to make explicit the connections between millions of individual acts - propaganda posters, in modern time television and web ads all make clear what the ties between how we live our daily lives and how the great events that surround us occur. Consider this:

save wheat.jpg

But immediately after wartime, government and industry come together to send the general public the opposite message - your ordinary, daily acts are private, they are separate from the civil sphere, and they are fundamentally not political, nor should they be subject to scrutiny - that is, all the things that were true about these acts - that they were public, political, integral and required deep consideration - are magically no longer true now that the crisis is over.

The explanation of this is very simple - economic growth depends heavily on the idea that our consumer choices are not recognized as having political implications. Our entire post-WWII economy depended heavily on the idea that it didn't matter whether you moved to one of the new suburbs and drove more, whether you left the city and the old neighborhood behind, whether you put up your own food or bought the new "better than homemade" stuff from Campbells - how you spent your money was your business.

Well, except that it wasn't - it was everyone's business. The government was in the business of reassuring that stability and affluence were everyone's birthright, because people who feel stable and affluent spend more, and consumer spending was a growing part of the economy (it is now 70%). Businesses of course had a deeply public and political desire to get you to spend their money in particular ways - but all of this was functionally served by the almost invisible recategorization of ordinary acts into the territory of the private.

In doing so, both government and industry played brilliantly and subtly the ways we associate women and men with certain acts. "Women's work" has usually in western society been place in the category of the private, and thus rendered (falsely, of course, but I assume that's obvious) insignificant. In the World Wars, when women took men's places in the factories and on the farm, that work was also brought into the light - in fact, a large part of the process of articulating the importance of these daily acts was the shifting of women's work into the world of the essential:

next war now.jpg

One of my central projects for years has been an attempt to critique the automatic acceptance almost everyone has of the standard political/personal categories. They function as ideology (and I mean this is the true and negative sense of the word), and because the fact that these things did once matter is concealed and erased into history, we have largely accepted the idea that it does not matter what you do.

Of course, that idea is false - and it has been challenged any number of times. We have only to look at the statistics on environmental degradation to see how the post-War rise in personal energy consumption, loss of connection to food systems and rise in consumerism have mattered very much indeed. Our present crisis - and the fact that we are unable to extricate ourselves from it, because our economy depends so profoundly on us not knowing that our daily acts matter - is a logical result of the erasure of urgency that we felt during times of crisis.

We see the effects of this message on a culture at large - the rise in energy use didn't just emerge from a people newly convinced of the fact that shopping was patriotic - it also arose from people who had imbued with their formula or breastmilk the basic message that there is no reason to go back to turn off a light, no reason to save for a rainy day, no reason to inconvenience oneself by sharing a ride. The idea that such acts are meaningless has penetrated the culture until it renders the times in which such acts are pregnant with meaning distant, absent, far away and never to recur. And yet, they do recur - over and over again in our history.

Even now, environmentalists work enormously hard to maintain the artificial distinction between public and private, between acts that "matter" and those that don't - they insist that we can address our public sphere crisis without actually requiring anything in particular from the private sphere - that all regulation can be placed upon industry, that we can continue consuming and acting as unconsciously as we have been. It is, of course, true that it makes no difference whether you drive five miles or ten. But what our propaganda history makes evident is that it may not make much difference whether *you* do - but it makes a huge difference whether millions do, and we take our cues, and underlying assumptions in large part from one another. It should not be intellectually surprising to observe that it makes a huge difference whether all the "yous" or even a large percentage of them walk or drive or turn out the lights or buy from farmers or Campbells. And yet it is surprising, and this is testimony to the fact that propaganda is enormously effective - so effective it can teach a generation of people who knew that what mattered that they were wrong- and erase that history for their children and grandchildren.

All of which is why I think that this new exhibit from the National Agricultural Library is fascinating, because it reminds us of the complicated ways in which food has been constituted, and in giving us between-wars context, it raises our awareness of the ways in which our sense of what food is to us, and what other related daily acts are to us - are always being reconstituted by ideology.

Someone once asked me why it was that Aaron and I were comfortable using world war government and industry propaganda posters to articulate the scale of the problem we face, and connect it back to other situations we've been in. The reason it doesn't bother me to be using agit-prop is simple - presuming that once upon a time we had propaganda, as part of the wars, and it went away is wrong. Instead, we are always being sold agit-prop - all of it very, very effective. Its deep effectiveness can be seen, in part in the ways that it erases all consciousness of itself - we do not realize we have persuaded of a worldview in our public-private distinctions, until we see disparate worldviews being offered by the same basic agencies.

But when we do, we can ask ourselves whether the worldview we've been sold is one that serves us? It certainly seemed to for decades - the public/private distinction served economic growth, served expansionism, and it served a whole number of other things, some of which were good and some of which were not. But it does not serve us now if it ever did - not as the consequences of the erasure of our private acts come back to meet us.

carry mine.jpg

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You ought to expand on how you would dismantle public-private distinction, because what you've described here suggests danger to liberty.

Dude, what do you mean about liberty? I read the post as a threat to the naive belief that you can do whatever the hell you like without consequences, but not as actually advocating any sort of restrictions.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 02 Aug 2010 #permalink

Excellent post. You may wish to note that the phrase "public sphere crisis" is *ahem* missing an L. :)

Meh dewey, I was going to suggest that perhaps one might not have a pubic sphere crisis if one didn't hang around with unwashed hippies.

Gotta get up earlier in the morning I guess ><

#1 - I don't know (from first cursory reading) that Sharon is suggesting that any liberties be taken away - just that we approach our current liberties fully informed, in the knowledge that our 50" plasma TV or our mahoosive freezer which we keep a bag of ice and a tub of ice cream in categorically DO matter in terms of the environment and DO have an impact beyond pleasing our eyes and inspiring envy in our neighbors (or disdain if they happen to be unwashed hippies)

I interpreted the post more like the TheDude. In general, if something is in the private sphere it is not as subject to regulation as something in the public sphere. If that separation breaks down, then almost all of our private liberties become subject to regulation.

For example, choosing which food to eat is one of our most basic liberties in support of our right to live. Yet, during WWII, this basic liberty was infringed due to national necessity. Look at the passions over the issue of raw milk. On one hand you have the state trying to regulate from a public health standpoint and on the other you have people who feel their basic right to choose what to eat has been infringed.

Interesting comment, Sharon. I wish I had had this idea in mind during those years that I taught college economics. We talked about advertising but didn't take the idea as far as you have. But with my current attitudes, I doubt any college would hire me now!

One part of the agit-prop in the posters that really offends me is the perfection in the people shown. They are all slim, rugged, Anglo-Saxons. No Native-Americans, no people of brown, reddish, yellow, or black hues; certainly no Jews or, I would guess, Catholics.

I know, I know, from a different era, but it's a time that bugs me nevertheless. The posters implicitly contain a "super-race" message as much as anything done by the Nazis.

Hi Sharon,

I love it when you write my beliefs: as you know, we share a lot of beliefs. But I usually cannot articulate them very well, if at all. This is probably true of many other of your readers. This particular topic is especially close to my heart.

Your blogpost should be printed, framed, and hung in every public building in the world. Except that, I believe, aside from the missing 'L' in 'public' (a funny typo there), you've used the word 'imbued' incorrectly. It's not something one *does*, it's something done to one (or done to an object). You've said '...arose from people who had imbued with their formula or breastmilk the basic message...' I think it was probably a case of a disconnect between brain and fingers and that you really meant to type 'imbibed'. :)

I only mention this because (a) I tend to be pedantic about words and (b) in case you use this post in a future book or article.


Another excellent essay. It really is amazing to watch government's message change depending on the times at hand and what government needs us to do and think.

I'd show the posters to a wider audience, but like DennisP says, the glaring omission of everybody except perfect white people would, in my work community, further reinforce the message that farming and the outdoors is the province of white, suburban people while urban people of color need not consider themselves worthy of any such activity past the porch steps.

It truly is amazing how people of color that moved up from the south after the war in the 40s through the 60s completely lost their rural culture to the point that their grand kids and great grand kids see absolutely no legitimacy in they themselves being outdoors playing in the dirt (or if they DO see it, they see it as a dangerous reenactment of plantation slavery.) I'd say that government didn't really care (or even want) people of color to recreate any self-sufficiency as they relocated to urban, northern cities. After all, government's Great Society was going to lift them out of the projects without people ever needing to get their hands dirty again. All the people needed to do was trust (and support) the government.

But, as Dennis also says, the posters are a product of their time. It's an important aspect of what life was like in the mid 20th century regarding race and ethnicity, even in the North I guess.

By Stephen B (not verified) on 02 Aug 2010 #permalink

I interpreted the post more like the TheDude. In general, if something is in the private sphere it is not as subject to regulation as something in the public sphere.

Where exactly does the post suggest an erosion of liberties. It appears to be more about the use of "propaganda" than about regulation of acts - would government urging (rather than forcing) individuals to reduce consumption, or to actually think about their consumption (imagine a world of forced advertisements akin to the anti-tobacco ones currently used - Perhaps Big Auto could fund commercials which juxtapose happy familes driving their Hummers with the a/c blasting and the multiple passenger DVDs blaring out whatever it is kids watch these days (badly animated guinea pigs it seems) with oil soaked fauna from the gulf etc etc) really be an infringement on liberties?

One part of the agit-prop in the posters that really offends me is the perfection in the people shown. They are all slim, rugged, Anglo-Saxons. No Native-Americans, no people of brown, reddish, yellow, or black hues; certainly no Jews or, I would guess, Catholics.

I think they need to be taken in a somewhat historical context (like reading pre 19th century literature, or even science - even the most liberal writers would sound like teabaggers in today's society at times) - these were times when racism was endemic and accepted so in general I'll just ignore the racism within rather than getting angry about it (other than a general anger that society sucked so badly so recently)

I agree that the posters have ethnic and ideological issues - Aaron and I searched like crazy to find some of the materials being sent out to non-white communities to engage them with rationing. A number of the most ardent and successful urban victory garden programs, for example, were mostly African-American, but there's almost no material directed to them. And yes, any reanimation of this material has to be taken with a large grain of salt. I don't take it, however, as so much inspiring us to do just as our ancestors have but as revealing how we are manipulated.

Dude hasn't weighed in, so I don't know if his and Mike's are the same issues, but I would disagree strongly that the private sphere isn't regulated and that you are free to do whatever you want in it. That, I would argue is part of the message that is sent, but not the truth. The private sphere is most definitely regulated and constrained in thousands of ways - much as the public sphere is. Food practices are regulated - you bring up issues around raw milk. Those regulations emerged, sometimes for very good reasons, even if their application has been problematic, precisely as we were coming out of the war era, as we were privatizing these acts. It is a mistake, I think to view what happens at home as unregulated and unconstrained.

So no, I don't think there's any more danger to liberty this way - in fact, actually, I think there's more danger to liberty in an uncritically ideological way of looking at the distinction between the public and private realms - because as long as the realm of the private is constituted as untheorizable, and as outside the realm of constraint, we can covertly regulate, without a full public discussion of how we do regulate.

And I should probably change that away from "pubic" but I'm always tempted to leave the funny typos in ;-).


Actually, the food regulation business has arguably gotten way out of hand (I just read Joel Salatin's book arguing that it's made it virtually impossible for a little guy to legally start a food business). These little guys would compete, if allowed, with the corporate products whose manufacture is not stifled by the regulations. In my experience, those who are most fanatically imposed to any regulation of their own private activities to protect others seldom speak up for the removal of regulations placed on others for their own (alleged) protection.

My experience is that discussions that rely on terms like liberty and freedom can quickly turn vacuous, because the terms are so elastic. We may agree that the freedom of your arm should end before your fist hits my nose, but once you start recognizing how interrelated we are, and how our actions constrain and determine the actions and opportunities of others, then the question doesn't come down to freedom versus regulation. It comes down to the uncomfortable fact that more liberty for Joe means less liberty for Paulo or vice versa. Drawing the line becomes a value judgement that each of us (and to an extent, all of us collectively) have to settle on. I want the freedom to eat what I want. But I don't want you to have the freedom to eat cheap grapes grown with chemicals that give workers cancer. That doesn't make me hypocritical or anti-freedom, it's just one of those places where I'd draw that line. Or in another example, I'd say you have a right to eat crappy CAFO chicken if you prefer, but crappy CAFO chicken operations don't have a right to foul the drinking water -- so they shape up or get out of the market. Some would take their judgements about freedom in another direction as well and say that CAFOs shouldn't have the freedom to treat chickens that way. On that I don't know.

my experience, those who are most fanatically imposed to any regulation of their own private activities to protect others seldom speak up for the removal of regulations placed on others for their own (alleged) protection.

Excellent discussions follow upon one of the best pages in C's Book. I have argued tirelessly for four decades that media is full-time and comprehensive regulation and tried to explain the destination of the handbasket that's placed us in, especially since the 60s assassinations and diaspora of the Left. But never has anything I've said on the topic remotely approached this essay of Sharon's. It should be reposted as widely as possible, if ScienceBlogs allows such things.

Even the typo is cogent! If anyone here is thinking, "well, at least the pubic is private," just ask your nearest dominionist.

At Stony Run we did not find the time to pay adequate attention to homesteading and preparedness until we chose not to get the little black box for the old TV. Eureka! We got our lives back. A little bit of our brains, too.

Still not convinced that enough people will change their behavior for moral reasons for the good of the planet. Sure, the people reading this blog think about the effects of their choices on the planet,and they are visionary few. But the only consistent and reliable influence on people's behavior as regards to consumer choices is price. And those of us with a sense of fairness have trouble with this, as those with money can still consume with abandon. "Go without" campaigns like these always seem to fall on those who don't have much already.


I agree - the National Agriculture Library exhibit is moving.

What strikes me is the air of legitimacy, especially in the WWI posters. It was a world wide conflict, with a lot of drafted and volunteer soldiers involved from all walks of American life. At the same time each community could see, in the numbers of young men drawn from them for national service, that they were involved, what the government proclaimed about modifying food choices made sense. That is, the message to eat "a pound of potatoes" instead of wheat was apparently factual and relevant, the message came from a government mostly deemed to be credible, and compliance with the message appeared to support the other, more direct support the community already provided.

Today we lack much of what made the early posters and programs successful. Instead of the 1920 Food Administration's premise of assuming individual competence and compliance, the federal government has nearly a century of experience of what Barry Goldwater called "regulating morality". Congress has been very active under B. Hussein Obama in operating against the will of American people, and appears to be following President Obama's lead - that is, there is *no* presumption that what the government wants has any relationship to the benefit of America, her security, or her freedom. That is, government credibility, unlike it's regulatory might, has been crumbling for a long time, just accelerated a bit, of late.

And producers of food and other products have lived for generations under the umbrella of regulation and government interference. The concept of a personal stake in national security or national interest had been bred out of the American people. Even today the most strident patriots often overlook the historical dictum of patriotism - how many sons have you raised for the army?

Today the "Have you eaten your pound of potatoes?" message would be met with scorn. Not only are others making other choices, there is little reason to assume someone is growing more potatoes to enable that choice. And, besides, some government agency must be making the wheat available, if it is really needed - that is their job, after all, isn't it?

I think it would take a draft, as a minimum, against a credible enemy, by a government with an aura of competence, to restore the versatility and dynamism of the past. Individuals acting against the direction set by the US government are nothing less than rebels - outside the system, unsupported and liable to hostile reaction from the mainstream. Bless us all, I pray.

B. Hussein Obama

This sets the alarm bells ringing every time.

I remember us observing Meatless Tuesdays (maybe it was Thursdays) even though we had a smokehouse full of meat. At my university we had a number of students out of East St. Louis. One day I was talking with a couple of black guys who had moved up from Alabama, and a black girl who had grown up local. We talked about things that po' southern folks know about; poke salad, for example. After a few minutes the girl remarked, "You southern people sure know about a lot of things."

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 03 Aug 2010 #permalink