This Thing About Privilege
If you are an artist or an activist or both, you have lately been living with agonizing mystery. I have. I have been like a gourd off of the vine, full of seeds drying, itching to be ready, and useful. And everybody, everything, is walking by and shaking me. The shaking, all day long, it comes from everywhere, painful. A dizzying reminder of what I have and don’t have. What I can give and what I can’t. What I’ve done and what I haven’t. Oh, this world. What can I do? What can I do with uncertainty, with hostility, with injustice, with anxiety, with drought, with fire, with greed? I read the news in the morning with my people and we sigh and exclaim. I walk out into the fields, over the dry ground, blinking at the sun. Our conclusion has been to work. Work well and be gentle. Find beauty and thank it. Make beauty and give it away. This is the first and best thing to do, but the shaking doesn’t stop. I ask...is it enough?
In my classes, I talk about Maslow’s theory of hierarchy. You’ve heard of it. This theory that self-actualization comes only after securing basic needs. That the people who are comfortable in our world are the ones who will think about change. I tell my children that because we are lucky we have a responsibility to make the world a better place. I believe this to my core, where the seeds are never ready fast enough, and where the tireless rhythm of faith-in-things-better just thumps and thumps. And thumps.
In the past few weeks, I have wrestled with the duty that comes with privilege. In highly publicized debates about the luxury of dietary choice, in media interviews about craft food and local foodways, and in working on my next book, which focuses on charcuterie. And it occurs to me, in the thick of this and under the weight of what is happening in the world, how important it is to discuss the dynamic of privilege when it comes to change. I’m sure of two things: that if you can you must, and if it is hard it is worth it.
I’m thinking about it in a more focused way after this fantastic story posted from Ashlie Stevens, a public radio reporter in my hometown of Louisville, KY. It is a musing on craft butchery and the worth of the word “artisan.” I love that she went there. When she called me for an interview, we talked about a lot of things, and this issue of artisan came up right out of the gate. Yep. The good food movement has become synonymous with affluence. One of the largest questions it faces as a whole is how to become more accessible. Cost has a lot to do with this. Distribution has a lot to do with this. A lot of it is connotation, too, and that is what I want to deal with here.
Artisan does not mean gourmet. It does not mean expensive. It refers to a person, a worker, who by trade makes something requiring skill, and usually that something is made by hand. It refers to food products that are skillfully handcrafted using high quality ingredients. It connotes a person behind a product; it presumes work done with knowledge and with care. It hints at wholeness, cleanliness, and noble standards.
And that is just it. What about this--this intention and this relationship to work and to quality has become only available or acceptable to a few?
The answer is nothing at all, of course. Yet it has become personal, the divide between who can get what everyone deserves, and who must settle for everything else. It has gotten so bad that the people who can get what everyone deserves are even embarrassed to ask for it, or to admit that they want it to begin with, no matter how hard it is to get. It has gotten so bad that those who can’t get what everyone deserves vilify the existence of it to begin with. It has gotten so bad that people pass things off for quality or important when really they are as cheap or as fast, as trivial and as bastardized as everything else we’re used to, in the name of money. This is our economy. This is our wealth gap. Not skirting around, no.
The question then seems to always, always settle on this: If the right things are only available to some of us, then those some of us embracing those things and championing those things, well...is that enough? And further, is it actually inefficient, and elitist? Narrow and punitive? Making things worse?
I start my day every day thanking my lucky stars for what I’ve done right and what I have, and forgiving myself for what I’ve done wrong and what I don’t know. This serves me throughout my day in many ways, but the part that gets me to my seeds is the moment when I am sitting in the dark and I have stripped myself to the innocent, tired, restless, longing soul that I am. That we all are. When the playing field is even and I have just done what I can, trying and trying. Lawd, that pulls a compassion from me that I’ve had to learn to bear. And as soon as I feel it I turn it on everyone I can think of. People who piss me off. People I seem to piss off. People I love when it is easy, and people I love when it plain sucks. Because of this I know there is no difference between me and anyone else. I also know that I will seek to do good in the world. Even if it doesn't work.
One of the most devastating yet critical epiphanies of my earliest spirituality was this:
The world will not heal, and things will not be saved just because you worked it right, or sought to do good. The world, and you, will continue to suffer, regardless. But there is no choice but to keep working it right. Keep doing good. Despite the facts. This is the only way.
Here is the thing about privilege. If I want to use my privilege to bring the real and the raw into the norm, I have to do my work, as small as it may seem sometimes. I have to reach the people I can, as well as I can. This is movement. This is evolution. I don’t do it just because I want and have a right to good, real food to eat. I do it also because it is the right thing to do. I do it because to create economic, environmental, and social systems that favor the right thing, I have to go "artisan". I mean, I have to build economies and communities based on people, and based on their art. I have to preserve resources. I have to revere relationships and cooperation. I have to recognize that what is quality actually came from spare and humble beginnings. That it has been elevated to the exclusive is an unfortunate casualty of our money-obsessed culture. This is what is, right now. I write this in hopes that we can eventually value quality by its appropriate standards: Time. Talent. Work. Art. I write this in hopes that we can appreciate value even when it is divorced from monetary gain.
From the forthcoming book:
“Meat preservation arose from necessity. It is trending now as art. I hope this book can craft an argument that there is no difference in these two things. We need the collusion of art and necessity in our collective mindset, now more than ever. We need an understanding that what is real and important is also what is moving and beautiful. That is why we are drawn to it. That is why you want to know how to do it. For the sense that you and your people have a history of thrift, rather than the waste you see on a daily basis. That the ones who came before you made trusting marriages with the land, and that you need not only inherit irreverence. That we came from industrious souls, unafraid of mystery, and committed to flavor. In the midst of pop culture and the confusion of our times, you want to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell the victory of a genuine craft. You want to become vulnerable to what is softly real, not weakened, and not afraid of what is so distant and out of control. You are, after all, just an imperfect, innocent piece of nature.”
“The representation of certain foods as gourmet, over time, and the misconception of the word artisan has created cultural and culinary blockades against the best representation of food, economy, and culture. This applies thoroughly to cured meats, and the accessibility of their creation.”
I told Ashlie Stevens that people who run craft butcher shops are brave. They are taking business risks to present a modality of quality and economy that we aren't accustomed to, and perhaps aren't ready for, alongside a supremely vast system that we easily support, though it is the opposite of "craft." I say the same of farmers. Does that mean they should not do it? Absolutely not. The world we live in doesn’t know how to handle the brave, the ones who put something out there that we have a hard time taking, just for what it is. But we need those people! We need them doing what they’re doing right, and we need them making the mistakes they’re making in order to figure out this newer, better world. I have done brave things. I have done stupid things. None of them have left me worse off for long. A few of them seem to have helped a greater whole.
And so. That the privileged have exclusive access to what is real, I lament. That the majority of the privileged use their advantage to usurp and judge and block, I abhor. But should we stop pushing real, because of that? No way. What kind of logic would that be? If you have a building intact around you tonight, if you are not imminently afraid for your children’s lives, if your glass is wine shaped and wine full, this is for you. You have a deep obligation to grab hold of what is real. Don't just grab anything, grab what is real and good and craft. Fill your hands with it, and then extend your filled hands in whatever way you can. It may be investment, time, knowledge, or seeds. Or salami. Whatever it is, extend it without shame over its richness and without pomp about your position. There is no such thing as small change.