Looking at the system, not the parts

February 5th, 2010

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a brilliant post up about weight loss, the American food industry, environmentalism, racism, and stuff. He’s one of my favorite bloggers anyway, and this post exemplifies why; in essence, he’s trying, as always, to get his readers to look at the bigger picture and not point fingers at individuals. This is a huge part of what I try to do with etiquette, and what part of my whole “epidemic of rudeness” post was about — looking at systemic causes for why people behave the way they do, instead of just running around shrieking “Narcissism! Internet! Mindlessness! Selfish bastards!”

You really have to read the whole thing to understand how he gets from low-fat Oreos to racism, but here’s two key paragraphs:

But more than that, I understand enough to be wary of inveighing against people who eat at McDonalds–or even McDonald’s itself–of harshly interrogating the morality of flesh-eaters (I am, of course, among them.) It’s not that any of this is wrong per se, so much as it’s limited. When you’re constantly naming people for their sins of consumption, it’s very hard to get them to act against a system of consumption. More than that, it often misses the point of how hard it is to pull oneself out of the Matrix, and thus underestimates the Matrix, in that it assumes we can win by yelling.

Likewise, I think in my best writing here, in the writing that really matters, I’ve worked to steer us away from the reductive parlor game of “Is this/he/she racist?” It’s useful to a point, but ultimately self-serving. It underestimates our demons and it underestimates how an entire system warped nearly every institution in this country, and continues to warp it to this day. What I’d rather we us understand is some sense of the big system, some sense of American white supremacy as mechanized racism.

You might disagree with some of his specific points, but the overall thrust of his argument is, I think, profound.

(Also, while we are on the topic of the U.S. food system, did anyone catch “Parks & Recreation” last night? Yes, it tripped some of my body-acceptance triggers, but I thought for a sitcom, it did a damn good job of showing some of the problems of our current food system and legitimate points of view from both the liberal and libertarian sides. And all that along with a B-plot featuring an iPod/Roomba hybrid called “DJ Roomba” and a C-plot of April becoming disenchanted with her two gay boyfriends. No small accomplishment, that.)


One Response to “Looking at the system, not the parts”

  1. Carolyn on February 9, 2010 8:56 pm

    Both you and TNC have indeed said a mouthful here.
    I have a couple of pet issues where I always want more discussion of the system instead of the individual, whether hero or villain–but I should know by now, there’s just not enough time.

    One of them is “Jackie Robinson is the first Black Major Leaguer! ((In the Modern era–blacks were excluded by a “gentlemen’s agreement” in the 1890′s, and as commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis kept the racial divide firmly in place for many years…))

    Another is “Rosa Parks, simple seamstress…” ((–who had been secretary of Montgomery’s NAACP chapter, hence friends with Mr. E.D. Nixon, (a protege of A. Philip Randolph) who gave Martin Luther King a firm shove in the direction of leadership, and what about the women who printed those leaflets…))

    Any trope you hear as often as those, about any lone hero, must have such an iceberg under it, and there just isn’t time to learn about them all, let alone repeat them every time. But sometimes I feel it would be nice.

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