“Human nature has a flaw. Under conditions of apparent competition, when a hierarchy of relative winners and losers is created, no matter how, the people at the top tend to fall for something called a self-affirmation fallacy which causes them to attribute their high status to their own merits and qualities, even if they became rich by winning at some gamble which could have gone the other way. Being rich literally makes people change, makes people less sympathetic, less compassionate, less law-abiding, less honest.”—Helga Vierich, Professor of Anthropology, Yellowhead Tribal College (Spruce Grove, Alberta)
After years of being an overweight sweetheart, this guy I knew in high school started working out, lost all of the weight, and eventually looked like Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Before this dramatic transformation, he had plenty of female friends who adored him and confided in him (but alas, never hooked up with him). The girls saw him as a sweet, understanding, empathetic guy. But soon after his manly metamorphosis, he became a repulsive “bro” who used girls with the indifference of a sociopath. And, just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about a garden-variety player. I’m talking about a full-blown misogynistic asshole with the conscience of a turnip! At one point I confronted him about his nasty behavior: “What happened to you? You used to be such a nice guy.” “I’m hot now,” he said, with a sleazy smile, “and you don’t have to be nice when you’re hot.”
That’s when I realized that he was, in fact, always an asshole; he was just really good at hiding it. The power that came with his newfound hotness afforded him the opportunity to behave in ways that accorded with inclinations that were always there. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s aphorism—“You will never know for sure if someone is an asshole until he becomes rich”—follows the same logic: money doesn’t make people mean, it just allows mean people to be mean. Or, to put it another way, as Taleb once did on his Facebook page, in a clarifying remark: “People reveal their temperament when they have choices.” Paul Piff’s research into the relationship between social class and unethical behavior suggests that Taleb may be wrong about this. In numerous experiments, he has demonstrated that you can turn a completely normal person into a sociopathic jerk. It’s actually quite easy: just give them some power. If Piff is right, then it’s not so much that latent asshole tendencies are brought out by wealth but that wealth (in and of itself) can turn many perfectly normal people into assholes.
“In the morning she was asked how she had slept. ‘Oh, very badly!’ said she. ‘I have scarcely closed my eyes all night. Heaven only knows what was in the bed, but I was lying on something hard, so that I am black and blue all over my body. It’s horrible!’ Now they knew that she was a real princess because she had felt the pea right through the twenty mattresses and the twenty eider-down beds. Nobody but a real princess could be as sensitive as that. So the prince took her for his wife, for now he knew that he had a real princess.”—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Princess and the Pea” (1835)
Like most of you, I read Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” (1835) when I was a kid. Haven’t given it much thought since. But a recent essay by Nassim Nicholas Taleb has led me to revisit it. When I was a kid, I’m pretty sure I came away from the story thinking that the princess was a spoiled brat. But today, at 42, I find myself sympathizing with the princess. She’s a victim of her wealthy upbringing. The girl needs perfect conditions just to get a good night’s sleep!
In our day and age, the princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” would grow up to be the kind of woman whose morning is ruined if the new guy at Starbucks messes up her soy-latte; the kind of delicate flower whose entire day is ruined if her favorite yoga instructor calls in sick; the kind of therapy-junkie whose entire week is ruined if her therapist cancels her weekly appointment; the kind of absentee-parent who has a panic attack when the nanny quits because she really doesn’t know how to take care of her own kids. Privilege isn’t always a privilege. And she’s a case in point. Wealth and power have transformed her into an inflexible wimp. Look at her: she’s pathetic. Why do you envy her? You really ought to pity her.
When our sons were babies, many marveled at how easily they could sleep through ambient noise. When asked, Anna-Liisa was happy to share the secret: “If you give your baby a perfectly quiet environment at bedtime, your baby will come to need a perfectly quiet environment to go to sleep; if you give your baby a perfectly quiet environment all through the night, your baby will come to need a perfectly quiet environment to sleep through the night.” As we now know, this principle of desensitization applies to much else (e.g., allergies, stress, losing at games, etc.). It is, in fact, central to Taleb’s concept of antifragility.
In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012), Taleb argues that living things (biological systems) don’t just tolerate stress; they actually need it just to maintain the status quo. For instance, as N.A.S.A. discovered a few years ago, much to their chagrin, the bones of astronauts in a space station quickly degenerate when they’re deprived of the regular stress provided by the Earth’s gravitational field. Likewise, my friend’s muscles atrophied rather severely whilst she was recovering from surgery. Three months on a hospital bed, with very little movement, caused the muscles in her legs to degenerate so much that this former marathon runner could barely walk when she was discharged from the hospital. I remember it vividly: we had to practically carry her to the car.
If it’s true that we need a certain amount of stress merely to maintain the strength that we presently possess, it’s equally true that we need to increase the amount of stress on a biological system if we want it to get stronger (e.g., by lifting weights). The rich and powerful are often, as Taleb puts it, “punished by privilege and comfort.” Muscles that are unused atrophy, bones that are unused become brittle, underutilized immune systems grow weak, and pampered princesses become pathetic pansies who can’t sleep on peas.
Being rich in a place that’s not uniformly rich is sort of like being rich in a large extended family: you’re made aware on a fairly regular basis of how fortunate you’ve been. Does this mean you have to give your wealth away? Divvy it up? Of course not. But it does mean that (a) you’re far more likely to have a realistic assessment of how different classes live; (b) you’re far more likely to be swayed by the notion that “to whom much is given, much is required”; and (c) you’re far less likely to get caught up in the delusions of the global upper class.
By contrast, when rich people start living in rich-people neighborhoods, vacationing in rich-people resorts, shopping in rich-people malls, and sending their kids to rich-people private schools, all of this much-needed perspective goes out the window. For instance, I had a student whose family owns a helicopter and four houses tell me, in all seriousness, that her family was middle class. None of the millionaires and billionaires who built Canada would have ever said anything this stupid.
Paul Martin, a billionaire who was for a time prime minister of Canada, walked around my neighborhood without bodyguards when I was a kid, and he was a local elected official. He knew what was going on at every level of society. Used to come to my hockey games and talk to the dads in the stands. He would find the repulsive arguments of our cloistered One Percent thoroughly unconvincing. His public service was based on the much maligned “noblesse oblige” model. We could do much worse. Indeed, we have. The ethics of the 21st-century rich were inadvertently summarized by Drake in Nothing Was the Same (2013): “I’mma worry ’bout me, give a fuck about you!”
“Today, we live in the richest country in the history of the world, but that reality means little because much of that wealth is controlled by a tiny handful of individuals. The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time.”—Bernie Sanders
I went to a self-storage facility with my father-in-law today, in Emerson’s home state of Massachusetts (“The Spirit of America”). With all four kids out of the house, my wife’s parents are downsizing; and, as a consequence, they don’t have nearly enough space for all of their stuff, despite the fact that they’ve had a number of yard sales, and they’ve insisted that their kids come and collect all that stuff they’ve been storing, more or less indefinitely, chez mom and dad. For my wife, this involved the repatriation of a number of nostalgia-soaked artifacts from the Before John Era (c. 5 B.J.), such as a collection of beautiful letters from her first love.
I’m no stranger to self-storage facilities. I worked for a moving company every summer for years back in the day, and we moved stuff into or out of self-storage facilities from time to time. But things have changed. Big time. The self-storage industry has grown exponentially in the last two decades. Used to be that the only people who used self-storage facilities were people who were going through major transitions of some kind: e.g., people who were downsizing now that the kids were all grown up (like my in-laws), people who were moving overseas for work, people who were storing their recently deceased mother’s stuff, etc. But that’s no longer the case. People my age, people in the middle of this divine comedy, are renting out storage space, and lots of it. Why? Because they don’t have room for all of their stuff. Where’s most of this stuff made? Not in America.
Now I forgot to mention an important detail: as we were pulling up to the self-storage facility, my father-in-law mentioned that the building was once a factory, a factory that he and his wife (my mother-in-law) worked at in the 1970s. The factory was owned and operated by Tucker Manufacturing. They did injection molding and they paid very well. What’s more, they were super busy: the factory was open 24-hours/day. That’s three 8-hour shifts per day. These were good jobs. With great benefits. Plenty of vacation time. And these were American jobs. Good American jobs. And they’re gone. Where? Probably to places like China. Those factories send cheap stuff back to the States, where consumers buy it at Walmart. They’ve apparently bought so much of this cheap crap that they can’t even fit it all into their houses. The insanity of this situation is maddening. Emerson must be turning over in his grave! When did the United States go from being a country filled with proud workers who make stuff to a country filled with indebted out-of-work consumers who store stuff?
I just finished reading Stephen Ambrose’s Eisenhower: Soldier and President (1991), a biography I’ve been meaning to read for years. Hard to believe that Ike was a two-term Republican president. Today’s GOP wouldn’t touch a man like him with a ten-foot pole. By today’s GOP standards, he’s a flaming socialist. The kingmakers and puppetmasters of the Democratic Party would, in all likelihood, extend him an equally chilly reception. On virtually every single issue, Eisenhower’s position is significantly to the left of Hillary Clinton and more or less indistinguishable from that of Bernie Sanders. If this isn’t definitive proof of climate change, I don’t know what is.
I learned about white privilege from the streets, not the classroom. My teachers were teenage criminals who spoke in plain, easily-accessible English (or French), not jargon-laden academics with PhDs in sensitivity. The lessons I received from them were practical and experiential, not theoretical. And they made me pretty good at stealing stuff for a spell. Like many bratty kids from my neighborhood, I went through a shoplifting phase when I was a teenager. Like many other social animals, such as wolves, my friends and I hunted in packs and employed a coördinated strategy that played upon the weaknesses of our prey.
Our intended prey was the store staff; their racial prejudices were the weaknesses we exploited. We were four, more often than not: one black kid and three white kids. After carefully choosing a store, we’d enter it separately. The black kid would immediately attract all of the staff’s attention. It was amazing! The kid didn’t have to do anything suspicious. Didn’t have to smell like weed. Didn’t have to dress like a thugged-out rapper. Didn’t have to wear dark sunglasses. Nothing. He just had to be black. That was enough. The staff would be totally fixated on the black kid and follow him around the store while me and the other three white kids robbed the place blind. The four of us would meet up about an hour later, usually at a metro station, and divvy up the spoils. Incidentally, the dude who finally caught me at Galeries d’Anjou was a sweet, middle-aged Haitian guy. He caught me and my degenerate friends precisely because he wasn’t blinded by racism.
I met my black doppelgänger at a rooftop party in Baltimore. It was 2000 and we were both 25. We had the same metrosexual mannerisms, same ridiculously loud laugh, same taste in music, same taste in literature, same strange obsession with snakes and salamanders. But it gets weirder still: because, as it turns out, we were both raised by single-moms on welfare, in rough neighborhoods. Both of us went through a super religious phase in our early teen years, followed by a troublemaker phase. Both of us changed schools often and repeated the 10th Grade. I could go on and on: it was eerie. And yet our lives couldn’t be more different: I was in Baltimore on a full scholarship, in a PhD program at Hopkins, whilst he had just gotten out of jail. Six days ago! He’d been in prison for the last seven years—seven years!—for drug offenses that wealthy Hopkins undergrads regularly get probation for.
My life could have been his life. But it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Because I grew up in Canada. And he grew up in Baltimore. Because I grew up white. And he grew up black. Because I grew up in a place where poor kids get to go to well-funded public schools that provide them with a high-quality education, an education which can take them wherever they wish to go. And he grew up in a place where poor kids are forced to go to crappy public schools which are crumbling, crowded, and chronically underfunded—schools that provide even their best students with a substandard education that hobbles them for life. Because I grew up in a public housing project that was clean and affordable—a place that allowed us to live our lives with a certain amount of dignity. And he grew up moving from one overpriced cockroach-infested shithole to the next. Because I grew up in a place where poor kids get the same universal healthcare available to children of the rich. And he grew up waiting nine hours to see a nurse at the free clinic. Because I grew up in a place that gives bratty kids lots and lots of chances to get their shit together. And he grew up in a place where a few stupid mistakes can seal your fate for years.
My life could have been his life. But it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Because I grew up in Canada. I grew up in a secular society informed by quintessentially Christian values: such as sharing, forgiveness, and compassion. What is the modern welfare state, after all, if not an amazingly ambitious application of Christian ethics? Is it perfect? Of course not. It’s a flawed and imperfect work-in-progress, like everything else in this fallen world of ours. But when did we stop seeing how breathtakingly beautiful it is? Why did we allow sneering cynics to make us feel so thoroughly ashamed of ourselves? What’s wrong with our values? What’s wrong with trying to take care of each other? What’s wrong with trying to institutionalize the virtues Jesus stood for in a social safety net? We keep reaching for fig leaves, friends, when we really ought to be dancing in the streets, celebrating in the alleys, and shouting from the rooftops: Thank God Almighty for the Welfare State!
The middle class is an inherently unstable construct, it seems to me. It is easier to be poor or wealthy than to leverage oneself safely into an awkward place between the two (a place that is awkward because it requires the suppression of natural volatility: the nature of success is to be volatile, to overturn systems, to reward populations asymmetrically). The middle class in the US was built most recently on a widespread need for relatively cheap labor that has evaporated (as the market has naturally evolved to include more players, driving prices up and down to destroy the conditions that made the 20th century so nice in hindsight).
Today we have more people than ever, and we need fewer (to perform the old tasks that used to make a large number of our parents and grandparents members of the middle class). Our immediate economic future is not going to be a repeat of the immediate past. Nobody is going to invent a policy that magically allows us to keep living in the 1950s on an endless recursive loop (pretending that things don’t change, that we can build a system that will be immortal and non-volatile). The message of the market is historically consistent over the long term: evolve or die, and every system dies eventually. The question is not how to become immune to death, but how to die best (with the least amount of painful blowback: there will always be blowback, and it will always be painful, especially for that delicate flower that is the middle class).
“In Heaven’s name, Hollingsworth,” cried I, getting angry, and glad to be angry, because so only was it possible to oppose his tremendous concentrativeness and indomitable will, “cannot you conceive that a man may wish well to the world, and struggle for its good, on some other plan than precisely that which you have laid down? And will you cast off a friend, for no unworthiness, but merely because he stands upon his right, as an individual being, and looks at matters through his own optics, instead of yours?” “Be with me,” said Hollingsworth, “or be against me! There is no third choice for you.”—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)
Scott Nearing lived to be 100 years old. One would be hard pressed to find a single progressive twentieth-century cause that he did not advocate at one time or another. Nearing participated in the labor movement, pacifism, socialism, the woman’s liberation movement, civil rights, communism, and, for the second half of his life, environmentalism, organic farming, and the natural health movement. He also found time to write over fifty books, hundreds of pamphlets and articles, and a novel. He was a religious virtuoso who had a habit of getting himself kicked out of institutions. In 1915, Scott Nearing, then a professor of Economics, was fired from the University of Pennsylvania for protesting against child labor; in 1917, he was fired from the University of Toledo for protesting against the First World War; and in 1930, he was expelled from the Communist Party for writing a book contradicting Lenin and suggesting that the Soviet Union was an imperialistic power.
Making Scott Nearing toe the party line, any party line, was a difficult task. “Although collectivism is part of his creed,” one journalist observed, “try as he will to cooperate with his fellow men, he cannot play the party man. Neither the Right nor the Left has been able to make him conform.” It is likely that Scott Nearing’s first marriage to feminist and woman’s rights activist, Nellie Seeds, ended in large part because he could not compromise his ideals for anyone. When he found their lifestyle too opulent he gave away almost all his clothes, began dressing very simply and eating a Spartan vegetarian diet out of nothing but the same wooden bowl and spoon—this, in protest against his own family. Not surprisingly, Scott Nearing’s single-mindedness made him awkward socially. “He abhorred gossip and small talk, avoiding commonplace trivia,” wrote Helen; “he was not an easy or avid conversationalist.” Scott saw most friendliness as a form of affectation, which he disapproved of as much as “dancing and dress clothes.” Although Helen had religious virtuoso tendencies, it took a while for Scott to convert her to radicalism. “There were times,” she later wrote in her memoir, “when he had to poke or pull me along toward his own rare intense level of dedication.”
Like Scott Nearing, Helen Knothe came from a wealthy northeastern family. As a young woman, she looked forward to a career as a concert violinist. Knothe was, as she said, artistic and musical. She had lived in Europe for years, spoke several languages, and was well versed in Eastern mysticism and the occult. She had studied for a number of years under the Indian guru Jiddu Krishnamurti. Helen Knothe had a serious side, but she was for the most part a fun-loving, spontaneous, free spirit. She once, on impulse, flung herself off to Australia to join a commune. By contrast, Scott Nearing’s obsessive-compulsive personality was legendary. He told his friend Upton Sinclair that he could stay in his summer cottage for as long as he wanted, but he could not touch any of his tools as they “might be mislaid.” Helen once jokingly exclaimed, “I bet you even fold up your toilet paper neat and square.” He confessed that he did. Scott Nearing had a lifelong love affair with order. Carefree Helen Knothe nevertheless fell in love with him. She was in her mid-twenties. He was in his mid-forties. “For more than fifty years,” she remembered, “my life was Scott-centered.” They were not officially married until 1948, however, when Nellie Seeds died, leaving Scott Nearing a widower.
To say that Scott Nearing was at a low point in his life in 1928 would be an understatement. He had recently separated from his first wife, his professional career was over (he had now been fired by two universities), journals declined his articles, and he was broke. Knothe and Nearing’s first years together were tough, made worse by the onset of the Great Depression. After living in a cold-water flat in New York’s Lower East Side for a few years, they became thoroughly disillusioned with American society. They concluded that they were living in a social order based upon perverse values: competition, acquisition, conspicuous consumption, aggression, and war-making. Theirs was a society that butchered for food and murdered “for sport and power.” They resolved to emancipate themselves from American society on ethical grounds: “The closer we have to come to this social order the more completely are we a part of it. Since we reject it in theory, we should, as far as possible, reject it also in practice. On no other basis can theory and practice be unified.” They fixed upon moving back to the land as the only viable solution. Thus, in 1932, Helen Knothe and Scott Nearing moved to rural Vermont, purchased a derelict farm with what little money they had left, and began the herculean task of creating a self-sufficient homestead out of a patch of tired New England soil.
“Sentiment without action,” Edward Abbey once said, “is the ruin of the soul.” The Nearings could not have agreed more. In their manifesto, Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World (1954), they contended that as long as theory was divorced from practice it did violence to the soul by dividing “the personality against itself.” “The most harmonious life,” they argued, “is one in which theory and practice are unified.” “We desired to liberate and dissociate ourselves as much as possible, from the cruder forms of exploitation: the plunder of the planet; the slavery of man and beast; the slaughter of men in war, and of animals for food.”
Since they disapproved of all these “forms of exploitation” they could not in good conscience enjoy any of the spoils. The Nearings claimed that they had tried to live an ethical life in an urban setting and found it impossible. Invariably they encountered the same obstacles: “complexity, tension, strain, artificiality, and heavy overhead costs.” It was, they maintained, “virtually impossible to counter city pressures and preserve physical health, mental balance and social sanity through long periods of city dwelling.” More importantly, the costs of living in the city “were payable only in cash, which had to be earned under conditions imposed upon one by the city—for its benefit and advantage.” As long as they remained in the city they would be more or less in “the system’s clutches,” helpless cogs in an “impersonal, implacable, merciless machine operated to make rich men richer and powerful men more powerful.”
The Nearings insisted that they were doing more than merely saving their own souls when they left the city; they were not “shirking obligations” or “seeking to escape.” They adamantly maintained that their errand into the wilderness was a political act; life on Forest Farm was an argument: the personal was altogether political. “We believed that we could make our contribution to the good life more effectively in a pre-industrial, rural community than in one of the great urban centers.” As the Nearings saw it, their first major contribution was to stop adding to the problem; their second was to prove that it was possible to live a harmless life, by creating a viable alternative to America’s wasteful lifestyle.
The Nearings argued that people could save the planet by living simply and conscientiously. Many of those who had become disillusioned with political change in the early 1970s found this message empowering. “I read, in 1976, Living the Good Life,” wrote one follower, “and then saw you shortly thereafter speaking in Boston. It was during this time, and directly due to you, that I became absolutely clear that I as a single individual . . . could accomplish whatever I set out to do. And what I set out to do was to participate in the healing of the planet.” “Up to this time,” she added, “I had thought that I hadn’t nearly enough of the ‘stuff’ it would take to achieve this. I made it too lofty a goal for myself by placing it only in the hands of those who apparently had large amounts of ‘power and influence.’” “You have shown,” enthused another, “that actions speak louder than words. Doing is more important than knowing and knowledge which cannot be translated into action is of little worth.” By removing themselves to the wilderness and teaching by example the Nearings were perhaps unknowingly continuing a long New England tradition—they were building a city on a hill. But this city on a hill was adamantly anti-city.
The Nearings raised a stone house with their own hands and named their Vermont homestead Forest Farm. “We were not young,” they would later write, “but we were adventurous.” Within a couple of years, they were almost completely self-sufficient, living off of the vegetables and fruits they grew on the farm and describing outsiders as “visitors from the outside world.” When nearby Stratton Mountain developed into a popular ski resort virtually overnight in the early 1950s, the Nearings relocated to Maine. Tellingly, however, the Maine homestead was also called Forest Farm, highlighting the fact that “Forest Farm” was an idea and not a specific place; it was an ecologically conscious way of life that unified theory and practice.
Living the Good Life (1954) was the memoir of Helen and Scott’s two-decade-long (1932-1952) Vermont project, a manifesto published on the centenary of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). Comparisons were made almost immediately, with journalists often referring to the Nearings’ book as the Walden of the twentieth century. Although sometimes resenting the comparison, the Nearings did much to encourage it. They quoted from Walden at length in Living the Good Life and had clearly been inspired by Thoreau. Regardless, the Nearings had no pretensions to originality. “We were trying out a life style,” they wrote in 1979, “that was not new in history, but was new in our generation.”
The Nearings’ commitment to the ecological logic of individual responsibility was not born full-grown; they grew into it. Over the years the gulf between their private lives and public lives narrowed, as every aspect of their existence succumbed to the gravitational pull of their ideals. They eventually, for instance, boycotted all of the food-oriented holidays. On Christmas and Thanksgiving, when most Americans made merry, the Nearings fasted. “We do it,” Helen Nearing wrote in 1980, “as a protest against the folly of feasting, against the national gluttony of overfed people overeating.” Feast days were obscene in “a world where there are people who are starving”—“in a world where there is enough to go around, but it is not shared equally.”
Life at Forest Farm became a spectacle, a political act, from the food the Nearings ate to the house they lived in; even their lithe physically fit bodies became prooftexts and arguments for their way of life. “The whole of our lives so far has been our message,” Helen Nearing wrote in 1995. The rural utopia described in Living the Good Life (1954) became a veritable new frontier in the minds of many of the environmentally conscious youth that came of age in the 1970s. Much like the frontier that Frederick Jackson Turner envisioned a century ago, homesteading came to be seen as an ever-present possibility, a comforting thought; a potential escape route from the complexities of modern life; something to fantasize about on a bad day. It was a pressure valve that provided for the safe and largely apolitical release of the socially disaffected. Rather than mobilize politically in the urban centers to push for structural change, idealists were encouraged to withdraw from politics, remove to the country, and live a self-sufficient existence. Even if most of those who entertained the homesteading fantasy never actually moved back to the land, the idea that they could had a powerful effect on the imagination of a generation of ecologically-conscious North Americans.
The Nearings became countercultural celebrities in the 1970s. Forest Farm, in turn, became a sacred place. A trip to Forest Farm became de rigueur for many young homesteaders. World Forum claimed in 1973 that “visiting them” was “like a pilgrimage.” Forest Farm became “a shrine for the faithful;” “a Mecca for people attracted to living a sane and simple life close to the land.” “Every year,” declared Booklegger magazine, “hundreds of young people, long-haired and knap-sacked, make the journey to the Nearings’ Forest Farm at Harborside. They leave with renewed vision.” Advertisements appeared in hippie homesteading magazines such as: “Leaving for the Nearings on the 25th. Have room for two.”
The Nearings’ fame was at least partly due to the popular press. Journalists regularly constructed antecedents for the counterculture. In 1970, the Buffalo Evening News declared that Scott “was a dropout from society 40 years before it was ‘in,’” while The Nation said of the Nearings—“Whether they know it or not, they are by way of becoming an ‘in’ couple.” About a half a year later, the New York Times ran an article on the Nearings entitled, “They Lived Today’s Ideas Yesterday.” They would eventually be touted as “the elder statesmen” of the homesteading movement and “The Counter Culture’s Pioneers.” Establishing their credentials as the bona fide forerunners of the homesteading movement, the Boston Herald American wrote, “Scott and Helen Nearing [had] already had their fill of a fledgling rat race . . . long before the world heard of ‘hippies,’ when Timothy Leary was still in knee pants.” Harold Henderson was blunter: “they left the city well before doing so became fashionable.” Thus, after years of obscurity, Helen and Scott Nearing became countercultural celebrities; as People magazine put it, “the Nearings suddenly became chic radicals.”
Pilgrims to Forest Farm regularly employed explicitly religious language to describe their experience at the seaside homestead. As if they had just returned from a visit to Machu Picchu or Chartres Cathedral, Mark Jackson and Karen Roberts recalled their demeanor: “Speaking in guarded whispers, we felt as if we were on sacred ground, blessed to be there.” “Art in twentieth-century America has many forms,” declared another, “and I view the Nearing homestead as one of them.”
The Nearings were personally revered just as much as (if not more than) their work of art, Forest Farm. In an article chronicling the activities of a homesteading conference, Jack Aley claimed that many homesteaders “worship Scott Nearing as a living folk hero” and refer to him colloquially as “the seer.” He noted that a solemn silence prevailed when Scott addressed the crowd of 2,000 young people at the conference, and that “several young women close to the speaker’s platform had beatific smiles on their faces.”
Ellie Thurston believed that she was in the presence of a holy woman when she met Helen Nearing for the first time: “I began to feel a little shy,” she confessed, “or maybe awe-struck is the word, as we followed the famous Helen Nearing into her very simple, wood-heated kitchen.” “I just couldn’t help but feel somewhat humble,” averred Thurston, “in the presence of the very Mother of the homesteading movement.” She maintained that the Nearings were “practically the founders of today’s ever-growing back-to-the-land movement.” “The name Nearing,” Thurston observed, “is a household word among young back-to-the-landers, with the significance that the name Sigmund Freud would have in psychological circles.” “They’ve been referred to,” she added, “as the “senior gurus” of the homesteading movement.”
Visitors reported feeling spiritually transformed after spending time at Forest Farm. Mary Beth Fielder and her companion were filled with something akin to religious ecstasy after a day with the Nearings. Fielder described the experience in a letter to Helen. “After saying goodbye we stopped at a beach a few miles down the road and as the clouds changed color over the ocean we cried, laughed and prayed that we, like you, would have the courage and perseverance to bring our inner visions into reality.”
For Alice Ellison, visiting Forest Farm was a redemptive experience and an important catalyst for personal growth: “meeting you and seeing your beautiful home have helped me to make some solid changes in my own life. . . . You have touched me profoundly.” Likewise, Sharon Watson wrote, “Since being with you I have been rethinking my garden, diet and general way of life . . . . It is wonderful to see a place where life is in such harmony and that feels so true and balanced. This is what I want in my life.” If mankind is “to work harmoniously together” for a better future, averred Robert Brown, we must all take heed of “your living example.” What is striking about these sentiments is how thoroughly apolitical they are. A pilgrimage to Forest Farm led to introspection and guilt-ridden repentance, not political action.
The Nearing homestead was at times so overrun with long-haired onlookers that it took on the appearance of a countercultural theme park for the ecologically conscious. On these days organic farming was transformed into a spectator sport. Ellie Thurston described one of these particularly crowded days: “300 people crowded in and around the garden, cameras flashing, movie film rolling, tape recorders humming,” while “Scott leaned on his hoe” and preached the gospel of homesteading. Commenting on the pilgrimage phenomenon at the end of the decade, the Nearings remarked, “Before we moved from Vermont to Maine, the trickle of visitors had become a stream. During the next years in Maine it became a flood.
By the 1970s the number of visitors, by head count, has ranged between 2,000 and 2,500 in the course of a year. It often reached dozens in a day.” Most pilgrims arrived, like Sheila and Richard Garrett, “uninvited and unannounced,” counting upon the Nearings’ open-house policy. They were “come-seers,” and like everyone else, they were welcomed, fed, and invited to join in the work of the day or do nothing—provided that they did not get in the way of those who were working, especially the Nearings. Irrespective of these restrictions, the number of visitors continued to grow and the situation became so overwhelming that in 1976 they were forced to put up a sign which indicated that they would only receive guests from three to five o’clock in the afternoon. Even this arrangement became too much to bear, and so, in 1978, they forbade any visitors from showing up without prior notice via the mail (the Nearings, of course, did not have a telephone). They even declared 1978 a “sabbatical” year. The Nearing Edict of 1978 was not altogether successful. Many of the faithful continued to show up unannounced. The decree did, however, significantly curtail the exhausting ritual.
The Nearings worried that the lax cultural values of the 1970s might be fundamentally incompatible with the austerity of the homesteading life. They admired the pilgrims’ idealism, but found their work ethic wanting. As Helen Nearing once put it, many came to Forest Farm, but few stayed: “They said we worked too hard. They wanted to lie in a hammock and discuss the Good Life.” Most homesteaders refused to submit to the Nearings’ highly regimented lifestyle, preferring a more relaxed pace. They also dissented from the Nearings’ tee-totaling ways as well as their aversion to swearing. Scott Nearing actually resigned from the advisory board of the War Resisters League when the word “shit” appeared in the League’s magazine. The Nearings abhorred “dances and beer parties.” They were exactly the sort of “puritanical, sour, righteous” Old Left radicals that Charles A. Reich contrasted with the free-spirited radicals of the counterculture in The Greening of America (1970).
To the young people who visited them, many of the Nearings’ pet peeves seemed old-fashioned, dated relics from a bygone era. The Nearings’ moralism vis-à-vis health and the body, however, made them positively au courant. “It is unnecessary for us to say,” the Nearings once declared, “that the difference between good health and bad is the difference between the success and failure of almost any long-term human project.” In Living the Good Life, the Nearings quoted (favorably) an English medical doctor named G. T. Wrench who likened disease to a “censor” that “pointed out” those errant individuals whose lifestyles were “faulty.” Ellie Thurston found this attitude to be widespread among the leaders of the homesteading movement. At one homesteading convention, she wrote, “I couldn’t help but speak up in defense of falling ill occasionally—some of the diehards honestly seem to think homesteaders are immune to any kind of disease because of our ‘healthful’ way of life.”
The analogies used to differentiate The Good Life from its opposite frequently revolved around notions of purity, hygiene and cleanliness. One follower tellingly described the Nearings as “a clear stream in a polluted river.” In the emerging moral economy of health and wellness of the 1970s, to be a vegetarian and a nonsmoker, to eat organic food and drink water from a spring, was not simply to be living a healthful life, it was to be pure, clean, undefiled, unpolluted, and in a certain important sense, righteous and good. Much of this moralism comes through in Helen Nearing’s cookbook, Simple Food for the Good Life (1980), which Food & Wine magazine described as, “The funniest, crankiest, most ambivalent cookbook you’ll ever read.” In the book’s lengthy diatribe against the eating of meat, Helen Nearing describes the “savage” and “repulsive” custom of consuming “putrefying corpses” as “unethical” and “unhygienic,” and expresses disgust at “the ghoulish practice of making . . . stomachs the burial ground for dead bodies.” It was this holier-than-thou tone that most bothered socialist critic Jigs Gardner about the Nearings: “They make people feel like sinners by endowing what one would think of as neutral acts—eating, for instance—with a strongly moral tone.” “Without directly saying so,” Scott Nearing “makes you feel like an epicene degenerate for enjoying [white] bread.” “Moralism,” averred Gardner, “lurks everywhere in the militant Simple Liver’s world: I’m better than you are because I’m a vegetarian . . . or because I wear old clothes, and so on and so on . . . . Using a woodstove, growing a vegetable garden . . . entitle one to a feeling of sanctimonious superiority to the mass of yahoos out there in suburban Consumerland.” What Gardner grasped was that the Nearings saw all of these personal lifestyle choices in explicitly moral terms. Consider, for instance, how Scott Nearing dealt with the death of his son, John Scott. In 1976, John Scott died of a heart attack. He was 71 years old. Though he was asked, Scott refused to attend his son’s funeral. Sitting out the funeral was, he claimed, a protest against his son’s unhealthy lifestyle. He went so far as to write a nasty letter to his dead son’s daughter, which, in essence, maintained that her father got what he deserved.
The Nearings’ intolerance toward physical weakness grew more marked with age as they began to take full credit for their undeniably impressive vitality. Continuing the Good Life (1979) was full of references to their health: “We homesteaded in Vermont for nineteen years without having a family doctor. We have homesteaded in Maine for more than twenty-five years equally free of permanent medical advice because we have been chronically well.”
The Nearings came to view their “abounding health” as an act of the will, a conscious choice, rather than as a fortuitous byproduct of both their healthy lifestyle and their ample good fortune. When a doctor friend proposed that Scott Nearing begin receiving monthly vitamin B12 injections, he responded curtly: “If I did this I would be trying to prolong my life under medical supervision for the rest of my life. Thank you, but I would rather die much earlier than follow such a course. . . . If I cannot stay well by a normal diet and temperate living, the sooner I die the better for me and the society of which I am a member.” There is in this statement—and most of the Nearings’ thoughts on health and wellness—an echo of Scott Nearing’s onetime interest in eugenics. In The Super Race: An American Problem (1912), he declared that the “perpetuation of hereditary defect [was] infinitely worse than murder.” “The murderer,” he argued, “robs society; the mentally defective parent curses society, both in the present and in the future, with the taint of degeneracy. The murderer takes away a life; but the feeble-minded parent passes on to the future the seeds of racial decay.” We must, Scott Nearing concluded, do everything in our power to ensure that the “scum of society” do not have children.
For most of the 1970s, when the homesteading movement was in full bloom, Scott Nearing was in his nineties and Helen Nearing was in her seventies. Yet they continued to build houses out of stone with their bare hands, dig sizable ponds with shovels, maintain a massive garden virtually all year round, cut and split all their own firewood, and do physical work on a daily basis that regularly exhausted young people in their twenties. The Nearings’ vitality granted legitimacy to their way of life among the health conscious. “Your health,” one homesteader declared, “is evidence of how successful your outlook on life can make you physically as well as mentally.” Their bodies had with age become arguments and prooftexts for their way of life.
The Nearings used their age and remarkable health to browbeat and belittle homesteaders (usually ex-homesteaders) who publicly pointed out the difficulties and physical discomfort associated with moving back to the land. For instance, the March 1979 issue of Country Journal contained a number of letters to the editor from crestfallen homesteaders who had tried their best, failed, given up, and moved back to the city. Helen Nearing responded to these letters in the following edition with derision: “Scott and I know it is hard work subsisting by your own sweat on a homestead. We’ve done it for half a century, but who’s crying?” “Not we,” she crowed. “If we oldsters can stand it, what’s wrong with your various authors that they should creep back to the protection of the city? What’s all this grousing about hard work . . . .? Scott, at ninety-six, enjoys it. ‘Good exercise,’ he says. ‘Keeps the blood boiling.’”
The Nearings responded with anything but sympathy when homesteaders complained that being back to the land in the middle of a bitterly cold winter could be miserable. One homesteader, suffering from chronically cold feet, wrote to the Nearings quite clearly looking for consolation and advice. Helen Nearing responded callously, practically blaming the woman for her condition: “It seems to us that your circulation is probably inadequate. We’ve lived in New England through more than 40 years’ worth of subzero winters, and neither Scott nor I have ever suffered from chronically cold feet. In fact, I often pad around on our stone floors—in the dead of winter—barefoot!”
There was something almost monstrous about Helen and Scott Nearing. Their idealism was all-consuming. This was especially true of Scott Nearing. He loved teaching: yet he engaged in activities that led to his dismissal from two different universities. He thought child labor and the First World War were wrong—and he was going to protest against them, come what will. Scott Nearing loved Communism: yet he wrote a book contradicting Vladimir Lenin and suggesting that the Soviet Union was an imperialistic power. That book resulted in his expulsion from the Communist Party. He thought, at the time, that certain aspects of Soviet foreign policy were wrong, and he was going to say so, come what will. The Communist Left turned its back on Nearing in the 1930s; but he did not turn his back on the Soviet Union. Scott Nearing defended Stalin well into the 1950s, long after the American Left had repudiated him. One can only assume that he loved his son John: yet he was willing to sacrifice even this love on the altar of his idealism. Scott Nearing disowned his own son because he disapproved of his politics and his eating habits.
How are we, who are not consumed by similar passions, to make sense of people like Helen and Scott Nearing? How are we to make sense of these lovers of discomfort and discord? The Nearings took the logic of individual responsibility to many of its more radical conclusions. In their personal lives and in their little City on a Hill, Forest Farm, we can see so much of the beauty and ugliness of the purpose driven life.
“Whatever you into, your woman gotta be into, too, and vice versa—or the shit ain’t gonna work, it ain’t gonna work. That’s right. If you born-again, your woman gotta be born-again, too; if you a crackhead, your woman gotta be a crackhead, too—or the shit won’t work.”—Chris Rock, Bigger & Blacker (1999)
He’s a self-made millionaire, a grey-haired man in his late forties. She’s 26 and drop-dead gorgeous. We watch them—and judge them—as they get out of the red Ferrari and walk into the trendy restaurant on boulevard Saint-Laurent—you know, the one on the east side of the street, just north of Sherbrooke. Those of us who judge the rich guy do so because we think he’s a creepy lecher who should be with someone his own age. For god’s sake, look at her! She could be his daughter!
Whatever we make of the rich guy, and his intentions, our judgement of the bombshell on his arm is invariably harsher. It’s harsher, in part, because anyone with the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old knows that using people is wrong. We all know—spontaneously, without analyzing—that Kant was on to something when he said that we should never treat another human being like an instrument, like a means to an end. We look at the rich guy and something within us wants to cry out: “You fool, you stupid fool! Can’t you see what’s going on here? She’s only with you for the money!”
But what if we’ve got it all wrong? What if she loves him—really loves him—and not for his money, but for who he is? What if he tried dating the blue-blooded daughters of the North American elite? What if these Ivy-League-educated trust-fund gals found all of his talk about business and bling boring? What if they found his intense preoccupation with status graceless, gauche, and gross? What if they found his obsession with money thoroughly unattractive? And what if he found their company and conversation equally nettlesome?
What if all they wanted to talk about—over fair-trade coffee at Starbucks—was books, boring books, and documentaries, tedious documentaries, about suffering, suffering in faraway places he can’t pronounce? What if they went on and on—till he thought he was going to bleed out through the eyes—about that fucking long weekend they spent in the Third World volunteering for an NGO?
What if the golddigger on his arm is the first woman he’s met who really appreciates all of the sacrifices he’s had to make to get to where he is? What if she’s the first woman he’s met who loves money and status as much as he does? What if their relationship is actually based on a solid foundation of shared values, profound respect, and mutual understanding (they’re both golddiggers, after all)?
What if they’re in love—really in love? My guess is that they almost always are. And that’s a beautiful thing, really it is. Because everyone needs to find love in this broken and burning world. And yet so few of us do. So when we see two people who have momentarily found love, “what we do,” writes Tony Hoagland, “is natural: we take our burned hands out of our pockets, and clap.”
We hear a great deal about privilege these days—as well we should. After all, privilege is an excellent predictor of whether or not you’re going to succeed in life, and privilege is distributed unequally in our society—indeed, increasingly so. Though no amount of privilege can guarantee that you’ll succeed, the more privileged you are, the more opportunities you get. It’s sort of like buying lottery tickets at the dépanneur. You can buy a 100,000 scratch tickets and still win nothing. But, chances are, even if you don’t win the grand prize, if you’ve got 100,000 tickets, you’ll probably win something. At any rate, you’ll have a much higher chance of winning something than the guy who can only afford to buy 10 scratch tickets. Still, it’s important to note that strange and improbable things can happen to the underprivileged just as they can happen to the extremely privileged. For instance, just as it is possible for someone with 100,000 tickets to win nothing, it’s possible for someone with just 10 tickets to win everything. But it’s not bloody likely!
George W. Bush’s circuitous path to the presidency is a case in point. Bush was a screw-up and a royal pain in his family’s ass well into his late twenties. He messed up again and again and again (e.g., with DWI charges, cocaine abuse, alcoholism, womanizing, etc.), and yet he was still able to turn things around and come out on top. By contrast, a poor kid from Baltimore—born to a teenage, drug-addicted, African-American mother—has very little privilege. He gets very few of the proverbial lottery tickets. He can do everything right and yet still fail. What’s more, if he screws up even once, he can lose everything. For instance, a major cocaine-possession charge could land him in prison for the better part of a decade. When he gets out—if he gets out—his chances of getting a decent job as an ex-con will be severely circumscribed for years to come.
Inequality is a serious problem which threatens the very fabric of our way of life. We ignore it at our peril. Even so, there are disadvantages associated with privilege, real and measurable disadvantages, which we hear about but rarely these days. A notable exception to this rule is to be found in Amy Chu and Jed Rubenfeld’s The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America (2014). Chu and Rubenfeld identify three groups—Mormons, Jews, and Chinese—that have consistently out-performed White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) in the last three decades. Their explanation is as follows: exceptionally successful groups—such as the Mormons, the Jews, and the Chinese—inculcate all three of these traits in the young: a sense of superiority, a sense of insecurity, and a well-developed capacity for impulse control.
Though they get a great deal, there’s one thing that wealthy WASP men—by far the most privileged group in our society—don’t get these days: and that’s THE TRIPLE PACKAGE. Sure, they’re taught to see themselves as better than everyone else (especially if they go to private school). But they’re no longer taught how to control their impulses—not consistently, or as a matter of course. Alas, the description of the Protestant work ethic—made famous by the great sociologist Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905)—applies to precious few Protestants these days; it does, however, apply to a whole lot of Mormons, Jews, and Chinese. Still, impulse control isn’t the wealthy WASP man’s weakest suit. His lowest scores are to be found in the second category: sense of insecurity.
The wealthy WASP man has a profound sense of entitlement. He’s been brought up to believe that everything is going to come to him rather easily. He’s optimistic about his future. It’s all going to fall into place somehow, though he couldn’t really tell you specifically how or why. Truth be told, he doesn’t stress about it too much; he’s pretty chill about the whole thing. And that’s why he’s probably destined—at best—to live a lacklustre life of middling mediocrity. It’s precisely here, according to Chu and Rubenfeld, that privilege ceases—to some extent—to be a privilege, because it makes you lazy, passive, arrogant, smug, sloppy, and complacent.
This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the works of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012), Taleb argues that living things (biological systems) don’t just tolerate stress; they actually need it just to maintain the status quo. For instance, as N.A.S.A. discovered a few years ago, much to their chagrin, the bones of astronauts in a space station quickly degenerate when they’re deprived of the regular stress provided by the Earth’s gravitational field. Likewise, my friend’s muscles atrophied rather severely whilst she was recovering from surgery. Three months on a hospital bed—with very little movement—caused the muscles in her legs to degenerate so much that this former marathon runner could barely walk when she was discharged from the hospital. I remember it vividly: we had to practically carry her to the car.
If it’s true that we need a certain amount of stress merely to maintain the strength that we presently possess, it’s equally true that we need to increase the amount of stress on a biological system if we want it to get stronger (e.g., by lifting weights). What’s more, as Taleb puts it, society’s winners (the rich and powerful) are often “punished by privilege and comfort”—viz., by depriving the most privileged people in the world of necessary stressors we inadvertently harm them. Alas, muscles that are unused atrophy, bones that are unused become brittle, underutilized immune systems grow weak, and self-satisfied elites become, well, beach bums.
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Every college graduate knows that the philosopher who penned this line was profoundly moved by the plight of the poor. What’s less known is that the author of The Social Contract (1762) was equally adept at sympathizing with the plight of the rich. Jean-Jacques Rousseau spent a great deal of his adult life hanging out with the idle rich. So he knew full well that most of them were bored and miserable. But he didn’t think wealth was the problem. The problem was that they spent their money unwisely.
In one of the most fascinating thought experiments in modern philosophy, Rousseau imagines—near the end of Émile (1762)—what it would be like to be rich: how he would and would not spend his money, how he would and would not spend his time. What’s striking about his dream is that it’s nothing like the gaudy adolescent male fantasies found in rap videos. There are no pool-side parties in Rousseau’s reverie. No bikini-clad babes. No gold. No glitz. No bling.
Many “If-I-Won-the-Lottery” fantasies envision moneyed life as a kind of never-ending spa-day, wherein the pampering just goes on and on and on. But Rousseau clearly has little use for this kind of comfort. The opulent mansions showcased by Robin Leach on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous are notably absent from Rousseau’s account.
Though he can now afford a palace for a dwelling, Rousseau tells us that we’ll find him in a modest home. His reasoning is as follows: Big houses require a great deal of cleaning and maintenance. So when you buy a big house, you’re not just buying a big house; you’re also buying the small army of maids, gardeners, and handymen that of necessity come with it. The rich, he quite rightly observes, are rarely alone. All to the contrary, they’re usually surrounded by a cloud of paid strangers—strangers who rob them of privacy, peace, quiet, and solitude. Rich people complain about this often. Yet few seem to realize that the problem is entirely avoidable. Rousseau will not make this mistake when he’s rich.
Though he can now afford a fancy horse-drawn carriage and a driver, Rousseau says he will continue to walk pretty much everywhere. He will also continue to do his own shopping and run his own errands. Why? Because it’s good to get out of the house and get some exercise. What’s more, it’s often entertaining and instructive. The idle rich are bored in large part because their lives are far too sedentary. Even as a rich man, he will live by the following maxim: “we ought to receive from others only those services that we cannot get from ourselves.”
Rousseau wants to purchase two things with his riches: leisure time and freedom from drudgery. And he wants to spend as much time as possible with his friends and family—with people, that is, who love him and enjoy his company, as opposed to people who are paid to do things for him. Aside from Seneca, I can think of no other philosopher who more clearly understood how to avoid the pitfalls of privilege.
“You’re going to have to take the blame for everything once you get your body back.”
—John Feltman, Prevention: The Magazine for Better Health (July 1977)
In the 1970s, the success of the natural health movement spread a new orthodoxy across North America, with an unforgiving approach to motherhood. Countercultural health gurus like Adelle Davis helped redefine tragedies such as crib death and miscarriage as punishments meted out to mothers who failed to obey the natural laws of health. They promised to free modern women from the tyranny of Western Medicine. Yet they replaced Doctor God with an equally demanding deity: Mother Nature.
If you want to know where we went wrong, Adelle Davis’s bestselling advice book Let’s Have Healthy Children(1951) is a great place to start. Written “primarily for the expectant mother,” Let’s Have Healthy Children is an extended diatribe against American mothers, who, Davis inveighed, “seem to have shifted the responsibility for their children’s health entirely onto the shoulders of these physicians.” She insisted that this error threatened the very strength of the American nation on the world stage. It had to be stamped out; “the responsibility for the infant’s health must again be shouldered by the mother.” The truth, argued Davis, was that “every woman, by her choice of foods before and during pregnancy, largely determines the type of baby she will produce.” The crux of her message to mothers was clear and unambiguous: “The responsibility is yours.”
Failing to heed Davis’s call could prove disastrous. In one cautionary tale, she told the story of Margaret: “She was thrilled to be pregnant again but had refused to eat intelligently. More than once I had tried to get her to improve her diet. ‘Phooey on that stuff,’ she would answer gaily. ‘I have two beautiful children, and I ate anything I wanted when I was pregnant with them.’” Margaret’s luck ran out a couple of months later: “In her seventh month,” recounted Davis, “she developed toxemia. Her baby was born dead, and she was frightfully ill. If she and other pregnant women could know more about nutrition and recognize the danger warnings, this tragedy and thousands like it could be avoided.”
Let’s Have Healthy Children, despite its cheerfully nonchalant title, is preachy, highly prescriptive, and even, at times, downright angry. A more accurate title might have been: You’d Better Have Healthy Children! Davis addressed herself directly to mothers in a harsh, insulting manner, completely devoid of warmth or compassion. It is inconceivable to me how any mother could have read this book and not come away feeling grossly inadequate. Davis proffered a perfectionist ideal that was as unrealistic as it was unattainable. She argued that anything less than an easy pregnancy, a flawless birthing experience, and a perfect child was completely unacceptable and inexcusable. Davis maintained that a healthy newborn could be “expected to meet the following conditions: Be perfectly formed without defects. . . . Sleep soundly. . . . Cry little. . . . During the first year, he continues to sleep soundly, cry little, and eat with a good appetite.” The healthy child was, she avowed, a happy child: “he smiles early, [and] laughs aloud by the age of six months; his tears are rare and of short duration; he is neither irritable nor whiny, but relaxed and happy.” He should also, averred Davis, be free of all the supposedly normal afflictions of infancy. Included in her exhaustive list of “abnormalities” were cradle cap, colic, diaper rash, diarrhea, constipation, colds, infections, allergies, eczema, indigestion, vomiting, smelly stools, and thrush. “At no time,” she added, “has he needed or been given antibiotics, aspirin, tranquilizers, or drugs of any kind.” The number of ways that each reader’s child deviated from this standard, Davis maintained, made manifest the degree to which she had failed as a mother.
At first glance it is difficult to understand why anybody other than a masochist would read Let’s Have Healthy Children from cover to cover. Yet upon further consideration it becomes clear that Adelle Davis’s effectiveness as an author of prescriptive literature stemmed precisely from her harsh tone, and, perhaps more importantly, from her adroit assessment of the type of women who comprised her target audience. All mothers worry about the efficacy of their mothering to some extent. But for the most part it has been educated middle-class women with adequate leisure time who have consulted advice literature. When a woman buys and reads a “how to” book on mothering she enters a self-selected group. She has indicated by that very act that she is open to new and perhaps unorthodox ideas. She probably lacks confidence in her mother’s advice and would like to distance herself from her mother’s parenting style. She believes truth is often to be found in books. And she does not think that she is adequately prepared for what is to come. Let’s Have Healthy Children played on all of these insecurities. Yet at the same time Davis’s book was also empowering. For it argued that the power to create a perfect child was in every woman’s hands. A happy result could be guaranteed by the right kind of behavior. Pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing—experiences so fraught with danger, uncertainty, and the unknown—could be controlled. Adelle Davis’s message was in this respect comforting. Control is what people who are attracted to the health-conscious lifestyle are looking for, even if its costs are high, even if it means that they will have to shoulder an awesome weight of responsibility. A sense of control is precisely what Adelle Davis gave her readers.
The editors of Prevention magazine published many of the letters that they received in a section entitled “Mailbag,” which often engulfed a goodly portion of the magazine. The lion’s share of these letters consisted of testimonials, such as the following from Janet Stensel, a woman who had recently given birth to her first child: “All during my pregnancy I followed Prevention’s suggestions for a safe, comfortable pregnancy and healthy baby. I avoided caffeine, alcohol, diuretics, common household drugs and junk foods. I added good sources of protein to my meals along with prenatal supplements . . . .” Moreover, alleged Stensel, “I faithfully practiced exercises to strengthen my back muscles.” She insisted that the “benefits reaped from this regimen were tremendous.” “I had,” she claimed, “enough stamina to work full time . . . right up until the day before the delivery. And I still had enough energy to go home and bake my own recipes for cheese breads and wheatgerm muffins!” Apparently, halcyon days persisted to the end: “Early one Monday morning last November, my uncomplicated speedy labor and delivery . . . produced our first child—a healthy 6½-pound son.” Declared another proud parent, who had adhered to a similarly virtuous regimen: “I sailed through my pregnancy starting with no morning sickness at all and ending with a very smooth labor and delivery.” “My labor and delivery [was] a breeze, too,” crowed yet another. “In fact, the whole thing took only three hours. And just 10 days after my daughter was born I was out jogging.” The didactic function of letters of this kind was to promote and normalize precisely that kind of ideal birthing experience that Adelle Davis described in Let’s Have Healthy Children. “In my opinion,” Davis groused, “labor should be measured in minutes, not in hours; and prolonged labor is typical of women whose diets have been inadequate during pregnancy.” If an expectant mother was doing everything right, Davis maintained, she should not experience any nausea, nor, in fact, should she develop varicose veins, hemorrhoids, leg cramps, exhaustion, or stretchmarks. Contrary to popular belief, she insisted that these were not normal side-effects of pregnancy; they were all “abnormalities” that could be avoided by virtuous behavior.
With labor, delivery, and nine months of pregnancy behind her, the health-conscious mother could now, assuming all went well, gaze into her child’s lovely eyes and breathe a sigh of relief. But not for long. The woman would soon realize that she had merely left one exacting jurisdiction and entered another. Choices of monumental importance lay ahead. For instance, health gurus insisted that her toddler could not consume any commercially-canned baby food. Instead, she would have to make her own mash from high-quality organic ingredients. As the child grew older, the very same authorities claimed that she would have to be sure to give him or her plenty of vitamin and mineral supplements. Still, the new mother’s most important decision was immediate: to breastfeed or not to breastfeed?
“Every mother,” Adolphus Hohensee maintained, “who resorts to artificial feeding when she is capable of nursing her child will be held responsible . . . on judgement day.” Health reformers have never wavered in their denunciation of bottle feeding. “To say it is deplorable that countless mothers will not nurse their offspring is putting it mildly,” declared Hohensee. “These mothers are lacking in some of the essential qualities of motherhood.” In health-conscious circles, the good mother was the mother who breastfed her children—she was a mother who understood, in the words of one Prevention writer, that “breast milk is God’s gift to babies.” The zealous founders of La Leche League—a breastfeeding advocacy organization—argued, as did Carlton Fredericks and Mark Bricklin, that it was fundamentally irresponsible to bottle feed a baby. They claimed that the mother who chose to bottle feed consigned her child to a lifetime of unnecessary suffering. Her child was, they alleged, more likely to develop a weight problem later on in life, as well as allergies, asthma, eczema, learning disabilities, and a host of other medical conditions.
In the short term, the health conscious maintained, in the words of one Prevention staffer, that “bottle-fed babies are far more likely to be victims of crib death than are breast-fed babies.” “Many of the unexplained ‘crib deaths’ have been attributed to cow’s milk,” asserted Prevention in 1971. “Mother’s milk contains food factors that are designed specifically for the human baby,” the article continued. “At a critical time, their presence could spell the difference between life and death.” “The number of infants,” read another Prevention article published in the same year, “who actually owe their lives to breastfeeding is probably quite high.” As usual, Adelle Davis took the most unequivocal position. “Crib death,” she insisted, “which takes the lives of some 20,000 seemingly healthy infants each year, does not occur among babies who are breast-fed.”
In the long term, even if a bottle-fed baby managed to survive infancy, Davis maintained, he or she would never be as happy, warm, friendly, or emotionally stable as a breastfed baby. She claimed that a wide variety of deviant behaviors could be traced back to bottle feeding, a practice that “often causes compulsive eating, drinking, and smoking, and results in obesity and alcoholism. It can take the form of psychosomatic illnesses such as arthritis or asthma,” she added. “Certainly,” Davis continued, “it plays a role in such social problems as crime and drug addiction. There are, for example, fewer child delinquents among children who have been breast-fed than among bottle-fed ones.” The damage done to those who were deprived of the breast as youngsters, she argued, manifested itself in adulthood in dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. Adults who were bottle fed as children found it hard, Davis alleged, to “give and receive warmth and love.” “The child,” she reasoned, “who has not been nursed unconsciously feels a lifelong rejection, knows less security, and has more difficulty in adjusting as a social being. He unconsciously harbors hostilities toward his mother which prevent a close relationship between the two.”
Bottle-fed babies tend to be ugly, declared Davis, in the twenty-fifth chapter of Let’s Have Healthy Children, aptly titled “Your Child Has the Right to be Beautiful.” “Children should be beautiful,” she insisted. But this was so often not the case in the United States: “I have been repeatedly impressed by the gorgeous, smiling babies seen in every European country and in the Orient. Almost without exception each child is beautiful. In contrast, the pinched, pale, unsmiling, narrow faces of American babies break my heart. In all other countries except ours, most babies are nursed.” This “tragedy of ugliness” was, Davis maintained, much more serious than was usually recognized. “Almost every child hates himself if he is not reasonably attractive.” Mothers had an obligation, therefore, to raise attractive children “with superb minds and beautiful bodies,” she wrote. “The goal outlined here,” she observed, “is no higher than the standard of perfection farmers and pet breeders expect of their animals.” Besides, beautiful children were, at bottom, a testament to virtuous mothering: “As these superior children go into the community and eventually into the world at large, their straight bodies, excellent bone structure, attractive appearance, athletic prowess, mental alertness, and quick grasp of social needs are all advertisements of your own efficacy as parents.” Permissive mothers who allowed their children to eat junk food could, she contended, expect a lifetime of resentment from their adult children. Referring to a woman she knew, who allowed her son to eat junk food, Davis wrote: “the time would come when this boy would hate his mother for allowing him to grow up with a nearly deformed body.”
Davis claimed her beautiful daughter was a perfect example of what American babies could look like if American mothers breastfed their children. Let’s Have Healthy Children included a number of photographs of her daughter as a baby, as a toddler, and as a high-school graduate. Her daughter was, quite clearly, an adorable baby, a cute toddler, and a beautiful young woman. Davis took credit for it. “A mother,” she argued, “largely determines whether her children will be beautiful or homely, depending on the adequacy of the diet during the first few months.” Still, beautiful babies had to be properly nourished after birth, too. “When nutrients are deficient or poorly absorbed,” wrote Davis, “a baby who had been beautiful at birth often becomes homely by the time he is three to six months old; and once allowed to develop, this homeliness remains throughout his entire lifetime.”
Prevention writers maintained that the bottle-fed baby was more likely to be an underachiever in the dog-eat-dog world of work. Indeed, failure to succeed in the capitalist marketplace was often, they chided, the result of motherly neglect. The poverty that was a necessary concomitant of this failure was therefore also, they deduced, the mother’s fault. “Poor nutrition,” declared Joan Jennings, “makes poor brains and poor brains make poor people.” In one fascinating Prevention fable—“Only Well-Nourished Babies Achieve Their Potential”—this line of reasoning was taken to some decidedly illiberal conclusions. The article tells the tale of two boys named Paul and Mike who grew up together as close friends. As adults, we learn that they “are still good friends, but Mike is now a clerk and Paul is his supervisor.” “Even though the two men have practically everything in common,” the narrator claims that “Paul was able to develop himself more fully than Mike.” The unnamed storyteller insists that the difference between the two men has “nothing to do with any negligence on Mike’s part, for it stems from something that happened long before Mike had reached the use of reason. Mike’s mother took the option,” we are told, “recommended by her pediatrician of feeding her infant a formula, while Paul’s mother followed her instincts and breast-fed him.” Although Mike seems perfectly fine to those around him—“Mike wasn’t retarded. He never failed a grade in school, and he has lived a normal life.”—the fabler insists that appearances are, in this instance, deceiving. The mistakes that Mike’s mother made long ago have, in fact, had dire consequences: Mike is paying the price for his mother’s woeful lack of judgement each and every day of his boring, mediocre life. Had young Mike been “breast-fed when the only things he knew were eating, sleeping and crying,” the raconteur confidently assures us, “the additional nutrient elements that were intended for him by nature would have laid a foundation for a richer and more satisfying life.” Apparently, from time to time Mike wonders “why he is working for Paul instead of with him.” “He doesn’t realize,” the narrator solemnly declares, “that the decision was made for him a long time ago.” This stunningly didactic piece concludes with a question, posed directly to the expectant mother who is, presumably, still weighing her options: “Why be the one responsible for making your child wonder why he is the clerk and his friend is the supervisor?” “Most people,” lamented Adelle Davis, “believe that intelligence is largely inherited and if a child fails to be smart, it is because he had the wrong ancestors.” Nothing, she claimed, could be further from the truth. Stupid children, she insisted, are the result of bad mothers, and they are a constant drain upon the American society. “The cost to our nation of supporting malformed persons is staggering.”
The natural health movement seemed so naturally allied with feminism in the 1970s. Health reformers shrewdly diagnosed the gendered nature of conventional medicine, time and again, and they promised women freedom from the oppression of patriarchal professionals. Yet health reformers forged new forms of oppression that were often more onerous than those that they replaced. As many women discovered, much to their chagrin, striving to be an Earth Mother Goddess wasn’t particularly liberating. If the biomedical model of health disenfranchised the female patient, took away all of her responsibility, and placed it in the hands of a patriarchal male doctor, the natural health movement’s backlash against that model swung the pendulum all the way in the opposite direction. Women became personally responsible for every aspect of their child’s fate. If a woman had a difficult pregnancy, a miscarriage, a complicated delivery, or a child born with birth defects, the assumption among the health conscious was that she must have done something wrong. Perhaps she had a glass of wine at Christmas or forgot to take her prenatal vitamins. Chance and bad luck had little place in this worldview. If something went awry, anything, there was a reason; someone was guilty, and that someone was almost always a woman. We’ve replaced Doctor God with an equally demanding deity: Mother Nature.