Boycott America: Whole Foods and Half-baked Ideas

by A. Jay Adler on August 22, 2009
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Clausewitz’s famous proposition that “War is merely a continuation of politics by other means” might often reasonably and descriptively be turned on its head to state: “Politics are merely an enactment of war by other means.” Absent an attack of some sort on the “homeland” – and for some, not even then – domestic political opponents provoke a greater, more righteous ire than any perceived foreign enemy. One way to cope with the dissonance this reveals, as we see currently on the whacked and not as whacked out right, is to hyperbolically and emblematically transform the domestic opponent into the foreign enemy. Then one can fully embrace all of the embedded metaphors of war – attack and assault, offensive and defensive – in the attempt to destroy the political enemy who is either robbing us of our liberty or denying us our rights.

The campaign to boycott Whole Foods hardly reaches the extremes we see now in the phony town hall rebellions against changes in health policy, but it does evince the general whole_foods_450intolerance for opposing views that feeds the current mania on the right and sustains the domestic political wars. Keep in mind, I’m not a libertarian, as is John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods. I think libertarianism a splendid ideal of human liberty and integrity that is at least two centuries removed from its proper sphere, and I’m not invoking the future. Still, unlike most on the right, Mackey in his Wall Street Journal Op-ed did offer real ideas for health insurance reform. Equalizing the tax benefits of employer and individually paid health insurance premiums, higher deductibles along with what Mackey terms (employer funded) Personal Wellness Accounts, and repealing the bar to health insurers competing across state lines are all reasonable ideas. They are all possible band aids, even soothing balms to a painfully dysfunctional health insurance system. (On the other hand, repealing government mandates on what insurers must cover is just one fine example of why the vulnerable of any society should never want a libertarian to occupy any influential political office. Ron Paul gets to opine and cast a fortunately diluted vote.)

Mackey is honest, too, about his philosophy: he may feel human sympathy, but he does not believe in a right to health care. He doesn’t find it in the Constitution. Of course, it is not in the Constitution. Proponents of such “rights” do not mean Constitutional rights; they mean it is a human right, which is a whole other argument. And the word it translates into once legislation is passed – “entitlement” – is equally problematic for the right, and I think misguided. I prefer my own neologism: “enlightenment.” Do we wish to be an enlightened society, providing adequate and life-sustaining health care to all, or do we not? That, too, is another argument, and argument is good. But the subject, instead, is boycotts.

A popular motto of the “enlightened” left for many years now has been “Think Globally, Act Locally.” How does a proposed boycott against Whole Foods for being, in the minds of many ben--jerrys-half-baked-26672of its customers, impolitic (he could have kept his mouth shut) on the subject of health reform fit into the holistic notion of global consciousness enacted locally? You find out the local grocer has some different politics from yours and you – seek to put him out of business? Seek to damage his business sufficiently that he “gives” and purports to believe or even acts to support a policy in which he does not believe? And when your neighbor learns of your progressive leanings and organizes a boycott of your ice cream shop? When and how would an expanding conflagration of boycotts, the war of mutual ostracisms, end? These are not the makings of healthy communities, in which respect for people’s rights are married to tolerance for their differences. You don’t get punished for being unenlightened, if that’s what it is – you get to live in the darkness. That’s your right. And if you wish to promote your views, we argue about them (not shout each other down) at town hall meetings, and I still buy your organic steaks and you still read my blog because there’s value in knowing what a reasonable person who disagrees with you thinks.

Now, there are, in fact, a range of issues on which Mackey might make his progressive customers unhappy. Michael BlueJay runs a very fine sight detailing them, including Mackey’s aggressive anti-unionism. Still, BlueJay doesn’t support boycotting Whole Foods. He cites Doug Muder at The Weekly Sift:

In the ideal boycott, you temporarily stop doing business with an organization until they change some particular practice. The classic example is the Montgomery Bus Boycott that ended the segregation of city buses. But a boycott is on shakier ground when you’re trying to punish somebody for their personal political beliefs rather than what their organization does.

The boycott coming now is clearly intended as punishment for personal political belief. The anti-labor activities are a different matter, but that (ahem) battle is being waged in proposed “card check” legislation. To oppose boycotts, however, is not to deny a legitimate role for measures of community censure – not for belief, but for actions thought harmful to the community. The subject of community harm needs, itself, to be considered with care, though, as history teaches us how varyingly and liberally the notion may be understood. At the most fundamental level, in addition to one’s own political actions in support of health care reform, or the benefits of organized labor, one can enact community censure on a fundamental, individual level – by simply choosing not to patronize a local, or not so local, business. One’s neighbor might not do the same, and continue to patronize the offending merchant, but sometimes – most times – it’s probably better if we just agree to live in peace with our disagreements.

AJA


12 comments

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Suzanne August 25, 2009 at 7:53 am

I don’t know exactly when health insurance in the US came about…but I’m pretty sure my grandparents paid out of pocket when my parents were children. These were immigrants so they paid on a sliding scale basis.

Of course lab tests and medical procedures are more advanced and the technology is more costly now than it was back then.

But I know there are medical professionals arguing for this as well. They’d be willing to lower their rates if they could lose the insurance red tape.

Patient/clients are covering the cost of doctors’ liability insurance too.

If everyone had to pay 100% for their own insurance, I guess we’d finally see reform. Maybe even a revolution. haha!

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Suzanne August 25, 2009 at 6:55 am

I don’t like Mackey’s suggestion of higher deductibles…but I like Whole Foods too much to boycott. He’s going to have to endorse something seriously evil before I boycott. lol!

He’s simply putting ideas out there. The intolerance from the far right and left is really tiresome. Emotionalists.

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A. Jay Adler August 25, 2009 at 7:19 am

I’m inclined to think that health insurance is itself a rational response to a genuine need. But studies of the various current European systems demonstrate that they generally were not newly, wholly conceived and implemented systems. Like the U.S. they had preexisting structures, different everywhere, that worked to some degree and with which people were familiar, and each country tended to build on what it already had in instituting change, rather seeking a total recreation. That makes special sense, I think, in the U.S., with such a different culture. It is the practical wisdom of politics (these days surely an oxymoron in all minds), while pushing a single-payer system (the preference of those organizing the Whole Foods boycott) is impractical and impolitic given the culture.

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Suzanne August 25, 2009 at 6:51 am

Maybe part of the reform needs to be taking the onus off of employers to pay for health insurance. Since when are employers responsible for our medical care?

My understanding was a sweet little perk when health insurance was cheap–it cost them practically nothing to pay into an insurance pool.

There are some arguing that we should only be insured for catastrophic care and pay the rest out of pocket–with costs hopefully driven down by competition etc.

For healthy people, out of pocket visits are indeed cheaper than monthly insurance rates.

Maybe I’m missing something but it seems people are wedded to this idea of health insurance because it’s all they know. It’s a habit rather than a rational choice.

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Naomi August 23, 2009 at 2:20 pm

AJA -

OK. This is what I love about this sort of forum. We each had a chance to hear each other out, break down additional detail, and remain civil all at the same time. The bonus was to have it delivered thoughtfully and artistically. (Yes, I think writing is absolutely and art!) I appreciate that what you had to say actually challenged how I thought and felt about the subject. Here is what I suspect to be the case: I agree with most of, or at the very least understand, what you are saying. The fight still left in me over the subject has more to do with nuance than anything. Ah, reminds me of the good old college days!

N

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Naomi August 22, 2009 at 8:22 pm

Ah, you write (and reason) so well it makes my brain hurt. In fact, I came ever so close to seeing things your way. Your last sentence, however, was the cold water in the face I needed to return to where I began: this is most assuredly a truly moral problem. For all of us (myself excluded – thank heavens) who suffer without health insurance and therefore the most basic of human dignity, for those of us who wait to be seen by physicians until we are at times past the point where care will make a fig of a difference, for those of us who have lost all manner of property and dignity at the hands of the Bernie Madoff’s of the insurance industry even if we are so lucky as to have insurance – this is truly a moral issue of the highest order.

Hyperbolic as all that may sound, my dear Mister Adler, I will also submit that “agreeing to live in piece with such disagreements” is too to be a little bit complicit. John M. gleefully partakes in the muck and should be called out publicly for it. If there is a right as individuals to protest by boycotting (if one can), then surely the cause celebre can survive a meager attempt at organization. You see, it is organization, after all, which galls him so.

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A. Jay Adler August 23, 2009 at 8:00 am

My dear, dear Ms. Baruch (I’m very competitive), sorry for splashing cold water on your face. (Or maybe you’re thanking me?) You understand, of course, I’ve no heartfelt desire to defend Mackey. And I had the vague sense as I wrote the M word, that it could engender more debate. I’ll address it this way. All action involves moral consideration: what actions are right and which aren’t. Social policy considerations, in addition to their practical focus, address questions of what policies help produce a just society. We have to allow for differing perspectives in answering those questions. That’s part of the nature of a just society, no? The reason I’ve replaced the legislative word “entitlement” with that of “enlightenment” in the Adlerian lexicon, the reason I find problematic the increasing proliferation of the word “right” in considerations of preferred social policy – its expansion into more and more realms of life – is that it demonizes differing views. A nation is not pursing, perhaps, a different vision of the more perfect society; it is, potentially, violating some internationally adjudged “human right.” One is no longer offering an alternative view; one is advocating the immoral. Both are possible, of course, but we’re narrowing the range of what isn’t one of those violations. As incorrect as I think they are, I don’t believe honest advocates of an entirely free-market health care system (which it ain’t anymore anyway) are immoral. Clearly, I don’t think advocates of even a single-payer system are, oy, Nazis. I think we need to work against enlightened dogmatism becoming a counterweight to the dogma and fears of traditional culture.

Glad you’ve joined the fray here. You’ve got some style yourself.

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Naomi August 22, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Does commenting actually work?

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A. Jay Adler August 22, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Ah, now you know it – sorta – does.

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Naomi August 22, 2009 at 12:47 pm

” You find out the local grocer has some different politics from yours and you – seek to put him out of business? Seek to damage his business sufficiently that he “gives” and purports to believe or even acts to support a policy in which he does not believe?”

I think this question you pose, along with the conclusion you draw misses a more subtle point being made by the boycott of Whole Foods (at least by me). The goal of health care and health insurance reform is one that supporters (like me) feel very passionately about. The discourse (fueled) and covered by the media, feels largely out of our (my?) control. Nonsense trumps the day.

So we call our representatives, talk to friends and co-workers. Some of us organize others in an attempt to make some difference. Enter John Mackey, stage (sic) right. Using some of the same language we’ve been hearing from the whacky fringe on the right – Obamacare – allusions to socialism – he proceeds to ‘shit where he eats.’ In his, what I call, “Let them eat Whole Foods” speech, he does more than simply voice his opinion. He provides a public stage to the opposition. Said opposition does not merely disagree on policy, but rather has an admitted goal of preventing any reform and maintaining the status quo. The slap in he face to those calling for a boycott of his stores is that most of his customers are the very ones who feel so passionately about the need for reform. And so at least for me, the call for a boycott is not a reactionary desire to punish, put him out of business or make him “give.” Rather, it is a way to exercise some modicum of control over this chaotic mess we see on tv, read on the blogs and have shouted at us from the pundits. It’s a way to say: “John, you have a right to your views on the subject, and even have the right to ham-handedly bloviate them across the pages of the Wall Street Journal.” “I also have the right to take a break from relinquishing my paycheck to the registers of your grocery store, to, if nothing else, register my displeasure at your lack of tact.”

And though I’ve read the comments of those on some of the message boards who are seeking John’s head on a pink slip or looking for a drop in his companies stock, this particular boycotter is exercising her consumer rights to have (an admittedly small) voice in the debate. John painted himself with target colors for what appears to be some spirited rounds of symbolic color (ahem) war.

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A. Jay Adler August 22, 2009 at 6:26 pm

Naomi, as I tweeted, life tried to get in the way of your comment, and succeeded temporarily, but only that. Comments on political blogs can be crazily vicious and ugly, so along with the spam filter, I moderate them. In fact, I’ve never had to reject one, even as I’ve approved a few to which I really objected, so perhaps I should stop the moderating. We’ll see. As it is, I spend enough time at the PC that moderating has been no burden. Until I went for an afternoon and eve in Savannah.

I do understand everything you say. The sense of betrayal is great – the shitting on the very people who have made his business the success it is. It isn’t an automatic call for me. In fact, the hardball anti-labor activity makes it even harder. He isn’t just opining in that area; he is actively obstructing the efforts of workers to unionize in their own interests. But as I wrote, political work is being done to counter him there. I may never shop at Whole Foods again, but – full disclosure here – while I’ve been traveling this past year, through many small towns across the country of, say, ten to fifteen thousand people, there has often been only one place (proof of the argument, of course) to shop for groceries: Walmart. I will try, though, to exercise my personal veto with Mackey, and it seems that is what you are intending too. It is just that I’m kind of Kantian in my ethics: comfort with universalizing the act is a significant consideration for me. That each individual decide as a matter of personal conscience whether she wants to shop Whole Foods, or any other business – who can say no? That we organize communal sanctions against businesses out of political displeasure – that troubles me for the reasons I expressed. Doug Muder cited the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That was in response to truly immoral behavior, and I fear that people on both ends of the political spectrum are too quick to confuse the immoral with what they really, really, really dislike.

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