Part of the historian’s curse is that, honesttogodI’mnotkidding --- if a historian’s seen it once, she’s seen it twice. And then again and again. Anything and everything I encounter filters through my brain as ideas/events laden with historical precedence.
Which is why I rarely bother reading books like THE MEAT RACKET, a new exposé of the American meat industry by Christopher Leonard. (*1) He’s is a respected journalist with long experience reporting on “Big Agriculture” and “Big Food” and on Tyson in particular. Indeed, Tyson Foods, Inc. is the book’s central “character.” Straight out of casting, man: Genius leader, behind-doors dealmaking, screwing everyone and her mother right and left. Etc.
Leonard’s research is solid, his narrative engaging. He’s especially good on the political machinations that both support “big” agriculture and that have tried to stop it.
In short: an excellent read, and one I recommend. Although I urge readers to read with care. Leonard’s research and structure are aimed at affirming his point: Big Meat is bad news. He’s a journalist, not a historian; no surprise, then, that context that would enrich his stance and findings are missing from the narrative.
For example, anyone reading this book would come away thinking that Tyson invented modern commercial broiler production. (“Broilers” are chickens raised for meat rather than for eggs.) Tyson may have perfected the system, but it didn’t invent it. He also fails to note that the Packers and Stockyards Administration was created back in the 1920s to restrict the power of four meat processors, but not to do much else. He implies, or, more accurately, leads readers to assume that Tyson is responsible for the decline in rural populations as well as a host of other social and demographic trends. It may or may not be. It’s complicated.
But in the end, the book is an exposé and in that respect, it does what it’s supposed to do: draw a bleak picture of corporate power, power against which, apparently, none of us can compete.
And as an exposé and because of the aforementioned historian’s curse, it’s impossible for me to look at his book in isolation. It’s part/parcel of a long tradition of investigative reporting, aka yellow journalism, aka muckraking, aka exposé.
As the kids say: Been there, done that.
These days what I find most interesting about the food critique and about exposés like Leonard’s are their assumptions, chief among them the “problem” of “rural” America.
The idea is that the Bigs have destroyed rural America and it’s up to the rest of us to do something about it. To repopulate rural American with “family” farms. To revive aging, mostly dying small towns.
Problem is: “rural” America’s been dying on the vine since, oh, about 1800, give or take a few decades. It never was a halcyon idyll of happy cows and happier farming families. It’s always been a mix of -- farms, people, smallish towns, city folks looking for cheap land so they can have a bigger house, etc.. And rural America has always been the place from which most, but not all, Americans wanted to escape.
So it’s not clear to me to which past Leonard and others hope to return. Eliminating Tyson from the equation won’t transform rural America into, well, whatever it is that the critics want it to be.
Forcing Tyson to change its ways won’t ensure that every farmer, new or old, is suddenly an ace business operator. As long as there have been farms and farmers, there have been inept, hopeless bumbling farmers side by side with shrewd, smart, ambitious farmers just waiting for the bumblers to fail so that they can buy up that land and expand their own yields. As long as there’s been a rural America, it’s been in “decline.”
But you’d never know that from reading Leonard’s book or any of the many other food-industry exposés published in recent years. One and all, they have been written from the perspective of urbanites who hope to save farms, farmers, and rural America --- and by “save” they mean, well, returning all of the above to some imagined state of perfection.
None of those books ever ask what are, to me, the obvious questions: What is “rural”? What did it used to be? What do we want it to look like in thirty years? What’s a “family farm”? Why have rural populations been in a constant decline for nearly two centuries? What does that say about America as a whole?
Instead, these authors start from an assumed, but imagined, reality: Rural America used to look like X. When rural America looked like X, all was good and wonderful and everyone was happy. Now, thanks to Y, the days of X are gone and the only way to get back to X is by curtailing the power of Y.
But that equation is flawed from the get-go, and so, alas, is any analysis that follows. Add in the fact that authors of exposé journalism are skilled writers who lead readers along a path of cause and effect that’s implied rather than proven, and, well . . . . you understand why I rarely bother to read them.
Again, Leonard’s book is more compelling and coherent than most. I managed to read the entire thing, start to finish. (Usually I give up about a third of the way through. Unless I’m experiencing one of my periodic bouts of insomnia. Then I plod on.) I urge you to read it, too. (Again, his take on the politics of food policy is worth the price of admission.)
As for me, I’m off to ponder the meaning of “rural.” And “family farm.” Because after spending seven years immersed in a topic related to both, I’m none the wiser. And I know it.
*1: Chris and I are now on first-name basis, thanks to being partners-in-review, a bonding experience if ever there was. For the record: I was lucky to be attached to the review of his book at the New York Times Book Review. I assure you that this book, his first, will be, do, and earn more than all of four of mine put together. I’m hopin’ for a little wind from his kite. Because a girl can hope, right?