Just to be clear: I understand that I’m just about nobody in the “blogosphere”, so my reaction to the “Moms who blog” furor that recently hit after the NYT scoffed at us is a little less intense than that of women who are doing it for a living, as a calling, or for other reasons that make it a significant part of their identity. The Times seemed to have it in for me this week, though, as they also referred to my desire to improve the world one chicken at a time as “precious” (maybe… they didn’t quite commit). Well, sure, if you wear a grey dress and hug your chickens it could be a little precious. But there’s not much about the chicken poop that 30 laying hens produce that is compatible with the photo they displayed at the top of the article on ‘femivores’. Blech. (Although, I’ll admit it, chicken poop aside, sometimes I hug my chickens.)
So what’s up with the NYT? And, for that matter, the Atlantic, which recently declared school gardens to be a tool of middle class hegemony, destined, nay, intended! to keep the poor in poverty. Why is this move to self-sufficiency, thoughtfulness, and social networking such a threat that it needs to be quashed, manipulated, dismissed, and maligned? I think, just maybe, we’re hitting a nerve.
I used to work in the Teaching Support Centre at a major Canadian university. Our mandate was to improve undergraduate education by making teaching count, by improving the quality of teaching of individual faculty members, and by working at the program level to help develop a better approach institutionally. I used to describe the work as being like trying to gnaw down an oak tree, or, on better days, like turning a battleship with a feather. It needs to be done one person, one question, one conversation, one idea at a time. The work of turning an entire society is even more messy, depending as it does on chaotic systems and tipping points. “Going viral” is a new phrase, but it describes a well-known process in which a thought becomes compelling enough that one person passes it on to another, who tells two friends, who tells two friends, and then before we know it, we’re all using the same shampoo. That’s a tipping point.
This time, though, “They” aren’t quite sure how to get us back to using the same shampoo. Localizing the economy is fundamentally at odds with the “get big or get out” mentality that has been pervasive not only in the agricultural sector, but throughout a globalized, monoculture society. The tiniest of actions have come under fire, with such things as saving seeds, eating the cheese made from the milk of your own cows, or eating eggs from chickens that get to wander around becoming signs of the apocalypse. Start questioning the way that middle-class children are raised, and you can be accused of neglect by nosey neighbours. Fail to make the children the highest priority in your life for every moment, every day, and then have the audacity to write about it in public, and you can raise the ire of a nosey national newspaper. I know, I know. It is the responsibility of the fourth estate to keep abreast of social trends. But why do these actions of women (in particular) invite the dismissive attitude? “Oh, aren’t these housewives cute trying to make meaning of their lives? I wonder if they know that they are self-indulgent bourgeois dupes.” Okay. That’s not quite what it said.
The chicken article did actually mention the “problem with no name”, though. I will reframe it thus: What do we do with all this education when we discover that the mundane realities of running a household are frequently repetitive and (dare I say it) boring? There are two possibilities being explored here. One is to bring the more intellectually challenging portions of homemaking to the forefront. I, for one, am raising chickens because I am appalled by the treatment of animals at the hands of our industrial food system, and I want to be able to make the tiniest dent in the situation. It’s an ethical and aesthetic choice, with a side benefit that we now have some of the finest eggs on offer in the county. The choices I make on a daily basis about what to feed my kids, how to clean my house, and what to do with my “spare time” are multi-variate problems with only temporarily stable solutions. They warrant my attention, although I can see how somebody might consider this a little self-indulgent. I try not to let it keep me up at night.
The second possibility for making more meaning of a thankless job is to talk about it with other intelligent people who are having the same issues. Like it or not, we are measured in large part by the success of our children, so we can either engage with that and try to figure out how to maximize their external success, or we can resist it and try to develop different measures of success. We can find out the best schools to get into, or we can question why we are so concerned about the accomplishments of six-year-olds. Some days, we can do both at the same time. But by moving to blogging and discussions with other parents, we diffuse the manufacturing of meaning, which undermines the process of manufacturing consent. That is a threat worth notice.
Blog away, fine moms. And dads. And single people who love the world. And self-indulgent, thoughtful, bourgeois, educated, partially-insane farmers. Maybe we can make some meaning of it all.