Monday, July 02, 2007

The German Obsession with Organic Food and Environmentalism

Jonah Golderg has a book coming out entitled Liberal Fascism. The original subtitle "The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton" was changed to "The Totalitarian Temptation from Hegel to Whole Foods." The New Republic's Brad Plumer (as well as a number of other bloggers) have taken Goldberg to task for the Whole Foods reference noting that Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackie is a free market libertarian, not a raging lefty.

The response to Goldberg violates the principle of charity. While it is certainly true that the corporate head of Whole Foods is not a liberal, what Goldberg most likely critiques (and none of us have seen the book, yet) is the insistence by those damn liberal do-gooders that we all care about the environment, labor conditions, and health effects of the normal American lifestyle as it has emerged at the beginning of the 21st century. This hostility to liberal do-gooderism is something worth thinking about and I'll write more about it later this week (if this is not the line he is pursuing, I apologize to Goldberg -- but the inference seems a pretty straightforward one).

What strikes me as fascinating is Goldberg's actual reply,

As you may have heard, my book's full and official title is Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation from Hegel to Whole Foods. The subtitle with Hillary in it was originally a working title I never liked — for the thousandth time this isn't a book about Hillary Clinton (even if there is a chapter about her) — but the title got away from me for bureaucratic reasons. I'm glad I could prevail in getting the name changed, as this covers the spirit of the book more. Brad Plummer is having predictable good fun with it. Of course, he doesn't really seem to know what he's talking about (oh, and it's not like it's news to me that the owner of Whole Foods is a self-described libertarian but maybe the German obsession with organic food and environmentalism, for two examples, is news to Plummer). But that's okay, it's what I expected.
"[T}he German obsession with organic food and environmentalism," hmmm, interesting. It is true that in contemporary Germany, the Green party is a force to be reckoned with and also true that the first nature protection laws came out of the pre-war government of Hitler. Does this show a fascist/liberal link? Let's look at it.

A few years back, I wrote with a colleague in the Environmental Studies department an article entitled, "The Greening of White Pride" that looks at the differences between Nazi-era environmentalism, contemporary racist environmentalism (The American Nazi Party and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, are overtly concern with environmental concerns), and contemporary liberal environmentalism and found interesting similarities and striking differences. Too much for a blog post, but the nature of the Nazi picture of nature is an interesting one.

Germany had always been last kid picked for kickball in Europe. Everyone else -- the Italians, the French, the British, the Portuguese, the Austro-Hungarians, the Spanish, the Dutch -- had been given their turn to be the big power in Europe, but Germany always seemed left out and looked down upon. Then came industrialization and the rise of a united Germany with science and culture. There was a new sense of pride and power that accompanied it.

But there was a downside to industrialization, pollution and factory work with its terrible working conditions had created conditions that undermined the health of those who had moved to the cities -- and there had been a major shift in population to the cities. This resulted in a significant public health crisis. If you examine the number of young men being given exemptions from military service for health reasons as a rough measure, you would see deeply troubling trends.

At the same time, there had been a baby boom. You had a generation that out-numbered anything their parents had seen coming up and this had an effect on German culture similar to what we saw here in the post-WWII era. The pull of the social gravity of such a large group caused there to be youth-based focus in the culture with fashion and popular culture idolizing everything youthful. With this power, they rebelled, seeking to overturn the power of the elders.

Seeing the industrialized future as not terribly bright and seeing the health problems dogging them and those slightly older, it resulted, much like the American version, in a back-to-the-land movement amongst the youth which included hiking, nudity, free love, and folk music. The Free Youth and Wandervogel movements gave rise to groups of youth who would take to the country, honoring the farmers whose fields they traversed, hiking long-distances, playing guitars.

This is the generation that would grow up to dominate the political scene in the 30s and 40s and they brought with them this deep-seated sense of the importance of the land and a very romanticized picture of nature. The notion of Heimat, literally meaning home but having the nationalist connotation of fatherland, not only includes the notion of a strong paternal parent that inspires and requires devotion, but is also deeply enmeshed with the sense of the land.

But they were very, very different from our hippie movement whose core values were much more communal and democratic bordering on anarchic in its radical distrust of centralized power. The Wandervogel groups, on the other hand, organized themselves around strong, charismatic leaders who were seen to rule over their members. There was a hierarchy, a strict leader who was the focus of political control in each cell. This meant that different groups had radically different ideologies. You had Wandervogel groups across the political spectrum.

Where the notion of radical freedom was the hallmark of American counter-culture ideals, for many of the groups, there was very of much of a militaristic nationalism to the earlier German counterpart. Again, while it was not universal, there was also a strong sense of anti-Semitism to many pockets. This came not only from German nationalism, but also a sense that bodily harm was being done to the German people and the nation as a whole by factories which were owned in caricature, of course, by money-grubbing Jews.

So, when these folks came to power, it is no surprise that nature protection laws would be something they would look to. Such laws had several political meanings. First, it was seen as a a nationalistic move, protecting the land is protecting the country. It is quite similar to contemporary conservative corporation-protection policies because as American conservatives hold to truism like "As goes General Motors, so goes America," the German nationalists held as goes the land, so goes Germany. But it was also clearly intended to be a slap to Jews; it was perfectly clear to Germans at that time who the land was being protected against.

The notion of "Jew," though, had a larger sense than believer in the God of Abraham. "Jew" in German political-speak at the time clearly referred to Weimar-supporters. It was under the Weimar government that many of the long-standing laws were lifted limiting Jews in much the same way that Jim Crow laws did in the US. Indeed, Walter Rathenau, a Jew had been made prime minister under Weimar. The Weimar government was liberal in both the contemporary and classical senses and this enraged the German conservatives who (1) never conceded that Germany lost WWI, but (2) held that if they did, it was because those damn liberals weren't patriotic enough in their support of the war effort that cost Germany (the superior and Divinely endorsed force) the war.

So, the Nazi nature protection laws came out of a context very different from contemporary environmental protection efforts. It more resembles gun-owner rights legislation than endangered species policy. As such, Goldberg's retort referring to "the German obsession with organic food and environmentalism" probably does not really support his case the way he thinks it does.