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Tea party in aisle 5 at Whole Foods

September 03, 2009|MEGHAN DAUM

Do only Prius-driving, gay-marriage-supporting, organic-crazed liberals shop at Whole Foods? Not anymore. Since Aug. 11, when Whole Foods CEO John Mackey published an Op-Ed article in the Wall Street Journal opposing President Obama's healthcare reform ideas, customers who disagree have boycotted -- or at least have claimed to be boycotting -- the high-end supermarket chain. In response, a lot of other people, who oppose the proposed reforms, have apparently developed a sudden taste for organic kumquats.

The Nationwide Tea Party Coalition kicked off a series of "buycotts" in Dallas and St. Louis on Tuesday, asking consumers to support Mackey by doing their entire week's grocery shopping at Whole Foods that evening. Meanwhile, conservatives and libertarians of various stripes are blogospherically smacking their lips so loudly you'd think they just had a helping of Chilean sea bass en papillote from the Whole Foods deli counter. "If the brainwashed, hemp-smoking zombies of the left stop shopping there, we conservatives can fill that market hole," wrote an anonymous poster on the blog Conservatives for Change.

Well, turnabout is fair play. And because contemporary humans in industrialized nations love to stereotype their fellow humans based on consumer preferences, it's rather amusing to watch supposed hippies swap loyalties with supposed neocons as if they were nervous couples at a swingers party. It's also a rather sad commentary on the perniciousness of stereotypes and the myriad opportunities for time-wasting afforded by the Internet and its attendant culture of righteous indignation.

Lest anyone think that only Republican types have an affinity for Internet meanness, remarks like this one about the supposed new breed of Whole Foods shopper are not uncommon from the "progressive" crowd: "Once you [conservatives] walk into the place and don't see Twinkies and other junk food, you'll waddle on out." That was "Cathy" on the American Spectator blog.

Leaving aside the doltishness of equating social conservatism with social and economic disenfranchisement (or, in less polite terms, with being a redneck), and despite the fact that overpriced fennel can be just as appealing to right-wing evangelical yuppies as it is to left-leaning Obama-voting yuppies, let's call the Whole Foods debate what is it: a platform for name-calling from both sides.

No surprise, because name-calling is quite a bit easier than actually discussing the issues. As divided as the country is on healthcare, the real split seems to be the one between those who don't know much about the nuances of the proposed reforms but publicly pretend they do (the town hall meeting ranters, the Internet commenters, the Facebook-group joiners) and those who also don't know the nuances but at least are keeping their mouths shut (most everyone else).

Speaking as a member of the latter group, I can only say that although Mackey's insinuation that Americans are to blame for their own bad health is a little reductive, and his enthusiasm for high-deductible insurance and health savings accounts smacks of class privilege, I have to give him props for attempting to sort through it at all. Not only did he risk the loyalty of his customers by stating his opinions, he also took the extra step of suggesting solutions.

To the extent I've got healthcare figured out, I think his ideas are misguided, but Mackey offered them in a measured, respectful and relatively detailed manner. He may be known as a union-buster and a bit of a crackpot (he was investigated by the SEC for attacking rival market Wild Oats -- which he later bought -- by composing Internet posts under a fake name), but his company buys from local farmers, maintains vigilant standards about humane animal treatment and pays its employees $13.15 an hour (they also get to vote to help determine their health benefits package). As food writer Michael Pollan said last week, "Mackey is wrong on healthcare, but Whole Foods is often right about food, and their support of farmers matters more to me than the political views of their founder."

It remains to be seen how many people will stop or start shopping at Whole Foods, as opposed to just lip-syncing along to whatever chorus of outrage they feel best represents them. But amid this consumer do-si-so, it seems possible that the nation has become so ideologically polarized that boycotts may do more in the way of canceling themselves out than effecting change. As all good capitalists know, when one door of opportunity closes, another opens. Just look at Fox TV's Glenn Beck. His controversial remarks about Obama's "racism" may have cost him dozens of advertisers, but his ratings are higher than ever.

And he doesn't even sell kumquats.

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mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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