‘What is the “Soup du jour?”’
‘That’s the soup of the day.’
‘Mmmmm, that sounds good. I’ll have that.’
– Lloyd Christmas, from the film Dumb and Dumber.
I am taking a girl out to a nice restaurant. Multiple certificates and awards hang in the window. The lights are dim, one wall is stacked from top to bottom with wine bottles as if in a library, and delicate lace curtains reach halfway up the windows and provide us with some privacy from passers-by on the street. Her name is Ayan Youssouf. She speaks English with a subtle accent. Her parents are from Djibouti, she speaks some Korean, she grew up in Germany and she now lives in Switzerland. Yet never has she lost her love of the food of her homeland: France.
The menu offers an enticing terrine to start, and a dacquoise for dessert will be hard to pass up. Wait staff are immaculately dressed. Apparently the cauliflower gratin is delicious as a side, and the entire meal can be rounded off nicely with a chunk of smooth Brie de meaux or sharp Roquefort cheese. If we cannot decide what to eat, we can trust the chef’s judgement and order the plat du jour. But we are not in France. We are in Dunedin, New Zealand.
In fact, we could be at a restaurant just about anywhere in the world. Because there is one feature of the hospitality industry which is hard to disprove in practice: French food sells. At a tearoom in Glasgow you could pick up a ham and cheese toasted sandwich for a pound, or for eight times the price you could sit down to a croque monsieur at a cafe just around the corner. In Riga, Latvia, where you can fill up on dumplings and stuffed cabbage for a few Euros, why not join the young people gathered at Cafe Paris and get half a croissant for the same price? For generations French cuisine has been seen as the most exquisite. French restaurants always attracted the greatest reputations and the largest bills. For the present generation, however, this has changed slightly. The reputation is still there. But there need not be any direct relationship to French cooking or restaurants. The product is enough. Putting a croissant up for sale is enough. People still make the association with quality – yet the quality, and I take Cafe Paris as an example, need not be there. French food is assumed to be the best, so if something appears French then it appears to be the best. There is seldom a need to prove it; people will buy it anyway.
Back to Ayan and our restaurant in Dunedin. Some of the other groups of diners are probably celebrating a special occasion. Bluff oysters are served au naturele. Local potatoes and New Zealand tasty cheese are used to make dauphinoise potatoes. When I spoke to the chef they were quick to assure me, almost aggressively, that they are not a French restaurant, nor do they try to be. Given the decor and the menu, this insistence was quite a surprise. However, it helps to elucidate what French food in some way has come to be: not always a deliberate marketing tool, but instead a market convention to which some establishments have to adhere in order to survive. The rest of the menu features wonderful Asian dishes, New Zealand specialties and experimental fusions. Yet to most people this is the closest thing to a ‘French’ restaurant in town. To most people, it is also one of the ‘best’ restaurants in town. Perhaps the two are subliminally linked. Maybe we, as customers, assume French food to be better because we have been told that it is. One thing seems certain – we are more willing to pay for food if it is French.
The couple who own this restaurant started with a dream of creating a place where people could get good, quick food in a casual environment. But, as one of them said to me while pointing through the curtained windows to people walking past on the street, ‘nine times out of ten those guys decide what you get to do.’ Good food costs money. Money to buy good produce, money to pay good chefs to prepare it. People will pay more for a croque monsieur than a toasted sandwich, or a plat du jour over a dish of the day. As always, money talks. And in the hospitality world it speaks French.
The most obvious indication of the relationship between French food and inflated prices are so-called ‘fine-dining’ establishments. For a professional chef to be ‘classically trained’ is effectively a synonym for being trained ‘in the French methods of bourgeois hotel restaurants in the late-nineteenth century.’ If you are a ‘chef’ you are really a chef de cuisine, or head of the kitchen. Some everyday words have never found a usable English equivalent to the French: restaurant, omelette, café and mayonnaise, to name a few. But these terms and practices are not confined to fine-dining or fancy restaurants. Pubs, cafés and fast-food chains use them. But they are not even confined to the food industry. We use them in our own cooking and eating. We use them in conversation. We see them everywhere. Yet knowing how this specific set of terms and practices came to dominate the food world remains as much a mystery to most people as does mastering the perfect omelette.
Rats and Aristocrats
‘Everything ends this way in France – everything. Weddings, christenings, duels, burials, swindlings, diplomatic affairs -everything is a pretext for a good dinner.’
– Jean Anouilh.
Auguste Escoffier. A name without which any history on the development of modern French cuisine is incomplete. To some, Escoffier is the deity of whom the high reputation of French cuisine was a creation. To others he is an arrogant egotist. The fact that he is a necessary inclusion in the history of modern French cuisine stems from neither of these. He is necessary because he is a hinge between what had come before him and what has come since. A balance between his influences and his influence.
The reputation of French food as the best in the world was born in the development of haute cuisine in France. Despite the historical importance of peasant food and local traditions on French cuisine, it was the ultra refinement of cuisine in aristocratic French kitchens, and overblown elegance of bourgeois restaurants, that defined what ‘French food’ came to mean to the world.
Two factors contributed massively to the development of haute cuisine. One was the role played by professional kitchens both before and after the French Revolution. The other was the codification of the techniques used in those kitchens. From the Middle Ages until the end of the eighteenth century, French chefs were confined to employment in private homes and kitchens of the aristocracy. However, this exclusive, restricted existence of the chef allowed for a uniform system of techniques to be refined, and certain dishes and procedures became standard throughout these upper-class households. Following the French Revolution, and the end of the ancient regime, everything changed. Chefs’ former employers were gone, and their traditional stage – aristocratic kitchens – had disappeared. They needed a new place to perform. By the middle of the nineteenth century, they had it.
Somewhere between the bloody years following 1789 and the pendulum-swinging social upheaval of the next century, a new elite emerged in France: the bourgeoisie. Boosted by industrialisation, the decline of the monarchy, increased material wealth and the growth of large commercial cities, bourgeois society blossomed in nineteenth century France. Especially in Paris, members of the bourgeoisie indulged an interest in sophisticated, urban culture. Part of that culture was fine food. In place of their aristocratic masters, who ate privately in their homes, chefs now obeyed the desires of wealthy citizens who frequented public restaurants.
In this new society the status of chefs changed. They were able to create their own menus, and strove throughout the century to establish the chef in society as both a bona fide professional and a true artist. This desire for professionalism saw a number of professional culinary academies set up in France at this time. In terms of art, Joseph Berchoux, a French poet who invented the word ‘gastronomy’ in its culinary context, insisted: ‘A poem is never worth a dinner.’
One menu from 1870 shows how French chefs adapted traditional techniques to suit the times. During the Siege of Paris by the Prussian army, Paris was in a state of turmoil, and cut off from the outside world. Yet some Parisian chefs refused to compromise the quality they strove for. They were not even perturbed by a lack of usual ingredients. Livestock could not enter the city. So chefs had to turn to meat already in the city. Horse meat was the most obvious and popular choice. Numbers of rats, cats and dogs from the street quickly dwindled. And, famously, the meaty animals of the city zoo and museum were too much for hungry Parisians to resist. Chez Voisin’s menu from Christmas Day 1870 presents such dishes as ‘clarified soup of elephant,’ ‘cat flanked by rats,’ and ‘roast camel English style,’ along with dessert, cheeses and two different services of vintage wines. One restaurateur apparently, after earning 600 francs in only thirty minutes from selling elephant meat he had resorted to, sold dishes made of horse meat as ‘elephant’ at exorbitant prices for the next two weeks.
Therefore it appears that the bourgeoisie had the curiosity and money to allow chefs to establish their profession as part of mainstream French society in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, however, although French chefs forged a new identity for themselves in society after the Revolution, one element from the old regime remained central to their work: the standard set of traditional rules, techniques and practices refined in the years of cooking for the aristocracy. One major reason for this was that these rules were written down.
The codification of cuisine classique in France kept the scope of haute cuisine very narrow. Once recipes, ingredients and techniques were written down, rather than transmitted orally, they were less susceptible to change and variation. Several books about food were written in France before the seventeenth century that had a notable influence on modern cuisine. However, it was not until 1651 that the first true epistle of haute cuisine appeared with Francois Pierre la Varenne’s Le Cuisinier françois. This book documented a change occurring in French cuisine over the seventeenth century: in peasant households, and from there into noble households, heavily spiced foods were replaced by more simple dishes flavoured with fresh local herbs and home-made sauces. In other words, the fundamental characteristics of modern French cuisine were laid. Over the 1700s cookbooks grew in popularity and number in France, but it was not until 1833 that the next landmark literary work appeared, by Marie-Antoine Carême. Carême cooked among the highest echelons of society, including for Napoleon, at the English court, and being headhunted by the Russian Tsar. His L’Art de la Cuisine Française put in writing many of the practices consolidated in traditional haute cuisine before the Revolution. The methods he codified, particularly those of preparing stocks and sauces, became gospel for the next generation of haute cuisine chefs. This is where Escoffier comes back into our story.
Escoffier did nothing new. Well, practically nothing. On one hand, he is a continuation of the line of celebrated masters who codified the traditions of haute cuisine. On the other, he is a revolutionary who simplified the classical French principles and made them adaptable and malleable to chefs around France, Europe and the world. Whichever way you look at it, Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire is undoubtedly the most influential book on French cuisine over the past century. Escoffier took a lot of his techniques straight from Carême, but managed to simplify and organise them more clearly. Maybe for this reason, or maybe simply because he was at the right place at the right time, it was Escoffier’s brand of cuisine classique which was to spread beyond France’s borders over the course of the twentieth century.
The New French Empire
‘How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?’
– Julia Child
James, in a white chef’s jacket in the kitchen of Dunedin cafe Nectar, explains that the sauce he is making for a chicken and leek pie is now a velouté because he has added stock to the roux, rather than milk, in which case it would have been a béchamel. He asks me if I can make a cartouche while he is stirring the sauce, so he can put it over the sauce and leave it without going bad while he talks to me. I begin to feel that the talk is hardly necessary. I have already seen what I came to find out. Within two minutes it already feels like I am in a play written by Auguste Escoffier. Cartouche, roux, béchamel, velouté. James has never been to France. Nectar is a very typical New Zealand cafe. So how did it come to this? How did France come to invade industrial kitchens of the western world? Food is something every single person on the planet needs. The French hardly invented it. Escoffier hardly invented it. But if anybody could lay claim to its patent, it is him.
After the publication of Escoffier’s book at the start of the twentieth century it became the textbook and bible of every serious haute-cuisine restaurant in Paris. In other words, it was the backbone of one of the most famous industries in the most fashionable city in the world. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Paris was unmatched by any city in the world for its cultural and social activity. Parisian boutiques and designers set the trends for European fashion. From the city’s Left Bank artists chopped between Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism and changed the course of modern art. On the other side of the river intellectuals and social activists argued over socialism, society and the future of the modern world. Such activity attracted all types of public figures, from Pablo Picasso to Ernest Hemingway. In short, Paris was the place to be.
Alongside this burgeoning culture Parisian restaurants and cafes thrived. The haute cuisine restaurants grew and grew in reputation and international stature. Typical Parisian cafe or bistro food became associated with the city’s culture and sophistication. The croissant, which had only appeared in Paris a century earlier from Budapest-via-Vienna, became as much a symbol of France as the Eiffel Tower. The Michelin Guide first appeared in 1900, and rose to prominence as its system of rating restaurants against one another forced chefs to adhere to its criteria in order to outdo one another in the eyes of the public. So, Paris was the centre of the world’s attention. But then the Second World War came. Post-war Paris was a much different place. Years of Nazi occupation, crippled industry, immense wartime casualties, and uncertainty over the future. It was time for French cuisine to move on.
Through several important figures, it did just that. French cuisine began to put down strong roots outside of France. In one way, therefore, this is the point at which ‘French cuisine’ lost its relevancy to France. This strand of French food stopped moving. Instead, it was exported from Paris as a time capsule, an anachronistic reflection of Escoffier and interwar Paris which was set in stone. Two names arguably have more to do with this exportation and globalisation of French cuisine than anybody. Roux and Child.
Julia Child moved to Paris in 1948 because her husband was stationed there with the United States Foreign Service. She instantly fell in love with French food, and went to train at the famous Cordon Bleu academy. She wished that America had such good food. Instead of championing a strong American food culture or creating a new American way of cooking, her mission explicitly became taking French cooking and planting it in America. The result was Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which fifty years after its publication is still one of the most popular cookbooks in the United States), an Emmy-winning television show, and an altered culinary landscape of America. In 1903 Escoffier claimed that “stock is everything in cooking, at least in French cooking.” Julia Child stated in 1961 that “the wonderful flavour of good French food is the result, more often than not, of the stock used.” Child’s book is nothing revolutionary. It is simply a further codification of the classical French methods. The Americans may have been first to the atomic bomb, but the French beat the United States to Hollandaise sauce by at least three-hundred years.
Michel and Albert Roux moved from France to the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Apparently disgusted by the poor quality of restaurant food, they opened Le Gavroche in London. Here they served classic French haute cuisine dishes, based on many of Escoffier’s principles and techniques. The restaurant, along with their second The Waterside Inn, soon became favourites of the Queen, and picked up three Michelin stars each. Those who have been trained under the Roux brothers include celebrity chefs and household names Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and James Martin. More than half of the chefs in Britain who have been awarded Michelin stars were trained either under Michel, Albert or their disciples. The Roux brothers have been called ‘the Beatles of gastronomy’ and credited with starting a food revolution in Great Britain.
Revolution? It seems more like an invasion. A conquest. The French Empire, almost two centuries after its demise, has reappeared in the guise of gastronomy. Pre-war Parisian chic has remained fashionable in post-war Britain and America. From there it has been carried around the world. McDonald’s. Hollywood. The Beatles. Coca-Cola. Apple. David Beckham. Globalisation has pushed Anglo-American society to most corners of the world. In Tokyo it is no surprise to see a local youth wearing a Rolling Stones tee-shirt. Just like it is no surprise to find a croissant at a bakery in Mexico City or on a street corner in Delhi. Globalisation has tended to mean that if something is popular in London or New York, chances are it will become popular in Auckland, Dubai or Hong Kong. Perhaps the global obsession with the image of French cuisine is down to Britain and the United States, rather than France. Since the end of the Second World War, ‘French cuisine’ has become less and less French. This begs the question: what has France been doing since Britain and the United States ran away with her old cuisine?
A Fresh Taste
‘I cannot prevent the French from being French.’
– Charles de Gaulle.
The supermarket feels like a supermarket. Rows of tinned food, dried pasta, soft drinks. Kids and the irritating screech of a sterile floor. Selma explains that she just has to buy some cheese, wine and tomatoes. After ten minutes in the cheese aisle we leave with a small mould-covered wheel of goats’ cheese, or chèvre.
Selma’s parents moved to France from Morocco two years before she was born. She moved to Paris with her mother and twin sister, Kenza, after their father died when they were three years old. Selma is currently completing a PhD in Primatology at the grandiose Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in the centre of Paris. The sisters share an apartment on a heavily trafficked road beside the Seine in Charenton-le-Pont. There is a distant view of the Eiffel Tower largely obscured by a concrete housing block. As Selma unpacks the groceries she apologises in her sweet, richly French voice that Kenza is not here for the dinner party.
‘I am really sorry, because you say you like French food, and she is really the expert’ – Kenza runs occasional French cooking classes for tourists at their apartment – ‘I am no expert.’
‘That’s okay, you don’t have to be,’ I assure her, ‘you just have to be French.’ She smiles.
After this I spent the afternoon with Selma in the kitchen. She casually explained the dinner to me as we worked. The centrepiece of it was a chicken and apricot tagine, cooked in her mother’s old earthenware tagine which she brought over from Morocco. To go with it there would be tomatoes à la Provence, with their seeds removed ‘because it helps with, um,’ Selma pauses as she rubs her stomach to jog her memory, ‘the digestion.’ Underneath will be couscous with garlic, thyme and lemon. Variations of fried potatoes with parsley are found all over France, and ‘in the southwest they use duck fat to fry them.’ The final condiment was an aubergine caviar which Selma prefers when it is infused with a special mix of Moroccan spices that her mother taught her. Around 5pm she opened two bottles of wine to breathe.
Of course, not all restaurants in France adhere to the haute cuisine traditions. There have been numerous periods where chefs have attempted to distance themselves from traditions and advocate nouvelle cuisine within the haute cuisine system. Albert Roux claimed to be doing this, and at the end of the nineteenth century the term was often applied to Escoffier’s cooking. However, most of the time these ‘breaks’ with the past have ended up being assimilated back into the canon of classical haute cuisine. However, there have been some more genuine attempts to change the stuffy traditional system.
Perhaps the best example of people consciously trying to alter their archaic food identity in contemporary France is Le Fooding. This movement is based on a French restaurant guide which appeared in 2000 to rival the Michelin Guide. Its name comes from a mix of two English words – “food” and “feeling.” As this suggests, the philosophy of the movement is to feel more attached to food. Rather than enjoying the same classic that bourgeois socialites ate in the nineteenth century, advocates of Le Fooding want the food we eat to reflect our own time. Alexandre Cammas, who co-founded the guide, states that ‘the classic French cuisine was dying. Everyone knew it outside of France, but it had to be said within. And it had to be said with joy—not as something to mourn but as something to celebrate, the beginning of a new taste.’ Exponents of Le Fooding want restaurants and menus to change as fast as our daily lives do, and to embrace whatever influences we are exposed to, not just the influences of the past. The movement has grown steadily and may be starting to change things. But some people have opted for the less stressful approach of simply running away from the old system altogether.
“Baptiste” was born near Versailles, just outside Paris. From the age of fifteen he spent twenty years completing chef and pastry chef apprenticeships and working in Michelin-starred kitchens. Then he got out. ‘It is not healthy. It is all about what is on the plate, not how it got there.’ He moved with his young family to New Zealand. After being disgusted by the poor quality and amount of processed food while working at supposedly the ‘best French pastry shop in Auckland,’ he turned away from food completely. Within five years he had gravitated back towards it, in the form of a small crêpe-making venture which turned into a full-time occupation.
‘I enjoy it because the people can feel the love that I put into the food, they can watch me make it and I can see them enjoy it.’
His menu is in English and he hardly seems to be using the French factor as a marketing tool. He also grows all his own salad greens at his home, makes every sauce at home, uses organic and free-range eggs and ham, and cheese from local suppliers.
‘Really? Wow, how come you do not advertise that information?’
He cracked a small smile, laid his hands flat on the table and slowed his voice down as he replied: ‘I want the food to say that to people. If the food says it, then I do not need to.’
After dinner, Ayan proposed taking our drinks to the seats outside the restaurant to have a cigarette. Reading over the dessert menu, I said ‘I wonder if they make a “real” dacquoise, you should get one and be the judge.’ Upon hearing this, Ayan laughed, lit a cigarette, swung her legs back under the table, leaned slightly forward, and began to tell me about an episode she had recently experienced in Auckland.
At a very popular French cafe and bakery in Mt. Eden she asked the chef, out of curiosity, why they did not sell vanilla éclairs. She shifted slightly closer to me, and raised both her hands in order to emphasize the next part of her story: ‘the chef went crazy! He began to complain with frustration about why he cannot sell genuine French food to New Zealanders.’ He used to buy these rich, 70% cocoa chocolate bars to make his pain au chocolat, but people complained that there was no real chocolate in them. ‘So to adapt to the market, he had to put bars made from Fonterra – which do not contain chocolate at all, but mostly sugar!’ Ayan smiled, pulled out another cigarette from its pack and held it, unlit, in her fingers, as she finished her story: ‘once he did this people started to compliment him about the rich flavour of cocoa in there!’
After telling her this the chef ushered Ayan out to the kitchen, sat her down and, ‘relieved by my empathy,’ made her an éclair à la vanille from scratch. ‘But it was a kiwi one, with chocolate glazing on top. Delicious. You do not get those in France!’
When a Hollandaise sauce splits, most people throw it away and start again. But it is possible to re-emulsify it by carefully adding drops of boiling water and whisking. It may not be as rich, but it will still be good. To some people it may even taste better.
The Sad Demise of Bolton Wanderers Football Club
It is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton Wanderers find themselves in
If you watched the English Premier League during the early 2000s, you would have been familiar with the plight of Bolton Wanderers. The long running club is now in absolute dire straits, bereft of resources, searching desperately for new owners as it staves away its seemingly inevitable end. It is truly a sad turn of events for a club that has been around for almost 150 years, once known as the plucky, never-die team of English football’s top flight.
The Greater Manchester club, gleefully nicknamed ‘The Trotters’, were always a group of ragtag underachievers who constantly overachieved. The club, under the tutelage of Big Sam Allardyce, spent several Premier League seasons languishing at the bottom end of the table staving off relegation before progressing to mid-table safety. It wasn’t that they were good, because, for the most part, they weren’t, but it was because they always found a gutsy way of surviving by sheer determination, miraculous last game results, and for finding the last remaining ounce of juice left in washed-up players looking for one last round of glory.
It’s the latter point perhaps, that endeared Bolton to fans who didn’t spend their weekends at the Reebok Stadium. Bolton was the home to many talents that found new life under Allardyce. Players that managed to thrill a mostly dull part of the footballing world with European flair and Nigerian spice. I have fond memories of the indomitable Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff reminding fans of their class. Then there were the bruising, hard-hitting playing styles of Ivan Campo and Fernando Hierro- adding much-needed steel to that Bolton lineup. They complimented the steadfast if not boring quality that came with the ever-present Jussi Jääskeläinen and Kevin Davies. Atop them all sat Big Sam- who long before he became a joke in English football, was the no-frills, old-school English manager who took Bolton up from the old Division One to the Premier League. And during his run, he became known for being able to get Bolton out of trouble at the last minute, no matter how ugly the season had been. They made an FA Cup Semi Final and the Round of 16 of the UEFA Cup, somehow beating Atletico Madrid along the way.
Those days are sadly long gone as the club find itself languishing in the third tier of English football, once again ending the previous season relegated. Mired in financial disarray, the club has been in control of administrators since May, with its long-awaited takeover by new owners (whoever they may end up being) dragging on and on. The sad state of affairs has been punctuated by the club unable to pay its players and staff, canceled pre-season friendlies, and quite possibly the saddest team sheet in all the time I’ve been a fan of English football. As of this time, their official team page has but 7 players listed (no defenders), not even enough to field a full first team. If by the time you read this they’re able to pull their socks up and field a full team, it’ll be a miracle.
Their financial downward spiral hit breaking point in 2015 when the club found itself £172.9 million in debt. It only seemed to get worse from there. Unpaid taxes, transfer embargoes, manager changes, poor results, and most depressingly, non-playing staff having to use food bank donations to feed themselves (including donations from rival club Preston North End).
It really is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton find themselves in. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a true Wanderers fan to face the reality of their club in 2019. It’s not that the club has ever been successful (their last significant trophy was the 1958 FA Cup), but from the outside, their grit, their pluck, and their ability to seemingly escape the direst of circumstances made them endearing. They were the underdog team of has-beens, never-rans, forgotten souls, and Big Sam.
Now it seems their darkest days are closing in. Football fans surely would love for new owners to come in, reset the club, and start that long, arduous journey back into stability. But their new season hopes don’t even start on any positive note, with their financial failings they’ve already been docked 12 points before the start of the new season. Even with new owners, it will take a significant time to turn things around. The best they can hope for is to pull a Rangers and find themselves back on the up after 5 or so years… but the English Premier League is a far different beast to that of the Scottish Premier League, just ask Leeds United.
The long road back is never going to be easy. And for Bolton Wanderers, once a club that found its soul with players looking for one last spot of luck, may have run out of its own.
Divided We Fail: How Individualism is Holding the U.S. Back
The bootstrap mentality is about as American as apple pie. But it’s destroying our already frayed social net and education system. Can we resist our individualistic roots to mobilize and enact progressive policies?
To understand the swampy depths of American individualism is also to acknowledge that we have a serious inability to comprehend looming disaster. In fact, we’re uniquely terrible at it.
Loosely defined, American individualism is the idea that prosperity and growth is overwhelmingly the result of an individual’s hard work, cleverness, grit, and all that. (It’s both hilarious and fitting that one of our most reviled and economically disastrous presidents, Herbert Hoover, was the main architect behind the notion of American individualism.)
On one hand, this belief in individualism seems empowering. It tells us we are the captains of our own ships. It tells us we don’t have to be defined by our childhood traumas or underfunded school systems. It tells us that through scrappiness and ingenuity and discipline, we can rise above our circumstances and succeed, no matter what.
The inverse, of course, is that our failures are also ours alone to bear—with little regard for the systems and circumstances that cause some people to spend lifetimes catching up to where others were simply born.
American individualism explains so much of what we get wrong as a country, even in 2019. We downplay the systemic racism and violence of our police force through tunnel vision that tells us there are only a “few bad apples” rather than a flawed, oppressive police state. We’re unable to treat things like healthcare or housing as basic human rights, positing instead that those without access to food or shelter probably just haven’t “earned” it. And higher education—often treated as the great equalizer by meritocrats—is so expensive, it’s crippling our economy as a whole. Yet too many students are blaming themselves, and too many people are blaming students.
One is the Lousiest Number
These days, it’s hard to pick what to worry about more in the U.S. The list of societal threats certainly is long—climate change, the impending retirement crisis, the ongoing student debt crisis. These problems have been worsening for decades, and they’re all the result of failures at a systematic level.
The climate crisis was ramped up by decades of poorly regulated industries that pumped carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The retirement crisis that will likely come full force when Generation X starts leaving the workforce was set into motion by a shrinking pension system and the increasingly uncertain future of Social Security. And higher education became outrageously expensive over years of unchecked soaring tuition and fee increases.
But not everyone recognizes these mass-scale problems for what they are. Instead, too many people are blaming individual choices for giant societal failures. And these arguments are distracting us from collective solutions. Realistically, no one should be arguing that student loan forgiveness is a “half-baked” idea steeped in self-interest. Or that climate change can be reasonably combatted through laudable (yet mostly insignificant) individual actions like going vegetarian.
The numbers prove just how puny our individual actions really are against these larger-than-us problems. For example, even the most generous, self-massaged estimates put a single company like ExxonMobil’s annual carbon emissions in the range of well over 100 million CO2 equivalent metric tons. The average American, through even the most radical lifestyle changes and discipline, would likely only lower their annual emissions from about 20 metric tons to 8 metric tons. It would take millions and millions of people selling their cars and going vegan to equate to just one ExxonMobil. (Spoiler alert: There are way too many companies just like it.)
As Aaron Huertas of the Union of Concerned Scientists eloquently states: “We can’t ignore individual choice and responsibility; at the same time, we also have to recognize that our individual choices are constrained by corporate practices and government laws and regulations.”
A Way Out and Up
All is not lost, though. There is hope.
While the 2020 presidential pool for the Democrats may be a bit flooded, the makeup of the pool has revealed a trend: the ideas of sweeping economic relief and safety net programs are becoming more mainstream. If the Democratic party can just avoid spending its time strategizing against democratic socialism, we could enact policies that tackle these problems at the level they’re actually at.
Party insiders and centrists aside, it looks like voters are—even if just subtly and slowly—pressuring politicians to stop blaming individual choice for societal woes. The idea of multiple presidential candidates touting competing student loan relief programs would have seemed outrageous even a few election cycles ago—and now Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Julián Castro are all on board.
The point is, we’re getting there. And if we can fight against our very American instincts, we can realize—en masse—that our efforts to save our planet might be better spent organizing than remembering to recycle our empty salsa jars. We can take solace in knowing a liberal arts degree isn’t a personal failing that deserves financial punishment. We can accept that, as individuals, we may not be as powerful on our own as we thought, but we also may not be as much to blame for our struggles.
And then, we can mobilize.