Podcast review: You Are Not So Smart #5 – Selling Out
I first found journalist David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart blog almost three years ago when he first started publishing short pieces exploring all sorts of cognitive biases and the limitations of heuristic decision making. McRaney has convincingly taken on ideas like catharsis–arguing that venting only increases aggressive behavior–and the illusion of transparency–explaining that your current emotional state is not observable by others.
The topic sort of fits the zeitgeist that rewards the Gladwellization of popular non-fiction where journalists become pithy synthesizers of novelties that challenge conventional wisdom. But McRaney’s avoidance of a totalizing narrative, combined with breezy examinations of the ways in which humans are self-deluded about how approach the world, make his work enjoyable rather than polemic. I have yet to read his book by the same name that was released last year, though I’ve been listening to the companion podcast that debuted this past spring.
I’ve found the podcast to be more variable in quality than the blog, due both to occasional audio problems and variation in guests. I was particularly looking forward to episode #5 which addresses the idea of selling out with guest Andrew Potter, author of the Authenticity Hoax. While I haven’t read that book, either, I have read his previous book, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. Generally speaking, Potter pursues the thesis that the counter culture does not subvert the mainstream, instead becoming an integral part of the capitalist economy at large. In this interview, and his latest book, he extends the argument to the recent popular pursuit of authenticity, which he views as a fundamentally consumerist quest based on seeking and protecting status.
Potter is a lively guest and practiced at explaining his argument through well chosen examples, such as how going from preferring organic produce, to preferring only local organic produce and artisan goods is also the pursuit of something more exclusive, conferring status in a way not dissimilar to the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods. However, I was disappointed in McRaney’s failure to be a more critical interviewer, letting Potter glide by on some thin equivocations that were less persuasively argued. In particular I found that Potter’s line of reasoning about the artisan and locavore food movements utterly failed to address the real political and ethical motivations that underlie it.
While much digital ink has been spilled about a recent study that failed to link organic produce with better nutrition, what is missed are the greater concerns about the effects of pesticides and the effects of industrial agricultural practices on the environment and, especially, the people who work on farms and live in farming communities. I wish McRaney had pushed Potter on the validity of being concerned about the effects of daily exposure to pesticides on farm workers and agricultural communities. This real concern does not necessarily stand in opposition to the status motivations that I’m sure direct some people’s interest in organic and artisan foods. But neither does the existence of such motivations mean that there isn’t real social and environmental value in favoring organic and more humane agriculture.
Towards the end of the one-hour podcast Potter loosens up a bit and acknowledges that he’s not arguing against the practices that he analyzes. Rather, he encourages folks to try to be honest about their own motivations, and not try to greenwash what are often selfish actions. I can get on board with this idea, even if I also think it’s a convenient out for Potter, that again goes unchallenged.
At the end of each episode McRaney eats a cookie from a recipe sent in by a listener. On this episode McRaney bites into a vegan chocolate chip cookie that he rhapsodizes about as he also reviews recent news stories. While it might seem like a clever hook, I’m not really sure how the cookie recipe segment fits in; I find it tangential and pointless rather than the bit of ironic levity that appears to be intended. I think that McRaney is honing in on a pretty good podcast, but could use to step up his game as an inquisitive interviewer, rather than playing the unchallenging morning talk show host.
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