The Common Good

Grace, Magic, and Hard Work

I love this picture (left) that has been making the rounds on Facebook recently. Strangely enough the first thing this picture reminded me of was an argument that arose during a debate over Harry Potter I participated in years ago.

The church I attended decided to host a debate about Harry Potter and I represented the pro side while just about everyone else was on the “we haven’t read the books, but we have read about the books and believe The Onion article that said J.K. Rowling worships Satan” side.

Only books 1-3 were out at the time and this was during the heyday of Christian attacks on the books (long before it was obvious that the series had more Christian allegories than even the Chronicles of Narnia).

Beyond the typical objections that the books will turn children into Satan-worshipers and encourage them to disrespect authority, one mom complained that she found it inappropriate that at Hogwarts food magically appears on the table at mealtime. Her argument was that she wants her children to have a good work ethic and not to believe that anything in life is free. She wanted her girls to know that preparing meals is hard work and so would therefore be sheltering them from this absurd depiction of people getting something for nothing.

I think at the time I had to restrain myself from asking if she also banned her kids from hearing the story of the feeding on the 5,000 in Sunday school, but it was hard not to think about her objection a few months later as I read The Goblet of Fire and its subplot about house elves. As it revealed, food does not magically appear on the tables at Hogwarts, it is prepared by hardworking elves who in the wizarding world are generally kept as slaves.

House elves have been so trained to subservience that most of them believe their identity is derived from serving their wizard master. In the books, Hermione commits herself to working for rights and fair pay for house elves. Of course her efforts are ruthlessly mocked by not only her classmates at Hogwarts, but by many readers of the books who found the “rights for elves” subplot to be a silly distraction from the real story.

I know that back in 2000, thinking about the plight of the people who worked to provide me with food was not something I had ever done. Recently out of college, I was quickly learning the hard work required to make my own meals. But at the time the food I bought at the grocery store could have magically appeared on the shelves for all I knew. I might in saying grace thank God for the food and the hands that prepared it, but that never extended beyond the kitchen to those who grew the food or did the backbreaking work of picking the produce.

My perspective has changed tremendously over the past 12 years, as I now do my best to be aware of where my food comes from and the conditions faced by the workers who grow it. Sadly, the plight of the poor, mostly immigrant workers who grow our food is uncomfortably similar to that of house elves in the Harry Potter universe. Also similar is the likelihood that one will be mocked if one dares to acknowledge those workers or advocate for their rights.

Thankfully recent films like Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation have forced people to at least be aware that our food doesn’t magically appear in the grocery store and that the people who grow and process our food are generally treated poorly. But people don’t want to know about such things – because knowledge makes them feel like they may have to do something to change things.

If animals are being abused in factory farms and the immigrants who work in those places are treated like animals, it makes it difficult to sit down to enjoy a feast much less mindlessly consume the cheap food such a system produces. So food companies are helping people return to states of ignorance through expensive propaganda campaigns that while acknowledging that our food comes from somewhere do so by presenting idyllic images of family farms without a poor worker or abused animal in sight.

While the “happy cows come from California” was perhaps the most extreme example of this sort of misdirection in advertising, McDonald’s proud of our suppliers series is the most recent. If the McDonald’s ads are to be believed, their food comes from dreamlands that look deceiving similar to the average person’s idea of the pastoral landscape of heaven.

I don’t doubt that these suppliers work for McDonald’s in some fashion, but Harry Potter seems to do a better job representing reality than these ads. Countless reports reveal the harsh conditions faced by those who grow food for fast food companies, reports that places like McDonalds are now trying to undermine with these ads.

But in truth many people would rather believe the lie they’re selling than have to change their eating habits or take the unpopular path of advocating for worker’s rights. As The Meatrix shorts so brilliantly reveal, few people want to take the red pill and know the truth about where our food comes from.

A bumper sticker on my car says, “The truth will set you free but first it will make you angry.”

The McDonald’s ads are constructed to not only hide the truth, but to keep people from ever getting angry. Angry people change the world and the world doesn’t want to be changed. I agree with that mom at the Harry Potter debate, teaching our kids that food appears from some magic place (be that the grocery store or the idyllic family farm from the propaganda images) does them a disservice. Life isn’t convenient or easy despite what the fast food companies would like us to believe and problems don’t magically disappear just because we would rather not deal with them.

So when we say grace we need to extend that thanks to all those who worked hard, often with barely any pay, to bring us that food. And, like Hermione, we need to advocate for and embody change — even when it’s unpopular or difficult. But whatever we do, we need to at least embrace the truth instead of being placated with lies.

Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.

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