You don’t often hear this kind of talk on NPR—not on “Morning Edition,” certainly. Everyone’s always so polite. So I nearly leapt out of my Lands’ End Bootie Slippers when a man with a brittle voice dropped the F-bomb in the middle of an interview with Steve Inskeep. I was listening only vaguely, but I grasped that the subject was the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, as it’s also known. (Tell me which term you use, and I’ll tell you whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican.)
“Technically, it’s more like fascism,” the man said.
Fascism? ObamaCare (as I call it)? Inskeep kept his cool, of course, as he always does, but many of my fellow NPR listeners were as rattled as I was. It turned out that the F-bombardier was a personage who should by rights be a hero to an NPR audience: John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, the nation’s largest outlet for organic produce, hormone-free beef, cageless chickens, and household cleaning products that are easy on the environment because they don’t work. Also kale.
Mackey, who was promoting a new book, found himself at the center of a whirlwind. A Facebook page was constructed to organize a Whole Foods boycott. Ed Schultz, a talk-show host on MSNBC, said Mackey’s comment was “insulting” and hauled in a journalist named Jonathan Alter to call the CEO “oblivious.” The next morning, therefore, Mackey apologized—“recanted,” in NPR’s phrase, though he made clear he still dislikes the president’s health-care reform, which he has been criticizing, off and on, since 2009.
“I think it was a bad choice of words on my part,” Mackey told Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning. But the doo-doo (composted, organic) only deepened when Mother Jones published an interview in which Mackey called global warming “natural” and “not that big a deal.”
“Stop lining the pocket of this libertarian clown and being seduced by his phony green/organic big box con job,” one boycotter exhorted his fellow Whole Foodies. “I was perhaps one of Whole Food Market’s biggest fans,” wrote another, crestfallen. “I thought I was supporting a store with an ethical compass.?.?.?.?But how do you justify patronizing a man who insults his base?”
You might wonder how anyone could take a common political opinion as a personal insult. If so, you haven’t paid attention to the evolving sensitivities of American progressivism, which is separated from real life by a no-man’s land thickly criss-crossed with ideological trip wires. One false step, and KABOOM. Not long before Mackey launched his insult, the professional golfer Phil Mickelson offended progressives by complaining about the taxes he pays as a California resident—63 percent of his income, he reckoned. He didn’t know it was an insult for a rich person, especially a golfer, to gripe about his tax bill. He learned quick enough. He was denounced not only for his greed, but also as a liar. The day after his quote was published, Mickelson issued a formal apology, then another when he met the press two days later, and still another at the end of the week. “I’ve made some dumb, dumb mistakes, and obviously this was one of them,” he said. For all I know, he’s still apologizing.
Mackey’s adventure was instructive because of the kind of capitalist he is, the kind of business he’s created. In the interests of ideological hygiene, the liberal Huffington Post has tried to alert readers to “hippie companies that aren’t as liberal as you think.” Lululemon Athletica, which specializes in pricey yoga accessories, has for years delighted its customers by adorning shopping bags with self-help aphorisms cooked up from equal parts Dale Carnegie, Abraham Maslow, and Baba Ram Dass: “Your outlook on life is a direct reflection of how much you like yourself”; “Creativity is maximized when you’re living in the moment.” When, alas, the founder and CEO revealed himself as a libertarian by stamping Lululemon’s bags with a quote from Ayn Rand (“Who is John Galt?”), the company’s website exploded with outrage from customers. “I was so shocked,” wrote one, “that I literally WALKED BACK to return this bag.” Unflattering headlines ensued. The board relieved the founder of his executive duties a few months later.
And if you think John Galt is bad, try Rick Santorum. The founder of Free People and Anthropologie—two retailers that deal in pseudo-boho, faux-funky, authentically overpriced clothes and housewares—donated nearly $15,000 to Santorum’s Senate campaigns. Free People’s founder, in other words, wasn’t an avaricious liberal but an avaricious conservative. When news of the donation leaked, the company’s board immediately issued a statement disavowing it. The owner and founder of the shoe company Toms, Blake Mycoskie, met a similar fate. Toms donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair its customers buy. What could be more progressive? Not only does this generous gesture double the amount the retailer can charge for shoes without inviting complaint, but it also greatly enhances customers’ sense of moral righteousness. Then it was disclosed that Mycoskie had once spoken at an event sponsored by Focus on the Family, a group of evangelical Christians. Customers turned their moral righteousness on him, and his apology was abject.
Mackey’s Whole Foods tops the list of non-liberal hippie companies; he is indeed the paterfamilias of them all. Business historians agree that Mackey invented the mass market for organic, “natural,” expensive food. But he did more than that: He invented the style of selling and marketing luxury goods that has been adopted by Free People, Lululemon, Toms, and other companies with a progressive image. Mackey convinced consumers that their ordinary material cravings for food or clothing or furniture could be transmuted into a spiritual exercise, an occasion for moral vanity. Something finer than mere commerce was taking place at Whole Foods. Indeed, it was conceived as an implicit repudiation of the clunky supermarkets of the 1950s and 60s, where the shelves groaned with white bread made from bleached flour and flavorless vegetables drenched in pesticides and meat pumped plump with hormones, all displayed tastelessly for the petite bourgeoisie.
Mackey’s first store, opened in Austin 30 years ago, was identical to the thousands of tumbledown health-food stores that opened in the 1970s. Those stores, I recall fondly from personal experience, were weirdly puritan enterprises; the self-righteousness was stoked by self-denial. You wanted to eat organic food, from small farms? Fine: You took what you were given. If it was rutabaga season, then it was rutabagas for you, and nothing but rutabagas, for the next three weeks, till the crop was gone and the wooden bins filled with turnips or butternut squash or something equally fibrous and unappetizing. There were trade-offs involved in being countercultural—costs beyond the premium prices.
In the fantasy that Mackey offers his customers, there are no trade-offs. A customer can have it all, any time he wants: virtuous vegetables and ethical eggs conjured up from a gauzy cloud of selfless benevolence. That all this abundance is only made possible by the raw transactions of rapacious capitalism is an uncomfortable truth kept discreetly tucked away. The overflowing shelves at Whole Foods show no taint of the corrupting commercialism that sapped the spirits of earlier generations of consumers. Here is the wealth the free market creates, with none of the free market’s vulgarity: It is the progressive dream.
Mackey knows better. For all his New Age affectations—he calls his method of moneymaking “conscious capitalism”—he is a businessman of astounding skill, playing his customers and carefully cultivating their delicate self-image. Clearly he underestimated the effect of revealing his conservative libertarianism, exposing himself as just another right-wing businessman. He disturbed the dream. He suggested that Whole Foods is a store like any other. And if the seller is ordinary, what does that say about the buyers?
Under the circumstances, an apology was the least Mackey could do. For his customers, the F-word is much less insulting than the C-word: chump.