Jacob Chansley, also known as Jake Angeli, became the (painted) face of the invasion of the US Capitol. His furred and horned hat, bare tattooed chest and claims to be the ‘shaman’ or priest of the alt-right QAnon cult put him on the front-page of newspapers around the world – and very soon in prison. Where he promptly caused another controversy. Chansley refused to eat until given organic food, with his mother claiming he would fall sick on a regular diet. He duly got organic meals, to the outrage of prisoners’ rights activists, who pointed to how requests for special diets for regular inmates, such as halal food for Muslims, were routinely denied. Chansley’s request also confused organic food advocates who see the movement as part of the progressive, environmentally conscious Left. Wouldn’t an alt-right activist be more likely to share their idol Donald Trump’s love for greasy, high calorie, meat focussed fast food, rather than chemical free and sustainably sourced food? Opponents of organic food also gleefully wondered if this would end illusions about its benefits. But Chansley’s food choice should not be surprising. On one hand it represents how mainstream organic food has become, an obvious choice for anyone concerned with their health. It also represents a deeper historic connection between a movement for traditional food production that places huge value on the health of the soil and a politics built on an imagined traditional way of life which places huge value on the homeland. Gregory A. Barton’s The Global History of Organic Farming links the two through ‘agrarianism’, a concept he traces, in the West, back to the Romans: “Agrarian advocates argued that living on the land produced rugged and virtuous individuals and that corrupt elites in cities bought off the rootless and poor with food handouts and debased entertainments.” He notes a repeated theme in literature of the idyllic village as opposed to the dismal city – a familiar theme in Bollywood – which built the idea of the land as a source of purity and strength. What made this personal for people was health. Cities were seen as unhealthy, especially post the uncontrolled urbanisation of the Industrial Revolution, and the food available also seemed bad, not least because it passed through so many people before reaching the consumer. The countryside was healthier and being close to farms made food relatively cheap, abundant and good quality. But in the late 19th century this started changing, as large-scale farming grew with the invention of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the promotion of single, high-yield crops rather than the lower yield mixed crops of the past. This was justified as a need to feed cities – but could also be seen as the perversion of farming by industrial techniques and subjugating rural interests to urban ones. The political movements that responded to this change included both a belief in the purity of the land and opposition to industrialisation. These held the seeds of both fascism, with its idealisation of the land in an imagined past, and environmentalism, with its plea for conserving the land as it was now. The two mingled many times, as in Germany where a widespread ‘back to nature’ movement was easily co-opted by the Nazis. Another catalyst for their combination was Albert Howard, a British agricultural scientist working in India. He saw that the crops that farmers grew in traditional ways were often healthier than those grown by the modern methods he was meant to be promoting, and that lead him to conclude that unthinking use of fertilizers and pesticides was actually degrading the health of the soil. Through his work in India he formulated the principles of organic farming – and gave people a way to link tradition, health and a belief in the sacredness of the land. Howard wasn’t interested in politics, but many of the people attracted to his ideas were. Not all were fascists, but a significant number were and, while many would modify their views during World War II, it was often to divert it into other streams of alternative thinking – for example, the idea that vaccines attacked the purity of the body. These views would later be taken up by people completely unaware of their links to fascist thinking, but in time some would find their way back to that connection. None of this means that ideas like organic farming, holistic medicine, the value of rural life or, for that matter, simple patriotism are wrong. They all have their value, but the problem arises when opportunistic leaders pervert them to support ideas of purity and, its obverse, the rejection of groups of people deemed impure. And then to use this warped idea of purity to lead impressionable people down the path that Chansley took.
Read more: economictimes.indiatimes.com