Walking Past the White House: Lady, Quite Contrary, How Does Your Garden Grow?

by Maniza Naqvi

White-House-Kitchen-Garden-Fall-Harvest-First-Lady-Michelle-ObamaA woman, her cart of belongings next to her, sits on a park bench, feeding the pigeons, squirrels and ducks. She throws bread crumbs to them, and calls out in a voice, cured by cigarettes and gin: “Have a nice day working for the war! You know we all work for the war! Even these pigeons are eating off the war!” She must be seventy, she wears a string of pearls, a checkered white and blue gingham dress, her eyes are bright blue, her hair silver and long, her skin tanned and weathered. I stare at her, for a moment I think I know her and then I move on.

In front of the White House, another diaspora pleads and protests against a repressive regime, as if the White House were a temple, for such things. Helmeted curious tourists whoosh by on their Segways. A few days earlier, it was the Egyptian diaspora, here, demanding that the White House recognize the ouster of Morsi's government by the military as a coup d'etat. But this prime temple, the White House, has maintained a monumental Sphinx like silence on this term, surrounded as it is, perhaps, by so many edifices to Generals. Now over one thousand Egyptian protesters are dead at the hands of their military. Who manufactured the bullets, guns and gas? But there are balls and chains that stop the White House from breaking with its tradition of supporting the military in Egypt—weapons sales from US companies based on vouchers considered as aid to Egypt. This is the way the world is organized, trapped like insects in honey, unable to resist the viscosity of an elaborate system of commerce, war and aid: vouchers as aid to militaries overseas to purchase from the weapons industry —and subsidies to the food industry for surplus maize as aid to the impoverished citizenry of those places overseas.

I look at the sculpture of General Lafayette at the Southeast corner of the park, at whose base a statue of a woman, half crawling half naked, reaches up to him to hand him a sword: Lady Liberty, I presume.

Even so, there is another protest—a monumental piece de resistance —in fact, an act of supreme resistance installed, quite literally, in its own back yard.

There, in the White House's lawn—garden—flourishes a simple and subversive act, of civil disobedience, put into place by Michele Obama. It strikes at the roots—at the root causes of deep violence to the body and to the body politics, a true idea of change coded in so many ways. It is the garden in the back of the White House—the vegetable garden—that this lady, quite contrary grows. Hearsay has it that in the inner cities of America, poor people have been stopped from growing food and vegetables in their back yards and with no other recourse but fast food and processed store bought groceries. That the police actually could raid your back yard and destroy your harvest in the name of preserving your health and security. But Mrs. Obama grows vegetables in the nation's first house's backyard. Who does this act of Mrs. Obama benefit and who does it destroy? (on Food Aid here and here and on Monsanto here) The message she sends is powerful, connect with nature, question what you eat and who grows it and how. Work the land, grow organic food, grow locally, grow and eat your own food. The message hits the system of processing and the genetically modified food industry right at its core. And indeed in the last four years a change in America is perceptible (here).

An abundance of expensive hand wringing humanitarian and development conferences crop up every year to discuss the logistics of international procurement of food to people starving in Africa. Every time, if and when questions are raised about the numbers of people actually starving, or the availability of locally grown food commodities, or local transport—it seems that the people who have been in the business of providing food aid for decades are vague and have no clear answers. But they do know with much precision, the prices and details for the shipping, trucking, international commodities, salary structures for international staff, home rentals for international staff, consultants and relief workers and the total price tags on what the whole imported kit and caboodle show would cost. Exports and imports of food aid are big business involving US maize farmers, truckers, shippers, port workers, logistics agents and so much more.

Young women, Ethiopian, behind the grocery counters at the shops, ring up the abundant food purchases of customers in this town, including exotic things, such as tej or quinoa so popular now in America and in such short supply in Ethiopia and Bolivia where Pepsi and Coke products through aggressive advertising and marketing are made to be believed as progress and better and nutritious.

The most common ingredient in processed food pushed in American and now overseas like an addictive drug is the obesity and diabetes creating corn syrup. Made from maize, the surplus production of it goes all the way to Ethiopia as food aid. People are being kept in famine thousands of miles away to keep Americans fat and addicted here. The fat and the famished are consequences of the corporatized assembly line production of industrialized food. Subsidized maize surplus production bought back from farmers as food aid to Africa and Asia-which subverts the incentives for agriculture production there. Such is the politics, the geography, the calculus, the gross tragedy, the violence, the crime against humanity, of food aid. And Mrs. Obama's garden is the single graceful real act of standing against it—in this town, because the legislation like most initiated here has failed to go anywhere.

Farmers in the US continue to be subsidized for all food they produce: the maize that we drink and eat as corn syrup and the corn which fattens the beef which in turn fattens us. They continue to produce surpluses of corn—which are bought from them by the government—and sent overseas as food aid involving logistics of thousands of costly processes, planning, people, storage facilities, trucks, ships and then again the same type of logistics once the food arrives in the country of “starving people”. A whole humanitarian relief industry thrives on this. These “starving people” around the world are farmers, farmers who cannot grow enough food because they don't have enough equipment or cannot compete in the local market with their grain because it is flooded with “food aid”. These “starving people” cannot sell their agriculture products because of the agriculture subsidies and tariffs offered to American and European farmers. Subsidies which, can't be removed and food aid which seemingly can't be stopped. And all those involved in the business of food aid—it's in their interest to continue to shout drought—famine—because it is a business, a very lucrative business of producing, procuring and transporting mainly maize from tens of thousands of miles away in hard currency instead of lifting it from farmers locally, from a surplus farm area to be sent a few miles down the road to where the crops may have failed this season. Many reasons and excuses are made for why this has to be. There are powerful lobbies that get in the way who resist change and in who's interest it is to scream famine. Just like the powerful lobby in who's interest it is to scream terrorism and war.

Yet, quietly Mrs. Obama's vegetable garden grows, transmitting a signal of fundamental change in a place that stays the same. And ever since she has been working on her garden, in the back yard of the White House, there has been on the other side of it across from Lafayette Park—a farmers market which springs up every Thursday right there on the street in between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Export and Import Bank selling products from honey to honeydew. Sweet. Today, being Thursday, I stop at the stall of a Mennonite family of farmers from Pennsylvania who seem from another time–the past–or perhaps, the future—I stop to buy jars of honey from them. As I talk to a male member of the family, the women stay at the back of the stall, they are dressed in their ankle length dresses and head covers. Then walking on, I give one of the jars to a bespectacled gentleman with white dreadlocks who is wearing only denim shorts, who sits at this time of the day on a bench in the park reading a newspaper and bidding passersby on their way to work, to enjoy their day.

Walking Past the White House:

Andrew Jackson and the Deadness of Generals

The Same Garden

Military Instruction

Contractual Arrangements