Berry-picking and Randian neo-liberalism

Lessons about community and isolationism — acutely felt in the age of Trump — can come from unexpected places
By Corey Mintz - Published on February 21, 2017
workers picking strawberries in a field
Seasonal farm workers pick and package strawberries in Salinas, California. (rightdx/iStock)

Watching the latest round of protectionism and isolationism is making me lose my appetite. In the United States, President Donald Trump is feeding an international humanitarian crisis, by attempting to ban large swaths of the Earth’s population, and a farm labour crisis, by threatening to deport the illegal immigrants who make up 70 per cent of the farming workforce. While overconfident or self-righteous Canadians might scoff at that short-sightedness, we are only ever one election cycle away from bigotry and self-interest — or more precisely, from selfishness combined with ignorance about what actually drives economic growth, which is immigration — defeating both the benevolence and informed policy our society needs to survive.

When did we become such jerks? Teaching children to share is a cornerstone of parenting. Without that kind of guidance, are we naturally inclined to be selfish?

I can at least relate. Because I remember feeling that way too.

At 11 years old, I’d never heard of Ayn Rand or neo-liberalism. I didn’t know what a bootstrap was or that I was supposed to pull myself up by one. So it’s hard to say what inspired me to believe that not sharing my food was a virtuous hill to die on.

What I remember is, one summer, at camp, I discovered a berry patch and refused to share it with anyone.

Camp was the best part of childhood. An escape from the city and my life, Boyd Conservation Area summer camp was as exotic to me as Narnia. Only now, looking at it on a map, do I see that it’s barely beyond the city limits. I’ve driven farther for dim sum.

But back then it was another planet, where we spent our days hiking, swimming, playing games, and studying photography, and spent our nights telling ghost stories by the campfire and trading misinformation about sex with bunkmates.

One day, strolling the grounds, I found a patch of blackberries and raspberries. Reaching into the bush, the sharp sting of a thorn took me by surprise. Undaunted, I extended my scrawny arm again, this time plucking a juicy blackberry from the plant and popping it straight into my mouth. Reeling with the explosion of flavour, I began to pick more. With nothing to carry the berries in, I left when my little hands were full.

Back at the big house where we ate and slept, a counsellor saw me gorging on berries and asked where I’d gotten them. He suggested that if I could pick enough, we might get the kitchen to bake a pie.

That afternoon, I waded back into the tangle of bushes, an empty coffee can tucked under my arm.

After picking all the berries around the perimeter, my can was barely a quarter filled. Heedless of the thorns on my skin, I pushed farther into the bush. The plant’s natural defences, like tiny teeth, nipped at my exposed arms and legs. But the deeper I got the more berries I found. Lost in the gold rush frenzy, I ignored the pain, pulling fruit from the branches until my aluminum can could hold no more.

Marching back into the house, I planted my gallon of berries on a table in the cafeteria, as proud as any warrior returning home with his enemy’s head on a spike.


The counsellor who’d suggested the pie, eyes wide with horror, rushed me to the first aid kit in the kitchen. It wasn’t until he'd held up a mirror that I saw the blood streaming from a hundred tiny cuts on my arms, legs, and face. The wounds only made me prouder, which is never a helpful emotion. The counsellor, enthused at my bounty of fresh-picked fruit, suggested that there was enough to make pie for everyone.

This was unacceptable to me. The 100 or so other kids at camp had contributed nothing to my berry score. They had not discovered the patch or laboured to extract the fruit. It was mine. By what right could anyone else decide how it be divided?

If it had to be shared with others, I declared, I wanted no part of it.

It’s hard to imagine how I’d react now, as an adult, to that level of snottiness from a child in my care. In another era, I would’ve gotten smacked. Maybe now it’s what they call a teachable moment. At the time, the counsellor shrugged, reasonably expecting that I would change my tune by suppertime.

I didn’t.

After a meal of sloppy joes or spaghetti and meatballs or some such thing, we were all treated to a slice of fresh berry pie topped with a blob of whipped cream. Someone got up and made an announcement about how I’d picked the berries. Everyone thanked me.

Stubborn to the end, I refused dessert. Like any child, I wanted the pie. At the time I thought I was standing up for a principle, one that no one in the room seemed to understand.

It wasn’t until years later that I saw my tantrum reflected in the neo-liberalist view that the market should determine the value of everything and individual self-interest should trump the needs of society as a whole. My personal exceptionalism, I believed in that moment, entitled me to the entire pie. To all of the pies. I was an explorer, a prospector, a labourer. My success was my own. The publicly owned land where I found the berries, the creative input and coffee can from the counsellor, the pie-baking labour and expertise of the chef — none of that occurred to me. Even less did I consider the well-being and happiness of my peers, the value of doing something positive for my community.

My excuse is that I was an 11-year-old dummy raised by a television set.

If Canada goes the way of the United States and the United Kingdom (with possibly France and Germany to follow), barring our doors to immigrants and telling the world, “Canada First,” will we say to our children that we didn’t know any better because we were only little kids?

Corey Mintz is a Toronto-based food writer.