September 19th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Fat? Blame a Hippy

I think it was something like a week or so ago that somebody told me that they'd been flipping channels on the radio and heard Rush Limbaugh blame the obesity epidemic on liberals. They were expecting outrage, or at least an eye roll, but what I said was, "Well, there's a grain of truth in that." Then they explained to me what Rush meant by it and they got their eye roll. The opium addicted "man with talent on loan from god" is still the same moron who fell, hard, for the "Microsoft is buying the Catholic church" hoax, that is to say, still as dumb as a post. (I will never in a million years understand why he was the poster child for right-wing talk radio and not any of the huge number of people they had at the time who were of at least average intelligence, let alone much smarter.) The odds that he would get something actually right are infinitesimal. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, as they say, and this time his "blame liberals for everything" knee jerk reaction fell somewhat near the mark.

It really has more to do with hippies than with liberals per se. Most hippies were, by our standards, liberal; very few liberals, even at the time, were hippies. So few people even understand what the word means, really. "Hippie" is a term coined by journalists to describe those born between roughly 1942 and 1952 (the leading edge half of the Boomer generation) who adopted the symbols, slogans, clothing, and lifestyle (including the drugs) of the true spiritual revolutionaries of the period, who called themselves the Movement or the Counter-Culture. But what separates a hippie from someone who was actually in the Movement, was actually part of the counter-culture, was that without exception the hippies were as shallow (and temporary) as a puddle on a hot day. To them it was nothing but a style, a fashion. It was a way of pretending to yourself to be rebelling against your parents on evenings and weekends without doing anything to actually change the world. And honestly, as young as the hippies were (during most of the actual period of the Movement, most of them were too young to drive, let alone vote, let alone do anything serious with their lives), they had no more effect on the politics and economics of their time than, say, teenage "wigger" suburban white hip-hop rapper-wannabe kids do now. But they didn't stay young forever. By the 1970s, we were stuck with them, and they began to flex their newfound demographic power for some of the obsessions of their youth. None of the really good or important ones, but some of the others.

The one that's relevant to the obesity epidemic was that the hippies had inherited from their Movement elders and leaders an obsession with the word "natural," as in "all natural." And so they began exercising their consumer choices, and making threats of boycotts, to insist that the products they bought were "made with all-natural ingredients." That happens to be one of the dumbest phrases in the history of the English language. What, exactly, is an "un-natural ingredient"? Okay, they meant "not artificial" -- but unless you eat the raw ingredients, whatever you make from those ingredients is by definition "artificial." That's what "artificial" means: "made." And nowhere did they win a bigger cultural victory than in their war against "artificial preservatives."

I explained elsewhere why Americans are, economically, still completely and fanatically obsessed with making food cheap and ubiquitous. I discussed this in great length, and one of the other implications of this, last Thanksgiving time in "We Didn't Used to Have Farm Policy, Per Se," "Bad Seed," and "Slaves of the Green Revolution." The short form of it is that America is a culture that has had enough famines and economic collapses, especially since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, that it is impossible to persuade any significant number of us that food will ever be plentiful enough or (especially) cheap enough. So starting in the 1940s American industry set out on a nationwide crusade, an effort fueled as much power and money and determination and manpower and desperation as went into winning World War II, to maximize our food production, and even more importantly to maximize the reach and the efficiency of our food storage and delivery system. It's sometimes called "the canned goods revolution," and there's a reason why a generation just a little older than me have such intense memories of some early canned goods like Spam. But canning is only part of the solution, can only be part of it. Not everything ends up being palatable after being canned. Not everything tolerates being boiled to be disinfected; canning things that haven't already been disinfected doesn't do much to protect them from bacteria and mold. So American chemists put as much effort into finding and mass-producing new molecules that were food-safe anti-bacterials and fungicides, and if those chemicals could also be tailored to make food stay palatable longer while in a boxcar, in a truck, and on the shelf, all the better. Food that can be stored longer without refrigeration can be transported cheaper. And it's a heck of a lot more convenient for people who need to take food with them that can survive 4 hours in the blazing sun without rotting.

But, for reasons that hardly need to be explained, the Pure Food and Drug Act requires that food processing companies label their products with everything that went into them, that meant that the hippies grew up to face store shelves where everything had fine print with jaw-breaking chemical names that sounded like something out of a mad scientist's lab. And having inherited the symbols of Counter-Culture's interest in reversing some of the destructive trends of machine civilization without really understanding them, they didn't want any of those weird chemicals in their food. Not that they were going to pay more for their food. Most of them couldn't have; the triple fiasco that was the deficit financing of the Vietnam War, the economic sanctions that were imposed on the US by Egypt and Saudi Arabia for our military assistance to Israel, and the fact that American manufacturers had grown lazy and stupid during the first 20 years after World War II when they were the only factories left in the world un-bombed and now 25 years later they were facing intense competition again, had rendered a vast swath of the country either actually poor or at least clinging desperately to the edge of that abyss.

So food processing companies learned the hard way that food had to stay as cheap and ubiquitous as the GI Generation had made it, but if they didn't want to face an all-out moral panic with accompanying ruinous legislation, they needed to do so without putting all those "weird chemicals" in the food. So, unfortunately for all of us, they found a way to comply. It was one with a history in this country, too. The reason that there's molasses in so much New England cuisine is that 17th century agriculturalists and scientists discovered that in sufficiently intense concentrations, sugar has a paradoxical effect on bacteria and mold. Small amounts of it make a great culture medium for growing them, but intense enough concentrations make great "all natural" preservatives. And during the 17th century, when New England was first being built up, the Caribbean sugar industry was producing vast quantities of molasses, a sugary syrup, as a waste product. But 20th century food scientists had something even cheaper to work with: Karo Syrup. That is to say, "naturally high-fructose corn syrup." Modern strains of corn have a fair amount of sugar in them. The Green Revolution rendered corn so cheap it's practically free. And companies turning corn into processed food were accumulating much, much more sweet-corn syrup than could possibly be sold. So when they were looking for something to replace the preservatives in our food with that wouldn't have a name that scares hippies, they settled on corn syrup.

The results of that decision are writ large on my gut and the guts of 2/3 of the people around us. More went into our obsession with sugar than that, yes; ex-Pepsi CEO John Sculley in particular should bear a lot of the blame for his discovery that there was no upper limit to how much sugared soda families would consume in one sitting if they were persuaded to buy it in larger quantities at a time, and our increasingly post-industrial lifestyle is awfully sedentary. But a substantial amount of the blame should rest on the anti-scientific, irrational obsessive crusade against "artificial preservatives," and it's entirely fair to blame hippies for that.
  • Current Music
    DJ Paulban - DJ Mix: Strings Of This Music (D I G I T A L L
  • Tags
    , ,