(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2009)
We were in Israel recently, and we went to the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, where the work continues to identify and document each individual victim of the Holocaust. There’s such immense nobility to that effort, in the insistence that each of those histories not only should but will carry continuing weight, that the imperative of not forgetting demands a scrupulous harvesting, no matter how hard it may be, of each individual loss. And it suddenly seemed so sad to me, without implying at all that the Shoah should be appropriated as a metaphor, that there’s such a grim mismatching in the world; that the scrupulous not forgetting of those fallen, and – as a wretched but instructive contrast - the (if you ask me) deranged “over-remembering” of a select few (Michael Jackson), doesn’t teach us anything about our broader responsibility. During the Michael Jackson hoopla I had a moment of disconnection and went on Google to look for how many people probably died of hunger that day. It was something approaching 15,000. We lack the capacity to acknowledge them individually, but what a global shame that we don’t even do so collectively, except in the most sporadic and token of ways.
Fat and Sick
We don’t really respect those dying people. We might say we do, but our actions make liars of us. If we respected them, we’d never tolerate such a gulf of daily pain. I’m not even talking, today anyway, about the difference in our wealth and comfort generally – let’s just stipulate for this purpose that Western prosperity, if used correctly (smart trade, smart aid, etc.) forms part of the best-hope scenario for addressing the underdeveloped world’s pain. But I am talking about food. About the fact that gluttony, indulgence, waste and inefficiency are not just inherent in but actually necessary to our food system as it’s constituted. That many of us gorge daily on volumes two, three times or even more what we need, actually making ourselves fat and sick on it, which of course just further depletes our ability and motivation to do anything more than sit around and waddle back and forth from the nearest fast food depot. Even if we think we enjoy it, what kind of pleasure rests in perpetuity on something so repetitive, so artificial, so insidiously damaging? Oh I know, in the same way we enjoy all the lame TV we’re so superior about and yet such slaves to; the same cultural slop that fills up our brains and ensures our disconnection from our enormous deterioration and self-cannibalization, so that we keep consuming, keep the stale models going, although even in our blubbery haze, we know everything just keeps getting worse.
Do I really mean “we”? Actually no – I’m not particularly part of that mechanism. But I’m just a different kind of failure then – judge for yourself whether better or worse. I avoid fast food completely in its strip mall incarnation, and I’m good at eating fruit and vegetables and controlling portion size and that kind of thing; I walk a lot and I’m nowhere close to overweight. Good for me then. But all the worse for me, because I’m not otherwise scrupulous about sourcing what I buy, I still spend way too much money in other kinds of restaurants relative to my needs, and I lack any kind of activism. But then, that’s the big black hole of our age, how to effect change in a way that’s other than marginal, that isn’t primarily about quieting your conscience (I know every journey begins with a single step, but a bunch of disconnected single steps don’t amount to a journey, and that’s all we seem capable of now).
So often currently, we hear that we can’t keep doing things the same way, that we have to change, become more conscientious, over and over. Then the policy wheels turn exactly in the same way, and anyone who seriously proposes even modestly suitable change is (successfully) pilloried as rapacious, unpatriotic, socialistic, etc. So, for example, eating better, and actual tangible steps to support that, couldn’t possibly be successfully sold at present as a fundamental plank of social reform, whereas a costly tax credit/spending spree to guard against some remote (but media-friendly) neurotic risk certainly could be. Just as obsessing about a dead pop star – the epitome of wasting time about nothing – gets positioned as the most globally significant task available (and, in a feat of brilliant disingenuousness, as something that somehow unites us in a common experience, as if, you know, collectively destroying the planet wasn’t already enough unity).
I didn’t go to see Robert Kenner’s documentary Food Inc. for a few weeks, because I expected it would just chime with my pre-existing views and make me mad, and so it did. Drawn partly from the same well as Fast Food Nation (author Eric Schlosser is one of the producers here), it moves meticulously through all the key pieces of the chain, focusing in particular how the fast food industry’s demands for predictable cost and quality spawned a huge industrialization and consolidation of production, aided by ridiculous government incentives and deregulation. The use of sample individuals to illustrate a broader point is often problematic in general, but Kenner really nails it here with one Latino family, endlessly filling up on dollar meals because they can’t afford anything else (substantiated through a visit to the local supermarket), with a family diabetes problem which eats up their money for medication and thus increases their reliance on crap. The proliferation of diabetes in younger people is one of the things I’d vaguely known about but not focused on too much before seeing the film; again, it just leaves you empty and miserable that it’s presumably impossible to have an appropriate policy debate on this.
Although the movie should infuriate most progressive-minded viewers (try reading Roger Ebert’s review), Kenner doesn’t stoke the pot as much as he could, and his movie (at a tidy hour and a half or so) might be one of the few that could actually have been longer. Among other things, there’s very little material about foreign countries (beyond a brief acknowledgement of how grotesque American crop subsidization murders the small overseas producer), and although I’m not much of a Michael Moore admirer, I wouldn’t have minded seeing some Moore-type guerilla tactics against the enabling politicians. But of course, those kinds of caveats hardly matter here. The movie ends with an Inconvenient Truth-type rundown of small steps available to the viewer, but although I suppose the climate change issue is objectively even more difficult, Kenner’s list actually seemed to me more hopeless: the economic perversions he depicts will surely only take on strength in a recession. And while I suppose we might be forgiven for not initially being equal to ecosystem-wide issues, I don’t know what word or phrase to use for our lost relationship with our own food, with what should be the most basic element of living and self-respect. Pathetic? Degraded? Maybe just utterly lost.