Saturday, July 21, 2012

Political unreality and cultural denial

I've been thinking a lot about the reality of what America is, as opposed to the keyword-laced marketing jargon that presents an idealized America that may have been largely fictitious even at the time when it was much more ethically and morally righteous than it is now.

I have come to the conclusion that both the America sold by the G.O.P. and FOX News, and the America sold by the President, are differently but equally dissatisfying. The America presented by the former is more anxiety-inducing and dangerous than the real thing, encourages us all to seek our safety in corporately-provided things and services instead of real bonds with other human beings, and pretends that returning America to 'greatness' is just a matter of fine-tuning a marketing campaign. The America presented by the latter is a fallen land with great promise, where hard truths are proverbial roosting chickens and piping pipers, and the only way to redeem it is to sacrifice more, do with less, and work harder than the modern American mythos (a largely corporate creation) has led us to believe is our birthright.

Whether by reason or intuition, Americans across the political spectrum are left wanting by both versions of this American vision. America is in denial about its fall from the status of a 'great' nation to one who is merely economically and militarily 'mighty', and few of its citizens have the stomach to do what's necessary to bring about a renaissance back to greatness.

Such a renaissance would involve a willingness to sacrifice our current misconception of 'greatness', along with its creators, and return to a path steered according to a justice, ethics and morality cleansed of cynical profit motives. The corporations, whose lies and marketing spin are daily echoed in every well-funded media outlet and careerist political mouth, have to go. They swear no allegiance to this or any other country. They put their profits as far from the reach of just taxation as they can, thereby starving the infrastructure that gave them their start and charter. They regularly aid and abet our enemies, making them traitors to the country which has so recently seen fit to give them as much – if not more – political power than any flesh-and-blood citizen. It's us or them.

As long as corporations are both the funders of political campaigns, and the providers of a media voice for the players in those campaigns, we have no hope of seeing true public servants in office. How would I or any other well-meaning citizen of modest means have any chance of getting into public office? Why would I want to, when all I could look forward to was which corporate master I would serve, and how loud the lies I would have to say to gain favor in those eyes?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sex != Gender: a contemplation on misplaced questions

This is a somewhat meandering response and contemplation on an article in "The Atlantic Wire" from July 13, 2012, entitled "A Debate About Manliness: Too Little, Too Weak".

I have two initial thoughts here, speaking as a middle-aged, college-educated white male of the 22nd economic percentile, who minored in Women's Studies, and who (with full collaboration of the equally feminist woman he has loved for the last 8 years) has sorted a lot of the wheat from the chaff of Second Wave Feminism:

First, whether we employ the dipoles 'manly' and 'womanly', or 'masculine' and 'feminine', any one of those words require that we submit to a concept that exists nowhere in reality. No human being can be any one of those *enough* to fulfill the definition. In practice, the ones women are saddled with align closely to whether they will submit to the tasks of reproduction and child-rearing, while the ones for men are mainly about a socially-constructed (meaning here, 'an abstraction meaningful only in its social significance') framework that involves acting in a manner that won't make *other men* doubt *their* manly credentials.

Which brings me to my second thought: while we may consider our society in some broad sense to be 'post-feminist' - which assumes a fallacy that all the thrashing about of Gloria Steinem-era feminism had been put irrefutably behind us - there's still a fundamental that bites at our heels. This is simply that the culturally-accepted male continues to be judged by his willingness – indeed, zeal – to repudiate whatever culturally-accepted women 'are'. Why do the cultural standard-bearers have it in for the 'metrosexual'? He's suspect; he rides the line of being some aspects of whatever women 'are'.

(Why is it desirable for women to seek what men have, but unacceptable reversed? It's about power, as the whole patriarchal ball-o-wax has been for a long time. I won't get into the causes and origins here, as they remain hotly contested, but suffice it to say that men have been calling the shots in most human groupings for at least several thousand years. Precedent shows us that men who give away their power or allow it to be taken from them are not as 'manly' as those who defend their power and do the taking. The 'losers' are vulnerable and potentially unable to defend themselves. They can't be counted on in a pinch. Following this logic through, they are a danger to the group and it's continued safety, which is a code-word for power accrued and retained.)

What we have in these gender discussions circles about, but refuses to land on, a dichotomy. That is the old animal-versus-not-animal conundrum of human existence. As animals, men and women want what makes them want to fuck like rabbits: pheromones and the otherness of secondary sex characteristics. (Remember: we didn't always have language...) Soft/Hard. Curves/Muscles. Inny/Outty. Yin/Yang. Each wants the other to smell right and bear the hallmarks that define the healthy end of the gene pool.

Now let's get the frontal lobes involved, and everything gets complicated. People are stinky, and lots of people close together are way more pheromones than the ol' hindbrain can figger. Either we all fuck like rabbits, or we make that damned reek go away! Oh, but then, when all the rest are gone, I can't smell you anymore. Now she smells like talc and panty liners and 'feminine sprays', and he smells like Old Spice or Axe or shaving gel. At the very least, we all smell like shampoo and soap and our hopefully inoffensive antiperspirants. Sniff sniff. "Where'd everybody go?", asks the hindbrain.

One's 'sex' is the essence of what the animal in each of us is looking for. These things are concrete and tangible. They make the right neurons fire. They prepare the actors for the play. One's 'gender' is the frontal lobes layering on a thick mess of language and meaning and groupthink. It's abstract and mostly about not being seen as a threat to others. A man who can't fight or fend for himself? Outta here! A woman who won't do her part to maintain or further the group's population? Outta here!

This dissonance between sex and gender is the confusion at the heart of questions about not only the aforementioned dipoles, but discussions about alternative lifestyles across the board. If a man who cares about his appearance is suspicious, then what of the men and women who won't even act like proper animals?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

'Food Product' - the toxic confluence of Capitalism and Addiction

As a family, and mostly through T.'s continuing and exhaustive search for a 'magic bullet' to explain why some foods outside the list of known-allergens cause a huge spike in depression or anxiety in her and the boys, we have learned a ton about the action of glutamates in the human body. This is as close as we've ever come to a unified picture of where food and mental illness come together.

So, a couple of days ago we were driving to the store to get groceries, and our conversation wandered in its nomadic seminar tendency to some of these discoveries, and how Americans deal with food in a psycho-social sense. I came up with a general theory that goes a long ways in explaining why Americans have either actively promoted, or passively allowed, their food supply to become more poison than nutrition. It's all based in the confluence of capitalism and addiction.

Food production is a for-profit enterprise, and the bottom line is maximizing the profit margin, not the health of those who eat the food.

When food is largely for-profit, making it as cheaply as possible and maximizing shelf-life are paramount, as healthy ingredients and spoilage reduce the profit margin.

American culture, with its emphasis on speed and productivity, promotes stress and anxiety, and one of the primary self-soothing habits of Americans is to eat and drink. In a culture where stress and anxiety are omnipresent, self-soothing behaviors must be constantly available.

As a society, Americans are subject to vanity, guilt and related self-loathing when it comes to food consumption and body image, which leads us to seek even more self-soothing, the health impacts of which are exacerbated by turning to the least food-like 'food products': diet foods and diet drinks.

Foods made from natural ingredients like raw sugars, whole grains, and unrefined fats trigger reactions in the body that make them repulsive or disgusting once a certain threshold of satiation has been reached.

At the same time, Americans grow up on a cultural range of foods that emphasize sweetness and a smooth, creamy mouth-feel. We also place high value on the mouth-watering taste known as 'umami'.

Ergo, it makes economic, cultural and psychological sense to create foods that combine all of these factors: make food that is as inexpensive as possible; has a long shelf-life; maintains its desired form over long periods; is sweet and savory; has a smooth, creamy consistency; and can be eaten or drunk constantly, without the inconvenient reactions of the body to 'too much', or our own psyches to things perceived as fattening.

In order to achieve this list of desired traits, the food industry reduces raw food ingredients to a range of chemical substances through processing, and then recombines those substances into 'food product' that bears the necessary hallmarks. Sugar is replaced by corn syrup or non-digestable fake-sugars, for which the human body has no threshold response. Fats are replaced by a variety of highly-processed oils, emulsifiers, gums and extracts, again for which the human body has no threshold reaction. Extra salt and umami-creating 'natural flavors' are added. Expensive ingredients like whole grain flours and meat are supplemented or supplanted by plentiful, cheap (partially due to taxpayer-funded government subsidies), components of corn and soy. Additional stabilizers and anti-spoilage chemistry are added so that food, which would normally separate or spoil within days or weeks of production, can be warehoused, shipped and sold for months to years after it was produced.

The difficulty with this equation is that this form of 'food product' makes it easy to overeat, aggravates conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, and has a dramatic effect on brain chemistry, introducing huge amounts of unbound glutamates, which are converted to glutamic acid in the brain. Put simply, glutamic acid is the substance that excites or 'turns on' neurons, and in people with a wide range of conditions rooted in neurochemical imbalance, these neurons don't get turned back off. This leads to a brain-damaging state called 'excitotoxicity'.

This is to say nothing of the often veiled or outright denied adverse effects of fake-sugars, hydrogenated oils, phytoestrogens in soy and food ingredients so chemically reduced as to trigger the body to treat them as allergens instead of nutrients.

What I think is truly distressing is that even the best sources of supposedly alternative and healthy foods operate according to these same principles. Try to find an artisan bakery in Seattle that doesn't use enriched wheat flour as the base of all their breads. 'Enriched' means grains taken apart and put back together again through processing, combined with vitamins chemically-derived from who-knows-what. In these cases, whether it's organic or not is frequently irrelevant. Organic ingredients sliced and diced in a lab are just as toxic coming out the other side as conventionally grown 'agribusiness' ingredients.

Go to Costco or Safeway, Whole Foods and your local co-op, and compare the ingredients list of most boxed, prepared foods. While you'll see a reduction in the most egregious offenders like hydrogenated oils and MSG as you move across that spectrum, most of these foods are produced according to the same concepts of least expensive ingredients and long shelf-lives. You'll actually see a higher prevalance of non-sequiturs like 'organic soy' at the co-ops than anywhere else.

The only alternative left to those unduly impacted by food allergens or having a high sensitivity to glutamates (recent research is increasingly discovering a huge overlap between the two groups) is to make all of one's food from scratch. This has many benefits beyond simply providing healthy, nutritious food, but it means living a life alienated from the larger society. No more going out for meals at restaurants with friends. No more visits to the local pub with work buddies. In the end, it means refocusing one's view of food in American society as poisonous until proven otherwise. That is a sad state of affairs in a country with as much prosperity and as many alternatives as we are led to believe exist.