Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 15, 2014

Karl Marx and hunting animals

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology,farming,food — louisproyect @ 4:18 pm

Of the three magazines that brandish “Review of Books” in their title, Los Angeles’s (http://lareviewofbooks.org/) leads the pack, at least from the standpoint of serving as a critic of capitalist society. In an epoch of imperial decay, that’s the most important criterion after all. At the bottom of the pile is New York’s (http://www.nybooks.com/), a publication that was pretty edgy in its early days, to the point of publishing Noam Chomsky and putting a David Levine drawing of a Molotov cocktail on the front page. Nowadays it is a snoozefest for elderly professionals, the print counterpart to PBS. In the center of the pack is the London Review of Books (http://www.lrb.co.uk/), a journal that was distinguished by a takedown of Christopher Hitchens that was both laugh out loud and politically cogent. While it still is a source of trenchant social criticism, the LRB has a blind spot on Syria, offering its readers Seymour Hersh’s conspiracy theories about rebels gassing their families. It was up to the good people at the LARB to publish Muhammad Idrees Ahmed’s devastating critique of Hersh, a sign that it was not in thrall to pack journalism.

In the most recent issue of LARB, there’s an article by Jedediah Purdy titled “Killing It” that is accompanied by a drawing of an aproned Karl Marx holding up a bleeding chicken in one hand and a butcher’s knife in the other. With such an image, it is no surprise that the article claims:

Writing 20 years before the first volume of Das Kapital appeared, Marx imagined desultory killing as one of the joys of human liberation. In a passage that became a touchstone for parts of the 1960’s New Left, he urged that a free person should be able to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner […] without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” This was the ideal of unalienated labor, spontaneous and expressive, exercising all human powers without ever turning the worker into the tool of her task.

To start with, I am not sure how much of a grasp that Purdy has of the 1960s New Left since he was born in 1974. In fact the New Left—strictly speaking—was much more into Marcuse than Marx.

Furthermore, like most people with a casual interest in Marx no matter their academic credentials, Purdy leaves out the rest of Marx’s sentence that can be found in the German Ideology:

He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

In other words, Marx was not writing a paean to killing animals but rather making an observation about how a future communist society would allow the full development of human beings rather than the current state that forces them into limited economic roles. Indeed, rearing cattle is not exactly what most people would choose to do on a vacation as opposed to recreational hunting or fishing.

Jedediah Purdy, by David Levine in the NY Review of Books

Just a few words about Jedediah Purdy. He is a law professor at Duke University, where misinterpretations of Karl Marx are rampant even if well-intentioned. A cursory look at Michael Hardt’s oeuvre should bear that out.

If Zizek, another celebrity given to misinterpretations of Marx, is the Elvis super-star of Marxism, Jedediah Purdy basks in the glow of being rather super himself. An article in the April 10, 2006 Washington Post refers to him as “A Super-Scholar, All Grown Up and Still Theorizing”. A portrait of a wunderkind emerges:

When we reached him, Jedediah Purdy, now 31, was in his office at Duke University’s law school where he is an assistant professor, counseling a student in the throes of the seemingly inevitable “first year of law school crisis.” In his mid-twenties, though, Purdy was one of Washington’s intellectual darlings: ensconced at the New America Foundation — a think tank that bills itself as featuring “exceptionally promising new voices” — and named by Esquire magazine as one of the nation’s “best and brightest.”

Ensconced at the New America Foundation, Purdy made sure that nobody would confuse him with some kind of bomb-throwing anarchist: “Just let me echo about five million other progressives and say, Bring us someone who can do every night for a year what Barack Obama did in his keynote address to the DNC.”

Turning our attention now to Purdy’s “Killing It”, we learn that it is a contribution to the ongoing discussion about the “food movement”, for lack of a better term, that includes Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman at its helm. Purdy notes that Pollan went out hunting wild pigs with a .290 rifle and was pleased to have bagged a 190-pound creature.

In something that amounts to a sleight of hand, Purdy makes Karl Marx into a 19th century precursor of Michael Pollan as if communism, hunting and meat-eating were part of the same overall project of human emancipation:

Doing violence seems to force the doer either to celebrate it or to recoil in a futile effort to get the feeling out of one’s own nerves. Without much warrant, I suspect all of this informs the idea behind many ritual sacrifices: that the priests, or the community, either take the power of the animal into themselves or expel its pollution. Either way, the transaction is intimate, metabolic: the killer comes right up against the “specific expression” of life and powers that Marx was after.

Frankly, I doubt that bagging a wild pig with a .290 rifle is what “Marx was after”. Purdy, who grew up and was home-schooled in rural West Virginia, was into hunting as a youth. I suspect that he is capitalizing once again on his “good old boy” credentials that clearly sets him apart from the other faculty members at Duke who if given a choice would prefer tofu to shooting a wild animal.

The shortcomings to Purdy’s approach can be more obvious when you have a look at a scholarly article he wrote titled “Our Place in the World: a New Relationship for Environmental Ethics and Law”. It’s main concern was to identify some kind of ethical basis for the proper treatment of animals within the overall need for reproducing our species:

These situations—we can take the factory farm as just one example—are thoroughly artificial: we made them. We create and control the suffering of animals in these settings, and that fact is the prompt for ethical reflection. To call whatever we do to these animals “natural” would be to give up on ethical reflection altogether; and to imagine that reflecting on our own behavior must mean condemning lions and predatory insects would be far too quick and casual.

While I think that the ethical treatment of animals is fundamental and that both factory farming and hunting both involve unnecessary cruelty, there are more important issues for Marxists and even people like Jedediah Purdy. (In terms of hunting, since Purdy invokes the example of American Indians, perhaps the only “ethical” way to kill animals is with a bow and arrow since this puts hunter and hunted on a more equal footing.)

The real issue is how humanity can survive, something that the food movement barely recognizes, nor for that matter law professors with a smattering of Marxism under their belt. In my review of a rather good documentary titled “Food Inc.” that was based to a large degree on Pollan’s writings, I noted:

Although I strongly urge my readers to see this movie, I do feel obligated to offer some criticisms that get to the heart of my differences with Schlosser and Pollan, no matter how much I applaud their work. A significant part of the movie is devoted to an examination of Stonyfield yogurt, a product that is always in my refrigerator especially since yogurt is a staple of the Turkish dishes I enjoy preparing. The CEO of Stonyfield is one Gary Hirshberg who is seen conferring with Walmart representatives who were about to introduce his products to their vile stores. Hirshfield justifies dealing with Walmart because he believes that there is no alternative to capitalism, even though he doesn’t quite use those words. If we are going to make wholesome food grown in conditions respectful to the environment and to animals, you need retailers like Walmart to make the organic sector grow.

The press notes for “Food, Inc.” quotes Walmart on this score:

“Actually, it’s a pretty easy decision to try to support things like organics or whatever it might be based on what the consumer wants. We see that and we react to it. If it’s clear that the customer wants it, it’s really easy to get behind it and to push forward and try to make that happen.”

– Tony Airosa, chief dairy purchaser for the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, which recently began carrying organically-produced food in its store. Wal-Mart has since stopped carrying milk containing growth hormone.

In my view, it is utopian to think that the factory food system will be transformed incrementally in this fashion. The Monsantos, Purdues, Tysons and Smithfields of this world are not going to be displaced by organic farming for the simple reason that they were produced by the forces of production that have taken a century to mature. American society is under enormous pressure to compete with other capitalist powers in an epoch of stagnating profits. As such, factory farming is geared to the economic imperatives of a nation that is being forced to attack the living standards of workers and farmers alike.

If any evidence of the bankruptcy of the system is needed, as well as its talent for self-deception, you can start with the White House itself—a symbol of American corporate power and its strategy for continued world domination.

When Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn, Michael Pollan hailed the move in the Huffington Post:

Perhaps the most encouraging action so far has come from the East Wing, where Michelle Obama has been speaking out about the importance of real, fresh food, home cooking and gardening. By planting an organic garden on the White House lawn, she launched a thousand victory gardens (vegetables seed is suddenly in short supply), gave conniptions to the pesticide industry (which wrote urging her to use some of their “crop protection products” whether she needed them or not), and at a stroke raised the profile and prestige of real food in America.

He also was encouraged by Obama’s appointments:

Tom Vilsack has sounded a welcome new note at the Department of Agriculture, where he has appointed a proven reformer — Kathleen Merrigan — as his deputy, and emphasized his commitment to sustainability, local food systems (including urban agriculture); putting nutrition at the heart of the department’s nutrition programs (not as obvious as it might sound), and enlisting farmers in the fight against climate change. He has been meeting with the kinds of activists and farmers who in past administrations stood on the steps of the USDA holding protest signs.

I wonder if Michael Pollan watched the movie he appeared in, since Monsanto was rightfully pilloried as using its control over genetically modified soybean seeds as a way of maintaining a monopoly over farmers, who once had the right to reuse seeds. (Monsanto patented the seeds and sues any farmer its detectives find in violation.)

In the final analysis, we need a socialist movement, not a food movement. In Marx’s Communist Manifesto, there is a call for overcoming the breach between city and countryside: “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.” Unless this is accomplished, the conditions for sustainable food production will diminish to the point of no return. It is not too hard to imagine that in a more rational human social environment, animals will be raised in humane conditions and only be turned into produce under the strictest and most humane conditions, which will almost certainly not entail bullets from a high-powered rifle equipped with a scope. Furthermore, by that point in our social evolution, we may have learned that beans cooked properly taste a whole lot better. I’ve had steak and I’ve had Indian dals. And if I had to choose a last meal, it would be a dal.

January 6, 2014

The New York Times’s free advertisement for genetically modified crops

Filed under: Ecology,farming,food,journalism — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

University of Hawaii officers hold up Monsanto gift–no strings attached, of course

I am not sure when I began reading the N.Y. Times on daily basis but it must have been just after I graduated Bard College in 1965 and moved to New York City. So addicted I became to the paper that I had recurring bad dreams a few years ago about waking up much later than usual on a Sunday morning and desperately searching newsstands for a copy of the Sunday Times to no avail. In all the years I have been reading the paper, I have never run into a more biased and misleading article than the one that appeared yesterday—a Sunday—under the title “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” by Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter Amy Harmon. This 5442-word article reads as if someone working for Monsanto wrote it. Harmon, like Clifford Krause who is a shameless propagandist for fracking in the paper’s business section, is clearly an industry spokesperson. Her sordid record is worth examining, as is the question of genetic modification itself that she practically likens to global warming denialism or creationism as this excerpt bears out:

Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.

“These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill. “It hurts.”

A number of the pro-GM scientists Harmon refers to are at the University of Hawaii. From the university’s newspaper:

The College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa received $500,000 from Monsanto Company to establish the Monsanto Research Fellows Fund. The fund will assist graduate students pursuing a masters or PhD degree and post doctoral researchers at the college related to the study of plant science and protection.

 “We are very grateful to Monsanto Company for its generous financial support of CTAHR students engaged in agricultural research – Hawai‘i’s future leaders of sustainable industries and a strong, diversified economy,” said UH Mānoa Chancellor Virginia S. Hinshaw.

Harmon dismisses the idea that the contribution might have an influence on the school by quoting an administration figure that said that the money is only one percent of the school’s budget.

This question of corporate ties to pro-GM scientists is a sensitive one since Monsanto and other such firms have such a shitty reputation. Harmon cites a blog that supports her case:

“Just as many on the political right discount the broad scientific consensus that human activities contribute to global warming, many progressive advocacy groups disregard, reject or ignore the decades of scientific studies demonstrating the safety and wide-reaching benefits” of genetically engineered crops, Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, wrote on the blog of the nonprofit Biology Fortified.

If you go to Biology Fortified, you will get these assurances on their financial information page:

The site hosting costs of Biology Fortified, Inc. (BFI) were initially footed by the founding editors, and currently the majority of financial support for these overhead costs comes from individual personal donations. BFI is not supported by any companies, government entities, or political parties.

Now I don’t know if Pamela Ronald says the things she says because Monsanto is paying her under the table, but one has to wonder about the journalistic integrity of Amy Harmon by accepting Ronald’s word at face value in light of the reporting on her work at Independent Science News just six weeks before Harmon’s article appeared. Does the N.Y. Times care that Harmon was trawling through the garbage for support? Apparently not. In the article titled “Can the Scientific Reputation of Pamela Ronald, Public Face of GMOs, Be Salvaged?”, we discover:

Did Pamela Ronald jump, or was she pushed?

In fact, scientific doubts had been raised about Ronald-authored publications at least as far back as August 2012. In that month Ronald and co-authors responded in the scientific journal The Plant Cell to a critique from a German group. The German researchers had been unable to repeat Ronald’s discoveries in a third Ax21 paper (Danna et al 2011) and they suggested as a likely reason that her samples were contaminated (Mueller et al 2012).

Furthermore, the German paper also asserted that, for a theoretical reason (3), her group’s claims were inherently unlikely.

In conclusion, the German group wrote:

“While inadvertent contamination is a possible explanation, we cannot finally explain the obvious discrepancies to the results in..…..Danna et al. (2011)”

Pamela Ronald, however, did not concede any of the points raised by the German researchers and did not retract the Danna et al 2011 paper. Instead, she published a rebuttal (Danna et al 2012) (4).

The subsequent retractions, beginning in January 2013 (of Lee et al 2009 and Han et al 2011), however, confirm that in fact very sizable scientific errors were being made in the Ronald laboratory. But more importantly for the ‘Kudos to Pam’ story, it was not Pamela Ronald who initiated public discussion of the credibility of her research.

Harmon can’t resist taking a potshot at Vandana Shiva, who is probably the best known critic of GM crops in the world today:

Monsanto’s cotton, engineered with a gene from bacteria to ward off certain insects, had “pushed 270,000 farmers to suicide” since the company started selling it in India in 2002, the activist Vandana Shiva said in a Honolulu speech Ms. Wille attended.

But in Nature, a leading academic journal, Mr. Ilagan [a Hawaiian elected politician who favors GM] found an article with the subhead “GM Cotton Has Driven Farmers to Suicide: False.”

You can read Shiva’s rebuttal to the Nature article here but I think it is far more worthwhile to consider what India’s Supreme Court has decided. In October 2012 they called for a 10 year ban on Monsanto’s GM cotton over worries that “transgenics can contaminate and adversely affect the biodiversity”. The last time I checked the Indian Supreme Court was not exactly a champion of poor peasants or environmental safety. Something must be going on, no?

Furthermore, the Hindustan Times reported on March 26, 2012 that a “Secret govt note says Bt cotton failing, leading to farmer suicides” had been leaked to the press. The government agency referred to in the article was the Ministry of Agriculture, which like the Supreme Court was not to be mistaken for Vandana Shiva even on its best days.

Harmon makes the case that genetically modified papayas have been a boon to the Hawaiian economy relying on the expertise of one Jon Suzuki. Unfortunately, she neglects to mention that he is an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture, an agency that has been presented with over 5,000 applications for field trials of genetically engineered crops. Not a single one has been denied.

This is now the third article in a row in which Harmon has made the case for GM crops. So egregious has been her advocacy that it has even attracted the notice of the Columbia Journalism Review that gave her the benefit of the doubt, no doubt a function of the journalism school’s cozy relationship to the gray lady. I do recommend a look at it, however, since it will give you an idea of the amount of controversy Amy Harmon has been generating. It is focused on food policy expert Michael Pollan’s disapproving tweet of an earlier Harmon article: “Important NYT story on GM oranges; 2 many industry talking pts.” For those unaccustomed to the 140-character straight jacket imposes, the 2 means too. The concluding paragraphs of the CJR article will give you a sense of the authoritative journal’s unease with Amy Harmon’s reporting, despite her Pulitzer Prize (but then again Thomas Friedman has a wheelbarrow full of them.)

In many ways this is less a clash of journalistic ethics than of journalistic styles. Pollan would like Harmon to use more of the history and economics of crop modification to give a picture of Monsanto’s cornering of the market. Harmon explicitly chose to leave out such scope to focus on the narrative at hand. “I didn’t consider it my responsibility to put in 20 years of the GMO debate,” she says.

But without a fact-driven chronicling of GMO’s lineage, Harmon’s story of innovation lacks what Pollan considers crucial context. “Should we be debating what GM might do to feed the 9 billion, or should we debate what, after 15 years in the market, it can and has done,” he says. “They’re always trying to get us to focus on these wonders to come. And I’m looking forward to the wonders to come too. I just haven’t seen them yet.”

November 28, 2013

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Filed under: food — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

The painting above is titled “Freedom from Want” or “The Thanksgiving Picture”, done by Norman Rockwell in 1943 in honor of FDR’s four freedoms (Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom of Worship were the 3 other freedoms, each one commemorated by a Rockwell painting as well.)

This was obviously a time of much more hope and a much stronger identification with the elites than that existing since the turbulent 60s when a New Left arose to challenge the CP’s facile identification with the New Deal and an American liberalism that was systematically destroying Vietnam. Despite being in complete sympathy with the spate of articles that appear traditionally on leftwing websites this time of year inspired by New Left revisionism about the hypocrisy of a holiday celebrating the feast of colonists and the native peoples they had come to slaughter, I not only look forward to Thanksgiving but even roast a turkey. This year I am trying out a dry brine recipe from the NY Times’s Melissa Clark, who along with the paper’s Mark Bittman, is one of my favorite cooking columnists.

Part of this has to do with the fact that so few people actually think much about the pilgrim’s feast when they sit down at the table to stuff themselves and watch football games afterwards. Mostly it is an opportunity to have relatives over and enjoy each others’ company.

As a nonobservant Jew, I wouldn’t be caught dead at our equivalent for such celebrations—the Seder being the obvious stand-in. When I was young, we’d have the traditional meal with roast chicken instead of turkey plus the herbs that customarily are set at the table with their biblical connection. After I became a socialist, this holiday struck me as singularly barbaric with its celebration of Yahweh’s slaughter of Egyptian children: “About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.”

My family is all gone now so as Thomas Wolfe once put it, “You can’t go home again”. Even when my mom was alive and I was a member of the SWP, there was no sense buying a round-trip ticket from Houston, Texas or Kansas City, Missouri to have dinner with her. At my apartment in such places, I always felt forlorn when Thanksgiving rolled around.

In November 1978, just a month before I would quit the SWP after a number of years of steadily growing disaffection, I suggested to the branch organizer that we organize a potluck dinner for people in the same boat as me. This was a particularly crass individual of the sort who ended up in leadership positions in the party and who once bet my closest friend in Kansas City five dollars that I would not be able to “make the turn”. She won the bet.

A week or so before the dinner was held, she announced to the branch that it would be taking place with words to this effect: “Comrades, we are going to having a Thanksgiving dinner so that anybody feeling homesick like Louis will have a place to go.” This was her way of showing what a tough Bolshevique she was. She wanted people to understand that our mission in Kansas City was not to provide a social framework that would help us make it through difficult times but a grand opportunity to become integrated into the working class and transform the party into a fighting organization of worker-Bolsheviks. She and virtually every member of the branch who were on the leading edge of “colonization” are now ex-members.

Despite the fact that it will only be me and my wife sitting down to enjoy an 11 pound bird, it will feel like a family event since she will be on the phone or Skypeing with her family back in Turkey throughout the day. Her sister was at our place a day ago and it is too bad that she couldn’t stick around to share the meal with us. My in-laws are really my family nowadays and I look forward to their visits.

Of course there is some irony in the fact that I am sharing a turkey with someone from Turkey. Turks don’t call the bird a turkey. For them it is hindi, the same word they use for Indians as in Hindu. However, the connection is not with India but American Indians. According to the online etymological dictionary, this was probably influenced by Middle French dinde (c.1600, contracted from poulet d’inde, literally “chicken from India,” Modern French dindon), based on the then-common misconception that the New World was eastern Asia.

That being the case, how in the world did the bird become associated with the Turkish nation? Although I have written about this in the past, my discussion could not begin to match the op-ed piece that appeared in today’s NY Times under the heading “The Turkey’s Turkey Connection”:

The Turkey’s Turkey Connection

By MARK FORSYTH

Thanksgiving is the all-American holiday. Turkey is the all-American bird. It was here long before Columbus or the Pilgrims. Early explorers reported vast flocks of turkeys nesting in the magnolia forest. Turkeys are a lot more American than apple pie. But they’re named after a country 4,429 miles away.

It’s not a coincidence. It’s not that the two words just sound alike. Turkeys are named after Turkey. But there is a connection. You just have to go to Madagascar to find it. Let me explain.

Once upon a time, English mealtimes were miserable things. There were no potatoes, no cigars and definitely no turkey. Then people began to import a strange, exotic bird. Its scientific name was Numida meleagris; its normal name now is the helmeted guinea fowl, because it’s got this weird bony protuberance on its forehead that looks a bit like a helmet. It came all the way from Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa, but the English didn’t know that. All the English knew was that it was delicious, and that it was imported to Europe by merchants from Turkey. They were the Turkey merchants, and so, soon enough, the bird just got called the turkey.

But that’s not the turkey you’ll be serving with cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. As I said, that’s an American bird. When the Spanish arrived in the New World they found a bird whose scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo. But the Spaniards didn’t care about science. All they cared about was that this bird was really, really delicious. It tasted well, it tasted just like turkey, only better.

They started exporting the birds to Europe, and soon enough they arrived on English dinner tables at just about the same time that the English were setting up their first colonies in America. The Pilgrims didn’t care about any subtle distinctions. They just tasted this great bird and thought, turkey. That’s the way the English language goes.

That’s why the bird you’re going to eat is named for a country on the Black Sea. Other languages don’t make the same mistake. They make different ones. In France it’s called dinde, because they thought it was from India, or, in French, d’Inde. And in Turkey a lot of people thought that, too, so it’s called Hindi.

There was a 19th-century American joke about two hunters — an American and a Native American — who go hunting all day but only get an owl and a turkey. So the American turns to his companion and says: “Let’s divide up. You get the owl and I get the turkey.” The Native American says: “No. Let’s do it the other way round.” So the American says, “O.K., I’ll get the turkey and you get the owl.” And the Native American replies, “You don’t talk turkey at all.”

That’s where the phrase let’s talk turkey comes from. Let’s do real business. Then, in the early 20th century, people got even tougher and started saying “Let’s talk cold turkey.” And then when people tried the toughest way of giving up drugs they went cold turkey.

It’s got nothing to do with the leftovers you’ll be eating for weeks and weeks and weeks. Happy Thanksgiving.

Mark Forsyth is the author of “The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language.”

October 3, 2013

Three environmental films of note

Filed under: Ecology,farming,Film,food — louisproyect @ 3:57 pm

Two of the documentaries under review here are focused on rivers, while the third takes a close look at soil. Given the mounting environmental crisis, they achieve an urgency that would put them at the top of any serious filmgoer’s “must see” list. The fact that all three are fully realized works of art, independent of their topic, recommends them even more. Those looking for escapist fantasies should not feel the need to read any further. Of course, any of my regular readers are the film audience elite and would be well advised to continue reading.

Although I have seen a number of very good documentaries on organic farming, “Symphony of the Soil” is the first to ground them (excuse me for the bad pun) in soil chemistry. The first half of the film is a guided tour of various locales by some of the world’s leading soil chemists, ranging from fjords to rain forests, with an emphasis on how soil becomes fertile. Like most people, I suppose, the idea of listening to a scientist explain the differences between different kinds of soil might seem dry as dust (excuse me for another bad pun) but it is almost impossible not to be swept along by their passion. In some ways the film is a throwback to the classic Disney nature films of the 1950s like “The Living Desert”. If you loved those films as a kid, you will find “Symphony of the Soil” impossible to resist. If you have kids, this is the quintessential family film.

My interest in soil chemistry is heightened by my reading of John Bellamy Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology” that described in great detail the ecological crisis of the 19th century, namely the loss of soil fertility. The crisis was so deep that scavengers went through battlefield remains looking for bones that could be pulverized into fertilizer. The “guano wars” between Peru and Chile were fought over control over the fertilizer-rich islands in the Pacific.

“Symphony of the Soil” describes how this crisis was resolved in the 20th century though the discovery of chemical-based nitrogen fertilizers. This was the so-called Haber process, named after Fritz Haber who was involved with military research. His goal was to procure the chemical compounds that could be used for explosives, a reminder of how Timothy McVeigh was able to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. It was with a bomb based on 200 pounds of ammonium nitrate from a farm supply company.

In a way, chemical fertilizers became just as deadly even though they were touted as solving the hunger problem through the much-heralded Green Revolution. When chemical nitrates are introduced into the soil, they are absorbed into the water at a much greater rate than organic fertilizers and eventually leach into the rivers and lakes where they accelerate the growth of algae and rob marine life of much needed oxygen. The net result in one instance is the presence of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is the size of New Jersey and expanding rapidly.

The final half of the film is a guided tour of organic farms across the world with farmers who are as passionate about their responsibilities to Mother Earth as the soil chemists that preceded them. I found the interview with Jaspal Singh Chattha, a Sikh farmer living in Punjab, particularly interesting. Chattha is the hope for farming in India, a nation whose reliance on chemical-based farming and its heavy capital outlays has led to a suicide epidemic.

“Symphony of the Soil” is aptly named. The photography is first-rate, including many time-lapse images of plants and flowers growing that come out of the Disney tradition. The film score is also top-notch.

Deborah Koons Garcia directed “Symphony of the Soil”. In 2004 she made “The Future of Food” that took aim at the genetic modification industry and about which I wrote:

The film gives one example after another of how elected politicians serve on the board of Monsanto and related companies. It also documents the incestuous relationship between their high-level employees and federal agencies meant to regulate them. It is not unusual for some top manager of Monsanto to take a job with the FDA, which is analogous to an Exxon executive going to work for the EPA. Politicians, both Democrat and Republican, have been co-opted as shills for biotechnology. In 1997, Mickey Kantor, Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce, joined the Monsanto board where William Ruckelshaus, Nixon’s EPA director, already sat. One wonders why the property-owning class bothers with the pretense of democracy at this point. It would be far more honest if the government was simply made up of CEO’s selected at random from Fortune 100 companies.

“Symphony of the Soil” opens at the Quad Cinema in NY on October 11th. If you can’t make it to the theater, I strongly urge you to buy the DVD from the film’s website (http://www.symphonyofthesoil.com/watch/buy-dvds/). This is a film that would be of great significance for both the high school and university classrooms. It unites art and science in a way that sets the standard for such documentaries henceforth.

When I got email from Icarus Films about their new acquisition, I said to myself that this was a must:

Unbeknownst to today’s city-dwellers, buried beneath nearly every major metropolis are a network or convergence of rivers. As urban living grew with the Industrial Revolution, these rivers became conduits for disease and pollution. The 19th-century solution was the merge them with sewer systems and hide them underground. These rivers still run through the cities of today, but they do so out of sight. LOST RIVERS examines hidden waterways around the world from the United States to the United Kingdom, from Korea to Italy. Viewers are introduced to environmentalists and urban explorers re-discovering their city’s network of medieval rivers. As climate change forces us to reconsider the relationship between built and natural environments, a fascinating secret of contemporary ecology is revealed.

If you are a native New Yorker, you are probably aware of a road called the Saw Mill River Parkway, a prime route into the city from the north. The river, a tributary of the Hudson, runs alongside the highway until its final leg into Mount Vernon, a suburb that has seen its better days.

In the 1920s the city fathers decided to literally bury the river under what is called a flume, a tunnel in effect, that effectively turned the river into part of the city’s sewer system. As was the case everywhere underground rivers went through such “scientific engineering”, there were unintended consequences. In heavy rainstorms, the sewer system became overloaded and the waters below came rushing out of drainpipes saturated with feces and other pollutants.

Mount Vernon decided to return the river to the surface as part of an effort to beautify the downtown and to allow native species to thrive once again. Despite some temporary dislocations for local small businesses, the project has been an overwhelming success.

While it may not come as a big surprise to see a suburb of New York move in such a direction, it is quite a revelation to see that Seoul has embarked down the same road. An underground river has been reclaimed there as well, leading to sense of well-being for urban society that now has a healthy and beautiful resource in its midst. In a very real sense, such projects are analogous to the decision made in the 19th century to create Central Park in New York.

It is understandable that environmentalism is framed in terms of functionality, as if its dictates serve as a kind of RX for a sick planet. But when you see an underground river rescued from obscurity and made the centerpiece of a downtown metropolis, you realize that being surrounded by beauty is as important as being surrounded by clean air and water. A week ago when I was running in Central Park, I saw a green heron in the reservoir and stood there mesmerized for a minute or two. The salvation of the planet has to be understood in spiritual as well as physical terms and “Lost Rivers” is a good place to start.

Go to the Icarus website (http://icarusfilms.com/) for information on how to view this groundbreaking film.

“A River Changes Course” is a poignant study of the struggle of Cambodian fishermen to make a living against a backdrop of ecological crisis and declining marine life in the waters near Phnom Penh, the capital city. It is directed by Kalyanee Mam, a young Cambodian woman who served as cinematographer on Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job”.

Despite their relative closeness to the city, the people featured in Mam’s documentary appear to live under conditions that prevailed 100 years ago. Mostly Muslim, they survive as traders hooked into local markets that they rely on for cash to purchase essentials like clothing and food.

As is the case everywhere in the world, small, subsistence fishermen are being crowded out by much larger and much more technologically advanced commercial fishermen who care little about environmental sustainability.

Not only are the river’s riches being squandered, so are the rain forests that surround the river. As is happening throughout Asia, the forests are being cleared to make room for plantations producing export crops. In this particular instance, the main exploiters are Chinese who not only take over the land but also turn desperately poor Cambodians into virtual slaves on the plantations.

“A River Changes Course” opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York and on October 11, 2013 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles. If circumstances prevent you from attending a screening, I urge you to visit the film’s website at http://ariverchangescourse.com and to read the press notes as well for useful background on the political economy of contemporary Cambodia.

April 12, 2013

American Meat; The Revolutionary

Filed under: China,Film,food — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

Opening today:

“American Meat” at the Cinema Village

“The Revolutionary” at the Quad

A meat diet contained in an almost ready state the most essential ingredients required by the organism for its metabolism. By shortening the time required for digestion, it also shortened the other vegetative bodily processes that correspond to those of plant life, and thus gained further time, material and desire for the active manifestation of animal life proper. And the farther man in the making moved from the vegetable kingdom the higher he rose above the animal.

–Frederick Engels, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man

When my old friend Doug Henwood, America’s most brilliant left economist, posted this item on Facebook, I am sure he did it with a mischievous grin on his face since so many people on the left equate meat eating with imperialism. Since Doug cooks a mean meatball, he and other meat-eating leftists would appreciate “American Meat”, a fascinating documentary that makes the case for organic, grass-fed livestock and poultry. I should add that even vegetarians would get a lot out of the film since it deals with attempts to resolve a fundamental crisis in agriculture identified by Karl Marx:

If small-scale landownership creates a class of barbarians standing half outside society, combining all the crudity of primitive social forms with all the torments and misery of civilized countries, large landed property undermines labor-power in the final sphere to which its indigenous energy flees, and where it is stored up as a reserve fund for renewing the vital power of the nation, on the land itself. Large-scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect.

–Karl Marx, Capital V. 3, Chapter 47, Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent

The indigenous energy referred to by Marx is a bunch of manure—literally. The lack of fertilizer was the environmental crisis of the mid-1800s, just as global warming is today. So desperate farmers were for fertilizer that the bones of dead soldiers were considered suitable input for fertilizer. The crisis also led to the “guano wars” in Latin America.

When Fritz Haber, a German scientist born into a Hasidic family, invented chemical based fertilizers in 1918, the crisis appeared to be solved. Henceforth, you did not have to worry about keeping livestock and poultry in close proximity to crops as a source of natural fertilizer. Industrial farming could now be launched on a scientific basis that Marx and Engels never dreamed about. As so happens with such “magic bullets”, the end result was a nightmare.

As the film explains, industrial livestock and poultry production is bad for your health, cruel to the animals, and a waste of precious resources—particularly the petrochemicals that are essential to large-scale production of the sort that Perdue symbolizes.

The film reveals that the major poultry companies own the creatures that farmers raise to maturity. They are dropped off in massive containers and then picked up after they are ready to be slaughtered and packaged. The poultry farmer is under intense pressure to maintain effective cost control since the Taylorist production methods require vast amounts of capital, including air-conditioning, computers, antibiotics and the like.

What comes off the assembly line goes directly to your Walmart and has the merit of being affordable—at least at first blush. It turns out that we are footing the costs of such cheap food by subsidizing the corn and soybean production that makes industrial production possible. What we get from it might be cheap but tasteless.

Grass-fed poultry and livestock is not only a pleasure to eat; it is also beneficial for the soil. Among the farms visited in the film, the art of combining different sorts of animals like chickens and pigs into a kind of organically linked cycle is stunning to behold. The question, of course, is how this can replace the system we operate under now. Can small farms ever compete economically with the Perdues of the world?

The film argues that they can through various strategies, including the direct to market approach embodied by the Union Square Greenmarket in New York. However, for most people of modest means a $25 per pound chicken is out of he question. There have been modest steps toward matching up such people with the suppliers but it has not made that much of a dent as a substitute for Perdue’s.

Among the answers put forward by the film is the growing influence of outfits like Whole Foods and Chipotle’s that are based on grass-fed meat grown by small farmers. Unfortunately, the film almost becomes a free commercial for the two corporations toward its conclusion. It is unfortunate that the film does not reflect on their track record on matters not directly related to what you eat.

In an article titled “Mother Nature, Make Me Rich”, Marxist economist Michael Yates gives the low-down on Steve Ells, who makes an appearance in “American Meat”. It turns out that Ells treats his workers like dogs:

The company has come under scrutiny by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has questioned the identification documents of hundreds of Chipotle employees.  Restaurants in Minnesota and Virginia have responded with mass and sudden firings, possibly in violation of state laws and, according to the workers, without paying wages due to them.  Workers, labor unions, and support groups have also said that Chipotle had often knowingly hired undocumented immigrants (even allowing them to change their social security numbers!), was using the ICE actions to get rid of senior and more highly paid employees (it takes three years of work to qualify for a one-week vacation), and had actually hired back some of the fired workers as new hires.

Furthermore, there is some question about how healthful the food is, notwithstanding the company’s public relations efforts (including its fiscal backing of the film.) Michael quotes from Wikipedia:

A Center for Science in the Public Interest report stated that Chipotle’s burritos contain over 1,000 calories, which is nearly equivalent to two meals’ worth of food.  MSNBC Health placed the burritos on their list of the “20 Worst Foods in America” because of their high caloric content and high sodium.  When a burrito with carnitas, rice, vegetables, cheese, guacamole, and salsa was compared with a typical Big Mac, the burrito had more fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, and sodium than the Big Mac, and the burrito had more protein and fiber.

What good does grass-fed beef do you when it is slathered in bad cholesterol?

At least they haven’t taken money from Whole Foods (as far as I know), even though it gives one of its executives plenty of time at the mike. Here’s what the Washington Post had to say about these bastards on August 10, 2008:

Whole Foods Market pulled fresh ground beef from all of its stores Friday, becoming the latest retailer affected by an E. coli outbreak traced to Nebraska Beef, one of the nation’s largest meatpackers. It’s the second outbreak linked to the processor in as many months.

Even if Whole Foods did a better job of checking where their meat was coming from, there’s no evidence that its CEO John Mackey, an obnoxious libertarian, would ever do anything to treat his workers better. A Whole Foods employee spilled the beans to Socialist Workers newspaper on January 28th of this year:

Although it markets itself as a caring health foods store, Whole Foods doesn’t care about the welfare of its own employees.

In the last year, the company has instituted speedups through different policies store to store. In one store, all full-time non-managerial employees had their hours reduced to 30 hours per week. Management cited a decrease in sales numbers, but when sales picked back up, they continued to operate with the reduced hours schedule, resulting in a 25 percent pay cut for full-time employees.

In other stores, management has begun an “incentive” program for cashiers, rewarding increases in items rung up per minute (IPM) and stressing that all cashiers should be increasing their IPM to 30. The average IPM for most cashiers, when ringing at a comfortable and sustainable pace, is 14 to 20 IPM.

Mackey might be selling free-range chickens but he treats his workers much more like Perdue chickens, commodities to be exploited.

While I can recommend “American Meat” as a good presentation of the contradictions of industrial farming and possible prototypes for an alternative mode of production, I am afraid that like most films I have seen in this genre it does not face up to the class interests that make organic agriculture a possibility. The two-party system is owned lock, stock and barrel by agribusiness operating in partnership with big pharma, the arms industry, megabanks and other pillars of American capitalism.

Once we put control of the means of production into the hands of the people who produce the commodities we depend on, then we can talk about truly alternative food production. Until then, the solutions will be partial and somewhat utopian. (That being said, I will make a trip down to Union Square tomorrow to get some organic vegetables and meat.)

Sidney Rittenberg is the quintessential anti-Zelig. Like Woody Allen’s character, he shows up in key moments of Chinese history next to all the big-time players but unlike Zelig is in a commanding position, most of all in the Cultural Revolution.

He was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina in 1921 and became involved with the labor movement while at the University of North Carolina, a long-time hotbed of the radical movement not unlike CCNY. Another famous red alumnus was the late Junius Scales, another scion of an upper-class family.

When he was in the army, he got sent to language school to learn Chinese. Afterwards he was sent to China just as the war was ending. With his radical sympathies, he was inspired to seek out Mao Zedong who was organizing his Red Army in Yan’an province for an all-out assault on the KMT army.

Upon meeting the 24-year-old Rittenberg, Mao invited him to take a senior position at Radio Peking, making sure that the CP’s communications with the West were conveyed properly in English. Rittenberg agreed to stay on but only on one condition—that he be accepted as a member of the Communist Party. That turned out to be a double-edged sword since this experience brought him terrible misery even as it offered him the most fulfilling moments of his life. Even though I and most of my veteran radical readers never reached such a lofty status, we surely can identify with him as he relates his being ground down as a member of what amounted to the largest socialist cult in history—Mao’s Communist Party.

Just four years after going to work at Radio Peking at a salary larger than Mao’s, Stalin sent Mao a letter accusing Rittenberg of being a spy. Rittenberg was offered the choice of being sent back to the U.S. immediately or going to prison in China. He chose China and then spent 6 years in solitary confinement until the Chinese brass decided he wasn’t a spy after all.

Oddly enough, the only other people besides Stalin who raise the possibility that Rittenberg was a spook was the Financial Times:

A feeling that Rittenberg must, surely, have been a deep-cover CIA agent still surfaces occasionally in the US. “There were actually no western agents in China in my time,” he says. “But former intelligence people are convinced to this day that I was an agent under deep cover. I get asked quite probing questions even today by retired CIA people. When I deny it, they say, ‘Wow, you’re good.’ I always considered myself a representative of the genuine American people, in the tradition of revolutionaries like Tom Paine. That’s why I always dressed as an American. I wanted to be an American friend of China, not Chinese.”

I find the CIA accusation hard to believe. Why would an asset such as Rittenberg be ordered to spend 6 years in a Chinese prison when his talents could have been deployed elsewhere? I think it is much more plausible that he did everything he did out of a conviction that he was a participant in the 20th century’s greatest anti-imperialist revolution. I did many stupid and self-destructive things for a much more marginal movement.

Rittenberg is still alive, having moved to the U.S. after his second imprisonment, this time during the Cultural Revolution and once again for being a foreign spy. Now in his 90s, he is an amazingly articulate man capable of deep insights about the Chinese revolution and the personal disasters stemming from both his idealism and the ambitions many of China’s top politicos harbored and still do.

March 4, 2013

Food, Fasting and Health–the personal and the political

Filed under: food,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 9:11 pm

miami_fattyThe Unrepentant Marxist in South Beach, January 2011: 160 pounds

skinny_louThe Unrepentant Marxist today: 145 pounds

Back in 1989 I read a terrific novel by Oscar Hijuelos titled “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” about a couple of Cuban-American brothers who co-led a band in the 1950s whose greatest achievement was an appearance on the “I Love Lucy” show. After one brother dies in an auto accident, the other stops performing and takes a job as super in Washington Heights. Most of his free time is spent listening to old records of the Mambo Kings and hanging out in the neighborhood, playing dominoes, eating comidas tipicas, and drinking beer.

As happens to many people in their 60s, the surviving brother’s health starts to decline. After he survives a heart attack, the doctor puts him on a strict diet. No more comidas tipicas–just salads, fresh vegetables and lean meat. And absolutely no beer and no salt. After a month or so of this regimen, he develops such a craving for a Cuban sandwich (ham, pork, and melted cheese topped with a nice salty pickle) and a bottle of beer that he decides to go out in a blaze of glory. He brings home a Cuban sandwich, a quart of Budweiser, and dies in the middle of enjoying them while a Mambo Kings record plays away reminding him of his well-spent youth.

I really loved the novel and that particular passage. But that was nearly 25 years ago when I was 44 years old and fairly blasé when it came to matters of health, aging, and the big D. (That’s death.)

As you will learn as you hit your fifties and sixties, the weight tends to accumulate over the years, largely a function of a slowing metabolism. About 10 years ago I took a blood pressure test at work and learned that it was “slightly elevated”. And then around a year ago my taking naps on a nightly basis for a month got my wife so worried that she pressured me into seeing a doctor. I tried to explain to her that I don’t like going to doctors because I don’t want to get any bad news like I have cancer or something. Apparently medical experts are divided on most questions including the value of yearly checkups.

But the long-sacrosanct recommendation that everyone should have an annual physical was challenged yet again recently by researchers at the Nordic Cochrane Center in Copenhagen.

The research team, led by Dr. Lasse T. Krogsboll, analyzed the findings of 14 scientifically designed clinical trials of routine checkups that followed participants for up to 22 years. The team found no benefit to the risk of death or serious illness among seemingly healthy people who had general checkups, compared with people who did not. Their findings were published in November in BMJ (formerly The British Medical Journal).

NY Times, January 21, 2013

I was not surprised to learn that I still had elevated blood pressure but also too much of what they called “bad cholesterol”. Now my diet was nothing like the Mambo Kings guy but I do confess to enjoying eggs on the weekend and a buttered bagel. The bigger problem for me, however, was finding some healthy food to eat at lunch when I was still working at Columbia University. The only place that was convenient to my outpost in Manhattanville, where the school was colonizing as if it were the West Bank, was a Fairways grocery store that had food to take out at lunch. Yes, I will bare my soul. Many days I brought back sausages and peppers or meat loaf with mashed potatoes back to my desk. Plus I confess to having a half-muffin each morning. The feelings I get over this now are similar I’m sure to what somebody who kicked a $200 per day heroin habit must feel. How can I have been so stupid?

But what makes this all the more disconcerting is the memories I have of my mother’s last 2 or 3 years as she battled congestive heart disease. Yes, she was in her mid-80s when things got bad but who would want to do anything that makes hardening of the arteries more likely? I know I have to go some day but the idea of being a stroke victim or some other circulatory disease scares the pee out of me. When I used to visit my mother at the special nursing unit of the local hospital, I was always shook up when I saw Milt Brizel my high school geometry teacher who was paralyzed from the neck down, the aftermath of a stroke identical to the one depicted in the 2012 movie “Amour”, directed by Michael Haneke.

Haneke’s typical plot involves some deeply painful setback to a comfortable petty-bourgeois family, from home invasions to environmental collapse. The virtue of “Amour” is its willingness to describe exactly what befalls an elderly couple when one becomes incapacitated. At a certain point the wife demands to die but the husband keeps her alive, a challenge to notions about what really defines “love”.

As a sign of how backward American society is, the right of someone to end their own life in dignity is excluded in all but three states: Washington, Oregon and Montana. A truly civilized country would allow someone suffering some painful and terminal disease to take a couple of pills to end their misery. But the grip of organized religion is so great that it was capable of making someone as saintly as Jack Kervorkian to serve 8 years of a 10-25 year second-degree murder conviction sentence.

When I had my physical a year or so ago, I weighed 160 pounds. The doctor told me that he saw no need to put me on the kinds of medications that are advertised relentlessly on the network news each evening. He advised me to change my diet and get more exercise.

Once I retired on August 31, 2012, it became a lot easier to make those life-style changes. To start with, I cook my own food and not the junk they prepared at Fairway. Each morning starts with a bowl of steel cut oatmeal mixed with flax seed. When I first read that steel cut oatmeal was good for reducing bad cholesterol, I decided to get on board even if it reminded me of the Garrison Keillor radio show’s spiel for the fictional Raw Bits cereal: “It gives you the strength to get up in the morning and do the things that need to be done.”

Now, just a bit more than 6 months after retiring, I am down to 145 pounds and wearing size 32 trousers, that are actually a bit baggy on me. In a few months I will make another appointment with the doctor even though the NY Times does not think it is necessary (nor do they think that criticisms of Napoleon Chagnon are valid.) So, you ask, how did I do it? I imagine that most of you except the most morbidly curious have stuck with this post since it would remind you of the typical geezer telling you about his or her latest surgery.

Well, it has been the result of fasting every Monday and Thursday. Back in March 2012, a most remarkable article appeared in Harper’s magazine titled “Starving your way to vigor: the benefits of an empty stomach”. Written by Steve Hendricks, who embarked on a fasting regimen himself, it is an eye-opening account of its history as a medical treatment rather than a guide to spiritual elevation (something that interests me about as much as Lena Dunham’s “Girls” on HBO.)

In the 1960s a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania named Garfield G. Duncan be came troubled by the epidemic of American obesity, which then afflicted a shocking one man in twenty and one woman in nine. (Today it afflicts one in three men and women alike.) Like other researchers, Duncan fasted obese patients and studied how many regained their lost weight. Unlike other researchers, he noticed that the blood pressure of every patient who was hypertensive fell to within normal limits during these fasts. He reported, for illustration, the case of a man of fifty-three years and 325 pounds whose unmedicated blood pressure was 210/130 and whose medicated pressure was 184/106—still menacingly high. The man fasted for fourteen days without drugs, and his blood pressure fell to 136/90. Six months later, it was 130/75. Duncan did not record how many of his patients sustained such improvements after their fasts, but the possibility of a simple cure for some forms of hypertension seemed well worth pursuing.

Not until 2001, however, was there a definitive follow-up to his work. Its au thor, Alan Goldhamer, had fasted thousands of patients at his TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa, California, and had seen high blood pressures trill downward like Coast Range streams. He studied 174 hypertensives who fasted for ten days; 154 of them became normotensive by fast’s end. The others also enjoyed substantial drops in pressure, and all who had been taking medication were able to stop. In patients with stage 3 (the most severe) hypertension, the average drop in systolic pressure was 60 mmHg. In all patients, the average drop in systolic/diastolic was 37/13. According to Goldhamer, this was and remains the largest reported drop in blood pressure achieved by any drug or therapy. Like Duncan, Goldhamer did not formally study how long his subjects maintained their newly lowered blood pressures, but he surveyed forty-two subjects six months after their fasts, and their average blood pressure had risen hardly a jot.

For me the best part of fasting is that is really easy. You don’t have count calories. All you need to do is not eat. Can anything be simpler? What I learned almost immediately is that you don’t get any hungrier 12 hours into the fast than you were in the first hour. Plus, you can eat pretty much normally on other days, which for me consists of the sort of food that the Mambo King guy hated. For me, there’s nothing more satisfying than some beans and a glass of red wine.

As my readers know, at least those who have stuck around long enough to read this ponderous piece, the issue of food and health has reached a crescendo of late, largely having to do with Michele Obama’s hypocritical campaigning. As a huckster for Walmart’s Healthy Food Initiative, she is just as shameless as her husband who just put a long-time Walmart executive in charge of the White House budget office. That shows where the second coming of Herbert Hoover’s head is really at.

Last Saturday morning Chris Hayes had a special food show on MSNBC. His featured guest was Tom Colicchio, the celebrity chef and host of the hit TV show “Top Chef”. He was there to promote “A Place at the Table”, his new documentary on hunger that reflected his deep-felt concerns about poor people getting adequately fed, just like our First Lady. Colicchio told Hayes:

People look at feeding programs whether it’s snack or whether school lunches a handout as a charity program. And we have to look at it as sort of a tool to prepare our children to eat, especially when you look at breakfast programs. There`s a new study that just came out by Deloitte that was done with Share a Strength and No Kid Hungry.

And they`re showing when kids eat breakfast in school, their math scores go up by 17 percent. They have less incidence of being absent. And so, there`s all kinds of benefits. And so, the school lunch program is just — right now, it`s just not funded. And that clip that you showed actually set up the — I actually testified in front of Congress on behalf of the school lunch program.

Colicchio joined a panel in the second half of the show that took up other questions related to food and the poor, in this instance the lowly paid workers who often had to rely on tips. Hayes introduced the segment this way:

In 1960, according to the CDC, Americans spent just 26 percent of their food budget eating away from home. By 2011, that figure had almost doubled to 49 percent.

Food retail and service is one of the healthiest growing industries in the country. For the past decade food industry job growth has far outpaced totally sector job growth.

And yet by almost any measurements, most of these are simply not good jobs. They are some of the worst jobs in the country. In fact, food industry workers use government assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps in much higher than the general workforce does.

Over 27 percent of the food industry workers on Medicaid, compared to 19 percent of the general workforce, and over 13 percent of food service workers receive food stamps compared to just 8 percent of the general workforce.

According to Food Chain Workers Alliance, a workers advocacy group, nearly 80 percent don`t have paid sick days or don`t know if they do. Eighty- three percent of food industry workers do not receive health insurance from their employer, and 58 percent do not have any health insurance at all.

Given his familiarity with the terrain, or at least what his researchers fed to him over the teleprompter, one wonders why Hayes failed to grill Colicchio on this:

NY Times December 13, 2008

Lawsuit Accuses a Top Chef of Wage and Tip Violations

By STEVEN GREENHOUSE

Tom Colicchio, the celebrity restaurateur and judge on Bravo’s popular “Top Chef” television show, was sued in federal court on Thursday by a former waitress who accused his company of misappropriating employee tips, withholding some overtime pay and sometimes failing to pay minimum wage. Mr. Colicchio’s restaurants — including Craft, Craftbar and Craftsteak — were also named in the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, the waitress, Nessa Rapone, who used to work at the bustling Craftbar restaurant at 900 Broadway, between 19th and 20th Streets, asserted that Mr. Colicchio’s company, Craft Worldwide Holdings, improperly shared employee tips with supervisors, did not keep proper time records and fired her when she protested.

The lawyers for Ms. Rapone, a Brooklyn resident who worked at Craftbar from March to May 2007, are seeking class-action status for the lawsuit, which was filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan. It accused management of federal and state wage law violations, including failing to pay workers time and a half for all hours worked beyond 40 a week. It also asserts that management shared employee tips with other workers who were not eligible under federal and state law to share in the tip pool.

Ms. Rapone’s lawsuit also accused the company of not compensating her for the cleaning and care of the uniform that she was required to wear at Craftbar.

“The Craft restaurants, all upscale establishments designed by well-known architects and catered by award-winning chefs, have earned Mr. Colicchio and his partners great success,” one of Ms. Rapone’s lawyers, Justin M. Swartz, said in a statement on Friday. “This success, however, has come at the expense of the restaurants’ hourly service workers to whom the defendants have denied proper minimum wages, overtime compensation, and tips they earned from customers.”

If you go to Craft’s website, you’ll see a bunch of farms that supply locally grown and organic meat, fish and vegetables with names like Cavendish Game Farm—not a supplier to TGIF’s, you can be sure. Colicchio says, “Please enjoy some of the great ingredients grown, raised and caught by our friends that share our commitment to serving great food. We feature their bounty on this evening’s menu.”

All this “localism” got started, as you probably know, at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley where reservations have to be booked months in advance and where a typical entrée is $85, and where the rhetoric is quite Green:

Alice and Chez Panisse are convinced that the best-tasting food is organically and locally grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound by people who are taking care of the land for future generations.

Chain-smoking and hard drinking celebrity chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain, who would have probably sought out the Mambo King’s favorite restaurant, is unimpressed with Waters to say the least:

I’ll tell you. Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We’re all in the middle of a recession, like we’re all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. There’s something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic. I mean I’m not crazy about our obsession with corn or ethanol and all that, but I’m a little uncomfortable with legislating good eating habits. I’m suspicious of orthodoxy, the kind of orthodoxy when it comes to what you put in your mouth. I’m a little reluctant to admit that maybe Americans are too stupid to figure out that the food we’re eating is killing us. But I don’t know if it’s time to send out special squads to close all the McDonald’s. My libertarian side is at odds with my revulsion at what we as a country have done to ourselves physically with what we’ve chosen to eat and our fast food culture. I’m really divided on that issue. It’d be great if he [Obama] served better food at the White House than what I suspect the Bushies were serving. It’s gotta be better than Nixon. He liked starting up a roaring fire, turning up the air conditioning, and eating a bowl of cottage cheese with ketchup. Anything above that is a good thing. He’s from Chicago, so he knows what good food is.

I know little about the cable TV comedy Portlandia, except that it pretty obvious from this clip that they are as fed up with “local” and “organic” food pretensions as Bourdain:

Having said that, I of course believe in environmentally sustainable farming, ranching, and fishing. I own Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan books on healthy food and Green practices and swear by them.

But ultimately, like any other intractable social problem like global warming, food and health are ultimately a function of the mode of production. As long as there is profit in industrial farming and the peddling of sugar-laden fast food to the masses, the nation will continue to endure an epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, and all the rest.

The 90 year old Sidney Mintz, one of my favorite Marxist historians and political theorists, wrote a book in 1996 titled “Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom” whose final pages are worth quoting in their entirety as a coda to this post.

What does the American future hold, so far as eating is concerned? In a series of brilliant recent papers, Cornell University scientist David Pimentel and his colleagues have predicted sweeping changes in American agriculture, and hence in American eating patterns over the next half century!’ Indeed, the changes that these scientists forecast, if they do occur, will be more radical in their effects on American eating than even those of the last half century—which is to say a very great deal. Demographic, agricultural, and other factors enter in. Pimentel and his colleagues, working from present trends, predict a doubling of the national population by 2064; a reduction in arable land (through both erosion and urbanization) in the neighborhood of 180,000,000 acres, or 38 percent, in the same period of time; and a total exhaustion of national fossil fuel resources in not more than two decades. The figures on rapidly diminishing water supply are similarly worrisome.

This is an unbelievably grim scenario. If it eventuates, food exports (now calculated at an average of about $155 per person per year, given our present population) would be reduced to zero. For Americans, food costs would increase by a factor of between three and five—at worst, up to more than half of total income. Should these calculations prove correct, however, the composition of the American diet would also have to change substantially. While nearly two-thirds of the national grain product of the United States, grown on over two million acres, is now used as livestock feed, by 2060 all of it would have become food for us, not for our cattle and pigs and poultry. In effect, Pimentel sees North Americans coming to eat as most of the rest of the world eats, with meat representing a much reduced fraction of our total caloric and protein intake. Since India’s nearly one billion people and the People’s Republic of China’s even larger population get 70 to 8o percent of their calories and nearly all of their protein from grains and legumes, such a change in the States would be in the direction of aligning North American consumption with that of the rest of the world. It would also contribute to a vast improvement in American health. Substantial farmland could be returned to agriculture; the number of bypass and cancer operations would certainly decline.

But will it happen? As I write, McDonald’s looks ahead to a rapid expansion of its enterprises in such places as the People’s Republic of China, where it aims to add 600 retail establishments in the next decade; and Japan, where it now boasts more than a thousand. Whatever the scenario for the United States, many companies are working hard to spread our way of eating world-wide. Nor is there evidence that many Americans are much concerned, either about our fossil fuel consumption or our diet. Driving cars and eating meat are highly valued acts; though both involve the expenditure of unimaginably large quantities of water, soil, cereals, and fossil fuel, there is no collective indication that anyone is deeply concerned. Only sudden shortages reveal, as if in lightning flashes, how deeply held such consumption values are; Operation Desert Storm was a case in point. Indeed, one solution” to the Pimentel prophecies is war. Successful aggression could keep meat and gas available and affordable, at least for a good while longer. Its effects on American moral integrity would be utterly disastrous. But the enormity of the decisions involved in such trade-offs would not be clearly grasped until after the decisions were made. There is a real trap in our not separating what we are free to do, but need not do, if it is a bad idea—from what we cannot help doing, even though it is a bad idea, because we think someone is trying to stop us from doing it.

No one can look down the road and predict how the American people will behave, fifty years from now. One sinister prophecy is embodied in the words of Josef Joffe, the editorial page editor of Suddeutsche Zeitung, who writes: “It is profligacy—being hooked on the sweet poison of consumption—that might yet lay low the American economy and thus American might.” But the worry is not that we will let our consumption gluttony destroy our economy; it is, rather, that we might let our obsessive notions of individual freedom destroy our democracy. The long-term lessons of our economic and agricultural policies are there to be learned now. But we have to be willing to learn them.

April 16, 2012

My pig snout sandwich days

Filed under: food,Pekar,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

I don’t know how many of you are aware that Doug Henwood began blogging a while back at http://lbo-news.com/. Bookmark it if you know what is good for you.

A post on April 13 (http://lbo-news.com/2012/04/13/the-nation-moves-money-again/) skewered the Nation Magazine in Doug’s inimitably informed and witty fashion:

Forgive me if I’m looking obsessed, but someone has to do it. The Nation was out with an email blast this morning touting its branded affinity VISA card issued by UMB Bank in Kansas City. The magazine’s associate publisher, Peggy Randall, helpfully identifies UMB as “a small, regional bank recommended by the Move Your Money project, a project we  support,” and therefore in accordance with the goals of the Occupy movement.

So who is UMB Bank, really? It’s yet another iteration of the classic Money Mover’s institution: flush with more money than it can invest locally, it loads up on securities. (Parenthetically, why should a magazine based in New York encourage doing business with a bank 1,200 miles away on localist grounds?) According to its latest annual report, 46% of UMB’s money is invested in securities, and another 6% is on deposit with other banks—which comes to over half. They don’t provide details on the securities, but they’re almost certainly a mix of Treasury bonds, mortgage bonds, and corporate bonds—utterly conventional financial market stuff. Just 37% is out in loans—and 0.8% in small-business loans, beloved of the small bank fanclub. They are big regional players in mutual funds, wealth management, and private banking, all moderately to seriously upscale stuff. And, like the big guys, they’re looking to make more money out of fees, rather than traditional deposit-taking and loan-making.

Although Doug was looking for a somewhat different answer to the question “So who is UMB Bank, really?”, I can offer these additional insights. When I was working at this bank in November 1978, I turned in my resignation from the SWP. By day I was a computer programmer but in the evenings I was studying milling machine and lathe at a local high school. That was to prepare me for a job in industry as an entry-level machinist. As this snapshot from my memoir–done in collaboration with the late Harvey Pekar and that is due to be published by Random House sometime in the 22nd century–would indicate, this was not the kind of training that came easy:

(That’s me to the right, with beard and eyeglasses.)

By some miracle I graduated from the classes with a certificate and was urged to apply at Bendix by my milling machine instructor who developed a liking for me. He understood that despite my not having any kind of industrial job in the past, I was able to learn how to grind a piece of steel to a thousandth inch tolerance. Unfortunately, I would never get past a security clearance at Bendix since the plant’s main business was building casings for nuclear weapons.

In late November, the branch organizer—a typical hack who had bet my best friend in the branch $10 that I would never be able to get a job in industry—gave a plenum report that clarified what kinds of jobs comrades should get as part of the “turn to industry”. It went something like this:

Comrades, we are about to make a turn within the turn. In the past too many comrades have been taking skilled jobs like machinists or welders. This does not put us in contact with the most oppressed layers of the working class. So from now on the priority is on jobs in garment, meatpacking and other unskilled arenas.

After going to night school for 3 months, this was not the news I wanted to hear. I turned to my friend and said, “I feel like I am in the back seat of a car going down the interstate at 80 miles an hour and there’s nobody in the driver’s seat.” I resigned a couple of days later.

As should be obvious from the picture above, the memoir covers my Chaplinesque attempts to save my soul by getting a job in industry, but Doug’s reference to United Missouri Bank (UMB) persuaded me to say a few words about this job since it was like all my programming jobs—something to remember.

United Missouri Bank is in downtown Kansas City, a warren of nondescript office buildings and parking garages. Once upon a time it was a thriving section of town with department stores and nightclubs that could be reached by streetcar, the most common mode of transportation. I have vivid memories of taking the streetcar to downtown Kansas City with my mom when she was staying at her mother’s house on Linwood Avenue, about 30 blocks to the north, during a trial separation from my cold and laconic father. Even as a 5 year old, I could tell that Kansas City was a rocking place.

My job at UMB entailed working on the software for the bank’s NCR ATM machines. I was a kind of assistant to a 300 pound farmer’s boy named Danny who reminded me a lot of Baby Huey. He used to come to work on Saturday in bib overalls and hump the machines for laughs.

About a month after going to work for UMB, our boss asked me to make a change to the software that I screwed up. The net result was that when someone was issued a new card, the machine would reject it under the impression that it was expired. I wrote “greater than” some date in my program rather than “less than”. I was lucky I didn’t get fired since the people whose cards failed to work probably were skeptical of electronic banking to begin with.

I actually have fond memories of the people I worked with who generally were as disgruntled with management as any place I have ever been. The new department manager was someone who had been recently promoted from their ranks and was acting like a real shithook. They loved cracking jokes about him in the cafeteria at lunch.

My favorite guy there was K.O. Barnes, who looked kind of like a bulldog as his name would indicate. K.O. stood for Kenneth Orville but his nickname was “Smitty”, as I recall. In an attempt to raise some funds when I was in K.C., I sold my newish Datsun to my best friend and bought a 12 year old Impala sedan from K.O. that had belonged to his dad, a gas station owner. It was what they called a “mechanic’s special”. I wish I had held on to it. It would probably be worth $50,000 today.

K.O. had returned to Kansas City from Cincinnati, a city that he found lacking. He once put it to me this way in his Missouri drawl, “Louis, in Cincinnati they roll up the sidewalks at 10pm. There ain’t nothin’ happening there.”

As was the case when I worked for a bank in Houston when I was in the SWP, my workmates viewed me as a kind of “exotic”. After all, how many people moved from New York to Houston or Kansas City? If I hadn’t been a member of the SWP and assigned to go to these places, I would have stayed in New York where I was destined to be like a minor character in a Woody Allen movie. I should add that the only reason I chose Kansas City is that I was born there. When given a choice between my birthplace and Morgantown, West Virginia where I would be expected to get a job as coalminer, Kansas City was number one by far. I figured that if my political life was coming to an end, as I anticipated it would, why not let it end in my birthplace?

One day my workmates, including K.O. and Danny, decided to play a kind of practical joke on me. They organized an excursion to Agnos’s Sandwich Stand about 10 blocks from UMB where I would be able to buy a local treat. They assumed that a New Yorker would be appalled by what it turned out to be: pig snout sandwich.

It looked exactly what it sounds like, a pig’s nose between two buns. Since I had pretty much the same attitude toward food that contestants on “Fear Factor” have, I wolfed it down much to the surprise of my workmates. I don’t know if they have the analogy of “good old boy” in Missouri but that was what I became that day in their eyes.

They did not know that part of the motivation in going to Agnos was its connection to Charlie Parker, arguably Kansas City’s most famous denizen. In “Bird Lives”, Ross Russell writes:

The same area was also a permanent location for one of the lunch wagons owned by John Agnos, who, under Pendergast, enjoyed a monopoly of after-hours on-the-street sales of food and light beverages. The menu listed food items and unusual sandwiches served only in Kansas City in those days—crawdads, “short thighs” (of chicken), and a choice of sandwiches made from chicken wings, brains, pigs’ feet, and pigs’ snouts. Everything was priced at a dime. Jars of homemade hot sauces were provided for garnishment according to the customer’s taste. Charlie Parker picked up his nickname Yardbird when the Basie band was working at the Reno Club. Parker used to hang out in the rear lot, mostly to listen to Lester Young, and his favorite food was the “short thigh” served by the lunch wagon. Chicken was known colloquially as yardbird. Later the nickname was shorted to Bird. It stuck with Parker throughout his life.

Agnos sandwich stand at the Reno Club in 1940

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