Saturday, May 29, 2010

Mesmerized by Disaster

It doesn’t take the media to let us know that the entire nation, perhaps the entire world, is mesmerized by BP’s oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. We all feel it in our gut—something horrible looming, not quite fully formed, but sliding unstoppable towards the full-on environmental catastrophe we’ve been expecting for years. We in the United States, that is. Russia had its Chernobyl meltdown, but all we felt of it, in truth, was a new caution about not buying jams and jellies made in eastern Europe. India, via our beloved Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemical), had its Bhopal eruption of poison gases (methyl isocyanate), but we in the United States have still not digested the facts: more than 8,000 people killed instantly, with 12,000 others dying slowly, while countless others into the second generation endure retardation, birth defects, and reproductive problems. In the Bhopal case, indeed, those responsible have still not been brought to justice, and even refuse to release information on the health impact of their chemical, calling it a “trade secret.” And still what we have in the United States is a Congress that refuses to pass stringent regulations to control the energy industry (wasn’t there a coal mine disaster recently? haven’t these bastards continued to blow the tops off mountains so as to more economically access the coal beneath?), and CEOs who spout the usual mantra when it comes to oil: accidents are bound to happen, they’re the inevitable tradeoff to forging “energy independence,” so take your pick—your car or your environment.

And, docile as cattle led to slaughter, we all know this. We may deny it, we may keep hoping that the next Prius or the next electric car or the next fusion reaction will solve our energy problems, but the truth is, we understand what’s happening. Oil is running out, which means that we have to fatten oil companies with obscene profits in order to encourage them to drill in ever more risky places for the stuff without which our civilization would simply crash and burn. And so we remain glued to our TV sets, watching that monstrous (reminds one of the black smoke monster in “Lost”) black, white and brown cloud spewing from the pipe day and night, night and day for 40 days and still counting, and gauging in the backs of our minds the anguished questions: where is all that toxic goup going? What is it going to do to not just birds, not just endangered pelicans, but the entire marine chain starting with plankton? Will they ingest the toxic globules and pass it on up the food chain to shrimp and fish and birds and us? It seems likely. And we know it. We know this isn’t just about a few fishermen put out of business, though that’s grim enough. It isn’t just about a few miles of beaches getting soiled, though that’s horrible as well. It isn’t even about the marshes that could be inundated when the first hurricane lifts those miles-long oil plumes and sweeps them over and through the wetlands to create of them the toxic oil dump of our nightmares.

No. This is about the whole megillah. Because we know that ever since we started using this fiendish substance called petroleum, and all its by-products like plastic and pesticides and frankensteinian chemicals poisoning our farms and factories and rivers, and the obscene explosion in population it makes possible, we’ve been on a short path to a major comeuppance. A major realization. We’re poisoning the planet; destroying its fertility; clearcutting its forests; turning its once-fecund oceans into dead zones. And then, of course, there’s global warming—again, due to the hellfire of precisely those fossil fuels that are spewing out of that accursed drill pipe. Which is why that horror show at 5,000 feet holds us so transfixed. It represents now, for us all, the unvarnished truth we’ve been holding at bay for so long: we, the out-of-control human race that really can’t control anything especially a damn well 5,000 feet below the ocean, are the problem. And the problem has come home to the Gulf of Mexico to roost.

How it will end is anyone’s guess. At this point, all we can do is weep for what we have done—all of us. Because that’s why, in my view, we’re sitting here mesmerized, depressed, terrified and grieving for the innocent life we know is being oiled and soiled, tormented and tortured by what we do daily. It is us. Which makes me think of Walt Kelly’s great character, Pogo, who in one episode says: “We have met the enemy and it is us.” Amen. It is. We are doing it to ourselves. Because this is not just some crime against Nature—where Nature is something outside ourselves to observe in our laboratories and admire through our binoculars, and control and exploit and explode from above. Nature is us. We are that food chain. We are those wetlands. Like it or not, we derive from that mud, owe it our existence to this day. And the real question is, what can be said about a species that slowly but surely destroys that upon which it depends—the soil, the water, the trees, the creatures, the air—destroys that which it ineluctably is?

(May 29 update: BP has just admitted that its “top kill” maneuver—the language speaks volumes about the attitudes noted above—has failed. So the death watch goes on.)

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, May 21, 2010

Critiquing Rational Actors

As many of you know, I have been following some of the thinking going on in the wake of the financial collapse for some time. For my money, one of the most fertile areas of this new thinking is taking place among those who blend psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, economics and politics. People like Joe Brewer of Cognitive Policy Works (see have been attempting to blend all these disciplines into a path to dismantle the conservative corporate juggernaut that has so dominated our political/economic life for the past 40 years. An essential component involves deconstructing the now widely-accepted notion that capitalism works because it is natural, the natural child of human nature pursuing democracy and freedom. And at the heart of this free capitalism idea is the notion of the “rational actor” pursuing his own “self-interest.” This notion—not as old nor as self-evident as one might think—argues that capitalism’s “invisible hand,” which runs a free-market economy without interference, is really embedded by nature in us all, millions of us who as “free” individuals make rational decisions in pursuit of our own self-interest. We weigh the merits of products and decide which is best. We compare value—either in quality, or cost, or longevity, or whatever serves our interests best. We comprise, in that sense, the demand side of the supply-demand cycle. Producers then respond to our demands, and supply the best (usually least expensive) products to serve our needs. Thus, without any interference from a state or government, the market adjusts itself to these rational decisions naturally and freely made by millions of people, and society moves toward that “best of all possible worlds” promised by Candide.

The problem is twofold. First, this notion of rational actors fitting exclusively with democracy did not simply appear out of nowhere; it was the product of specific economists and thinkers at the Rand Corporation at the specific time in our history when such a theory was desperately sought. And second, the idea that we humans make decisions with the “rational” part of our brains is increasingly seen to be false or partial. Joe Brewer explains both of these in his article, “The Death of Self-Interest Fundamentalism,” easily found on the above mentioned website, or on (4/28/2010). What I will do here is try to outline the gist of the argument—one I think is key to understanding what happened in 2008, as well as what is happening now in the seemingly daffy eruption of tea party activists accusing Barack Obama of forcing “socialism” down our throats—using material from some sources cited by Brewer.

To begin with Rand and “rational choice theory,” its story is told in compelling detail by S.M. Amadae in his book Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy, University of Chicago Press: 2003. What Amadae demonstrates is that in response to the apparent gains of socialist theory in the United States during the Great Depression and beyond, and the alleged worldwide threat from communist Russia during the Cold War, theorists sought out a new approach to economics that could combat it. The solution became the “self-interested strategic rational actor.” The idea evolved out of both economics and game theory, especially as elucidated by John von Neumann and John Nash (of A Beautiful Mind fame), which provided the mathematical “proofs” for the theory. The math is not important here; what is important is that economists and thinkers at Rand (the first think-tank, put together to combat the perceived Cold War threat of Soviet communism) worked out theories that changed the emphasis of democracy from one that sought to find the greatest good for the greatest number (too close to communist ideas) to one that made the economic consumer, the rational actor, the center of economics, of public policy, of democracy itself. In this scheme, the market became not simply an aspect of democratic government; it became its very core: “Market sovereignty is not a complement to liberal democracy; it is an alternative to it,” wrote Eric Hobsbawn. That is, the market replaces the res publica, the public arena of politics, because economic activity actually replaces the need for individual political decisions. With rational actors seeking their own self-interest, the government shouldn’t need to do anything. Society, via the market decisions of rational actors, controls itself. As Amadae summarizes it: “Participating in the market replaces participation in politics; the consumer replaces the citizen.”

With rational consumers making all the important decisions freely and in their own self-interest, then, democracies reach the kind of happy equilibrium that planned societies, always referred to as irrational societies, cannot. Rather, these planned economies lead to serfdom—which was the title of a book by one of the movement’s key thinkers, Friedrich von Hayek: The Road to Serfdom. Though Hayek himself did not go as far as some of his followers at the University of Chicago, his deep critique of collectivism led to the conclusion that the basic ideas of European (i.e. free) civilization can only be found in societies based in democracy, science and capitalism; socialism, fascism, and totalitarianism, by contrast, are perversions of western civilization that are not only unfree, they are also irrational. Karl Popper (The Open Society and its Enemies) took up this notion when he criticized Marx’s ideas—including notions like “the will of the people” or theories of social justice—as leading to a “precarious irrationalism.”

Now we can see where the lunatic fringe known as the tea party gets its slogans from. If social justice and/or the common good are seen as perversions of democracy, as infringements on freedom and each individual’s right to self-interested activity, then anyone who proposes measures like health care for all is a fascist or a socialist or some other totalitarian beast. He, and all who think like him—those dreaded liberals—are trying to steal freedom. They are trying to enslave freedom-loving Americans. They want to lead America to serfdom. 'Over our dead bodies. The right to own and bear arms, which these socialists are also trying to abolish (nevermind that Democrats have kowtowed to the gun lobby so abjectly that they publicly admire, as Elena Kagan did recently, the beauty of prized weapons) can and will be used to stop them.'

And all the while, throughout all such ranting and raving from tea partiers and Republican congresspersons alike, we are supposed to believe that this mess of confused, paranoid thinking is the product of “rational actors.” That, indeed, the recent collapse of Wall Street was also the result of the genius of the free market directed by all those “rational actors” enthroned there (most of whom, it should be noted, play both ends of this game—on the one hand saying that those who bought their toxic products knew the risks they were taking, i.e. were “rational actors;” and on the other, subscribing fully to the dominant marketing game of subliminally appealing to consumer emotions when inducing them to buy useless, irrational products).

The second element, though, makes plain why the whole theory not only falters, but produces the kinds of hysteria noted above. That is because the economic theory of rational actors is based on a fundamental falsehood which behavioral economists and neuroscientists have been elucidating for years. The full story is complex and still being formed. But the basics are quite simple. Humans do not make key decisions based on the rational part of the brain. Their decisions, rather, come about either before rational consciousness has a chance to even think, or from deeper areas of the brain that govern the emotions. Rational consciousness—the ego in Freudian parlance—is too often a ‘rationalizer.’ As neuroscientists like Michael Gazzaniga have demonstrated, the left brain, the verbal rational side, usually provides a good story line to explain what it finds itself doing. It is a narrator. It rationalizes activities that subconscious processes have already decided to embark upon. I have written about this in discussing a book by Dan Ariely called Predictably Irrational. Jonathan Haidt makes the same point in more telling psychological detail. In his notable essay, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” (Psychological Review 108: 2001), Haidt points out that though reasoning can be a factor in making a moral judgment, it is intuition—“the sudden appearance in consciousness of a moral judgment without any conscious awareness of having gone through steps of search, weighing evidence, or inferring a conclusion”—that plays a far more decisive role. Note the language. Though we all presume (and economists base their whole ‘science’ on the presumption) that when we make a judgment, we reason it through by ‘weighing evidence’ and inferring a conclusion based on the facts, the truth more often is that our process is ‘sudden’ and outside our conscious awareness. It is intuitive (based in early training and bodily experience). The reasoning process—and it is there—more often follows our decision. As Haidt notes, “The reasoning process is more like a lawyer defending a client than a judge or scientist seeking truth.”

But don’t psychological ‘tests’ show that subjects reason about conclusions when making judgments? Haidt explains that the problem lies with the interview process. When a stranger (research psychologist) asks questions and challenges a subject’s tentative judgments about hypothetical moral issues, the subject is then likely to engage in reason to ferret out the truth in ways that we imagine we do all the time: “Standard moral judgment interviews may therefore create an unnaturally reasoned form of moral judgment, leading to the erroneous conclusion that moral judgment is primarily a reasoning process.” The other process that can distort things is that people adjust their judgments (using rationality) to conform with their theories about how the world works. So, if someone believes in a “just world” in which people generally get what they deserve, and is confronted with a situation where innocent victims get hurt, his or her world view is threatened. Rather than change the world view, such people change their view of the innocent victims, by blaming them: they must have done something to deserve it.

It is rather easy to see how this might work in the economic or political arena. If there are poor people, and our democratic, free economic system rewards work and effort, then the people who are poor must be defective: they refuse to work, or don’t want to work. There is no reason to help them or “reward” them for their poverty. Nor is there any reason to provide them with health care or any other care. That would deprive good people of their hard-earned money. It would deprive them of their “freedom.” Anyone who proposes such a thing must be irrational at best, and a diabolical socialist or communist at worst.

When it comes to irrationality, there is one more element in Haidt’s analysis that deserves mention. Psychopaths are people who show a general lack of affective reactions, particularly those that would be triggered by the suffering of others (sympathy). However, they are able to reason perfectly well, and even solve hypothetical moral problems. Antonio Damasio has studied such defects and found a deficit of functioning (or even destruction) in the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain. The central deficit here is “loss of emotional responsiveness to the world in general and to one’s behavioral choices in particular.” When such people are faced with real decisions, Damasio has found, they perform badly, “showing poor judgment, indecisiveness, and what appears to be irrational behavior.” In short (and the full argument is far more subtle and detailed than I can be here) irrationality often associates with emotional deficit. Decisions about moral behavior and much else depend on having emotional responses to other human beings. It is not those who are concerned about the social welfare of others—like those dreaded liberals and socialists—who are “irrational.” On the contrary, it is those who have raised the false flag of cold, calculating reason to the status of the godhead—especially in economic/social matters—who can be considered irrational.

To sum up: the market fundamentalists who have nearly destroyed the American economy have done so under the banner of the so-called free market, raised to the level of an almighty controller of all things, including democracy. They have essentially said that with rational actors making economic (consumer) decisions, not just the market but politics itself, the welfare of the entire nation itself, is automatically and invisibly regulated. There is no need for government to regulate anything. There is no need for compassionate politicians to look out for the welfare of the people. There is need only for “rational” consumers making “rational” decisions. But what their beloved science—now in the form of behavioral psychology, behavioral economics, neuroscience, and linguistics—has begun to tell them is that the whole structure is based on a lie. And the response among those who have drunk the cool aid is predictable: outrage, irrationality, attacks on those who violate their most deeply-held beliefs, and the threat of violence against the violators.

One can only hope that Joe Brewer is right when he predicts that the whole sick project is dying. All that remains to be seen is how long it takes, and how destructive its dying gasp will be.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, May 7, 2010

BP and Lax Regulations

As if the Gulf Oil spill pouring from Beyond (British) Petroleum’s drilling rig weren’t bad enough, it’s beginning to appear that, as in the financial meltdown, the culprit was lax regulations. Democracy Now featured a segment on May 7 that referred to a May 6 Washington Post exposè revealing that the Minerals Management Service (part of the U.S. Interior Department) essentially gave BP a free pass on its drilling project. No environmental review was required. Here is what the Post said:

“Petrochemical giant BP didn't file a plan to specifically handle a major oil spill from an uncontrolled blowout at its Deepwater Horizon project because the federal agency that regulates offshore rigs changed its rules two years ago to exempt certain projects in the central Gulf region, according to an Associated Press review of official records.
The Minerals Management Service, an arm of the Interior Department known for its cozy relationship with major oil companies, says it issued the rule relief because some of the industrywide mandates weren’t practical for all of the exploratory and production projects operating in the Gulf region.”

According to Democracy Now, this “relief” for certain projects is called a “categorical exemption” and it is meant to circumvent cumbersome environmental reviews for SMALL projects like outhouses or hiking trails. In this case, BP was allowed to slip through this little loophole and engage in drilling without a review at all. Its own assessment was used by MMS, to wit, that spills are unlikely, and in the event one should occur, it wouldn’t exceed a few thousand gallons. This is the Big Lie of offshore drilling according to Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, who was interviewed on Democracy Now:

‘Offshore drilling is safe, and anyway it’s not where spills come from.’

So much for that one. The other big problem, according to Mr. Suckling, is the now head of the Interior Department, Ken Salazar. While he was a senator, Salazar was the darling of the oil drilling industry, receiving huge campaign donations from BP itself. When he became Interior Secretary, he promised, according to Suckling, to reign in the permissiveness at Minerals Management, which had routinely been granting drilling permits without reviews. Instead, Salazar has become a major proponent of offshore drilling, and even pushed MMS to pass more permits. In fact, Shell Oil Co. has a permit to begin offshore drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, where frigid waters make spills far worse than in the Gulf (witness what happened with the Exxon Valdez in 1989).

One more rat in the attic. It turns out that a major player in BP’s exploded drilling rig was our old friend Halliburton. They were the ones who did the concrete work that preceded not only the Gulf Oil spill, but another recent one off Australia. Here is what a recent piece in the Huffington Post (reprinted in Truthout) says:

“Giant oil-services provider Halliburton may be a primary suspect in the investigation into the oil rig explosion that has devastated the Gulf Coast, The Wall Street Journal reports…drilling experts agree that blame probably lies with flaws in the ‘cementing’ process - that is, plugging holes in the pipeline seal by pumping cement into it from the rig. Halliburton was in charge of cementing for Deepwater Horizon.” (“Was the Gulf Oil Spill an Act of War? You Betcha,” May 6, 2010)

So there you have it. British Petroleum, which touts itself as a major environmental player (save, of course, for its little oil-sands project in Canada—referred to in my recent blog on “Moral Economics”) ducked under environmental protection rules with a little government help, and used as its cementer, the great Halliburton of Dick Cheney and Iraq fame. Other than a minor environmental catastrophe, what could be bad?

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Israel, Iran, and Nukes

The latest public flap over the alleged nuclear weapons program engaged in by Iran, coupled with the deafening silence over the fact that Israel already has an estimated 200 nuclear weapons with no inspection by the IAEA, bespeaks more than just hypocrisy. What it also portends is an attack on Iran by Israel, with the possibility of nuclear retaliation by the United States if Iran tries to fight back. This is the opinion of Gareth Porter in a piece published on April 24 (“U.S. Nuclear Option on Iran Linked to Israeli Attack Threat”). In it, Porter noted that the Obama administration’s announced Nuclear Posture Review for the first time states publicly that “it is reserving the right to use nuclear weapons against Iran.” This is because “A war involving Iran that begins with an Israeli attack is the only plausible scenario that would fit the category of contingencies in the document.” Aside from the amazing nature of this proclamation by our so-called peacemaking nation, the question is why? Why would the Obama administration—one which most hopeful people had expected to REDUCE rather than increase the threat of nuclear war—need to publicly announce its right to use nukes, and against a nation which everyone knows has no nukes at all?

According to Porter’s analysis, which seems to make eminent sense, the announced threat is meant to persuade Iran that if Israel attacks its alleged nuclear sites (which Israel has continually threatened to do), the Iranians should not try to respond militarily against Israel. Why? Because in the event of such a ‘treacherous’ Iranian response, the United States could use its nuclear weapons against Iran. Indeed, it specifically reserves the right to do so, threatens to do so. For Iran this means that it now not only has to fear an attack by the most powerful nation in its region, Israel, but an attack by the most powerful nation in the world, the USA, and with its nuclear weapons bristling.

Now here is where it gets really disgusting. Monday, at the conference being held at the United Nations to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), President Ahmadinejad of Iran made a speech in which he fulminated against nuclear weapons themselves (“The nuclear bomb is a fire against humanity rather than a weapon for defense..”) and also criticized the United States for its above-noted threat to his nation. As the AP reported, “Ahmadinejad referred to the new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review’s provision retaining an option to use U.S. atomic arms against countries not in compliance with the nonproliferation pact, a charge Washington lays against Iran.” He also said, “Regrettably, the government of the United States has not only used nuclear weapons, but also continues to threaten to use such weapons against other countries, including Iran.” In response, of course, the United States and several of its European lap-dogs walked out on the Iranian President’s speech. When it came time for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to speak, she directed much of her talk at Ahmadinejad, saying that Iran was “flouting the rules” of the NPT, and trying to “do whatever it can to divert attention away from its own record and to attempt to evade accountability.” She also accused Iran of defying “the Security Council and the IAEA and plac(ing) the future of the nonproliferation regime in jeopardy.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea added that “the onus is on Iran” to clear up doubts about its uranium enrichment program (it should be noted that so far, all that exists are accusations; Iran is perfectly within its rights as an NPT signer to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes; what it cannot do is use that enriched uranium for nuclear weapons—which our most recent CIA review said it was NOT doing.)

No one, however, mentioned either Israel’s existing nuclear weapons and refusal to join the NPT (no doubts about that), or the similar possession and refusal of Pakistan and India. It’s the unmentionable 2-ton gorilla in the room. For, as Thalif Deen points out in a May 3 Interpress Service article (reprinted on Common Dreams),

“at last month’s nuclear security summit in Washington DC, U.S. President Barack Obama was asked about Israel’s nuclear weapons program. But he diplomatically sidestepped the question when he pointedly told reporters: ‘As far as Israel goes, I’m not going to comment on their (nuclear weapons) program. What I’m going to point to is the fact that consistently we have urged all countries to become members of the NPT. So there’s no contradiction there. [Oh really?] And so whether we’re talking about Israel or any other country, we think that becoming part of the NPT is important.’”

Isn’t that cute? Though the President of the United States thinks it’s “important” to become part of the NPT, he just can’t comment on Israel’s nukes (Why? Would he be struck by lightning? Sent to jail? Caught in his own hypocrisy?). He will say, though, that he has “urged” all countries to join. So again—why won’t our closest ally join? What does Israel have to hide? What options—like using its weapons in a first strike, or obliterating one of its many enemies in the Middle East—does it refuse to give up? Indeed, how is it that the United States, the great peacemaker and promoter of the NPT, not only refuses to abandon its own nuclear arsenal (the Soviet Union no longer exists after all), but specifically claims the right to use nukes against those countries not in compliance with the NPT? (which, we are sure, does NOT refer to Pakistan or India, who never joined; or to North Korea which, though it’s not in compliance, has nukes of its own and that could be messy; could it be Iran?)

In fact, it is not just Iran, but much of the rest of the world that wants such questions answered. At the UN’s NPT Review conference, that is, 118 out of 192 nations demanded that Israel reveal its nuclear weapons program and join the NPT (NB: nations in the NPT which have nukes are supposed to make every effort to get rid of them). The 118 Non-Aligned Movement nations, through their spokesman, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa, asserted that Israel’s refusal to sign the NPT has exposed the entire region to nuclear threats from “the only country possessing these weapons of mass destruction.” With its “unsafeguarded nuclear facilities and activities of unknown safety standards,” (because by not joining the NPT, Israel does not have to submit to IAEA inspections) Israel’s nuclear program not only exposes its neighbors to great risks, but also threatens a nuclear arms race of “catastrophic regional and international potential.” Such a situation, Natelagawa said, jeopardizes the NPT itself, as well as the proposed creation of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, something Ahmadinejad also referred to (see Thalif Deen, “Israel, Iran Targeted at Nuke Non-Proliferation Meet,”, May 3, 2010).

What, then, can one say about the prospects for a revitalized NPT—especially in light of the fact that, with a United States assurance of nuclear backing, Israel may even now be planning a military strike against Iran? One would have to say the prospects are dim. Though President Obama seems sincere in his desire to rid the world of these weapons, or at least to bring them under greater control, he also seems hamstrung by the “special relationship” with the nuclear-armed pit bull known as Israel. He seems equally committed to creating a convenient scapegoat of Iran—whose loose cannon of a president, and fundamentalist mullahs in charge, make perfect whipping boys. With such elements in place, and with the United States’ reputation in tatters from a decade of unprovoked attacks against three Islamic nations, one would have to be far more of an optimist than I am to think things nuclear might resolve any time soon. On the other hand, if a sufficient body of world opinion decides to reject blatant nuclear hypocrisy and starts demanding something like full disclosure about nuclear weapons (including those of the thus-far unmentionable nations), it might happen. For our future’s sake, we should all hope and pray that it does.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, May 3, 2010

Food, Inc.

I recently watched the documentary, Food, Inc., by Robert Kenner, and I recommend that every person who is brave enough to know about the food he/she eats in America go out today and rent it, order it from Netflix, or get it from your local library (where I got mine; though I saw it first on my local PBS station). Now I, like many of you, have read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation; have read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (both of whom star in Food, Inc.); have read many other books on food and genetic engineering. But this documentary packs a more powerful visual and emotional punch than any single book could. That’s because you can read about the horrors of industrial agriculture, of chicken/hog/cattle ‘food operations’ (CAFOs), but until you see one, you can’t really imagine the sheer filth, cruelty and torture imposed on creatures whose health cannot help but be related to our own. Indeed, at one point in the section on chicken farming (one cannot really call it “farming” any more; it is industrialized mass slaughter of the most brutal kind), where a chicken farmer named Carole Morrison, masked to keep from breathing in the dust and feces pervading the place, was culling dead birds from her barn floor (after explaining that because of the large breasts demanded by American fast food, modern chickens have become so top-heavy that their internal organs and bones can’t hold them up and they flop to the floor after a few steps)—I began to weep. My guess is that each person will be moved in this way by a different segment of the film, but my hope is that you’ll stick with it long enough to become outraged. For as the film points out, this story isn’t just about what we’re eating. It’s about what anyone can say about it. And that’s what everyone needs to know: the stranglehold that a few American corporations have over the production and distribution of food (and how that production is, or is not, regulated) in these United States is increasing daily.

It has not always been so. When I was growing up, we bought our chickens from a chicken store in our neighborhood that had live chickens in wooden cages. You selected one, the butcher would slaughter it right there, and you would bring it home to remove the tiny feather quills still in the chicken, clean out the guts, and cook it. You knew what you were eating. But since the beginning of industrial agriculture—which began in the 1930s with fast food drive-ins, and then really exploded when the McDonald brothers brought the factory system into the back of their drive-in restaurant (making each worker do one thing over and over, so unskilled workers could be hired more cheaply and the servers could be dispensed with completely), not just fast food but ALL food grown in America has changed utterly. That’s because of the gargantuan volume of meat and all else that fast-food chains buy. McDonald’s, for instance, is the largest purchaser of ground beef, potatoes and tomatoes in the United States. What they demand is uniformity: all ground beef the same, all potatoes the same variety. And all grown the same way, on a massive scale. The result: in the 1970s, the top five beef packers controlled only 25% of the market; today, the top four control 80% of the market. So virtually all meat is grown (corn-fed) and processed in the same way, and the hamburger that results comes from hugely varied places (and countries), all mixed together into ground beef that has a far higher chance of being contaminated with E. coli than when you were getting your hamburger from one steer part ground right in front of you at your local meat market. Of course, the meat packers know there’s this little problem (more about that later), so rather than change the way beef is fed and medicated and slaughtered, they try technological fixes. One such fix involves washing the beef with ammonia (ammonium hydroxide) in a gleaming stainless steel plant. As the documentary notes in print: “The finished product. Hamburger meat filler that’s been cleansed with ammonia to kill E. coli.” We see this stuff (mashed-up everything-left-over) being packed in plastic-lined boxes, but it doesn’t look like meat at all; it looks like a huge rectangle of white, pasty stuff that resembles glue. And the owner of this plant brags: “Our meat is 70% of the hamburger in the country and soon will be 100%.”

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching part of the film relates to this E. coli problem. Barbara Kowalcyk, a registered Republican, tells the story of her son Kevin, who at age 2 ½ ate some fast-food hamburger in Colorado. Poisoned by E. coli 157H7 (which never grew in the naturally acidic cow rumen before the feedlot revolution, which forces corn into an animal evolved to eat grass), he died in twelve days of kidney failure, begging for water he was not allowed to drink more than a few drops of due to his condition. Since then, Kowalcyk, with her mother, have been haunting the halls of Congress to get legislation passed to implement rules for meat contamination that would allow the USDA, once again, to shut down plants that repeatedly produce contaminated meat (in 1998, the courts ruled that the USDA did NOT have this authority). As of the time the documentary was produced, Kevin’s Law still had not passed the Congress. Kowalcyk is shown testifying:

“It has been seven years since my son died. All I wanted the company to do was say ‘we’re sorry we produced this defective product that killed your child and this is what we’re going to do to be sure it wouldn’t happen again.’ That’s all we wanted. And they couldn’t give me that.”

Moreover, later in the film Barbara Kowalcyk is asked about a specific product that is problematic, and she declines to answer, saying “they have made it against the law to criticize their products.” She cited the Oprah case, wherein a comment about not eating hamburger resulted in a lawsuit that cost the TV star over a million dollars to fight off, as well as a Colorado law making it a “felony under veggie libel law to criticize a product, so you could go to prison…” This sequence ends by noting that the food industry is now proposing laws to make it a crime to photograph a food-processing operation like a feedlot or chicken factory—a law which would have made Food, Inc. an illegal film.

Which is exactly the point. Industrial food corporations do not want American consumers to know where their food comes from (or rather, they want to maintain the illusion of pastoral farms with happy cows). If they did know, if every American watched Food, Inc., the whole sick structure would collapse. Corporate America, therefore, spends billions of dollars lobbying members of Congress for ever-more draconian laws to allow them to do whatever they want, and to restrict investigations into their evil practices. Monsanto (I have just noticed that this pesticidal, genetic-engineering monster now has a website devoted to answering questions about the issues raised by Food, Inc.—indicating that these bastards have been hit hard by the film and will stop at nothing to propagandize against it. See, for example, used to employ Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as one of its lawyers (they have legions of them). Instead of recusing himself (as Stephen Breyer did), Thomas is preparing to hear the latest case against Monsanto, currently making its third appeal in its genetically-engineered alfalfa case. Without Breyer, and with Thomas already in their pockets (he has written key decisions in previous cases favoring his former employer), a decision for Monsanto could end up giving them ownership over the fourth largest crop in the United States (along with their monopoly on soybeans.) For this compassionate purveyor of Agent Orange (the toxic Monsanto herbicide the U.S. Military used 72 million liters of, spraying it over 1 million Vietnamese civilians and 100,000 U.S. troops), it will be business as usual. This means that more and more farmers trying to grow conventional crops, saving seeds as farmers have always done, will be sued by Monsanto for “patent infringement.” Food, Inc., essentially ends with a Monsanto segment about this, interviewing desperate farmers who have been driven out of business by this techno-devil.

The trouble began in 1990, when Monsanto began selling Roundup Ready soybeans (a genetically-altered soybean seed that is able to survive spraying with the Monsanto pesticide, Roundup, while everything else dies). At the time, only 2% of soybeans in the United States contained Monsanto’s patented gene. By 2008, over 90% of soybeans in the U.S. contained it. Worse, Monsanto began sending out its team of 75 thugs to investigate (and intimidate) farmers suspected of saving their seeds. If Monsanto finds the farmer’s field contaminated with its seed (farmers hate such contamination, but are helpless to prevent it), these farmers can then be sued for patent infringement. Most farmers, faced with the grueling prospect of an expensive court fight wherein they have to prove they have not violated Monsanto’s patents (i.e. by intentionally stealing their seed), have quietly given up and succumbed to Roundup Ready seeds. But a few holdouts have been sticking to the old way, using seed cleaners to prepare their saved seeds for planting. Moe Parr, a seed cleaner who depends on traditional farmers who save seed, testifies that his is one of only six seed cleaners left in Indiana (there used to be three in every county, he asserts). He also reminds us that land grant colleges (most state universities) were in part founded to develop seed for their farmers, but “public breeding is a thing of the past.” Because of his alleged role in helping farmers to save seed (and resist Monsanto), Moe Parr was sued by Monsanto “on the basis that I’m encouraging farmers to break the patent by cleaning their own seed.”

Like other farmers, Parr tried to defend himself in a David vs. Goliath fight. The downward spiral progressed from farmers not wanting to be seen with him, to more and more of his money vanishing into court costs and lawyers. Parr is shown answering questions in court after Monsanto subpoenaed all of his financial records. Revealing each farmer who paid him, the records, if elaborated on, would force him to betray his friends. “This essentially puts me out of business,” he says. And in print we read: “Four months later, Moe Parr settles with Monsanto because he can no longer pay his legal bills.” The same scenario is repeated everywhere. Monsanto sues a farmer not because it has a legitimate case, but because it knows it can sustain endless legal costs while its victims cannot. The upshot is clear: Monsanto now owns the soybean, owns corn, and will soon own alfalfa.

There is far more in Food, Inc., but I think you get the idea. A few agribusiness giants now own all food production in this country, and their use of pesticides and other industrial processes is poisoning the crops, the animals, the waterways, the soil, and us. Since agribusiness also owns the Congress and other sectors of government (Anne Veneman, Bush’s Secretary of Agriculture, was on the Board of Directors of Monsanto’s Calgene Corp.), the likelihood of better regulation seems remote.

What can be done? Food, Inc. ends with some useful recommendations, all of which come down to this: know what you’re buying, and signal by your food choices that you reject corporatized industrial agriculture and all it stands for. Buy local if possible. And get involved through websites like the one produced by Organic Consumers: It can’t hurt, and just might push the corporations hard enough to modify and eventually break up their cash cows. Meantime, if you happen to run into one of the CEOs of Monsanto, or Cargill, or Smithfield Corp (they slaughter 32,000 hogs per day in their Tar Heel, NC plant)., or Tyson Foods (they hire ‘farmers’ to raise those breast-heavy ‘chickens’ in dark windowless sheds that hold 300,000 birds; typical salary, $18,000; typical debt, $500,000.) , or McDonald’s, you have my permission and encouragement to give them a piece of your….mind, of course.

Lawrence DiStasi