Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Real GOP Agenda

In the crisis over approving a rise in the debt ceiling which they themselves created, the Republican Party has reached a new high in hypocrisy and cruelty, not to mention madness. But since calling someone “insane” tends to let him or her off the hook (see Anders Breivik and his 1500-page manifesto), I’ll table that as well as the hypocrisy, and get to the point. The GOP has a clear agenda—to cut government to the bone—and that is what needs to be examined. This is because it is obvious that the GOP doesn’t seem to have any problem with government handouts—so long as the handouts go to banks/Wall Street execs, military contractors, weapons manufacturers, oil companies, big Pharma and giant agribusinesses. They also don’t seem to have any axe to grind when it comes to government privileges for their favorite fundamentalist churches and anti-science wackadoos. What they have set their sights on are “entitlement” programs for the poor, the elderly, the underprivileged: you know, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Nevermind that Social Security is paid for over a lifetime of labor by those who get it (providing, by the way, a handy fund for the politicians themselves to “borrow” from whenever they need a little extra cash for a war they refuse to pay for). Nevermind that without Medicare, millions would be deprived of the minimal care that can’t even approach the luxurious health plan the pols have crafted for themselves. The most visible targets are government agencies like the EPA, the Internal Revenue Service, the National Parks, the Department of Education, Head Start, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, OSHA etc; and at the local level, the public schools, the public colleges, the parole and prison departments, and all departments that service, again, the poor, the unprivileged young, the elderly, the handicapped. What they can’t get rid of, they will try to privatize—again for the benefit of their corporate funders.

Consider a few lines from a piece by Nicholas Krisof (“Republicans, Zealots and Our Security”) in last Sunday’s NY Times. He first quotes Congresswoman Rosa Di Lauro:
“The attack on literacy programs reflects a broader assault on education programs,” said Rosa DeLauro, a Democratic member of Congress from Connecticut. She notes that Republicans want to cut everything from early childhood programs to Pell grants for college students. Republican proposals have singled out some 43 education programs for elimination, but it’s not seen as equally essential to end tax loopholes on hedge fund managers.
So let’s remember not only the national security risks posed by Iran and Al Qaeda. Let’s also focus on the risks, however unintentional, from domestic zealots.

What struck me in this last line was Kristof’s qualifier: “however unintentional.” The truth is, the GOP’s rampage against “bloated government” is both quite rational and viciously intentional (again, Anders Breivik comes to mind). It is to gut every program put together by Democrats from FDR’s Depression programs to LBJ’s Great Society, programs to provide not just a minimal safety net for the least fortunate Americans, but opportunity for all those who have been able, finally, to gain a tentative purchase on a decent life by finding government jobs at various levels. This is the whole point of the GOP’s coordinated campaign to destroy unions, “cut waste from government,” and cut taxes. It’s about eliminating the revenue source for those government jobs. It’s about cutting off the voter base—mostly Democrat—that those government jobs represent. And at its core, it’s about putting back in their place—at the lowest levels of society—all those “uppity” minorities who, through government equal-employment mandates, have ‘risen above their station.’ This includes blacks, Hispanics, and women, as well as the lefties and liberals who have long argued for the inclusion of such minorities in America’s prosperity.

It is this that most grates on the Republican zealots—now concentrated more than ever in the South and the West/Midwest. They hate the fact that teachers have tenure and all those “luxurious” pension plans. They hate the perceived “laziness” of government workers with “cushy” jobs and pension plans. Though it may bring them down as well (and it is doing just that; the massive loss of government jobs in the wake of the 2008 collapse is responsible for a large part of the high and persistent unemployment rate), they are willing to sacrifice their own well-being in order to appease their toxic resentment. This resentment is clear in the symbolic language (“to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub”) used by the guru of this movement, Grover Norquist. Drown it in the bathtub? What is the size Norquist means here? Baby size? An infant drowned in a bathtub? Who would use such imagery? A privatizing Republican zealot, that’s who. An artist of propaganda, of revenge, of cruelty. The heir to those massive crowds in the pre- and post-Civil War South who could relish the spectacle of torturing, burning, hanging a human being who had dared to transgress their sacred code of two worlds that could never, ever meet.

And with a black man in the White House, that resentment has only festered and grown more virulent, more ugly. Of course not even the most conservative of GOP leaders can come right out and give this voice. So they use the symbolic language of cutting taxes to cut government spending.

But don’t be fooled. If you’re wondering why the GOP is hell-bent on destroying government (even as Republicans and their corporate masters suck from the tit of that same government, and display a fierce determination to re-take its most visible power source), you can start with two simple but toxic causes: racism and resentment. Then add the infinite greed and casual cruelty of the elite (the top 1% of Americans now control more wealth than the bottom 90% combined; median wealth of Anglo households is now 20 times that of black households—see July 27 Pew Research report), and you’re pretty much there.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, July 29, 2011


I was reading James Gleick’s new book, The Information, the other day, and came across this new (relatively; it was added to dictionaries in this century) word that struck me as both hilarious and fertile. It’s mondegreen, and it refers to a situation that most of us have experienced at one time or another: You hear a line of poetry or music, and interpret it in your own unique—and erroneous—way. Here’s the type case, recorded by Sylvia Wright in her essay “The Death of Lady Mondegreen,” published in Harper’s in 1954. As a girl, Wright wrote, she misheard the ballad “The Bonny Earl O’Moray,” which her mother would always read to her, as follows:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

This made sense to a young girl, until she discovered the real last line:

“And laid him on the green.”

As I thought about this later, it sounded more and more hilarious, perhaps because I heard a mondegreen even more ridiculous when I was a child. It involved the Lord’s Prayer, whose last line (in the Catholic rendering) was: “And deliver us from evil.” Now for some reason, that didn’t make sense to me—I suppose because I knew about delivering things to someone, but what could possibly be meant by delivering me from something, and particularly something like “evil.” What, I was to become a package that the Lord would deliver? Whatever the reason, instead of “from,” I heard “And deliver us strom evil,” which of course doesn’t make sense either, but that’s how I heard it. To my 6- or 7-year old mind, it apparently made more sense. I can’t even remember when I figured out the real words.

It appears that lots of people have mondegreens in their past, and maybe in their present too. Here are some others Wright herself suggested:

Surely Good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life ("Surely goodness and mercy…" from Psalm 23)
The wild, strange battle cry "Haffely, Gaffely, Gaffely, Gonward." ("Half a league, half a league,/ Half a league onward," from "The Charge of the Light Brigade").

Wikipedia provides more examples, the first from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, whose top all-time favorite submissions from readers include:

There's a bathroom on the right (the line at the end of each verse of "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival: "There's a bad moon on the rise")

This points to Gleick’s notion that mondegreens have been proliferating more lately due to mass forms of communication such as the internet. Thus, the most misheard lyric of all time may be a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light,” where the line, “revved up like a deuce,” is heard by millions as “wrapped up like a douche.”

What’s behind mondegreens is the simple, but not obvious fact that our perceptions are not passive, but actively constructed by our brains. Our brains constantly seek meaning in what we see, hear, smell, touch. If what we perceive doesn’t make sense to us (at whatever age or level of understanding), then our brains construct an interpretation that fits our understanding or our preferences or our expectations based on the world we commonly experience. Since lyrics in music are notoriously hard to understand, it is often lyrics that get mangled into mondegreens. What may be oddest about mondegreens, though, is what cognitive scientist Steven Pinker notes about them: “that the mishearings are generally less plausible than the intended lyrics.” To wit, “deliver us strom evil.”

Implausible or ridiculous or silly, something about these things just tickles me. Here are some more.
Bennie and the Jets: “She’s got electric boots, a mohair suit.”
mondegreen: “She’s got electric boobs, and mohair shoes.”
Malachy McCourt, from the Hail Mary: “Blessed art Thou amongst women.”
mondegreen: “Blessed art Thou a monk swimming.”
Beverly Cleary’s Ramona on The Star Spangled Banner: “By the dawn’s early light.”
mondegreen: “By the dawnzer lee light.”
“Away in a Manger:” “The cattle are lowing/ The poor Baby wakes”
mondegreen: “The cattle are lonely…”
“God Rest Ye merry, Gentlemen:” “God rest ye merry, gentlemen/ Let nothing you dismay”
mondegreen: “Get dressed ye married gentlemen/ Let nothing through this May.”
“The Pledge of Allegiance:” “I pledge allegiance to the flag.”
mondegreen: “I led the pigeons to the flag.”
“He’s Got the Whole World:” “He’s got the whole world in his hand”
mondegreen: “He’s got the whole world in his pants.”
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds:” “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes”
mondegreen: “The girl with colitis goes by.”

What more is there to say? Perhaps to recommend just a little more ability to laugh at ourselves: We so often get the words, and the world, wrong.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, July 14, 2011

And Justice For All

I have to tell you: I’m no fan of the so-called “justice system” in America these days. “Liberty and Justice for All?” Don’t make me laugh. Because what we have is a system that has become so rigged—against the poor and unfortunate, in favor of the rich and powerful—that the line in the Pledge of Allegiance begins to seem a sick joke.

Consider just some recent instances. Jaycee Dugard just gave her first in-depth interview to one of our blonde sweeties on TV, and though what she said had mostly sentimental interest (we all wait breathlessly for such people to cry or at least tear up), the reminder of how easily a convicted sex offender outwitted his parole officers for 18 years—officers who made over 60 visits to the property where Phillip Garrido held Jaycee and her two children without ever once thinking to look in the backyard; with one such visit actually videotaped by Garrido’s “wife” showing this idiot parole officer being led around the house and ushered out the door before he could even think to ask about the backyard horror show—leaves one gasping for breath. So does the reminder that after a neighbor called 911 to report the presence of two young girls in this sex offender’s backyard, a sheriff was duly dispatched to the place BUT limited his visit to the front porch and some fluff questions of Garrido, again without ever looking into the backyard! Even when the parole department was informed by a UC Berkeley policewoman that she had seen Garrido on campus several times with two young girls who appeared “robotic,” these cretins tried to explain the young girls away as “perhaps his granddaughters.” Until some Sherlock realized that since Garrido had no daughters, granddaughters might be problematic, and so called him in; whereupon he solved their case for them by bringing in the whole family, Dugard and all.

Now mix with what Frontline displayed on their riveting program this week. Titled “The Confessions,” it related the case of the “Norfolk 4,” a group of US Navy underlings who ran into the buzz saw of a rape/murder case and paid dearly (no “support our troops” blather here). That is, a fellow Navy man returned to his garden apartment to find his wife Michelle Bosko raped and murdered, whereupon his neighbor Danial Williams, himself married for little more than a week, came to his aid, called 911, and reported the crime. Enter the brilliant cops of Norfolk, VA, who decided it was this good Samaritan neighbor who had done the deed, and called him in for questioning. “Questioning” is a euphemism here, for after the female detective, Maureen Evans, in charge was unable to wring a confession out of Williams, she called in the “bulldog” of the force, Detective Robert Glenn Ford. Ford was notorious for his interrogation technique, one apparently modeled on Rambo types like Sipowicz on NYPD Blue. And sure enough, after about eleven hours of denials, and assurances that he had failed his lie detector test (he hadn’t), Danial Williams succumbed to Ford’s grilling and confessed. Not only did he confess, he gave details of the crime, such as beating Michelle with his shoe. The only problem was that Danial’s confession didn’t match the forensics; Michelle wasn’t hit with a shoe, she was stabbed and strangled. Danial was then induced to amend his confession to match the details he had been given by the detectives (itself a crime), and the investigation was closed.

But four months later, another problem: Danial’s DNA didn’t match the semen recovered from the crime scene. Now, rather than admitting their mistake, detectives “reasoned” that there must be an accomplice, and they picked up Williams’ roommate on the USS Saipan, Joe Dick. It was now Dick’s turn to be grilled by Detective Ford. And eventually, the poor sailor confessed as well, actually coming to believe that he had been involved in the crime (he hadn’t). The police then asked for his DNA and he gave both hair and blood samples thinking he’d surely be in the clear. But though his DNA didn’t (and couldn’t) match the crime, this didn’t exonerate him either; the Norfolk police simply concluded that there must be yet another accomplice, and grilled Dick to supply one.

To make a long story short, the police eventually got no less than seven men charged as accomplices in the crime. Four of them (Williams, Dick, Eric Wilson, Derek Tice), after intense interrogations, gave the police confessions, and under pressure even named three others (Rick Pauley, Geoffrey Farris, John Danser) as accomplices. Still, though, that pesky DNA match refused to turn up. What is even more bizarre is that a DNA match did eventually turn up; it belonged to a sex offender in prison, Omar Abdul Ballard, who wrote to a friend boasting that it had been he who had raped and murdered Michelle Bosko. The letter made its way to the police, and when Ballard’s DNA was compared to that found at the crime scene, it matched. Now, at last, the police had their man. Surely the others would be released; or at least this is the way it would have happened on TV. But this was real life in a real case, with defendants who are not wealthy, nor gifted with much confidence or self-esteem, not to mention a police force and a justice system—this is Virginia, after all, the state with the third highest death penalty conviction rate in the nation—that doesn’t have any truck with bleeding-heart liberal presumptions like the one that presumes a person is innocent until proven guilty. No, these are tough guys (and girls) who believe in their innate ability to see through the lies and denials of bad guys, and their sacred duty to put them away, DNA be damned. Besides, they had those detailed confessions. So they came up with the most preposterous scenario of all: the Navy suspects had run into Ballard in the parking lot of the apartment complex, and conspired to all go in and rape Michelle Bosko. The confessions—at least of the four above—proved it. So three men were acquitted, but five of them—the actual killer, Ballard, and the four sailors who had confessed—were all convicted and sentenced to prison, most to languish there (from eight to thirteen years) until a reluctant Governor Kaine, yielding to growing publicity, granted the four conditional pardons that released them but did not overturn their convictions. They are still convicted felons and registered sex offenders.

Frontline’s web page has several auxiliary articles about this case that reveal some astonishing research. First, confessions are an ironclad element in most prosecutions, convincing not only the police but also prosecutors, judges, juries, and even the defendants’ lawyers of a suspect’s guilt. Especially when it contains details of the crime which an innocent defendant could not know, the confession remains an irrefutable demonstration of guilt in the minds of most people. Otherwise, why would an innocent person confess?

The answer is that it is surprisingly easy to get a person to confess after hours of grilling by bulldog cops like Robert Ford. Countless research projects have proved this, including one by law professor Richard Leo, who was interviewed on the Frontline program. In a 2009 paper (“False Confessions: Causes, Consequences, Implications,” J Ac Ad Psychiatry Law 37:332– 43, 2009) Leo details the personality types who are most susceptible to police pressure: they are often those “who are highly suggestible, (and) tend to have poor memories, high levels of anxiety, low self-esteem, and low assertiveness.” In addition they tend to be conflict avoiders, acquiescent, and most important in the Norfolk 4 case, “eager to please others, especially authority figures.” Conditions like sleep deprivation, fatigue, and drug and alcohol withdrawal add to their susceptibility. All or most of these conditions were met in the case of the Norfolk 4, including those conditions specifically designed to entrap the innocent: isolation, disempowerment, and the type of high stress that some individuals find almost unbearable. Add to this the type of psychological coercion that interrogators like Robert Ford specialize in (assuring the suspect that the only way out is to confess; alternately threatening and offering to provide leniency for cooperation; lying to the suspect about evidence, like the result of lie detector tests or the presence of confirming witnesses; and feeding information to the suspect to guide him in providing details of the crime he has supposedly committed). All of these are highly illegal procedures, but unless a videotape is made of the interrogation, the suspect has no way of proving that his confession was coerced or even guided. And the prosecution has that damning evidence, the confession, to cinch its case. Still, can even these techniques actually persuade an innocent person to sign a detailed confession of his guilt? Though most people believe they cannot, the Norfolk 4 case and numerous others prove that they can, and do, and have: as one researcher (Kassin) notes, “the pages of legal history are filled with stories of coerced-compliant confessions.”

One other macabre note to this Norfolk 4 case: Detective Robert Glenn Ford, the man who extracted (one might even say “authored”) those confessions, was subsequently charged with criminal conduct of his own: taking “bribes from criminals in exchange for getting them favorable treatment in court.” The Virginia Pilot noted that “on February 25, 2011, Robert Glenn Ford was sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison following his conviction in 2010 for extortion and lying to the FBI.” But not even this proof of corruption by Ford was enough to convince the legal system it had made a mistake. On March 2, even after Governor Tim Kaine’s pardon, Chief Judge Everett Martin dismissed petitions filed by Williams, Dick, and Wilson that their convictions be thrown out. The judge said that “evidence was lacking” to support the claim that Ford’s conviction should invalidate his questionable interrogations in the Norfolk 4 case. Nothing, it seems, can stop the wheels of the law from grinding onward, corruption and DNA proof be damned.

This is actually what I wanted to write about. Justice, in our vaunted system, is supposed to be impartial. The female image of Justice with a blindfold conveys the idea: justice is blind, i.e., blind to differences that might favor one group over another. But in actual practice, it is the administrators of alleged justice—police, prosecutors, judges and juries—who prove to be blind in the most pernicious sense. American jails offer mute testimony to this, filled as they are with the unfortunate discards that our society increasingly finds superfluous, countless people of color who are sentenced for drug crimes, for third-strike often-petty crimes, and as we now know, those like the Norfolk 4 who are coerced into plea bargains or coerced confessions with the promise of staying out of the death chamber. At the other end of the spectrum are those whom “justice” favors: police like Johannes Mehserle, actually filmed killing a black man on the Bart platform in Oakland, yet sentenced to a mere two years in prison; the countless high-rollers on Wall Street whose crime was global in bringing down the entire financial system, but who as yet remain unpunished; the lawyers advising the Bush administration (John Yoo et. al.), who literally legalized torture and war, yet are never charged; “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Dick Cheney, who got a slap on the wrist (30 months in prison, the sentence then commuted by Pres. Bush) for his role in lying and other crimes related to his outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

What this comes down to is that the enforcers of our great system—and I include cops on the beat, parole officers, and those “officers of the court,” the lawyers, prosecutors and judges; as well as the soldiers who kill for the empire in wars and “police actions” around the globe like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, et. al.—have a very clear assignment. It is not to protect the innocent, the poor, the helpless women and children we hear and see so much about on the TV programs designed to valorize and glorify the FBI, the cops, and our heroes in battle. It is to protect the life, liberty and property of the rich and the powerful. All other functions are in the nature of a “by the way.” This is easiest to see in foreign policy. The wars we have engaged in over the last half-century and more have been increasingly (perhaps always) aimed at places and countries where American business has vital property interests and investments. Since America is a global empire whose chief policy is “globalization,” the bases meant to protect these investments now number more than 1,000 (“The Worldwide Network of U.S. Military Bases,, counts 737 foreign bases in 63 countries, plus bases in continental U.S., covering millions of acres). Any nation that dares to arrogate to itself too much of its own natural or unnatural resources is quickly disabused of the notion, by force if necessary. The war in Iraq is only the latest large example of this procedure. Smaller actions in Guatemala, Honduras, and Haiti, and threats to Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and Pakistan provide smaller instances. If we accept Proudhon’s notion that “property is theft” (we could also use deSade’s formulation, “Tracing the right of property back to its source, one infallibly arrives at usurpation” or Saint Ambrose’s “the superfluous property which you hold you have stolen”), we can conclude that “law” enforcement (including the military) primarily serves to protect systems of organized theft and the enslavement of the masses. Looking at the history of supposed free democracies like our own and, more recently, Israel, we can see that nation states are organized around this simple principle: expropriate the land and resources from the indigenous (and necessarily weaker) people who live there, and then create powerful armies and constabularies to protect and extend the theft—both the original one, and the continuing subtler expropriations by those in power (usually those who got to steal the property earliest).

“Justice” can then be shaped in two ways: for the masses, systems of mass propaganda to persuade the plebes that all have the same opportunities to gain power and obtain justice; for the elites, welcome access to the halls of legislation creating the “justice” that allows them to increasingly consolidate their power and add to their property. Thus, both property and justice are cumulative, increasing almost like forces of nature. In the opposite direction, slavery is also cumulative, increasing in proportion as justice for the many diminishes. By slavery, here, I mean not only the original kind enslaving those from Africa; I mean also the kind of powerlessness that led the Norfolk 4 (and thousands of others like them) to serve years in prison, even though a rational assessment of the evidence would have freed them years before. I mean the loss of property by millions in the housing and retirement-fund debacle of 2008, at the same time that the financial perpetrators of that debacle made off with billions, much of it provided by the government (i.e. John Q. Taxpayer) without any accountability whatever, with, rather, more wealth than ever.

As for the solution to this systemic rapine, I don’t have much to offer. One thought that occurs, though, especially after witnessing the outrageous injustice in the Norfolk 4 case, is this: turn the tables. Give the rich (and their Republican lackeys) a choice, one reflective of the choice offered to coerced suspects: they can either share the burden of the debacle they helped create by paying far more taxes, or they can take their chances as targets of the revolutionary tumbrels even now rumbling towards them. It’s their choice (and isn’t free choice the value our system cherishes most?)

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, July 10, 2011


One of the keys to eating these days is to strictly avoid knowing too much about where your food comes from. My last blog about modern pork-growing made that point, as have numerous books and documentaries like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the documentary Food, Inc., both of which show us the horrors of industrial meat growing. The latest addition to these nightmares is Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, by former editor of Gourmet Magazine, Barry Estabrook. The book has been showing up on radio shows recently, like NPR’s "All Things Considered," and Terry Gross’ "Fresh Air." I heard a segment on ATC the other day, and though we’ve all known for years that supermarket tomatoes, especially in winter, taste like wax, we didn’t know the whole gory story. Estabrook provides the details and it may make you swear off fresh tomatoes forever, except for those that come from your own garden.

That indeed, is how Estabrook starts out, reminding us that even in Vermont where he lives, he can take a patch of ground, put in a tomato seedling, and a couple of months later harvest something that tastes like a tomato. Then he notes that he recently asked Monica Ozores-Hampton, the chief guru for tomato farmers in Florida, what would happen if this same procedure were applied in Florida, and she simply replied “Nothing.” When Estabrook pressed her, she added:

“There would be nothing left of the seedling, not a trace. The soil here doesn't have any nitrogen, so it wouldn't have grown at all. The ground holds no moisture, so unless you watered regularly, the plant would certainly die. And, if it somehow survived, insect pests, bacteria, and fungal diseases would destroy it.” (quoted from excerpt of Tomatoland, (

And yet, one-third of all the fresh tomatoes grown in the U.S. are grown in Florida. How could this be? As Estabrook himself says, given the soil conditions—Florida’s tomatoes are grown on pure sand, in an environment rife with tons of bacteria and other “pests” that if left alone (the lack of winter allows them to multiply like fleas) would make mince-meat of a tomato crop—you would have to be an “idiot” to try growing tomatoes commercially in Florida. So, again, why are tomatoes Florida’s most valuable—in money terms, that is, amounting to about $1.5 billion annually--crop?

That’s what Estabrook’s book is about. And the story he tells is as revolting as the parallel stories about the American way of growing pigs, or cattle, or chickens or corn or any other industrial crop. That’s because tomatoes in Florida have to be virtually manufactured. Estabrook uses another metaphor, to convey what Florida growers must do to overcome soil with no nutrients or water, and teeming with insects and fungi—total war:

Florida growers have to wage what amounts to total war against the elements. Forget the Hague Convention: We're talking about chemical, biological, and scorched-earth warfare against the forces of nature.

In truth, the metaphor of “total war against nature” pretty much describes all large-scale agriculture in the United States because that is what has happened in this country since World War II. Farming, small family farming that is, once the backbone of our great democracy (forgetting slavery and a few other problems), took its cue from the total war of WWII, and became a chemicalized, machine-dominated pursuit that only huge agribusinesses could compete in. The growing of tomatoes in Florida is a perfect type case (though if you look into wheat, soy or corn farming in the Midwest these days, you’d see equally revolting instances of the same paradigm.)

In the tomato case, though, it’s even more manufactured due to the soil. Because where the prairies of the Midwest, at one time, consisted of huge expanses of rich, virgin soil, Florida’s terrain is pretty much sand. To turn sand into a growing medium, you have to add a few things: water, for one. But of course, sand won’t hold water, so the growers adopt the technique of flooding entire areas with some of the abundant ground water in Florida. It’s called “seepage irrigation” and it involves pumping huge quantities of water into the canals and ditches that cross farmers’ fields, letting the water seep down into the impermeable hard pan that underlies the sand, and letting the water “seep outward, moistening the sand from below.” Only in Florida could such irrigation be done because it has the necessary ingredients: sand for soil and that impermeable hard pan to keep the water from draining even further down.

After water, the next problem with sand is its lack of nutrients. This is where U of Florida Prof. Ozores-Hampton comes in. Originally from Chile, her specialty is soil nutrients and “the optimal level at which fertilizers should be applied so as to maximize production, leaving as little surplus nitrogen and potassium in the soil as possible” (so as to minimize costly waste as well as complaints about polluting groundwater, lakes and rivers in Florida’s vulnerable habitats like the Everglades). And if you were wondering just how much and how many fertilizer and chemical nutrients are required to make sand yield tomatoes, Estabrook has an answer: a lot. Some comes from cover crops planted in the off-season (the normal growing season of spring to summer); some comes from the laboratory. But that’s only the beginning; there are also those pesky bacteria and fungi thriving in Florida’s year round warmth and humidity to keep under control. In an interview Estabrook noted that Florida “applies more than 8 times the amount of pesticide and herbicides as does California, the next leading tomato grower.” He added:

“In order to get a successful crop of tomatoes, the official Florida handbook for tomato growers lists 110 different fungicides, pesticides and herbicides that can be applied to a tomato field over the course of the growing season. And many of those are what the Pesticide Action Network calls ‘bad actors’ — they’re kind of the worst of the worst in the agricultural chemical arsenal.”

So you’ve got chemicals for nutrients and chemicals to kill all the buggies that want to eat those nutrients, and then chemicals (ethylene gas) to fumigate the green, rock-hard tomatoes (growers have been breeding rock-hard tomatoes for years, at first so they could be picked by machine) that result so that they’ll turn orange or red at the proper time (they are required to keep for at least 10 days from the time they’re picked), and voila—picture-perfect, firm, tomatoes…that taste like plastic. But not to worry about the taste: as Estabrook explains, growers reason that they’re not paid to grow tasty tomatoes; they’re paid to grow tomatoes that will look good for as long as possible to taste-deaf American consumers.

All this, of course, says nothing about the temporary labor force required to pick all these tomatoes. Estabrook doesn’t mince words here. Describing the Mexicans and Guatemalans who make up this labor force, he says outright that it’s slavery:

“I came into this book chronicling a case of slavery in southwestern Florida that came to light in 2007 and 2008. And it was shocking. I’m not talking about near-slavery or slavery-like conditions. I’m talking about abject slavery. These were people who were bought and sold. These were people who were shackled in chains at night or locked in the back of produce trucks with no sanitary facilities all night. These were people who were forced to work whether they wanted to or not and if they didn't, they were beaten severely. If they tried to escape, they were either beaten worse or in some cases, they were killed. And they received little or no pay. It sounds like 1850. ... There have been seven [legal cases] in the last 10 or 15 years ... successfully brought to justice in Florida involving slavery. And 1,200 people have been freed. The U.S. Attorney for the district in Southern Florida claims that that just represents a tiny, tiny tip of an iceberg because it’s extraordinarily difficult to prosecute a modern-day slavery case.”

Of course, the growers have recently caved in to demands from a workers’ association (with prior pressure from Taco Bell, alarmed at the bad publicity slavery generates) to provide the workers with a penny more per pound picked, and even some tarps to provide the poor bastards with some shade. But it didn’t happen before a long, drawn-out fight. And with all the anti-immigrant laws being passed by states such as Arizona and Georgia, who knows how long it will last? Or how long before the need for these desperate migrant slaves disappears entirely—to succumb, like so many other jobs, to some more highly evolved machine.

Meantime, though, most Americans can continue to enjoy their year-round tomatoes, a continuing tribute, if only unconsciously, to the triumph of American technology over American taste—or American conscience.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, July 1, 2011

More Piggish than Pigs

My diet doesn’t include much pork—every week or two I will have a sausage and pepper sandwich, and perhaps once a year, eat pork roast on a holiday. But after this week, I will eat pork products no more: no sausage, no ham, no bacon, no pork chops, no salami or prosciutto. That’s because I’ve been jolted by more detailed information on what I’ve long known was a scandal, the corporatized factory-farming of pigs run by huge conglomerates like Smithfield Inc—the largest pork producer in the world. These are the folks that advertise their lovely sliced hams on the tube, evoking the recent past when pigs were raised by countless rural families (I used to see and hear a neighbor in suburban Connecticut slaughter his pig each year, a gory business but local, and known and understood by all as simply a family’s way of getting good clean meat for the year). The reality of today’s pork production, however, is far different and far more alarming.

The numbers alone are staggering: 27 million hogs killed in one year by Smithfield alone, equivalent to butchering and boxing the entire human populations of 32 of America’s largest cities. More astonishing is the quantity of pig excrement produced in these factory farms—because hogs produce three times more shit than a human being. As noted in Jeff Teitz’s, “Boss Hog,” Rolling Stone, December 2006:

The 500,000 pigs at a single Smithfield subsidiary in Utah generate more fecal matter each year than the 1.5 million inhabitants of Manhattan. The best estimates put Smithfield's total waste discharge at 26 million tons a year. That would fill four Yankee Stadiums.

And what do the hog producers do with all this shit? It’s enough to make you swear off pork, in fact off all meat produced by America’s industrial farm system, forever. Typically, the excrement is stored in ponds euphemistically called “lagoons.” So many chemicals pour into these lagoons via the antibiotics and other “medicines” needed to keep pigs more or less free of the bacteria that thrive in their crowded quarters that the ponds become toxic to anything that falls into them (several fatal cases of workers and even truckers falling into these lagoons have been documented by investigators—see “Boss Hog,” noted above ). The runoff from the ponds is equally toxic to rivers and bays and their fish; at one point, Smithfield, under attack for fouling the waters in North Carolina so badly that it was fined millions by the EPA, decided to engage in what it called “pollution control.” And what was that? Here’s what Teitz observed:

Looking down from a plane, we watch as several of Smithfield’s farmers spray their
hog shit straight up into the air as a fine mist: It looks like a public fountain. Lofted and atomized, the shit is blown clear of the company's property. People who breathe the shit-infused air suffer from bronchitis, asthma, heart palpitations, headaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds and brain damage. In 1995, a woman downwind from a corporate hog farm in Olivia, Minnesota, called a poison control center and described her symptoms. “Ma'am,” the poison-control officer told her, “the only symptoms of hydrogen-sulfide poisoning you're not experiencing are seizures, convulsions and death. Leave the area immediately.”

Never ones to waste anything, Smithfield’s operators then used the shit spray to fertilize nearby fields, supplying the feed to both the hogs and other farm animals. A perfect “made-in-America” solution, except for the fact that this nitrate-laden hay made livestock sick. But then, every solution has a down side. A few sick cattle, a few asthmatic humans breathing shit in their air, are nothing compared to the ingeniously productive farm methods of corporate America (Smithfield’s sales for the year ending in April 2010 were over $11 billion, with 48,000 employees).

As to the animals themselves, well they’re only pigs after all. Housing them—the artificially-inseminated females, that is, producing more little piggies for Smithfield—in fiendish devices called “gestation crates,” is no more than they deserve. And what are gestation crates? They’re cramped metal cages “too small to turn around in, devoid of sunlight, straw, air or earth.” The sows, which produce and nurse five to eight litters in their four years of existence, literally go mad from their confinement, biting the metal bars till they bleed, with immune systems completely broken down. When these conditions were publicized, Smithfield in 2007 (and several other hog producers) vowed to eliminate the crates from their facilities. But then, in 2009, Smithfield reneged on its commitment, saying the transition to more humane pens would be too costly. In 2010, yet another investigation, this time by the Humane Society, produced a report, with video, of the same inhumane conditions at Smithfield facilities. The video and excerpts from its report can be seen on, but be careful: it will break your heart if it doesn’t nauseate you first.

The latest bit of news about the nation’s hog farming, this time from an operation in Iowa, the state with the highest hog production in the country, asked a new question: “Animal Cruelty: Could a Barbaric Pig-Handling Video Hurt Major Grocery Chains?” Posted on, and on Yahoo News on June 30, 2011, the new report tells of a
“horrific undercover video” shot by the group Mercy For Animals. It showed the brutal treatment of hogs as they are confined (tails docked or “cut off”; pigs casually tossed across pens by workers; sickly ones slammed head-first on the floor to eliminate them) and slaughtered. To record his findings, the investigator got himself hired and worked undercover for several months (several states have now banned such recording of industrial operations by these bleeding hearts). And what the article wonders is, will this cause consumers to boycott pork at the big chain stores specifically supplied by this producer: Kroger’s, Safeway, Costco and Hy-Vee?

One can only hope this is the least that results. As for me, I repeat my vow: refusal to eat any pork product whatever, perhaps any meat product either. Because what has been revealed about pigs is no aberration on America’s vile torture-farms. Rather it is the rule. Efficiency and profit are all that matters. And the worst part is that we are exporting that “efficiency” and “profit-making” and “torture” all over the world. One of the expedients used by Smithfield in the face of all the negative publicity they’ve been getting is to buy up huge facilities in Poland and Rumania to transfer their operations there.

And if those operations succumb to public revulsion as well? Perhaps a special place in hell—with a nice hot suite of offices for those in charge, including visitor facilities for the politicians who enable them—could be fitted out.

Lawrence DiStasi