Monday, December 30, 2013

Esty: A Novel/Memoir - Review

Dialogue with the DEAD
            by Fred L. Gardaphe

What if your mother handed you a novel she had written before she died and you read it, only to realize it wasn’t publishable? Most people would have set it aside with her effects, leaving it for future generations to peruse. Not Lawrence DiStasi. As he read his mother’s fiction, he began to respond to it with questions, comments, clarifications, compassion, outrage and joy.

In a brilliant and original move, Lawrence decided to publish his mother’s novel along with his reactions to the stories. The result is a bold and innovative work titled “Esty,” the gathering of family voices first envisioned by Margaret Weisz DiStasi. Margaret is the daughter of “Esty,” a Hungarian Jew who, despite an arranged marriage, manages to consummate an affair with Vonny, her first and perhaps only love, while her husband escapes to the U.S. to avoid World War I. The tryst results in Margaret’s birth, or so the story goes. But is this fact or fantasy?

This is only one of the questions that Lawrence tries to answer as he moves through his mother’s story. Along the way, he offers additional insights he had while conducting his research for the novel. At times, Margaret stays with the fiction, but at other times, she strays into the reality, all the while maintaining that whatever anyone thinks, this is her story, and she’s sticking with it.

Margaret was long dead by the time Lawrence had the idea for the book, but he resurrects her now and then to respond to what he has written. This is where the excitement builds, as mother scolds son for the liberties he takes, and son let’s mother know that he isn’t always on her side. This interaction, along with the voices of other key figures, such as Margaret’s abusive (and possibly alleged) father, marks the brilliance of Lawrence’s work.

Like Esty, Margaret is forced into a marriage. However she escapes with the Italian man of her dreams, and he protects her from her father’s attempts to force her to return to her Jewish husband. Margaret converts to Catholicism and raises her family out of the shadows of her past. The excitement returns when those shadows are recast later in her life, and she must ex- plain them to her children.

Lawrence keeps the voices separate by leaving his mother’s writing in the conventional format of capital letters at the beginning of sentences, while his input appears in lower-case letters: “the question we keep wanting to iterate is: what?” he queries. “what was the irreducible and unadorned fact that leads to this story? or that this story leads to? ... because it’s the story here, that keeps us boxing with shadows.”

Margaret’s imagined voice after her death in italicized sentences as well as lower-case letters: “no, but couldn’t I at least have got a son to help me with instead of — my god, don’t you see what you’re doing? hasn’t my life been misery enough, and writing it more of a misery, isn’t that enough without you making it worse? isn’t it? would it be so hard to just let it be?”

The result is one powerful and engaging read that makes us rethink our own family histories and their relationships to the forces that have shaped not just our present, but also the very way we look at the past.

EXCERPT From the Book

…but this is not just any fiction. this is a fiction that cries out in the night to be told. and its telling travels over three generations and through loin after loin to insist on one overriding truth: i am not my father’s daughter. i have never been his real daughter. as my mother, the breathtaking, chest-nut-haired esty, was never truly his wife. she was vonny’s. and i am vonny’s. royal vonny’s who had to die. and what fitter way for a secret, a noble, mythic father to die than in the very first charge of the very first battle of the very first world war? amen. ... trouble is, it’s not easy to keep real events in phase with mythic events in a novel. you try and try, but time keeps slipping out of joint.

Esty: A Novel/Memoir
by Lawrence W. DiStasi & Margaret Weisz DiStasi
I Pages: 215 I Cost: $16.95 (paperback) I ISBN: 978-0-9652714-2-4 I Visit: or email:
Lawrence W. DiStasi has previously published “The Big Book of Italian American Culture,” “Mal Occhio: The Underside of Vision,” and “Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II.”

Sunday, December 15, 2013

War or Peace?

This week being the first anniversary of the Newtown school massacre, I thought it a good time to try to write something about that age-old debate: are we humans by nature warlike killers, or are we peacemakers who are driven to pursue happiness?  A book and a video and an article have each added fuel to one side or the other of this argument: anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s recent memoir, Noble Savages, about his more than 30 years studying the Yanomamo of the Venezuelan/Brazilian rainforest; the documentary shown recently on PBS called “Happy”; and a piece from Think Progress, “Five Reasons Why 2013 Was the Best Year in Human History.” Though they seem to be at odds, taken together they may add up to a reasonable view of just what we, as humans, are and have been and may be evolving to be.
Chagnon has a fairly simple, though not uncontroversial theory. Based on his years living with the Yanomamo—an essentially stone-age people living in small villages where, until recently, they hunted, fished, gathered local crops, and farmed some of the staples like bananas and manioc that sustain them—Chagnon concluded something radical: their frequent fights and wars with their neighbors were not about gaining better territory or increasing their hold on material goods. Rather, their raids were almost always about capturing women. The headman of a group would almost always initiate such raids, as he was the one who almost always came away with an additional wife or wives (the Yanomamo practice polygyny, where the most powerful men have more than one wife.) This in turn meant, according to Chagnon, that the Yanomamo, like most other biological organisms, compete for reproductive access and success: whoever has the most wives has the most offspring, and therefore the most allies to count on whenever a conflict comes up. Those within a given village cooperate with others (villagers are mostly related), but inter-village rivalry is intense and often leads to ‘wars’ where many warriors get killed. These wars, in turn, most often result from the attempt to avenge a previous raid where women were abducted. This accords with Chagnon’s research which shows that most Yanomamo villages have a shortage of women, first because of preferential treatment of male offspring (who are helpful in wars), and second because of polygyny: even were the number of males and females in a village roughly equal, the fact that powerful men take several wives means that there are not enough females for all the males who want one.
Many anthropologists dispute Chagnon (and also Jared Diamond whose recent books have emphasized this same extreme warlike tendency among tribal peoples in New Guinea, who always consider a stranger a dangerous enemy) about both the warlike nature of primal humans and the reasons for their wars. This is why Chagnon subtitles his book: “My life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists.” According to him, conventional anthropologists insist on a materialist view of human culture. That is, conflict is believed to arise over access to good land for growing crops, over power in the most material sense of ownership of the most valued goods or means of production, but not over access to females. Chagnon, by contrast, is persuasive in his argument that the access to fertile females really is the key to conflict. In his view, humans are like all other organisms, wherein individual males fight with other males to gain access to females and reproductive success; and where females tend to select the most powerful males (and their genes) so as to give their offspring the best chance to survive. Everything then flows from this: the constant wars, the tendency of males to be killed in such wars (thus producing even more imbalance between men and women), and the constant rituals and games training males for combat. And if we look at some of the early documents in human history, such as the Iliad of Homer, we can see that though the Mycenean Greeks had a very advanced culture compared to the Yanomamo, the root cause of their legendary war was the abduction of a choice female—in this case the abduction of Helen, the beautiful wife of Menelaus, by Paris, which led directly to the tragedy: the siege of Paris’ city by the allies of Menelaus and the destruction of that home, Troy, along with all the Trojans save a few who managed to escape. Not coincidentally, those few, according to legend, founded the next great city-state, Rome, where, according to another legend, there followed the abduction or rape of the Sabine women from the indigenous people so that they, the mostly male followers of Rome’s mythic founder Romulus, could have wives and many offspring. Up to the present day, most literature relies for its drama on this same male conflict over females—in a sublimated form, to be sure, but with the same essential roots.
Chagnon’s research uncovered one more contributing fact to this thesis. The male warriors who have killed at least one enemy in their battles are known as unokais. Chagnon has a chart in his book showing the relation of unokais to the number of offspring. The summary is clear: unokais have almost three times as many offspring as those men who have not killed anyone. That is, the unokais had, on average, 4.91 children compared to the same-age non-unokais, who average only 1.59 offspring each. Among the yanomamo, at least, it pays to be a killer.
I should make clear at this point that I am mainly a pacifist with an abhorrence of war and fighting, so these conclusions do not please me. I would prefer a view that accords with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea that humans in a state of nature, without the corruptions attendant to civilization, would have been innocent and playful and loving and peaceful—noble savages. But I also have a commitment to the truth, and the truth seems to be that in the earliest human groups, killing of rivals was routine, and that killing, as with all other animals, most often occurred in the conflict that erupted over access to females. Those who were most successful in battle were most often the ones whose genes were passed on through reproduction. It is not hard to see, even today, the indelible marks of that pattern in our cultural preoccupations, in our sports, in our wars, in our very brains.
The video entitled simply “Happy,” takes another view entirely. Like many others today, it emphasizes the benefit of cooperation, of helping others, of being involved in community. We are shown several “happy” communities: the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where the nation’s output is measured as “gross national happiness;” Okinawa, which boasts more 100-year-olds per capita than any other place on earth; several people being trained to meditate focusing on compassion for others, whose brains are literally said to change for the better as a result; the San Bushmen of Namibia, who testify to their complete interdependence, and therefore their happy outlook; and a co-housing community in Denmark (said to be the happiest industrial nation on earth) where about twenty families live together while working at normal jobs but are happy due to the sharing of cooking, childcaring and other chores. We are also shown the rat-race in Japan, and one family in particular whose male head worked such long, intense hours for Toyota that he simply dropped dead from overwork. Modern industrial Japan is said to be the most unhappy nation on earth.
The documentary also presents us with scientific validation of its message. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson shows us how Buddhist monk Ricard Matthieu is put into an MRI contraption, and measured while he does compassion meditation. His left prefrontal cortex lights up—indicating that not only is this part of his brain activated to make him more happy, but also that focusing on compassion changes the brains of those who engage in it. That is to say, training the brain to focus on compassion for others, and in fact, actually helping others, re-wires the brain for more happiness. We are told in the very beginning, in fact, that it is not material wealth that leads to happiness since, after a certain level of comfort via possessions, acquiring more wealth simply has no effect. Rather, what leads to ‘positive’ brain states and the release of ‘happiness’ brain neurotransmitters like dopamine, are positive acts and thoughts: compassion, cooperation, and relationships with others. P. Read Montague, PhD says this specifically: cooperation, working with others, actually produces dopamine in the brain, in effect being just as good in this regard as taking drugs. Added to the testimony of old women in Okinawa smiling and dancing, and one single mother in the Denmark co-housing community brightly telling us how well cared for she and her children have become since living there—with the children even taking part, once a month, in cooking for the whole community—this becomes a powerful argument for changing the way most modern humans behave (looking out for number one) and how modern industrial communities (commit any act to increase profit) are structured.
It also challenges the post-Darwinian view that humans are naturally prone to conflict and war due to the evolutionary demand to augment, in whatever way possible, the number of offspring one has. Human nature, in this view, is simply a variant of most animal nature: a no-hold-barred competition to survive and out-reproduce all rivals. Rather, according to “Happy,” human nature must be seen to include the positive effects of selflessness and cooperation and a supportive community. To be sure, these emotions have always been available, even to warrior societies. The difference here is the idea that compassion for all—not just one’s immediate family or neighbors or nation—leads to even more positive effects. We see Andy Wimmer, for example, who trained and worked as a banker, until one day he decided there must be more. He signed up to work in Mother Theresa’s home in India caring for the sick and dying. According to his testimony, and despite having to wash and feed dying, suffering humans, he has never felt more fulfilled, happier. The same testimony is given by a woman hospice worker who deals with terminally ill people all day every day. She is bright, cheerful, and apparently unaffected by the dire circumstances that surround her. And it is obvious that those whom she treats and encourages adore her.
Finally, the article by Zack Beauchamp of Think Progress, reprinted on Nation of Change ( offers 5 reasons why 2013 was ‘the best year in human history.’ The reasons are: 1) Fewer People are Dying Young, which shows that as recently as 1950, global life expectancy was 47 years, while today it is 70 years. In other words, averaged globally, most people live twice as long today as they did in 1950. This is due both to medical technology and a growing interest in the welfare of foreigners—as indicated by the assistance given to poor countries in fighting diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, and HIV. 2) Fewer people suffer from extreme poverty, with its corollary, a happier world. Just since 1981, the percent of the population that lives on less than $1.25 a day has dropped, globally, from 40% in 1981 to 14% in 2010. Even in low income countries, the percentage has dropped from 63% in 1981 to 44% in 2010. 3) War is becoming rarer and less deadly. According to Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, both war and related forms of violence, including the death penalty, are on a clear decline, especially in the last fifty years. From nearly 300 war-related deaths per 100,000 world population during World War II, the rate has declined to less than 1 death per 100,000 in the 21st Century. Even the death rate in civil wars has declined. Among the factors contributing to the decline are the spread of democracies worldwide, and the invention of U.N. and other peacekeeping operations. 4. Murder rates and other violent crimes are in free-fall. Even in the U.S., violent crime has declined from its peak of 750 crimes per 100,000 Americans in the 1990s to less than 450 in 2009. The same decline is seen in other countries. Among the major reasons—including better lives from improved economies—is one surprising one: the decline in leaded gasoline. With lead banned in 175 countries, the decline in blood levels of lead has reached 90%, and this decline tracks the decline in violent crimes. The reason: lead exposure damages the brain, specifically the parts that inhibit people’s aggressive impulses. With the decline in lead comes more control and less violent crime. And finally, 5) There’s less racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the world. This is not to say that racism is dead. Far from it. But there is also no denying that greater tolerance is demonstrable everywhere. Look only at the disabling of white minority rule in South Africa, or the fact that much of the United States, where discrimination was once openly defended, now operates under a national consensus about the ideal of racial equality and integration—not always honored in every situation or locality, but increasingly prevalent, especially among younger populations who will soon be the majority. And when it comes to marriage equality for all, regardless of gender preference, the trend is clearly towards greater tolerance: in 2003, there were no states with marriage equality laws; today there are so many that 38% of Americans live in states with such laws.
What, then, are we to conclude about the nature of human nature? Are we humans, by nature, xenophobic, paranoid killers of anyone who is a stranger or a rival? Or are we cooperative creatures disposed to tolerate each other regardless of outward appearances or origin, cooperate with each other beyond familial or national borders, compassionate creatures who, in helping those who need it, become more and more happy with ourselves?
Perhaps the best we can say is that the truth seems to be both. There is no doubting that evolution has shaped us to be violent, aggressive creatures who fight with little provocation and who routinely kill those who threaten either our well-being or our ability to reproduce. But there can also be little doubt that our brains—particularly the more recently developed parts of our brains: the neocortex and especially the left prefrontal cortex involved in compassion—may well be evolving (spurred by the example of culture heroes like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama) towards less aggressive, more compassionate patterns. Otherwise, why would acting compassionately, placing the welfare of others over our own, and living in cooperative and communal ways deliver the good feeling we now know to be the product of dopamine release? This is not to say that dopamine release was “designed” to make humans cooperate (it was designed to provide a powerful reward for whatever enhanced our survival). Rather, it is to say that human development seems to be employing the available neurotransmitters to a greater extent in ways that foster the expansion of cooperative, communal, helping behavior. Whether this trend will continue is anyone’s guess. Life has a way of confounding our fondest hopes and expectations. But if what some of the evidence shows is true, then human development, as Abraham Maslow long ago suggested, is moving towards an optimum functioning marked by greater tolerance, empathy, and helpfulness towards not only our fellow nationals or even fellow humans but the entire planetary population. The only question remaining is, will it come soon enough to head off the residual disasters—nuclear weapons, global warming, the die-off of species—that our older operating kit has brought to critical mass.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Kennedy Effect

On Monday November 11 and Tuesday November 12, PBS’s American Experience series aired a two-part documentary on John F. Kennedy titled simply, “JFK.” It was apparently meant to help mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. What I’m interested in is not re-hashing the well-worn material on Kennedy’s life,  presidency and assassination, but rather thinking about the overall effect he and his public persona had on American culture. So though I was deeply moved—especially by the final episode in this 4-hour documentary, where the most beautiful couple in American presidential history debark from their gleaming plane in Dallas and lead their motorcade through jam-packed Dallas streets filled with adoring well-wishers as a simple drone music builds in the background to the horror we know and fear is coming but don’t see; and then watch that noble cortege with its black horses moving down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington—it is, I think, important to step back a bit and gauge what has been wrought. In brief, I believe that JFK’s most enduring contribution to American political life was not any one policy or legislative achievement (he had almost none), but his grasp of the importance of images, particularly television images, and how those images played in public, not least in this documentary itself.
Especially as he matured, JFK was perfectly equipped to project an image. He was movie-star handsome, and when paired with his equally classic wife Jacqueline, almost royal in his impact. And the media loved him. It is a commonplace to note that he won the presidency based on his TV debate performance with a haggard looking Richard Nixon. After that, national magazines featured his and Jackie’s beautiful faces almost monthly. When the two children, John-John and Caroline came along, they only added charm and warmth to the family picture, both of them outfitted in classic English clothes and stylish haircuts to make them almost icons of American childhood. When Caroline hugged her father or leaned a tired head on his shoulder, or John-John peered out from beneath his presidential desk, it was enough to make you weep. Indeed, when John-John saluted his father’s funeral cortege, all America did weep.
To its credit, the documentary allows us to see, or at least hear, that not all was as it seemed. For one, Kennedy suffered from debilitating diseases (Addison’s Disease, which he denied in his campaign for the presidency) and back problems throughout his life, sometimes to the point where he could barely stand. It was probably only his father’s wealth that allowed him to get the best treatment possible (including multiple daily injections of pain killers and amphetamines), usually outside the public eye, to allow him to continue, and, most of the time, fool the world into seeing him as the epitome of youthful energy. The same is true about the idyllic family, with mutually loving parents, that was projected. JFK was a notorious womanizer and we are told that it didn’t stop with marriage. He carried on when in the White House, on trips, and everywhere else he could. Marilyn Monroe was only the most famous of his sexual partners. But in public, he always managed to maintain that ease and charm to which he’d been both bred and trained, again thanks to his father’s almost endless supply of money. As to the source of that fortune, the documentary is silent about that, but earlier investigations have suggested that old Joseph Kennedy got his start either in bootlegging in the 20s, or insider trading on the stock-market thereafter, or both. By the time Jack comes along, though, the money has pretty much been laundered and put into more acceptable income-generating sources (Joe bought the Merchandise Mart in Chicago for a song in 1945, where his real fortune was made) and all we see are American mandarins whose position is tainted, if only slightly, by their Roman Catholicism.
Nonetheless, though he never got major legislation through the southern-dominated Congress, John F. Kennedy did have the courage to stand firm against all of his major advisers during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was truly his historic moment—when the world really could have slipped into nuclear Armageddon. Had it not been for JFK’s cool under fire, fending off such war-mongers as General Curtis LeMay who wanted to bomb the hell out of Cuba as usual, it well might have. Of course, it could also be argued that the crisis arose from America’s arrogance and determination to overwhelm the Soviet Union with nuclear might in the first place, but that’s another story. What the documentary does tell us is that a secret back-channel communication from JFK to Russian premier Khrushchev brought the two nations back from the brink. Khrushchev agreed to remove the Russian missiles from Cuba in exchange for Kennedy’s promise to (secretly so as to avoid antagonizing the congressional hawks) remove the U.S. missiles that had recently been placed in Turkey. As it turns out, Kennedy never did honor that promise. It also seems to be the case that a Russian submarine commander, under attack from American depth charges, thought the war had begun and was about to launch his missiles—refraining only at the last minute. So it was really the Russians, as much as JFK, who exhibited prudence and humanity when faced with Armageddon. What Kennedy did, though, was to promote the story not of his cool head under fire, not of his reluctance to murder 300 million people in a nuclear exchange to save face, but his ability to face down the Russian leader and force him to remove his missiles from “our” hemisphere. In other words, JFK remained the master of image, and of public relations. And as always, it worked. His popularity soared, his presidency was secured, and he was well on his way to a second term. With his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech at the Berlin Wall, the image of the leader with the proper ‘cojones’ assumed global proportions.
Finally, Kennedy’s stance on the civil rights movement, then reaching combustible levels in Alabama, is the other legacy that endures. The documentary is fairly honest about that, making it clear that Kennedy felt harried by a growing movement that continually threatened to usurp his energy and divert it from what he saw as the major international crisis— containing communism (JFK really was a ‘cold warrior’ determined to thwart communist expansion). He bridled at the ‘impatience’ of black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and the young radicals who refused to buckle beneath the threat of snarling dogs and fire hoses. And though the documentary inexplicably leaves it out, he also expressed both fear and annoyance when King insisted on going through with the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Left out or not, it was probably that event which finally pushed him to make his courageous speech introducing the Civil Rights Act to the nation. As a result, Kennedy finally emerged from his cautious attitude towards the civil rights movement and made inevitable the legislative promise that even Lyndon Johnson could not ignore, and was finally able to fulfill in 1964—after JFK was killed. Most commentators have opined that Kennedy himself would never have been able to get the bill through a southern-dominated Congress. They are probably right. Unlike pubic opinion, Congress is not fully amenable to image. Particularly where race is concerned, it must be cajoled and pushed and browbeaten and bribed, and Johnson, unlike Kennedy, was the master of these tactics.
Still, it was JFK who put civil rights on the agenda. It was also JFK who put a nuclear arms reduction treaty on the agenda. So we must credit him for that.
His lasting achievement, however (if we can call it an achievement, since the effects are not always and everywhere positive), was in the arena of image. Politics has never been the same since John F. Kennedy. His looks and his style, including the epitome of style embodied by Jackie and the children, especially as they were captured by both television and still camera, transformed politics. One can hardly find a politician these days who does not somehow “look” like JFK—with the glaring exception of Lyndon Johnson, who made his political bones the old way, and whose looks became his Achilles heel when Vietnam protests exploded on his watch. More than that, perhaps, is the use of private money to mount campaigns outside the normal party apparatus. JFK was the first to use the primary system (and his father’s unlimited money) to build so much momentum that he overwhelmed the party bosses’ normal way of conducting a convention. The procedure for choosing a presidential candidate has never looked back. And perhaps the most prominent example of his pre-eminence in the arena of image is the documentary, JFK, itself. Though I tried to resist, though I tried to remember how it was back in 1960 and during the momentous events of his presidency, and though I tried to inure myself to the charm of that royal family cavorting on Hyannisport and exhibiting that noble ease that only comes with great wealth and privilege, I was unable to resist finally. So that when that insistent music accompanied the open car as it made its way through the Dallas streets, I was filled with dread. My president, my nation, my family almost, was about to be gunned down. Was gunned down. And as my eyes filled with tears watching once again that funeral cortege, I remembered where I was when I first heard that staggering news on the radio—our president has been shot, America has been shot—and then watched transfixed for days in front of a TV set with an entire nation as the rest of that unforgettable drama unfolded.
Those images will never leave those of us who saw them. The images of this president, of the nation itself, of all of us looking inward, were thereby transformed. Innocence. All America seemed, in retrospect, innocent; as innocent as John-John, in spite of what we knew. And now, with murder, two murders on our screens, innocence had left, never to return; in its place dark corridors with hatted gunmen and subterfuge and back-room deals and the gritty often dirty business of governing. That’s what this documentary, with its indelible images of that innocence, left me with. And the wonder about how such images implant themselves, and whether we’re better for them or worse, whether they’re authentic or not, and whether this nation is better for having been treated to those JFK images, or not. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Comfort of Ignorance

It appears that the initiative, 522, to require food purveyors in Washington state to put GMO labeling on food products is going down to defeat. Like California’s similar Proposition 37 that was defeated last year, Initiative 522 is losing by a 55% NO vote, with 1 million votes counted. Supporters have refused to throw in the towel, insisting that mail-in ballots won’t be counted for another few days, but the conclusion seems clear: once again, big money from outside the state (over $22 million spent on the NO campaign, only $500 or so from within the state) spent on misleading ads has duped enough voters to secure victory for the bigs. These include the usual suspects: Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, Syngenta and “food” purveyors like Coke, Pepsi, and Nestle, as well as the many contributors to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Their big money has once again turned what appeared to be a 3 to 1 favorable opinion for GMO labeling in September to 55% against in November. The power of corporate money to shape public opinion has never been greater.
As with last year’s vote, I continue to be mystified by who could possibly be among those 55% NO voters. Who, that is, could oppose knowing what’s in the food you eat, especially if it contains genetic alterations, some of whose toxic effects—such as the modified genes in Roundup Ready corn or soybeans that allow corporate farmers to spray so much Roundup (glyphosate) on the crops that it can interfere with human biology in deadly ways—are already known. Who could be in favor of playing toxic roulette in this way?
This question haunts me even if Initiative 522 should eventually pass. Because there’s still that 50 or so percent who vote with the monsters. What impels such people? Are they simply stupid? So opposed to “organic leftists” that they choose to vote against whatever these godless ones propose? Certainly these explanations pertain to some. But I think the motivations go much deeper.
I think, that is, that it has to do with the ‘comfort of ignorance.’ But isn’t that the same as simple stupidity? you may ask. I think not. I am talking about ignorance in its sense of not knowing. Its sense of not wanting to know, fearing to know. I am talking about the same syndrome that pertains when it comes to global warming, or the dying of the oceans, or the propaganda about terrorists. People, masses of people, simply do not want to have to face such facts. They are more comfortable in their ignorance. Because if you admit that human activity is causing global warming—which it is—then you might have to take some responsibility for it. You might have to subject your life to examination regarding how much of that carbon pollution you yourself are contributing to. You might have to admit that your nation, the United States of America, is the chief contributor to greenhouse gases, or has been for the last hundred or so years. And that your American lifestyle, precisely, is what is causing the earth to get warmer and hotter, and to stumble into uncharted territory when it comes to rising oceans, bigger storms, and ecological catastrophe. With regard to GMO foods, you might have to take it upon yourself to understand what is happening to food, how major corporations are buying up the rights, via patents, to all seeds (developed over centuries by individual farmers) and to profit from the hunger, the absolute necessity that they anticipate will drive the sale of those seeds. You might have to take more responsibility—already huge—to find out which foods are healthful and which ones are not and to read labels and food science and it’s all such an additional burden and bother that it’s simply easier and more comfortable to cede your decision to the big guys, kick back and drink another beer.
Nor do I mean to imply that it’s just slovenly beer guzzlers who are subject to this. We all know the syndrome. All of us, in some area or other of our lives, prefer ignorance to knowledge. How many times have you had a pain in some body part, a serious one, and refrained from going to the doctor? Isn’t it common to dismiss it as of no account when the real reason is: I’d rather not know. It is for me. Sometimes, it’s just too much to know another thing. It’s too much to know how many scams there are in the world, what your partner is doing with whom, how much graft and corruption pertains in our political system, how pervasive are the ripoffs from the banks and the phone company and the computer makers and on and on. Better off not to know. Better off to have a beer. And when it comes to the really big one, the one that Tolstoy refers to as the “It” that most people do everything in their power to cover up with useless activity, i.e., the fact not only of our inevitable death but that we will still have no idea why we’re here or what our frantic activity has been worth in any case—then nearly all of us indulge in the comfort of ignorance. Moreover, we are urged to indulge in this by those who arrogate to themselves the giving of advice on how to live. Don’t worry. Be happy. Smell the roses. Sniff the coffee. Stay on the sunny side. Dwelling on the negative leads to unhappiness, to illness, to cancer, to depression even for your neighbors.
And it’s true. Ignorance is bliss. Worrying too much about what cannot be helped does lead to unnecessary suffering. So doing what you can to focus on what you have, your good fortune in even being here, is good advice. But—there’s always a “but”—what GMO labeling is about is one of those things that CAN be helped. We, the people who have to eat the genetically modified corn and soybeans and potatoes and the 60 or 70 percent of all American foods that are already tainted with GMO products in some form or other, we have to have a say in what we eat. It’s not in the constitution, but it should be: the right to eat food that is not contaminated with pesticides; the right to eat food that is not contaminated with unknown genes; the right—and this is the most fundamental right of all—the right to know if the food we’re being urged to buy is contaminated with unknown genes and poisons or not. If that isn’t a right, I don’t know what is.
So, for me, in this area, comfort be damned. The comfort of ignorance be damned. I want to be made uncomfortable. I want to be discomfited by what I know, I demand the right to be discomfited by what I know. And sooner or later, everyone in this nation, in this world, is going to have to demand that right. And the place it has to start is in the minds of those people—and they must know who they are—who have ceded that right to corporate giants. In my opinion, such ceding of critical rights to critical information is a fundamental breach of the contract implied in being human. And somehow, despite the propaganda and the pressure and the fear mongering indulged in by the corporations, people have got to realize that that breach, in the many forms in which it manifests, is one of the major false gods of our time—a god that must be toppled and stomped on and run out of town on a rail, along with the fake corporate priesthood that keeps it going. Comfort be damned.

Lawrence DiStasi