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

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