Saturday, 22 August 2015

The rise of the industry apologists of journalism

The way that food industry lobbyists and PR people deal with critics follows a distinct pattern :
  1. attack them as ideologically motivated and/or hysterical;
  2. reduce complex and nuanced arguments to a simplistic parody and mock them; 
  3. blame the consumer by arguing that the market’s only following what people want, and it’s people’s own fault if they choose to eat/drink the wrong things;
  4. claim the government can’t legislate to force people to make good choices.  (1)

 In an opinion piece in the Dominion Post entitled ‘The rise of the moral crusaders of academia’, (2)  Karl du Fresne claims Otago University is a hotbed of ‘academic busybody-ism’- in which ‘self-righteous finger-waggers ‘and ‘moral crusaders’ wage a ‘constant campaign of shrill hectoring and haranguing’.

These ‘New Puritans’ exhibit an 'unshakeable moral sanctimony’ and, in making claims such as  'people who have bad eating habits are the victims of heartless, manipulative capitalists', theyre pushing the 'prevailing ideology' that people ‘are not responsible for their own choices and cannot be trusted to make their own decisions’. 

In contrast to the academics’ ideological viewpoint, Du Fresne claims 'we all know that most New Zealanders are sensible enough not to binge on things that they know are bad for them if indulged in to excess'.  

Clearly not everyone knows that or du Fresne wouldn't have a theme for his article, but more importantly, his assertion ignores the facts that a large number of Kiwis binge drink and that, as a nation, we have an extremely high incidence of dietary related conditions such as bowel cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.  There’s also the relatively recent phenomenon of widespread weight gain that has resulted in over 2 million Kiwis being overweight and almost 1 million being classified as 'clinically obese'.

 Dr Lisa Te Morenga,of Otago's Department of Human Nutrition, is singled out by du Fresne for special derision for her claim that it’s harder to make good choices about your health when you are poor.  For Maori health to improve, she says, Maori socio-economic disadvantage needs to be addressed.  People who have been poor and/or who have worked among poor people, will know this to be true – and anyone with intellect and integrity will know that the issues are complex.

Not so Karl du Fresne who dismisses it as ‘nonsense'. He claims ‘it recycles the tired old mantra that people are trapped into eating unhealthy food because it's cheap when plenty of nutritious food"  (he cites 3 forms of carbohydrate -potatoes, pasta and rice)  "is much cheaper than the Big Macs and KFC that a lot of people eat".

Actually no, it's not and Dr Te Morenga’s academic arguments cannot be reduced to ‘a tired old mantra’ unless the reducer has his own ideological agenda.

Stating the obvious, you cannot make a balanced and tasty meal out of potatoes, rice and pasta on their own.  You do not need to be a highly qualified nutritionist like Dr Te Morenga to know that the carbohydrate rich foods du Fresne lists have to be balanced with protein, good fats and vegetables to achieve a healthy diet, and that these elements add considerably to the cost of a meal.   

There's also the fact that whole grain and good quality carbohydrates are much more expensive than highly processed and refined – nutritionally depleted - alternatives.  

If your food budget covers only the bare and the cheapest essentials, building up and maintaining a store of good quality raw ingredients and seasonings can be nigh on impossible.  I invite Karl du Fresne and any other members of the affluensia who want to stand in judgment of the eating habits of the poor, to calculate the cost of the raw ingredients, spices, herbs, oils, vinegars, sauces etc that they have stored in their kitchen.

Damning poor people for not having the skills, the time, the energy to cook tasty, wholesome food – with a paucity of ingredients, in what is often a poorly equipped kitchen and with a very limited energy budget - is bordering on the cruel.

Poverty affects and conditions people's responses to such things as healthy eating in ways that are neither simple nor mechanical. Smug, simplistic and sarcastic articles taking cheap shots at principled academics do nothing to advance the debate - in fact all they do is give succour to an industry that is busy making the harm done by tobacco companies pale into insignificance.

Having lambasted Otago University’s 'busy-bodies' for thinking that the state  ‘should determine how we live’ –  du Fresne says 'if some Maori don't know how to cook healthy food, then let's address that.  If people are miraculously still unaware that fatty food causes obesity, heart disease and diabetes perhaps we need to find a new way of reaching them through education campaigns.’ (my emphasis)

These sentences are so heavily laden with sarcasm they almost fall off the page and they suggest he believes most people are very well aware of the health issues and that they choose to ignore them, i.e. the problem lies in with stupid, lazy, ill-informed people who take the easy options and allow themselves to be unduly influenced by industry advertising.

The concession to an education campaign is pure cynicism as it’s obvious that a government funded education programme could never match the enormous PR, lobbying and advertising budgets of the food industry.  And - given du Fresne’s criticism of academics - where does he think the educators will come from, the food industry itself?

But, as he’s called for some education, let’s start with him.

NZ has had historically high levels of bowel cancer and heart disease – what’s new is the epidemic of obesity and of what used to be called adult-onset diabetes which is now appearing so regularly in children it's been renamed Type-2 diabetes.

Fatty food per se doesn’t cause obesity and diabetes  - the issue is way more complex than that. If it was just a matter of fatty food or even of high consumption of cane sugar, NZ would have always had very high rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

A diet that’s high in saturated fats and low in dietary fibre is a factor in high rates of bowel cancer and heart disease but the current epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes throughout the developed world dates from the 1980s and is largely due to changes in the way food is produced and marketed - and to intersections between the interests and operations of the powerful petro-chemical, automobile, pharmaceutical, food, tobacco and alcohol industries.

n relation to food, a lot of evidence points to the ubiquity of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a sweetener and preservative in a vast range of cheaper processed foods and drinks.  The effects of this additive on the individual is very likely influenced by genetic predispositions, exposure to other toxins in food and the environment and with generally increased levels of stress and decreased levels of hard physical exercise.

Fructose is metabolised in the liver and we do not metabolise it efficiently and large amounts of it result in visceral fat deposits, the presence of which affects the endocrine system.  HFCS was not present in large amounts in peoples' diets until the 1970s and its use, and the globalisation and growth of the fast food industry (in which I include supermarkets), is coincidental with a general increase in weight and the particular increase in rates of clinical and morbid obesity.

Basically, too much fructose compromises people’s bio-chemistry and a lot of bad eating habits are being driven by that impaired bio-chemistry.  

Along with educating people, there is a pressing need to regulate the food producers – to control an industry which:
  • is not obliged to reveal all the ingredients in the processed foods it sells or the potential health effects;
  • laces low quality, nutritionally empty food and drinks with a substance that is known to wreak havoc on our bio-chemistry; 
  • makes hyper-processed, nutritionally empty food staples cheaper than whole foods, and sugar-rich drinks cheaper than healthy alternatives; 
  • employs highly paid and morally vacant PR people to polish its image and tarnish that of its critics, and pays unscrupulous lobbyists to influence both government and public opinion.

Karl du Fresne ends his opinion piece with : “ I'm no apologist for the fast food industry. … But no-one is forced to eat burgers or deep-fried chicken, any more than they are forced to smoke.”

And he has the gall to accuse academic critics of the food industry of employing ‘lazy and simplistic’ arguments.

2)   Dominion Post August 21st 

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Way Forward

Some people argue against Jeremy Corbyn for leader of the British Labour Party because he's too old.  This is foolish and misses the all-important point that if Corbyn can lead the British LP to become the party of progress and build a genuine mass base, progressive younger people will come through to take over the leadership.  

More importantly, no single person leads a political party, a company or a country. However useful it is for the Right (and some sections of the Left) to create the notion of the all-powerful single leader, it's always a team effort.

The only way to counter the enormous and increasingly destructive power of corporate capitalism and its servant state, is through a genuine mass movement. The greatest threats to building such a mass movement are the tendency of sections of the Left to indulge themselves in infantile and destructive sectarian squabbling, and the tendency of significant numbers of others to write it all off as just 'too hard' because the Right has sucked too many people into a state of self-indulgence and stupidity so we might as well all just give up and let them get on with it.

If it's 'human nature' to be greedy and self-seeking, how come there are people who not only help out those who are less fortunate, but who fight - and die - for a better, fairer world? According to the bleak vision of human nature as inherently competitive and self-serving - altruism, self-sacrifice and the struggle for a better world shouldn't happen, except as a strategy for self-advancement. 

The fact is that it's as much 'human nature' to be cooperative, compassionate and caring about others as it is to be cruelly competitive and self serving. The problem is how to boost the former in order that the latter ends up in the 'dustbin of history' along with the stratified, patriarchal order that gave rise to it. 

The notion of humans as inherently selfish and greedy is a product of Right-wing ideology - it justifies a world order that is based on individualism, selfishness and greed. It's the creator and motivator of the mindset that turns the phrase 'do-gooding' into an insult. 

Supporting the LP in Britain is not a question of blind loyalty - quite the reverse. It's as much pragmatism as anything. 

People have a deep need for something to believe in, for there to be a light at the end of the corporatist tunnel. Corbyn and the people supporting him are shining a light and it's beginning to break through the awful torpor that corporatism has created and nurtured - and that can only be to the good. 

And that is why the Right is turning themselves inside out to damn him. The best thing any progressive person in Britain can do is join the only party which, at present, has the potential to be a mass movement to make it work for the people and, through it, make the state work for the people not for Korporate Kleptomaniacal Kapitalism - my new slogan.

The same applies here in New Zealand. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The broad Left has been in self-destruct mode since the1980s. It's time we stopped being self-indulgent ninnies and remembered that the only way little people can ever win against the might of the state and the forces the state works for, is through combination.  Why else do the Right expend so much time and energy not just physically destroying progressive collectives, but destroying the very idea of them?

People of conscience really don't have a choice because it's not just us, it's the entire planet that's at risk. 

Even if an election is lost, every expression of resistance to the current destructive world order sends out positive messages to the world's oppressed and exploited peoples.  

Corporate capitalism stole socialism's internationalist ideology and went global - it's time we took it back.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Anti-Islamic propaganda

I'd lay odds that the people who set up the Muslim-hating Facebook page which posted this meme haven't given a thought to the historical reality of European countries' colonisation and Christianisation of vast swathes of the world; nor to the fact that modern militant Islam was funded, armed and manipulated by the USA and its allies in the furtherance of their fight against progressive and nationalist movements; nor to the fact that the USA and its allies continue to trade with, and sell arms to some of the most extremist and repressive Islamic states - such as Saudi Arabia.

No - instead of encouraging people to think and to seek points of commonality - sites like Crusade Against Islamisation of The World pander to ignorance and bigotry, and actively foment fear and division.  

I detest them. They are not pro-woman, or pro-anything, they are simply and stupidly anti-Muslim. 

I've been a feminist almost my entire life and there is no way I condone any ideology which oppresses women but I know that you do not win people over to progressive change by attacking their religion and culture in this sort of crude and aggressive way.

The reason orthodox Muslim women wear the veil is fundamentally the same reason devout Jewish and Christian women dress modestly, and let's not forget it's not so long ago in our society that women could not have appeared in public in a neck to knee swimsuit, let alone a skimpy bikini. 

There's also the vexed question of what sort of bodies are considered appropriate to be seen in skimpy swim wear. An old woman, a too fat or a too thin woman would likely be an object of ridicule if she wore the sort of bikini that features in the picture above.

The notion of women in Christian countries being free to dress as they want whilst women in Islamic countries are forced to wear the veil ignores essential realities on both sides.

Why do women in the Christian tradition still wear hats or silly approximations of hats at weddings? Why do brides in the Christian tradition wear white, are veiled, 'given away' by their fathers, and take their husband's name? Why until recently was being a virgin at marriage so important for a woman but not a man, and why was having a child 'out of wedlock' considered a cardinal sin?  

These traditions and prejudices have their roots in the same patriarchal ideology that underpins Christianity's parent religion, Judaism, and its brother religion, Islam. 

It's interesting to consider why, in English law up to the end of the 17th century, the punishment for a woman who was convicted of an act of high or petty treason was to be burned at the stake while the punishment for a man was to be hung, drawn and quartered. (1) Both were hideous and monstrously cruel punishments but why the distinction? One explanation was that drawing and quartering involved exposing the body and it was considered inappropriate to expose a woman's body to the huge crowds that attended public executions.  Another suggestion was that, if hanged, a woman would wave her legs around and, possibly because knickers didn't exist in those days, the sight may have inflamed the passions of male on-lookers. 

The perverse logic that immolation preserved female modesty and thereby avoided inflaming men, flowed from the patriarchal religious dogma of the essential weakness and wickedness of woman. 

It might be argued that barely-there bikinis are a product of the same religious dogma that led men to burn a woman alive rather than risk her 'private parts' being exposed to public view. 

Why else do women in most modern western societies have to, by both law and custom, wear token strips of cloth to cover their nipples and vagina when in public? If Western women are so 'free' why can't they go completely naked where and when they want instead of being required to make such absurd gestures to 'feminine modesty'. And of course there is the fact that very different standards of dress and undress apply in different sorts of public spaces, some codified and others policed by public opinion.

What feeds such patent absurdities and contradictions?  Why do people remain so chronically conflicted about bodies and sex?  In the mainstream western media these days male buttocks are acceptable but we won't see a penis or testicles.  We see lots of female buttocks - in fact it's almost impossible to avoid them - and we see loads of breasts but we never see a vagina or a hint of pubic hair.  Male nipples are sexually neutral but female nipples are definitely not. In fact, so bizarre and contradictory is the attitude to women's nipples that pulp magazines run stories about celebrities' accidental exposure of them. The phenomenon even has a name - a nip-slip. 

The things that offend me most about the Islam-haters are their ignorance, their ahistoricism and their hypocrisy. I understand that it's hard for people who have been schooled into a hatred and fear of Islam, to accept the fact that for centuries Islam was a more progressive and woman-friendly religion than Christianity. (It must be said that wasn't difficult given how reactionary and viciously anti-woman much of Christianity was - not to mention how reactionary and anti-woman some of it remains.) However, whilst I understand it, I cannot forgive it. 

Any dispassionate review of the history of the last century must conclude that the greatest blame for the current trend in some parts of Islam towards a full blown patriarchal, repressive and reactionary form, lies with the USA and its allies, not with ordinary Muslims - the overwhelming majority of whom want to live their lives in peace and security. 

(i) Religious heretics of both sexes were burned at the stake in England until 1677 but burning was used for women convicted of a number of secular crimes that fell under the umbrella of both high and petty treason. High treason was a crime against the King and included counterfeiting; petty treason was a crime against any lawful superior, including a woman's husband or father.