Saturday, May 10, 2014
Saturday, May 10, 2014
There is a persistent feeling, especially prevalent in those who are influenced by the media, that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Our food is bad for us because it contains nasty shit, pollution is choking and poisoning us, people are opening fire at schools and offices, the forces of repression are arrayed against us and others throughout the world, and you can't get a good five cent cigar anywhere. Oh, and someone is out to steal your financial identity and use it to buy power tools at a Walmart in Arkansas. In general, things are not going well. Or, as Charles Barkley would say, "jus' turrble."
I said "influenced by the media," and of course the media has taken many forms over the centuries. Now it's television and the internet, and before that it was radio, newspapers, broadsides, the town crier, and the local preacher or priest (often the only person in town who could read and write). We're pretty much all influenced by whatever media happens to be around at the time. I'm no exception, except that I refuse to believe much for public consumption that I see, hear, or read. So I'm generally prone not to accept what the media says, at least not at face value. If it's predicted to rain, it might. If it IS raining, I believe it. Movies are replete with folks like me, who blithely deny the rumors of impending doom and then pay the price. Godzilla does come. The tornado does destroy the town. The rogue European nutbar does plant a nuclear device in a soda machine. The world does freeze over because of, well, whatever bad thing we set into motion years ago. These movies function as excellent ancillary support for the "real" media, to reinforce in us the idea that we should PAY ATTENTION, for God's sake, to what we're being told, and BELIEVE IT before it's too late. Never mind that in the movies it's almost always too late from the beginning.
It's instructive to consider the media in the many forms it has taken throughout human history because the predictions from the earliest times to the present have always been roughly the same: "You, O Israel, O England, O America, O California, have displeased Me, and I will smite you with a curse." Amazingly, there are still people who adhere to the basic scripts set out in the Old Testament or in the book of Revelation. But mostly these days the forms of dystopian hysteria tend to appear superficially more sophisticated, dealing with stuff like the ability of computers to shut us down or the possibility that someone will create robots that decide to take matters into their own hands or that something we have done ostensibly to promote progress is instead going to kill us all. Superficially more sophisticated, but then, look at history. For instance, Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein was pretty much the same story, predicting, in the early years of autopsies and modern anatomical study, that we were screwing around with Mother Nature in ways we should not be doing. That might have been the point at which fear of science and progress really merged, and was thrown in to our existing mixed bag of fears.
But even as things get more dire, from the point of view of the media, things tend to be getting better for us as a species. Food is cheaper and more plentiful. Deadly infectious diseases are decreasing rather than increasing (not that they're gone entirely of course, but we do know how to handle them in ways that are, shall we say, more proactive than merely going to church and praying for deliverance). Warfare is as brutal as ever, but it is subject to more external scrutiny and isn't always considered merely the private business of the combatants or the visitation of God's vengeance on one side or the other. We are beginning to understand the interconnectedness of things, even if we do not always behave responsibly about it. And most importantly, from the perspective of our species (which after all is the only perspective that has ever been truly relevant to us) we are multiplying and, despite the horrors that lurk in the dark corners created by our own excesses, living longer on average. And from a biological standpoint living longer and multiplying are probably the truest measures of where any species stands.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not Candide's Dr. Pangloss, blithely ignoring the sickness of reality behind the naive idea that we are living in the best of all possible worlds. This not the best of all possible worlds, by any means. But it is better in most respects than all the worlds that have preceded it, if you reckon such a thing from the perspective of health and survival.
Perhaps as a way of contributing to human progress on the larger scale, we seem to be motivated to make more progress by constantly finding something wrong with things as they are. Sometimes I think people who are from younger generations than mine (notice that I said "generations" plural) may regret the lack of a specific cause to which they can attach themselves in order to vent their frustrations about what they see as wrong with the world today. My generation had opposition to the war in Vietnam and the struggle for civil rights, among other things. The previous generation had the international crusade against fascism, and the generation before that the quest for peace in Europe and the desire to expose ruthless monopolistic capitalism and establish basic rights for (some) working people here at home. A generation or two before that was the war to end slavery. Big Stuff, historically speaking. Today there is gay rights, also a big thing, but beyond that what is there, exactly, for people to get riled up over, about which they also can do something? The Occupy movement accomplished, as far as I can tell, next to nothing. We knew beforehand that capitalism was bad, and we still know it. But we're addicted to it, like a smoker who knows tobacco is going to kill him. We purport to hate Wall Street, but we love Apple and Starbucks, two of the biggest corporate pigs in the world. (The fact that they sell nifty communication devices or caffeinated drinks rather than petroleum or pesticides does not lessen their rapaciousness and greed for profit at the expense of workers.) So what's left to the would-be earthshakers among the young? Making marijuana legal for general non-medicinal consumption all over the country? Really?? And that's going to do the following: it will permit us to get stoned and forget about everything except eating pizza and drinking five dollar double chocolate mochacccinos and texting our friends.
Which trivialities bring me to the triviality about which I intended to post at the outset: Gluten. It now seems that what's really wrong with the world is that there's just too much gluten in our diet. This evil thing (which is a protein found in various grains and is a key component of most bread, as well as a protein additive to various other foods) seems to be the culprit in any number of health problems, and if we could only avoid it we'd all be better off. In fact, a very few people are intolerant to gluten, and they should avoid it. Statistics say that approximately one in 133 persons, or 2/3 of one percent of the population, has trouble tolerating gluten, from a dietary standpoint. That means that at any moment in your local grocery store maybe half of one person is intolerant to gluten, meaning that they have trouble digesting it. But a great many more people are simply intolerant of gluten, meaning that they've identified an apparently nasty thing which, if we could just eliminate it, would make life more pure and healthy and meaningful. These are the depths to which folks have sunk. Guns? Well, there are too many and people use them to kill each other, but what the hell, there's the second amendment. Meth? That's bad too, but it makes for a great TV series and only affects other people, not us. Lack of health care for people under 65? That's their problem, not ours. However, gluten must be avoided at all costs. Maybe that's because, unlike gun control and the eradication of meth, it presents a fresh opportunity to make money. Advertise foods as "gluten-free" and you can get more for them or at least sell them more readily. The exploitation of the fear of gluten has lined the pockets of food manufacturers and purveyors everywhere. I'm drinking a cup of coffee now, which I imagine is utterly free of the dreaded gluten. I feel so much better knowing this.
Well, I didn't start this rant just to go on and on about gluten. The point is, obviously, that if you can't do anything about the really large problems in society, like the inequality of wealth (which seems pretty insoluble short of a worldwide socialist revolution), you can at least limit your intake of some comparatively insignificant food protein. Or eat less dairy and red meat or watch your cholesterol intake. Or you can smoke cigarettes that contain no additives, and pretend that it's not the repetitive inhalation of smoke from burning leaves that gives you the cancer. Or you can drink low calorie beer, which allows you to consume twice as much before you get a fat gut or a fatty liver.
All of which underscores that fact that the problems the younger generations face are so large that they really can't do a damn thing about them unless they're willing to completely change their attitudes about economic and social justice and, frankly, start a revolution that might inconvenience everyone. And so we continue our trip to hell in a handbasket. But at least if it could be a gluten free handbasket that might make it a safer ride for all of us.