Garbage In, Garbage Out   (May 1, 2008)

Our experience is shaped by what psychiatrist R.D. Laing identified as politics. While Laing's initial focus was on family dynamics (his book Sanity, Madness and the Family: Families of Schizophrenics ) and how conflicting demands (contradictory political "necessities") within a family can trigger a breakdown in children, his insights also apply to society at large: Politics of Experience.

Such irreconcilable psychic demands were characterized by Gregory Bateson as a double-bind: Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology.

(I'm showing my age here, as these two titles were on every college reading list in the period 1969 - 1973).

More recently, Noam Chomsky examined the complicity of the media in framing our experience for political/financial gain: Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.

Now let's turn to the real subject of today's entry:

So what does toaster (fake) strudel have to do with these weighty philosophic ideas? Just this: garbage in, garbage out. This "product" is marketed as "food," but it's not food if food is defined as nutritional. This product is "food" in the sense that the human body can process the salt, sugar, fat and refined flour ingredients, but as nourishment this product is worse than eating grass or stems, which at least would do little harm: the high salt, fat and sugar and zero fiber and nutrients in this product actively create ill health.

Simply put: this product is garbage. Garbage in (processed non-nutritious calories), garbage out (obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, ADD, illness, early death).

Here's the Politics of Experience: Through the magic of billion-dollar advertising /marketing budgets and the perfection (via painstaking research and testing) of a toothsome "mouth-feel," the processed "food" industry has created "The one the kids want to eat."

Never mind the post-consumption experience of feeling sick; the "experience" that counts is the one of desire and fulfillment of craving. Thus the actual experience created by consuming this garbage--a mind-bending sugar high followed by a spike in insulin which soon crashes, leaving the poor kid lethargic with an attention-deficit-disorder reading that's off the charts--is overridden by the manufactured, deeply political experience of wanting a sugary gooey mess and the satiation of manufactured desires.

It doesn't take much understanding of natural selection to grasp the fiendish appeal of this type of garbage: as hunter-gatherers, humans were seeking sugar in fruits and salt anywhere we could find it. (Salt was so precious in distant-from-the-sea Tibet that it was once valued like gold.)

So what's the primary ingredient in sugary garbage-"food"? Sugar, of course, along with some highly refined flour as binding for the sugar and plenty of fat to make the whole thing crispy/crunchy--again, mimicing the crunch of actual fructose-heavy fruit.

And what's the primary ingredient in greasy chips? Salt, of course, and lots of fat to give it that "mouth-feel" crunch and snap.

So where's the double-bind? It's been created within each consumer and in each family. As a parent/guardian, it warms your heart to see your children happy; marketers know this, of course, and hence they flood the airwaves and media with chirpy ads for sugar-glop "cereal" (I guess there is some actual refined cereal in there to bind the sugar), the latest idiot's-delight toy or electronic gadget, and the latest ghetto-inspired fashion.

Here we have the divided self and the divided family. Want to cause anger, distress, pouting, wails of anguish, cries for mercy, long, convoluted arguments about repression and freedom worthy of a third-year law student? Then deny your kids the products they have been brainwashed to want and crave--from cold cereal to XBoxes to iPods--and also deny them access to the media (mostly TV, TV shows on the Internet and online gaming) which does the brainwashing.

But the insidiously careful manufacture of innately satisfying mouth-feel also creates a double-bind in each of us. Does ice cream taste satisfyingly rich and creamy? You bet. And how about those yummy salt-encrusted torilla chips? Don't you want another one? And those french-fries--oops, I mean "Freedom Fries"--that saturated fat is irresistable.

The resolution of the double-bind so profitably manufactured by the processed-food/fast-food complex is obvious: just don't buy those products. I personally find temptation is greatly lessened by the absence of the temptation: there is no ice cream or chips or fake-food items in our house, and as a result we don't consume them.

Do I cave in when ice cream, chips or fries are in front of me? Of course I do; I have the same innate taste for fat, salt and sugar as anyone else.

But the more you "consume" the media, especially television and its seductive Internet spawn, then the more likely it is that the incessant marketing/ brainwashing will trigger an "impulse buy" of some manufactured product whose sole consequence is ill-health.

And so here we have a double-bind which, just as Laing described, leads to social and physical schizophrenia. Even as we cave in and "indulge" in garbage products designed to mimic food, we feel guilty knowing that we are sickening ourselves and shaving years off our lives. But we can't stop ourselves, because the message from our taste buds (Salt! Sugar! Fat!) is so powerful, the emotional desire for consumption-based solace is so powerful (buy something, eat something, go shopping, you'll feel uplifted) and the brand-name appeal to our craving for status is so complete (I only drink Jank Coffee--how about you, peon?).

This schizophrenia is tragi-comically visible on the cover of women's magazines which line the supermarket checkout aisles: one bold-face headline screams "new diet sheds pounds in one week!" while the cover model is a gangly young thing who eats only brown rice and pickles, and the cover inset is of a gorgeously appealing chocolate cake.

If you set out to drive women insane, isn't this precisely the sort of double-binding messages you would plant everywhere in the media?

If you think I am over-reaching in describing the consumption of manufactured fake-food as deeply political, then consider the consequences of such a perniciously unwholesome diet.

What is the largest expense in your local city/county/state/agency budget? Payroll. Employees and their benefits account for between 75% of most government institutions. And what employee-expense is rising at a budget-busting double-digit pace? Healthcare benefits.

And what is the primary cause of America's ill-health? Poor diet and lack of exercise. Study after study has shown that heredity accounts for perhaps a third of our health and lifespan; the rest is environmental/behavioral.

This sort of social schizophrenia is unfortunately not unique to the U.S. In China, smoking tobacco causes 1 million early/needless deaths every year--but smoking is essentially encouraged because the government reaps billions in taxes from the sale of cigarettes.

Does this make sense? Hey, we need those revenues, pal; the health consequences are somebody else's department.

So how much of our national healthcare bill ($2 trillion and rising faster than GDP) is related to illnesses and chronic diseases which are largely behavioral in cause? Many will claim that most of the expenses result from new drugs and technologies and the demographic truth that advanced medical care has greatly lengthened our lifespans.

But before we write off diet as a trivial factor in our nation's astoundingly expensive and increasingly unaffordable healthcare system, let's ask: how prevalent was diabetes in the U.S. in 1930? How prevalent was morbid obesity in 1930? When did ADD (attention deficit disorder) become the catch-all for hyperactivity and poor learning capacity? Does improving diet and reducing TV/videogaming to zero have any clinical impact on ADD?

To claim that diet has little impact on health is to deny the obviousness and science of GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.

Check out the advertising flyers you get in the mail; how many of the items with coupons are low-salt, low-sugar, low-fat, high-fiber products which might actually retain some modest nutritional value? None.

How many supermarkets place unsalted raw sunflower seeds, whole-grain bread and dried natural fruit (no sugar added) on the ends of the aisle? None; those are low-profit items. The "impulse buy" high-traffic areas of the store are loaded with diet colas, salty snacks and other non-food being passed off as food--immensely profitable non-food.

The consumption of garbage media and garbage food are highly correlated. If you rarely watch TV (it's the visuals, baby) or its Internet cousins (music videos, etc.), then you probably don't share the same cravings and double-binds of those who consume hours upon hours of junk programming.

And if you don't consume mountains of pseudo-food, junk food and utterly unhealthy snacks and drinks, then you probably have fewer chronic diseases and disorders, and probably need less expensive medical care, too.

Exactly how are we any different from China, where millions of smokers are killed off for the sake of profits/taxes? Here, we have substituted the obvious dangers created by tobacco-pushers for the schizophrenic-inducing profit centers of the manufactured-food, fast-food, snack and beverage industries, and the "sick-care" system which profits from the diseases engendered by the fake-food/beverage industries.

Who else profits from this schizophrenia? An entire boatload of other industries: supermarkets, the media, the diet/lose-weight industry, etc.

We'd like to be well, but there's simply no money in it.

All of which led me to launch "what's for dinner at your house?" and coin this slogan: "A healthy homecooked family meal is a revolutionary act."

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