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AN ELEGY FOR CHARLIE HEBDO

Charlie Hebdo on Paris Match

(This was written just after the killings at Charlie Hebdo January 7, 2015 )

The fractured and widely dispersed movers and shakers of the Jihad ( جهاد‎ ǧihād [dʒiˈhæːd]) must be feeling pleased with themselves. Across the Muslim world, the Western inspired revolts have all but been put down and all but Tunisia are back to business as usual. The latest news on that front is that Libya’s politicos have rolled back the ban on their colleagues who worked for Gadhafi. Two Islamic nascent states are forming, one in northern Iraq/eastern Syria, ISIS land, and the other in north Nigeria, Boko Haram land. The Jihad Illuminati have kept up a media blitz on the infidels starting in December in Sydney, then the beheading of journalists foolish enough to put themselves into the grasp of ISIS, and most recently the execution of the pudgy Cabu and his fellow blasphemers at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. This last attack was to them a triumph; those cartoons of the Prophet needled even the most progressive Westernized Muslims who understood, if not agreed with, the justification of the killers. Muslim condemnations distinguish between the act and the provocation, something lost on the rioters in Pakistan and Nigeria, and the newly minted Jihad Joes and Jihad Jills now on their way to Northern Iraq to fight for Islam. Undoubtedly there are more martyrdoms in the pipeline. They are wildly cost effective: for the price of a decent party to Atlanta you can get front page billing for days on end.

And such parties do happen. I was told of such a flight from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia which carried a party of young Saudi men to Atlanta for R&R. Once the airplane was airborne and the beers had been opened, my friend and the party organizer was shocked by the demands from the party goers for prostitutes and cocaine when they arrived in the USA. The behavior of these young Saudis was an interesting comment on the prevailing values in their country which according to its rulers is run under Sharia law. Indeed, there are several countries which are under Sharia law, such as Iran and the Gulf states, yet neither of the brothers Kouachi were killing for Saudi Arabia or any other Islamic state. They were killing for the once and future caliphate.

The Golden Age

By José Luis Filpo Cabana (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By José Luis Filpo Cabana

Islam as a religion and as a political organization exploded out of Arabia during the Rashidun Caliphate (Arabic: الخلافة الراشدة‎ al-Khilāfati r-Rāshidah) which lasted the thirty years foretold by the Prophet from 632 – 661 CE. The Jihad swept through Egypt, defeating the Byzantine emperor, and Iran, deposing Sassanid rule. The last three caliphs – Umar, Uthman and Ali – were all murdered, which closed that succession and led to the split between Sunni Moslems and Shi’a Moslems. For over a thousand years, Islam dominated the Middle East. There were a few upsets. The Franks established a brief (88 years) Kingdom of Jerusalem (which is wonderfully depicted in Kingdom of Heaven) followed by a toe hold at the port of Acre which lasted another 99 years. Far more serious were the Mongols who married ruthless military efficiency with a contempt for settled ways of life. The destruction they caused has only been exceeded by World War II and the 96-year long war of the Three Kingdoms in China. Inevitably, the vast Mongol empire succumbed to dynastic squabbles, and the western branches of Genghis Khan’s dynasty converted to Islam. A cadet of one of these branches, Babur, after many attempts, conquered northern India, establishing the Mughal Empire.

The Mughals were deposed by people from a smallish island on the other side of Europe: the British. The 19th and early 20th century were the glory days of European imperialism. European nations carved up the world into colonies and protectorates which included, after World War I, the Middle East. World War II closed that era and the former colonies in the Middle East became dictatorships or kingdoms with one exception. The survivors of the Holocaust migrated to reclaim their homeland in the newly formed Israel.

Palestine

Dome of the rock by By Rastaman3000

Dome of the rock, Jerusalem, by By Rastaman3000

There was an Arab population living in the then Palestine. Many Palestinians were evicted to make way for the refugees from Europe, who were followed by more from the Soviet Union. Twice, the neighboring Arab states attacked Israel, and twice they were roundly defeated. The simmering discontent of Palestinians and the impotence of the Arab ruling class morphed into the PLO as a terrorist organization led by Yasser Arafat. They targeted passenger jets, in particular the Israeli airline El Al. Of course, when in due time the PLO came to power, they proved themselves corrupt and incompetent, and where replaced by the more austere Hamas.

World War II left Europe greatly impoverished with large swathes of wasteland. The British simply resigned to their fate as America’s poodle and quickly let go its colonies. Indian Independence partitioned the subcontinent into Pakistan and India, and was greeted with an orgy of violence, ‘the first to display elements of “ethnic cleansing,” in modern parlance.’ France attempted to retain some of its colonies but was quickly kicked out by their independence movements.

The corner shop

Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO

Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO

The lackluster economic performance of the former colonies meant that many of their citizens looked for homes and work in their former European masters. Those from the Indian subcontinent chose Britain. I recall watching a passenger dressed in a sari and newly embarked from an Air India 747, looking out through an entrance door way to Birmingham airport at the rain and a chilly English November evening.  Those from the southern coast of the Mediterranean or Maghreb choose France. The family of my elegant French teacher in Oxford was originally from Morocco.  This, on the whole, was a good thing. Nowadays, British high streets always have an Indian restaurant. The late-night corner shops in Britain are run by Indian families and in France such shops are called an Arab as their owners are mainly from the Maghreb. Multicultural Europe is a more interesting place. The east end of London, the traditional part of London for immigrants to settle, now has a Little India, a road lined with Indian restaurants just like China Town. I recall standing on Shadwell Station, on the Docklands Light Railway and close by, smelling all the curries being cooked in the tenements below. Once upon a time that smell would have been boiled cabbage. A very good friend hails from the area and is now a very successful computer consultant with a lovely family, and now lives in Holland.

Prophets and profits

Yet would these events by themselves have led to the massacre in Reims? We need to look to the more austere brothers of those party goers to Atlanta. At the end of WWII, the world was being divided into American and Soviet spheres of influence. FDR and Harry Truman co-opted Saudi Arabia into the American one, with a mutual defense agreement which included a permanent U.S. Military Training Mission in the Saudi kingdom. This agreement was cemented with oil, extracted by ARAMCO (formerly the Arabian-American Oil Company) which is based in Dhahran. The Suez crisis in 1956 demonstrated the US hegemony to the other Gulf States. The Saudi Arabian US oil connection explains the bizarre fact that George H. W. Bush, former US President and father of the then incumbent, and Shafiq bin-Laden, the brother of Osama bin-Laden, were  the honored guests at a Carlyle Group meeting on September 10, 2001, in New York, New York. The Bushes had bin-Laden priority shipped out of New York to avoid any unpleasantness.

To Moslems, Saudi Arabia is sacred. The Prophet had his visions near Mecca. The holiest book, the Quran was first written down in Mecca. Moslems pray towards Mecca, and are enjoined to travel once in their life there and process around the Ka’aba (Arabic: الكعبة‎‎ al-Kaʿbah IPA: [ælˈkæʕbɐ], “The Cube”), a journey known as the Hajj. To some Saudi baby boomers, their country’s role as custodian of the sacred sites and its spiritual preeminence didn’t square well with the conspicuous corrupting opulence available to some and the integral presence of Americans who also supported the archenemy Israel. Luckily for King Faisal, then the Saudi law giver, there was a simple solution: encourage them to leave and make trouble for someone else. Many young Saudi men left to join the Mujahedeen fighting the godless communists in Afghanistan. They kept their trust funds and got presents, like Stinger surface-to-air missiles which were good at bringing down Soviet helicopters.

War in the Gulf, part 1

Tout est Pardonne

Tout est Pardonne

So, when in 1990 Saddam Hussein’s army marched into Kuwait and threatened to continue on down to Dhahran and then other Gulf States, King Fahad, who had succeeded Faisal, called on the US to honor their agreement to protect his kingdom and their joint assets, much to the disgust of the Saudi Mujahedeen. The Americans, with a sizeable following of other states and a new generation of weapons much more suited to the open desert than the Vietnamese jungle, quickly defeated the Iraqi army. It did not finish the job because the Iraqi regime were clients of the Soviets who black-balled that encroachment into their sphere of influence.

The 1990s were a golden age for America. The Soviets retreated from Afghanistan. The Iron Curtain cracked and then collapsed, followed in short order by the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. The other great Communist power, China, spooked by how quickly and easily the Soviets lost power, reformed just enough to encourage much of world manufacturing to relocate to its shores. Apartheid ended in South Africa and the promised blood bath was avoided by the genial leadership of Nelson Mandela. Academics wrote of the “End of History”.

Fujiyama’s end of history was an anathema to the Saudi Mujahedeen, now living in Afghanistan and another failed state, Sudan. The Prophet had prophesized that ‘towards the end times, the Rightly Guided Caliphate will be restored once again.’ Muslims would win. To defeat the Soviets the Saudis had teamed up with a group called the Taliban, a creature of the Pakistani Secret Service. These victors concluded that it was they who had defeated the Soviets and they could do the same to the Infidel Americans. They called themselves Al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda

After one failed attempt to destroy the Twin Towers, the result was 9/11. Although this pleased the Palestinians, it did not result in the Jihad that Osama bin-Laden and his cronies wanted. The Saudis were evicted from Afghanistan, to the pleasure of the locals. The US President took the opportunity to settle the Iraq issue: to evict the troublesome Saddam and install an Iraqi version of ARAMCO.

Both US military expeditions ran into problems. The brief stabilization of Iraq due to the Surge of US troops and the fostering of the Awakening of Iraq allowed just enough time for the US military to officially withdrawal leaving Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister. Al-Maliki is a Shi’a and beholden to the Shi’a community which dominates Southern Iraq. It didn’t take long for him to alienate the Sunnis in North Iraq which elements of al-Qaeda exploited to create ISIS. The mountainous terrain of Afghanistan gave US forces the same grief as it did to the Soviets. So too did Afghani politics. The US Military has grown quiet on their operation as the Taliban wait and rest up in the safety provided by the Pakistani Secret Service.  After all, Bin-Laden was caught and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan’s Sandhurst or West Point, and, apparently, no one in Pakistan knew he was there? For more about Pakistan’s Secret Service read ‘Ghost Wars’ by Stephen Coll and ‘The Wrong Enemy’ by Carlotta Gall.

The current actions of the Jihadists, of which al-Qaeda is but part, should be considered considering the very limited response to 9/11 by main stream Moslems. The Jihadist leadership concluded that the reason that there was no Jihad in 2001 was because they did not have a territorial platform. This they have now acquired. The ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared his country a Caliphate and himself Caliph. He is currently picking a fight with Jordan, the weakest of their neighbors. If ISIS can draw that kingdom into a civil war, it would give them access to an Israel border, and an opportunity to take the Jihad to a new level with an attack on Israel to reclaim Jerusalem and evict the Jews. The ultimate prize is to depose their fathers and grandfathers and to establish their version of Sharia law in Saudi Arabia and reclaim the holy sites of Mecca and Medina from those apostates who sold their birthright to infidels and who deserve a fiery death.

Back in the USA

President Bush gave a Texan response to the events of 9/11: “We will find those who did this, we will smoke them out of their holes, we will get them running, and we will bring them to justice.” The US military quickly defeated their enemies in open battle and offered a vision of a prosperous, peaceful, progressive country. Instead the newly liberated peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan refused to step up to the plate, knuckle down, and do the right thing. Many Americans think those military interventions were well meant but they were a waste of time and cost too much in American blood and in American cash. Their high purpose announced at the UN is dead.

“For too long, many nations, including my own, tolerated, even excused, oppression in the Middle East in the name of stability. Oppression became common, but stability never arrived. We must take a different approach. We must help the reformers of the Middle East as they work for freedom, and strive to build a community of peaceful, democratic nations.”

President G. W. Bush

The fearless American Press

Steve Emerson - Terrorism Expert for Fox

Steve Emerson – Terrorism Expert for Fox

I’ve spoken with American coworkers and fellow dog walkers about the Charlie Hebdo killings and was stunned to find that at least half of them had not heard of it. That’s not surprising. ABC’s World News program regularly has no stories from outside of the continental USA. Fox News’s expert on Islam is – incredibly – the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty, Phil Roberson.

Another Fox pundit, Steven Emerson, said that Birmingham, UK, is an autonomous Moslem enclave closed to infidels and Moslem religious police are active in London.  He was corrected by the British Prime Minster and made time to apologize for being totally and stupidly wrong. Emerson is still on Fox.

Obama administration joined European leaders marching in support of “Je Suis Charlie”. Luckily, late night talk shows have a better handle on events.

The Super Bowl

Jeep Ad at the Super Bowl 2015

Jeep Ad at the Super Bowl 2015

This Arab thing event impacted important things like the Super Bowl 2015, when Jeep had the bad taste to include a cute girl wearing a traditional headscarf. Folks put them right.

Response to the Jeep Ad

Response to the Jeep Ad

Multicultural Europe

Multicultural Europe and an enlarged EU are considered a triumph by the bureaucrats who run the EU and the governments which drive it. The native and immigrant populations are not so sure. The bureaucrats naturally prefer a command economy and continue making the same mistakes as the Soviets. High taxation – income tax alone is 50% in France – and a plethora of regulation snuffs out innovation in all but the biggest enterprises so the wealth of Europe is gradually draining away to the USA and China. When I was in France last year I struck up a conversation with a lovely young woman in the Metro so I could practice speaking French. She told me that she wishes to move to the USA to enjoy a better life. Her friends do too. The economy of continental Europe is stagnant and unemployment endemically high. It is no wonder that the current French President François Hollande is the most unpopular president ever.

Economic strife polarizes societies. In France immigrant communities dominate the banlieue, the suburbs of Paris and other cities. Unemployment runs to 40%, drug trafficking is popular, and it is a happy hunting ground for the radicalizing imams sent to harvest Jihad Joes and Jihad Jills.

Eighty virgins?

Nasr al-Ansi

Nasr al-Ansi

So how does the Jihad recruit? According to the neighbor of Said Ibrahim, one of the 21 July 2005 London bombers, Ibrahim was expecting his 80 virgins when he went to paradise. Quite how the recruiting sergeants keep a straight face when proselytizing with such transparently adolescent fantasies is quite beyond me. It is medieval just like the chant of those early Europeans on the 1st Crusade: “Dieu le veult” (God wills it), which is something no European has said recently. How did the poor boy get such spammy notions? And where?

ISIS recruiters seem to be numerous and relentless users of social media, although if Scotland Yard’s report of the three girls who chose to travel to Turkey and perhaps join ISIS is mostly correct then the recruiting sergeants seem to have the run of mosques and safe houses across Europe.

Where do the recruiters get the money? On the whole recruiting in Europe and the US is a sideshow, organized it seems from Yemen, an old stamping ground of Al Qaeda. The Charlie Hebdo attacks were claimed by Nasr al-Ansi, described as ‘a top commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ but in reality, is a sheepish, paunchy bureaucrat. He is Yemeni but his patch includes Saudi Arabia.

Native European communities naturally feel threatened. The Pegida movement in Leipzig in former East Germany complains about the effects of immigration. A mother at one of their rallies did not want her blond daughter to feel an alien in her home town. The English Defence League has produced a film which includes a young English white woman talking with a bukkah clad protestor; the protestor accused the English woman of being dressed like a tart. Such misgivings are dismissed by media and government alike as racist, uneducated and dumb.

Cultural Differences

In 2010, Zafran Ramzan, Razwan Razaq, and three others were found guilty of having sex with minors, and where put on the sex offenders register. The judge had no doubts as to what kind of men they were:  “the message must go out loud and clear that our society will not tolerate sexual predators preying on children.”

In September 2012, articles in The Times, a prestigious London newspaper, reported on “a problem with networks of Asian offenders both locally and nationally” which was “particularly stressed in Sheffield and even more so in Rotherham, where there appears to be a significant problem with networks of Asian males exploiting young white females.” This quote was taken from a 2010 report by the police intelligence bureau.

The official reaction to The Times’ articles from the South Yorkshire Police was: “The Times was wrong and that to suggest the police was deliberately withholding information was “a gross distortion and unfair on the teams of dedicated specialists working to tackle the problem.”

“In October 2012, the Home Affairs Select Committee [a key component of governmental oversight] criticised South Yorkshire’s chief constable, David Crompton, and one of its senior officers, Philip Etheridge, for their handling of child sex abuse. The committee heard evidence that three members of a family connected with the abuse of 61 girls were not convicted, and an unconvicted 22-year-old man was found in a car with a 12-year-old girl with indecent images of her on his phone. David Crompton said that “ethnic origin” was not a factor in deciding whether to charge suspects. The committee said that they were very concerned, as was the public

In January 2013, the head of Rotherham Council, Martin Kimber, was summoned to the select committee to explain the lack of arrests for sexual abuse, despite South Yorkshire Police saying it was conducting several investigations and the council having identified 58 young girls at risk. MP Keith Vaz questioned why, after five Asian men were jailed in 2010, more was not being done: “In Lancashire there were 100 prosecutions the year before last, in South Yorkshire there were no prosecutions”. The council apologised for the “systemic failure” that had “let down” the victims of child sexual abuse.

Although there had been three previous inquiries – in 2002, 2003 and 2006 , the one commissioned by Rotherham Council in November 2013 and headed by Professor Alexis Jay was comprehensive and damning.

It found that girls “were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten and intimidated.”

Some “children who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone.”

The report concludes: “No one knows the true scale of the child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham over the years. Our conservative estimate is that approximately 1,400 children were sexually exploited over the full inquiry period, from 1997 to 2013.”

During the period of the cover up the official attitude might be summarized by the experience of one whistle blower: … she had been accused of being insensitive when she told one official that most of the perpetrators were from Rotherham’s Pakistani community. A female colleague talked to her about the incident. “She said you must never refer to that again – you must never refer to Asian men.” “And her other response was to book me on a two-day ethnicity and diversity course to raise my awareness of ethnic issues.”

Oh, the irony

Charlie and Houellebecq

Charlie and Houellebecq

When the gun men burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, that week’s cover of Charlie was of a French author, Michael Houellebecq. The cartoon mocked Houellebecq for being old and poked fun at his book published that very day called Soumission. This book thanks in part to Al Qaeda is now a best seller.

‘Narrated by a middle-aged academic, Soumission sees Houellebecq imagine France in 2022, where Front National Leader Marine Le Pen is beaten by the leader of France’s new Islamic party, Mohammed Ben Abbes. Once Abbes is president, women go veiled in the street, and schools adopt an Islamic curriculum.

The work’s themes have been described as controversial – “France is not Houellebecq. It’s not intolerance, hatred and fear,” French prime minister Manuel Valls, told reporters – and Houellebecq’s publisher in France was placed under police protection in the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, with the novelist stopping promotion of the new book.

A caricature of Houellebecq featured on the cover of last week’s issue of Charlie Hebdo, published before Wednesday’s attack; it’s “not bad”, the novelist told an interviewer on Le Grand Journal that week, adding “Cabu [the late cartoonist] often did me – he was often funny”.’ Reaction in France to the Charlie Hebdo killings neatly divided native and immigrant communities. A million Parisians marched and waved pencils. Jean-Marie Rouart of L’Acedemie Française thundered in Paris Match, “C’est Voltaire qu’on assasine”. The reaction in the banlieue was mute.

French newspapers reported that some students in these neighborhoods—as well as other heavily Muslim areas near cities like Lille—refused to participate in Thursday’s national moment of silence for the victims of the terror attacks. One teacher said up to 80 percent of his students didn’t want to observe the silence, and some said they supported the attackers. “You reap what you sow,” a student who refused the moment of silence told his teacher about the terrorists’ victims, according to Le Figaro.

Ominously, there is talk of another Jewish conspiracy.

Mehdi Boular, 24, who said he was married with two children, and two of his friends, did not attend Sunday’s rally.

“We’re Muslims,” Boular said. “They might have killed us if we’d gone.”

But even though the flags of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia were flying at the rally in Place de la République and Muslims were well represented among the marchers Sunday, Boular said the attacks in Paris were part of a plot masterminded by Jewish conspirators.

“The Kalashnikovs, the identity cards the [killers] supposedly left behind, it was all staged,” said Boular, as his friends nodded in agreement. “It was a conspiracy designed by the Jews to make Muslims look bad. We’d rather just stay where we are.”

The reaction of Hollande and his fellow bureaucrats, is predictably unimaginative: they issued a strongly worded statement – this time in the form of an infographic, and hoped that it will all go away. Good luck with that.

Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part 1: Children Of the Corn

Cow
Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the Philosopher of Foodies. He starts his book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, with a simple question “What should we have for dinner?”, and comes up with interesting food for thought. He has the temerity to do something that most people do their best to ignore, and something that the food industry, which he charts, dissects and skewers, does its best to encourage. He writes, “Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner”. Ignorance is bliss, you might say.

I think it would be fair to say Pollan’s point of view could be summarized by a quote from the hero of part two and three of the book, Joel Salatin: “Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?” (page: 240)

The plot of the Omnivore’s Dilemma (not a catchy title in my opinion) revolves around preparing four meals.

  • A McMeal which was gobbled up in a moving car. It was adequate. Pollan had his guilty Big Mac and fries. He could persuade his wife to take a salad, and his 11-year-old son had the McNuggets which “taste like what they are, which is nuggets, du-h”. We get introduced to George Naylor, Pioneer Hi-Breed’s 34H31, Earl “Rusty” Butz, and a brockle-face calf called Steer Number 534.
  • A Big Organic meal came care of Whole Foods, and consisted of roast “Rosie” chicken, roast veggies – “yellow potatoes, purple kale, and red winter squash, steamed asparagus, and a spring mix salad”; followed by organic ice cream and organic blackberries.
  • This is contrasted to the locatarian fare which was mainly from Polyface Farm located in rural Swoope, Virginia. The food was roasted corn, roast chicken again, and lemony rocket salad washed down with a peachy Viognier out of VA. The wine was an “unexpectedly fine wine”. Dessert was chocolate soufflé.
  • The stupendous final meal, its ingredients all handmade or plucked and killed by Prof. Pollan justifiably proud of his achievement wrote the dinner up in a Berkeley-style menu.
Pollan's Menu

Pollan’s Menu

Our omnivorous dilemma

Our omnivorous dilemma is AKA “What should we have for dinner?” We humans are omnivores capable of eating a surprisingly wide variety of food. This includes comestibles that some folk swear are delicious, healthy and nutritious, such as Japanese Natto, or Cantonese chicken feet or tripe from Morpeth, but to me are as appetizing as cold sick.

Koala Bear

Koala Bear

What to eat does not trouble animals with a more restricted diet, say a Koala Bear. “The koala doesn’t worry about what to eat: If it looks and smells and tastes like a eucalyptus leaf, it must be dinner.” For most people for most of history the choice of what to eat was limited to what there was, and during famines, what might keep body and soul together for another day. Even in the good times and the good places consumption was guided by custom and etiquette. It is not surprising that the cuisine of the great courtly cultures of the world – China, India, France, Turkey/Greece – features lots of little dishes drawing inspiration from the good wife cooking for her peasant family. For example Crêpe Suzette was invented by Henri Charpentier, He learned its crêpe and fruit elements from his foster mum. The alcohol was added by the Parisian restaurants of the Fin de siècle, the flame by chance, and the appreciation by the then Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII (1841-1910) of England, and guests. Or that was Henri’s story.

By stu_spivack (Preparing the crepes auf flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Crêpe Suzette by stu_spivack

Those times are still the daily reality of most people today, but large and growing proportion of us have moved on to modern life and modern eating. Instead of selecting available foods from a market and cooking them according to family recipes, we have advanced to the food aisles of the supermarket. And they are extraordinary. I wonder what a gifted Renaissance man like Erasmus would have made of the cornucopias we visit every week or so. There are “canyons of breakfast cereals and condiments”, “freezer cases with “home meal replacements” “, “broad expanses of soft drinks and towering cliffs of snacks”. I recall wandering around a Target in Denver being quite overwhelmed by the size of its food section and especially by the size of some of the packages. As most of the packages and brands were new to me, I had a problem deciding what to buy for my meal for one. I’m not alone in this. “Our bewilderment in the supermarket is no accident; the return of the omnivore’s dilemma has deep roots in the modern food industry …”

Supermarket

Supermarket

Pollan maintains that as we modernized we have been cut off from traditions which have been systematically tested over hundreds of years. Now we have a food industry instead. It may be shocking but the executives at Tyson, Walmart, and Whole Foods are mainly interested in running profitable businesses, and their next bonus; they are not necessarily the best folk to ensure our welfare. In theory that welfare is provided by a plethora of laws and agencies. Unfortunately, the science that underpins these laws and guidelines has only had a couple of hundred years to figure how to grow and maintain a human, compared to the thousands afforded to cultures. The Illiad tells us that the young blades at Nestor’s court at Pylos cooked kebabs in the hearth of the king’s throne room Moreover, as Big Tobacco showed us, science can be brought for a price.

Adrift from a distinct food culture, and our concerns multiplied by Madison Avenue and the latest research, we are prey to fads. So a book like the Atkins diet can radically alter eating habits by demonizing pasta and bread and replacing the food pyramid as people’s go-to reference, for a while. Meanwhile we are all getting fatter and dying unnecessarily from so-called diseases of affluence, while we read the labels and wonder “What is “natural grill flavor” or TBHQ or xanthan gum?”

Pollan recognizes this as a cultural problem, and writes: “We show our surprise at this by speaking of something called the “French paradox,” for how could a people who eat such demonstrably toxic substances as foie gras and triple crème cheese actually be slimmer and healthier than we are? Yet I wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to speak in terms of an American paradox—that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of being healthy.”

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel

[It’s interesting that a worldly wise, well read, West Coast professor like Pollan should find the notion of an American Paradox odd. Does he think that paradoxical behavior is something that only other nations do? In America, I see paradox everywhere. It’s the only Western country where any old lunatic may arm himself – they are nearly always men – in order to shoot up a school, movie theatre, whatever. And there’s never a stout NRA member to return fire.]

Pollan’s answers his question by following the clues “that, I found, reach all the way back to fields of corn growing in places like Iowa.”

Why Corn (Maize)?

Pollan writes, “I invariably found myself in the same place: a farm field in the American Corn Belt.”, because “There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.” including “things like Gatorade and Ring Dings and hamburgers …” and there is a good reason for this. Corn, after its seeds have been lovingly synthesized and protected from all manner of ills, produces more calories per square foot than pretty much any other food crop. This is due to its unique biochemistry, its “C-4 trick” as Pollan calls it.

There is no such plant as “natural” corn. Like nearly all our foods, humans have developed it from an unprepossessing original, in corn’s case a plant called Toesinte. Native Americans capitalized on variant plants in which a genetic mutation had wrapped the seeds in a tough husk. The tough husk prevents the corn from propagating naturally, but what would be a death sentence to a wild plant was a bonanza for humans. From then on, we unnaturally selected those characteristics which pleased us, up to and including “the biological equivalent of a patent”. It so happened that frequently the offspring of two varieties of a plant is bigger and better than either of its parents. In Genetics-speak, that cross strain or hybrid is called the F1. The children of the F1 hybrids, the F2 hybrids, are usually shadows of their parents so the farmer must buy his F1 seed from Monsanto or such. George Naylor, Pollan’s corn farmer, buys his, a brand called Pioneer Hi-Bred’s 34H31.

From somewhere in Idaho

Pollan met George Naylor in the middle of his corn field on a “slate-grey” day. Naylor “is a big man with a moon face and a scraggly grey beard” and was wearing “the farmer’s standard-issue baseball cap, a yellow chamois shirt and overalls – the stripy kind favored by railroad workers”. His Iowan field “has some of the richest soil in the world, a cake of alluvial loam nearly two feet thick” made by the “retreat of the Wisconsin glacier ten thousand years ago”, and is home to tall “prairie grasses – big bluestem, foxtail, needlegrass, and switchgrass”.

Corn Field

Corn Field

It is remarkably productive: an acre of the Naylor farm yields “more than ten thousand pounds of food”. The farm is part of a vast mono-culture of identical plants which runs skyline to skyline, a Manhattan of corn, devoid of people. The population of Green County, where the Naylor farm is, in its heyday was 16,467, now it’s a bit over ten thousand. The local town, Churdan, is a shuttered ghost town, just a café and minimart left, with the “windowless concrete skyscraper” of the grain elevator standing vigil at the far end.

The growth from the modest twenty bushels per acre eked out by the Native Americans and the pioneer farmers, got underway in 1947 when the munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama started to turn its surplus of ammonium nitrate into fertilizers instead of explosive. Hybrid corn just loves lots of nitrate fertilizer. The combination spawned corn farms running on oil. Pollan writes “every bushel of industrial requires the equivalent of … fifty gallons of oil per acre of corn”. “Ecologically this is a fabulously expensive way to produce food …”. The industrialized farm-factory has a side effect: nitrate fertilizer is washed from the fields down into the Raccoon River, which runs through Des Moines. River chemistry converts nitrate into toxic nitrite, which can find its way into tap water for humans. So, in Des Moines, the city has to issue “blue baby alerts”.

Yet despite all this technology and hard work, George Naylor “is all but going broke”. Why this should be “is complicated” and “has something to do with the perverse economics of agriculture …; a little to do with the psychology of farmers; and everything to do with farm policies …”, the last being the life’s work of Earl “Rusty” Butz, AKA “The Sage of Perdue”, Richard Nixon’s second secretary of agriculture. See the picture of Butz with Trickie Dickie, and a young Dick Chaney.

A sale of 30 million tons of grain to the Soviet Union “in the fall of 1972” compounded with “a spell of bad weather in the Farm Belt” forced grocery prices to a record high and an apparent food scarcity. Hunger It is never lost on politicos that the immediate cause of the French Revolution was hunger due to bad harvests, so when in 1973 ominous grumblings  started; “housewives were organizing protests at supermarkets” and newspapers asked “Why a Food Scare in a Land of Plenty?”, there was action.

Richard Nixon, Earl "Rusty" Butz, and Donald Rumsfeld

Richard Nixon, Earl “Rusty” Butz, and Donald Rumsfeld

So, the “Sage of Perdue set to work re-engineering the American food system, driving down prices and vastly increasing the output of American farmers.” “He exhorted farmers to plant their fields ‘fencerow to fencerow’ and advised them to ‘get big or get out’.” With the 1973 farm bill, he rejinked government subsidies from loans designed to keep farmers’ solvent into direct payments intended to increase production. And that farmers did, all too well. Over the years, government has found other things to spend money on, consequently “just about every farm bill since has lowered the target price in order [apparently] to make American grain more competitive on world markets.”  The result is that as of October 2005, corn was bought for $1.45 a bushel and the agriculturists at the University of Idaho reckon that that bushel costs $2.50 to produce, trapping the farmer into attempting to grow still more, ad infinitum.

A monument to this abundance, or a “plague of cheap corn” as George Naylor put it, was the “bright yellow pyramid the size of a circus tent” Pollan saw at the foot of the grain elevator in Farnhamville, Iowa, part of a “bumper crop” “represent[ing] what was left of the millions of bushels of corn that had overflowed the elevators [the previous] … October.” Pollan felt that “something [was] deeply amiss in the sight of so much food lying around on wet ground.”  Ricardo Salvador, a Latino agronomist and Prof. at Iowa State, took a similar line: “To be honest I felt revulsion. In Mexico, even today, you do not let corn lay on the ground; it is considered almost sacrilegious.”

But from the perspective of hardnosed commodity brokers, this hill is only so much “number 2 field corn”. This term was coined by the Chicago Board of Trade as part of a grading system introduced in 1856 to simplify commodity trading. It is almost inedible: you’ll have to soak the corn kernels in water for several hours to get something tasting like “lightly corn-flavored starch.”  But, then again, you’re not supposed to eat it; it flows into factories which turn it into ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, umpteen other things and meat. Pollan intended to follow this yellow river on its journey to the consumer so he contacted the chief processors of corn, Cargill and ADM, but they declined Pollan on “food security” grounds.

Mommy, what does C.A.F.O. mean?

Pollan left the Manhattan of corn and towering corn elevators which stand like a lone moorland menhirs to visit a cattle metropolis called Poky Feeders. The high plains of western Kansas are crisscrossed by “ramrod roads”, Kansas lay lines to the standing stones of Idaho. He speeds down one until “the empty dun-colored January prairie suddenly turns black and geometric, an urban grid of steel-fenced rectangles as far as the eye can see” which is coupled “an aroma more bus station men’s room than cows in the country”. Welcome to Poky Feeders. He had come to visit his steer, number 534.

By Derekbalsley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cattle Lot By Derekbalsle

534 had started his life in a birthing shed on the Blaire Ranch “a few miles outside Sturgis, South Dakota”. His mother was 9534, that would be the 34th cow born in 1995, and his father via “a fifteen-dollar mail order straw” was “Gar Precision 1680, a bull distinguished by the size and marbling of his offspring’s rib-eye steaks. If this strikes you as rather Brave New Worldish, you’re not alone; only we’ve not yet applied industrialization to human reproduction. His first six months were spent with his mother, on Blair Ranch’s “rolling short-grass prairie” with the option of “nibbling on a salad bar of mostly native grasses: western wheatgrass, little bluestem, buffalo grass, green needlegrass.”

“In October, two weeks before [Pollan] made his acquaintance, steer number 534 was weaned from his mother.” Then “he was rounded up and herded into a “backgrounding” pen with others of his cohort, to spend a couple of months learning to eat corn from a trough. It was in this pen that Pollan chose 534 because he “had a wide stout frame and was brockle-faced- he has three easy-to-spot white blazes.” “Ed Blair, the older of the two brothers, suggested only half in jest that [Pollan] go the whole hog and buy the animal” which “immediately struck [Pollan] as a promising idea.” Shortly after 534 was off to Poky Feeders.

The heart of Poky Feeders is the mill. It processes a million pounds of feed a day, which is corn rolled into flakes which weren’t “half bad; not as crisp as a Kellogg’s flake, but with a cornier flavor”, liquefied fat i.e. beef tallow, and “a sticky brown goop of molasses and urea, plus vitamins and a couple of antibiotics “- Rumensin and Tylosin.”

It all makes inexorable economic sense, even the cannibalism.“ “Fat is fat,” the feedlot manager shrugged when [Pollan] raised an eyebrow.”  Trouble is, apart from the yuck factor, the system is new in evolutionary terms which means things go wrong. The classic example is “Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, first brought to light in merry England where, once upon a time, bits of sheep were fed to cattle. A disease of sheep known as scrapie was passed to the cattle and then to humans. For a while British beef was banned in Europe and , there were fears that it could turn into an epidemic as the human version Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease was essentially untreatable. In a damage control exercise, the British public were treated to the spectacle of the nerdy Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, feeding his four year old daughter with hamburgers at a Norfolk country fete. The furor has died down, for now, and is not a known problem at Poky Feeders.

The main problem that Poky’s three “hospitals” cope with is Bloat. A diet loaded with starch stalls the fermentation in the animal’s rumen which “inflates like a balloon” and may occlude his esophagus and suffocate him. The cattle can also get “a kind of bovine heartburn” which too can be lethal. This is why the animals are fed antibiotics. “Most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed”. As the current stocks of antibiotics are variations of a handful of compounds, it is only a matter of time before they are compromised by antibiotic resistant superbugs. According the staff veterinarian, Dr. Mel Metzin, all this is due to the simple fact that “they’re made to eat forage and we make them eat grain.” so the “cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days”, perhaps “as much as [the animals”] systems can tolerate.” Still Dr. Mel is upbeat: “Hell, if you gave them lots of grass and space, I wouldn’t have a job.”

Pollan found 534 in pen 63 which on first impression was “not a bad piece of real estate, all considered.” Then he figured out the pond which pen 63 overlooked was no pond at all but in CAFO speak “a manure lagoon”. (CAFO is the acronym for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.) Pollan had on “the same carrot-colored sweater” he had worn when they had first met in South Dakota and wondered if 534 would show a “glint of recognition?” Nope, “none whatsoever.” He looked well although his eyes were a little bloodshot, “irritated by feedlot dust” according to Dr. Mel. Indeed, Dr. Mel was impressed: ““That’s a handsome-looking beef you got there.” “[Pollan’s unspoken reply:] Shucks”

Rube Goldberg and Number 2 corn

Around 60% of “the 10 billion bushels of corn harvested each year” is used in CAFOs and the like. The rest – remember humans don’t eat kernels of number 2 field corn – is deconstructed in a wet mill. As ADM and Cargill, who do most of America’s wet milling, had declined to show him their plants in Decatur, Illinois and Iowa City respectively, he made do with a model mill at the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University. It is “a Rube Goldberg [Heath Robinson (GB Eng.)] contraption of stainless steel tubes, pipes, valves, vents, drying tables, centrifuges, filters and tanks” which as Larry Johnson, the Center’s director, describes it “is essentially an industrial version of digestion”. Pollan goes into some detail on how the processes work, but suffice to say it is ingenious, cost effective and mainly made from metal. The end product are things like High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) which is “the most valuable product refined from corn”. Then these products are reassembled into food items like Cocoa Pebbles breakfast cereal or Coca Cola, and a surprising range of other products, e.g. Windex, diapers, gypsum drywall, wax paper and fresh vegetables!

First Booze Then Fries

Unsurprisingly, the result of ingenuity and a prodigious amount of cash is what Pollan calls “A Republic of Fat”. The UN reckons that there are now a billion or so people with overnutrition – an interesting euphemism – which is more than the unfortunates with malnutrition, at around 800 million. So, there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone and it is probably technically possible to do it. Quite when we’ll get around to it is another matter.

The US takes the lead in the obese league with 60% of Americans who are overweight and 20% who are obese. It has not always been so. “Most researchers trace America’s rising rates of obesity to the 1970s.” which is coincidentally the era of Earl Butz. Maybe that’s no coincidence at all.

Pollan gets his label Republic of Fat from a book about America and alcohol entitled The Alcoholic Republic. Apparently, from the time of the Founding Fathers onwards, America was on a “collective bender” to the astonishment of European visitors. One wrote home, “Come on then, if you love toping. For here you may drink yourself blind at the price of sixpence.” Pollan reckons that the driving forces for both republics are the same things: too much corn and ingenious marketing.

At the top of the roll of honor for those marketers is David Wallerstein, who invented for McDonalds the “equivalent of a papal dispensation”: Supersize. McDonald’s empire has in recent times been losing market share which wasn’t helped by the film Super Size Me. This goes some way to showing that the Republic of Fat will not need a period like Prohibition to reform a clearly daft state of affairs.

A recent Freakonomics Radio podcast “You eat what you are”, which includes Pollan, suggests that reform is happening in the US, so soon back to slimmer Americans, with the rest of the world in tow with the end of world hunger thrown in. That would be nice. In the meanwhile, Pollan has updated the ancient Mayan self-description “the corn people” or corning walking”, “So that’s us: processed corn, walking”.