Organic / All Natural

These days everyone is telling you to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store, not the middle part where they keep the good stuff. Coincidentally (?) local Krogers have begun remodeling so that none of us have any idea where anything is anymore, or if Oprah would find our purchases morally acceptable.

But the point of shopping the perimeter is that you should eat things that are more…real? No, that can’t be right. Less…processed? I have only a vague idea of what processed means, but I feel confident that it is a bad, bad thing.

Wait, I know, I’m supposed to buy things that have less packaging! Because that’s better for the environment. Because packaging is…made out of oil. Right?

You see how little I know about this. This whole entry is going to be a cry in the dark (dingos…babies) in the attempt that someone will show me the way and write it the way it’s done. Also I dared myself to write about something not overtly political.

Okay so I go to the store and I go to the perimeter where they have a health foods section. And I buy the first thing that has Big Bird on it. Because if Big Bird does not stand for all that is good in the world, who does? As LBJ bemoaned losing Cronkite, if Bird crosses over, we might as well all pack up. Look at him. Her? Her. Him?

The first thing I have to say is that these bars are not very filling. They are tiny. They are a tease. I grant you this may have something to do with their being designed for children. The second thing is that they are INDIVIDUALLY WRAPPED. In fact they’re even proud of the fact: “they are a quick and easy healthy snack to eat on-the-go.” However, just two bullet points later we are warned: “We also recommend that this product be served only while seated and supervised.” Perhaps we need an entry on “on-the-go”?

If you go to a website called Good Guide, you can see how Earth’s Best, the company that makes this product, ranks with others in the biz. Their ratings are not the easiest things to make heads or tails of (not very specific), but you can see that Big Bird’s bosses rank high on health, but low (5.1/10) on environment and (5.7) society – they’re not very charitable and stuff, apparently.

This is not mere Big Bird slander day. Another important thing about the product is that it is certified organic. Did you know that “organic” has a legal definition, and it is controlled by the USDA? You probably did because I am just Meryl Streep looking for my lost baby, but you are an informed consumer.

Organic’s American legal life began in 1990 with the Organic Foods Protection Act. This set up a National Organic Program which promotes “cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

You can easily access the original act online and read it. It’s encouraging that there is a list of definitions at the beginning, but a little less so that, as the website of one dieting dad (that’s how he describes himself) puts it, “Exactly what is organic food is rather loosely defined. The Act emphasizes the need to promote biodiversity, natural biological cycles and soil management. It talks about minimizing pollution from air, soil and water.”

But people actually check up on these food manufacturers and farmers and there is a section of the NOP website devoted to “Compliance and Enforcement” which has the image of a statue of Justice as its thumbnail. I’d like Cap’n Crunch getting shoved into a squad car, but okay.

I know I have at least one chemist friend who has an opinion about using organic, which has specific scientific definitions, as a discriminatory food adjective, and I hope he chimes in.

On the other hand, “Natural” and “All Natural” are a free-for-all. Try and Google define “all natural” and you will only get two responses. One from the Global Product Network Database, which says “a product is classified as ‘all natural’ where it carries a prominent on-pack claim to that effect.” So claiming the title is the same as earning it. I am going to go put on my prominent “Sexy Beast” sticker now.

This is the first “all natural” thing you see on Google images, BTW:


There is a guy named Mike Adams, aka The Health Ranger, who is making it his job to get us to realize how stupid “All Natural” is. He goes into some detail in one part of his site about how he had a phone throwdown with a veggie burger manufacturer trying to get them to fess up to the MSG in their product. The details are a little science-y, but basically the person claimed that the MSG came from a natural source. To which our Health Ranger retorts (in bold, I might add):

Claiming MSG is natural because free glutamic acid appears in tomatoes is sort of like saying cocaine is natural because it’s derived from ingredients found in the coca leaf.

Take that you capitalist health food bastards!

He goes on to describe why drinking coca tea in Peru is good, almost as good as chewing on seaweed…who says health food nuts are weirdos?

(What’s so bad about MSG? Maybe it damages your brain or makes you extra-hungry. Maybe nothing. The jury is out.)

Another of his bold points is “It’s the process that’s unnatural, not the source.” Processing (yes I finally looked it up) involves all the little tricks those capitalist foodies do to make their raw product more attractive (colors, tastes, smells) and also some admittedly non-evil things like preservable.

Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation contains a section, “Why the Fries Taste Good” which describes the “secretive” world of the “flavor industry” (120). He has this surreal experience of touring one of these factories where they, in little “clear bottles,” hold the flavors for “potato chips, corn chips, breads, crackers, breakfast cereals, and pet food…ice cream, cookies, candies, toothpastes, mouthwashes, and antacids…soft drinks, sports drinks, bottled teas, and wine coolers, for all-natural juice drinks, organic soy drinks, beers, and malt liquors” (121).

He goes on to inform that “‘flavor’ is primarily the smell of gases being released by the chemicals you’ve just put in your mouth,” and “the color of food” which is usually manipulated, “can determine the perception of its taste.” He later derides the silliness between a “natural/artificial” flavor semantic divide. “Natural flavors and artificial flavors sometimes contain exactly the same chemicals,” he writes, “produced through different methods” (126). The capitalistic food bastards are hip to the popular lingo, and simply make adjustments needed to put “natural” on their stuff.

Summation: Shop the perimeter, except for MSG veggie burgers. Plastic comes from oil. If you trust the government, you can trust organic certification. Natural is crap. Willy Wonka’s three-course-meal gum is not so far off. Avoid being turned into a blueberry.

Pro-choice? Pro-life? Pro-babies-dying?

Just two months ago, National Public Radio instructed its employees to no longer use the terms pro-life and pro-choice. These alternatives were offered in a memo:

On the air, we should use “abortion rights supporter(s)/advocate(s)” and “abortion rights opponent(s)” or derivations thereof (for example: “advocates of abortion rights”). It is acceptable to use the phrase “anti-abortion”, but do not use the term “pro-abortion rights”.

Perhaps most troubling about this is the dangling period (NPR should know that periods go inside the quotation marks in this country). However, we can all see that this change, in the interest of “clear, consistent and neutral” language, leads to other snarls.

Jeff Bercovici, writing for (“An AOL Money & Finance Site”), does a good job of pointing these out, and takes potshots at other de-fuzzifying attempts as well. He concedes, however, that pro-life and pro-choice both began as “propaganda” by their respective sides in the abortion debate: “How can anyone be against choice? Or against life? Why, you’d have to be downright evil!”

But which came first? Which side cast the first stone in setting the terms of this debate?

Here is a fine time to introduce Mr. William Safire. Safire worked on the Nixon campaigns of 1960 and 1968, and then became a speechwriter for him and for VP Agnew. Nixon repaid the favor by wiretapping him once he started working for the NYTimes. Safire then lashed out against Nixon, or the “lizard-lidded paranoid” working for him, in print. He had a way with words, which led to his regular contributions to the “On Language” column in the Times, as well as his Political Dictionary, which he began in 1968 (the year everything happened) and refined over forty years.  

He was, until his death last year, one of the foremost language gurus in this country, especially when it comes to “political framing,” the kind of thing the Times was stressing over last week. He was also, according to Fox News, pro-choice, as he believed government “should stay out of the bedroom.”

But, more importantly, he tried to nail down the origins of these troublesome terms. In “On Language” in 1990 he defended his claim that “pro-choice” actually predates pro-life:

[T]he first evidence of the existence of the word pro-choice was in a Wall Street Journal article by Alan L. Otten on March 20, 1975, when this political analyst reported with great prescience:* ”Both right-to-life and pro-choice forces agree the abortion issue is going to be around for a long time.” The first use of pro-life came more than nine months later, on Jan. 18, 1976, in a New York Times quotation of a ”pastoral plan for pro-life activities.”

*If prescience is Miss Cleo, “great prescience” must be like those scary bayou psychics with one cloudy eye.

While “pro-life” may have existed in dictionaries and discourse before 1975, Safire claims that it was not tied to its current meaning (specifically anti-abortion).

It may have existed, for instance, to describe a movement, popular especially in the Catholic left (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing) during the Vietnam War, connoting anti-war sentiments.

But does this mean all we have is some guy named Alan to blame for this verbal rift? It hardly seems propagandistic if it was just a journalist searching for a term. I know the first appearance in print does not constitute an origin of the term, but if this is all Safire could sniff out, I won’t get any further if I try.

Back to NPR. Yes, it’s pretty clear that these terms are sneaky. I could be a supporter of abortion rights and yet work very hard to ensure that there is never another abortion; I could detest abortion and yet acknowledge the legal right to it. Similarly, I could be against abortion rights and yet very much in favor of choosing…breakfast cereals, American Idol winners, and underwear.

They also, since they both use pro-, obscure the fact that there is a very specific thing which some people support and others oppose. It’s hard to have a debate when you don’t even agree about what you disagree on. If one side would just pony up to being on the anti- side of the fence, perhaps we could get closer to something.

Bercovici, however, thinks that NPR’s new wording is unfair, since it forces an anti- team, and presupposes that abortion “is a right.” He adds, “This frames the debate in terms of the prerogatives of the mother. What about the right of the embryo/fetus/adorable unborn child of God not to be aborted?”

Well so much for journalistic objectivity. I don’t know whose job it will be to tell Mr. Bercovici that in fact abortion is a Constitutional right, that the Supreme Court decided in 1973 the right to abortion fell under the “right to privacy…protected by the 14th amendment” (this wording from Nose goes.

What shall it be then? Pro- and anti-privacy? Pro- and anti-Johnson (Andrew, that is; Prez. for 14th Amendment’s adoption). Or should the move be away from drawing lines in the sand and toward…drawing lines in the…ultrasounds? Should the focus be turned to research on viability (the ability to live outside the mother’s womb)? According to Bob Woodward (another of Nixon’s faves), Justice Harry Blackmun, wrote the 7-2 majority opinion on Roe v. Wade, had concerns about the “arbitrary” process of setting a timeline for abortion’s legality.

Abortion must be nearly as old as pregnancy. The anger it has stirred is mostly likely as hoary (look it up). “‘Tis in grain,” Shakespeare’s Olivia says, about her beauty; “twill endure wind and weather.” Abortion will endure countless semantic fads, some more misleading, some less. Recognizing the agendas of the respective terms is important, however. 

Since it’s now time to leave without answering many questions, it’s a good time to refer to Citizen Ruth, the Alexander Payne 90s abortion satire (billed as, wait for it, Pro-LAUGHS!), which also ends in such a manner – highlighting, however, that as both sides squabble the point is too often missed – the point in the film actually being several small red ones on a bedsheet, points which lead to pain, pain which the angry partisans fail to notice.

Assassination brownies – an interlude

I almost feel prescient.

This morning the NYTimes ran a piece called “Semantic Minefields” which fits in very well with Fuzzy English. Clark Hoyt, an editor, debates the merits of “targeted killing” versus “assassination,” whether Katrina was a “natural” or “man-made” disaster, and using the word “settlement” when describing construction in Jerusalem.

I think the debate about assassination is the most interesting, and most relevant here too. Apparently an angry letter to the paper claimed “targeted killing” was a euphemism, making the act seem “sanitary…bureaucratic and bloodless.”

The sticky part is that assassination is “prohibited by executive orders” signed by Ford, Carter, and Reagan. And if they all agreed on something…

The stickier part is that these orders did not define assassination. I can only assume this is because Al Gore had not yet invented the internet, so I went ahead and ran a search for our former heads of state.

The news is not good. Merriam-Webster leaves this wide open. It looks like the government won’t be killing anyone for a while – or anything? “Destroy” seems to imply you can assassinate a bridge.

Main Entry: as·sas·si·nate
Pronunciation: \ə-ˈsa-sə-ˌnāt\
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): as·sas·si·nat·ed; as·sas·si·nat·ing
Date: 1607

1 : to injure or destroy unexpectedly and treacherously
2 : to murder (a usually prominent person) by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons

synonyms see kill
 I’d been told once that Shakespeare invented the term assassination, and while poking around the internet to find out if this is true, I learned that the word assassin comes from Arabic. It’s basically like saying “hashhash’n” and refers to a member of a Shia sect during the Crusades who were brainwashed to go out and kill people – and did so probably because they were baked all the time. Wikipedia, the font of knowledge, asserts that the first use of the word “assassination” belongs to Macbeth. In fact that bit has another famous phrase nestled in it:
       “…if the assassination
       Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
       With his surcease success; that but this blow
       Might be the be-all and the end-all…”
                                                                          1. 7 – Macbeth
Shortly afterwards, Macbeth’s wife comes in with a plate of brownies and they hashhashinate. After that, they both start freaking out about noises and stains and get real paranoid.
Why do executive orders which ban something not have to include a definition of what’s being banned?
 The Times goes on to defend the choice of “targeted killing”:
Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief, said he did not regard “targeted killing” as a euphemism like those routinely used by governments “to obfuscate and conceal the true meaning.” You might wonder about those “proximity talks” sponsored by the United States in the Middle East, but there is no doubt what targeted killing means. I don’t think it is euphemistic, either, though it does, as Gardiner argues, sound bureaucratic. Under the circumstances, I could not think of a better term.
 I guess suggesting “murder” would be opening a rather large can of worms here. Maybe later.

“Clear and present danger”

Charles Schenck’s words were so dangerous that the United States put him in prison.

Schenck, during World War I (1914-1918), wrote against the draft, or conscription. In a pamphlet, he asserted the following:

“A conscript is little better than a convict. He is deprived of his liberty and his right to think and act as a free man…He is deprived of all freedom of conscience in being forced to kill against his will.” Schenck believed that conscription violated the Constitution – specifically the 13th amendment, which brought an end to slavery and prohibits “involuntary servitude.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a soldier – of this day and age – tell you that he or she has no right to challenge an order, but I have, and it was an intelligent person, and in a century where following orders has been used and is still being used to justify all kinds of atrocities (running over children in Iraq was the one at question in my discussions), the deprivation of conscience is no airy, hippie problem. It leads to crimes, and to people being forced to commit crimes. See also A Few Good Men.

Schenck’s pamphlet also asked citizens, in big bold letters, to assert their rights, and it proclaimed, “Long Live the Constitution of the United States.” Unfortunately, Schenck would be one of the first to learn that the Constitution can be changed to fit the political needs of the day.

His arrest was made legal by the Espionage Act of 1917. This was passed shortly after US entry into the war, and made a criminal of anyone who “shall wilfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States” to “be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both.” Schenck appealed his conviction, arguing that the First Amendment ought to protect him.

It was here that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made one of the greatest, and most misleading, analogies in American history. Holmes wrote, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic.”

We can all see that such a person would indeed be a real bastard, and most likely chemically imbalanced as well (or a teenager). But speaking of teens, if you poll an 11th grade high school class, as I did, you will find that if any of them know anything about Mr. Schenck (whose name they do not recognize), or about the larger issues involved in his case, the only soundbytes you will drag out of the more clever of them will be “fire in a crowded theatre” and “clear and present danger.” This latter was what Holmes decided certain words presented, bringing about “substantive evils” which Congress was obligated to prevent.

The students do not know, too many of them, that Schenck was not some multiplex maniac, but an anti-war protestor. Fewer know of his eloquence and understanding of the Constitution, or his prescience (this is the word educated people use to describe things which are psychic; they do not use psychic because it makes us all think of Miss Cleo or Dionne Warwick). 

Here’s Schenck being Miss Cleo: “The people of this country did not vote in favor of war,” he wrote in his pamphlet, “at the last election they voted against war.” That, of course, happened again in 1968, and 2008. The wars dragged on. Also, he asked, “Do you want to see unlimited power handed over to Wall Street’s chosen few in America?” Lucky for us we cleared that Wall Street problem up pretty neatly.

But back to the words at hand: Holmes’s analogy (and keep in mind analogies were deemed so tricky that they were removed from the SAT) was so clever that it went on to have a life of its own, completely eclipsing the civil liberties at stake in the case!

Howard Zinn, the recently deceased proud lefty author of A People’s History of the United States, and a friend of Matt Damon (to allure the kids), cited Zechariah Chafee, Harvard Law Professor, who said the analogy would be more “apt” if it were “someone getting up between the acts at a theater and declaring that there were not enough fire exits” (Zinn 366).

This I’m sure makes us all think of Kate Winslet in Titanic telling that architect guy that there were not enough lifeboats onboard, for which crime she was promptly locked in a vintage automobile and forced to have sex with Leonardo Dicaprio.

Zinn goes further and says Schenck was “more like someone shouting, not falsely, but truly, to people about to buy tickets and enter a theater, that there was a fire raging inside” (366).

If I had my druthers, I would compare Schenck to a World War I Socialist pamphleteer handing out an argument about the legality of conscription…because that is what he was.

Analogies can be very winning because they make complex issues seem easier to understand. Do not drink this Kool Aid. Holmes himself had breakfast with some smart people after penning the opinion and changed his mind after only a few months (although similar convictions kept being upheld). SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) replaced “clear and present danger” in 1969 with “imminent lawless action,” whatever the hell that means. Parts of the Espionage Act are still law in this country – and let’s remember that this act was the baby of Woodrow Wilson, that champion of democracy.

However, what endures the most is the analogy. Comparisons are powerful.

Schenck teaches us that perhaps the pen is mighty, but the pen which supports the sword is mightier than the pen which protests it.