I’ll bet we both know people who rigorously police what they put into their stomachs like customs inspectors with a drug-sniffing dog. Vigilance scans the horizon for fattening junk food, heart-mugging fats, allergens, carcinogens, engineered genes, and esoteric chemicals you can’t pronounce without a PhD and a note from your mother.
The problem of course is that we have no proof one way or the other about many of the taboo items, yet they arouse passionate convictions amplified by airtight expert endorsements. And as an individual, you can always believe that you’re different.
We police food intake to stay healthy: meaning to avoid death. Our senses have evolved to sort out “tastes” that will nurture or poison you. (That dead squid in your bathtub smells bad for a good reason.) Culture supplements our senses with all sorts of dietary prohibitions that may or may not make scientific sense. We treat beliefs and sensory cues as laws that guarantee health as long as you obey.
You can see why life-or-death laws have associations with religion. Holy foods (“manna,” the Eucharistic “body and blood of Christ”) provide cosmic nurture to sustain believers forever, assuming you obediently keep Satan’s additives out.
But religions are grounded in our physiology. Just as gravity conditions our symbolic use of “up” (autonomy, vigor, more life, good) and “down” (collapse, weakness, death, evil), so the way we’re built makes inside and outside crucial concepts. From birth we learn how to conceive excretion and ingestion. Even as we rid ourselves of scapegoat “shit” and the guilt of killing and chewing other living things, we reject or vomit up poisons. What nurtures us we count as “what is right.” In food terms, right is “natural” or “organic.” The idea is that we live in an envelope and have to keep it pure, which takes some paranoid attention to “fight off” an “attack” of illness (you can see why the proverbial Trojan horse has staying power). A few hundred years ago medicine’s only weapon was to regulate intake by diet, leeches or emetics (to purge disease), and surgery (to excise the bad).
This is a roundabout way of reminding us that policing intake is a core behavior. Whether it’s food or information, we live by interpreting things. Think of all the messages we process by the minute. Not just media and social media, but commands to STOP and save money now or the earth. Hey, Do Not Write in This Space. [ ] It’s symbolic processing but if you listen closely you can hear the rustle of menus. In the wisdom of slang, for example, we call “tasteless” media programming “garbage.” We “spit out” bad news. We say we’re being “fed” phony information.
This is what interests me in the American Civil Liberties Union’s criticism that current policies, especially spying on you and me, make the US “a nation governed by fear.” I suppose they mean that a nation expensively and perpetually at war with potentially anybody is creating paranoia. And paranoia is a sort of eating disorder since it ruins your appetite for life.
Since WW2, the US Government has asked us to (ahem) swallow the proposition that the US is “the world’s policeman” and “naturally” the target of demonic enemies from Communists and terrorists to crime and drug “lords.” The enemy is outside, “envious” and scheming to get in. But if that prospect is too remote, we’re also warned that the demons might already be inside “the body politic.” Commies, gays, and [your favorite here] are “a cancer.” Debt or profligate sex is rotting the nation because we’ve indulged in a “rich” diet or “spent” (Victorian slang for ejaculation) too much of our precious bodily fluids. Naturally, rather than face internal conflict, we deny our fear while invading other countries such as Iraq that we accuse of being “governed by fear.”
In this context the recent news about government spying on us is worrisome. The obvious reasons are alarming enough. Whether or not a whistleblower reveals the program, terrorists take for granted that communications need to be encoded. Meanwhile, the NSA apparatus employs almost as many people as the US Army. Its unaccountable billions are doled out to corporations that are bound to be imperfectly coordinated and probably infected by corruption as the “privatized” support services in Iraq proved to be.
The binge spending on surveillance comes as the US is slumping as global economies rebalance and the dysfunction and corruption in finance, corporate culture, and the military empire call for reform. An empire expands its “inside” to enclose other people’s insides. The US has military bases in well over 200 countries, and the US demand for “dominance” provokes military buildups, as we’re seeing in China. Global finance includes a nerve-wracking cloud of “derivatives” whose total size and liabilities are beyond anybody’s ken. It makes us look ravenous, with our fork prowling on everybody else’s plate.
At the same time, since 2000, the number of Americans needing food stamps has risen from 17.1 to 47.7 million. CNNMoney.com reports that “76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck.” Fewer than one in four have enough saved to make it through a medical or employment crisis lasting six months. My local newspaper tells me Head Start child care is being cut back. Student debt has reached gut-wrenching proportions. Etc. Why are people so passive about this economic punishment? You’d think they were “swallowing” soothing cliches and the sweet nothings served up at the corporate feast.
That paragraph describes a population under stress. You’d have to be nuts not to be anxious about what’s coming tomorrow. This is why the reaction to government spying and endless warfare at the ends of the earth is so perverse.
The spying is intimidating, but as the leaders keep insisting, it promises to save us from invisible menace. The disgusting media focus on the “manhunt” for whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden heightens ambivalence about making an independent judgment of what’s good for the country and what’s obedient denial. If the man’s a criminal, no problem: off to the slammer with him. But what if he’s doing his patriotic duty? Ouf. Look at the painful conflict you feel when a Bradley Manning (Wikileaks) reveals that the government that promises to protect you employs American soldiers filmed killing journalists and children from a helicopter and cackling about the slaughter. The question is, will you be more realistic and morally sensitive if you take that film clip to heart? Will it nourish you or just scare the Hell out of you?
And here’s another twist: the all-seeing agency spying on you is akin to the conscience in yourself that monitors what you do and don’t decide to ingest, whether it’s junk food or news. With NSA spying, you’re being secretly watched and judged by a disembodied conscience that apparently has something to hide. No wonder ambivalence toward it is so fierce. After all, a suspicious, punishing conscience can be depressing as well as a source of panic or hostile righteousness. That’s why we build transparency and accountability into government in the first place. At least in theory.
Like it or not, we’re constantly taking things in. To keep it healthy, the best advice is to know what you’re swallowing, and on the inside, to keep educating them tastebuds.
Bon appétit, pal
PS: If you want a chilling thriller to read this summer, find a copy of Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, about a husband and wife, working class nobodies, who took on the Gestapo in 1940-43 Berlin. True story. May adjust your sleep schedule.