Archive for April, 2009

The New Food Revolution

April 30, 2009

[Author’s preface – Incredibly enough, in just the past few days since I submitted the piece below for publication in the May issue of the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Voice, an entirely new food related disease outbreak, the swine flu, has emerged from nowhere and spread across the globe. While the origin of this virulent new pathogen is still unclear, the pork industry is vehemently denying any connection to the horrific conditions at its pig CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Opeartions) , even though other swine flu viruses have started at such facilities – with the current outbreak starting in a Mexican town just a few miles down the road from a huge, partly U.S.-owned pig farm. Are you ready for a new food revolution…?]

During my youth, I never thought much about food  – like where it came from, or what was in it. I visited the occasional farmer’s stand or pick-your-own strawberry farm with my mom and brother, but for the most part our food came from the supermarket, and the question of its safety or healthfulness wasn’t even an issue.

How times have changed. Just a few months ago peanut products made by the Peanut Corporation of America – which supplied food companies, hospitals, nursing homes and cafeterias – were discovered to have salmonella.  Nine people died, leading to one of the largest food product recalls in U.S. history. A U.S. pistachio recall followed only a few weeks later. In 2006, most the U.S. spinach crop had to be destroyed due to an e.coli contamination that killed three Americans. Overall, disease outbreaks from food have risen from about 100 a year in the early 1990s to some 350 now.

Bad as this is, the problem of food disease outbreaks pales in comparison to the dangers posed by our actual national food policies. Determined by Congress, with the friendly help of lobbyists from Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Cargill and other agribusiness corporations, these policies are not only destroying our national health, they are at the same time systematically destroying our planet .

For starters, most of our food is currently grown far, far away – an average of 1500 miles away, from field to plate, a disaster from the global warming or peak oil perspective. That one pound plastic box of organic lettuce contains maybe 100 calories of food energy, yet requires roughly  4500 calories of fossil fuel to grow, process, package, and ship from the other side of the country, under constant refrigeration.

It gets worse. Take corn, which ends up in an astounding array of food products. Our federal government spends billions of dollars each year subsidizing the industrial production of corn, a process that both burns and depletes the soil with the heavy use of petrochemicals, and creates huge dead zones in bays and oceans due to the chemical runoff. (The seasonal dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is now as large as the state of New Jersey, due largely to the runoff from the corn belt states).

A good chunk of the subsidized corn is converted into non-food items such as corn ethanol  – a fuel which is both a lobbyist’s dream and any sane person’s nightmare, as it takes almost as much fossil fuel to produce as you get ethanol out of it. Not to mention the fact that it increases hunger worldwide.

And the industrial corn that does end up in food often goes into patently unhealthy high sugar and high fat food products (the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup being the poster child), or it’s used to artificially fatten cows at cruelly inhumane, toxic cesspools known as CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations. The resulting beef is not only tremendously fatty, it’s filled with antibiotics because the cows, having evolved to eat grass, not corn, are constantly sick and on drugs themselves.

Not surprisingly, in the U.S. human population coronary and heart disease are rampant, the incidence of “adult onset” diabetes is skyrocketing among children, and obesity is a national epidemic. It is predicted that the youngest generation of Americans will, for the first time in our history,  lead shorter lives than their parents.

Clearly, our national food policy is failing us, and badly.

What can one do? Lobbying Congress for change is a necessity, and many good groups organize such efforts. But this is also one area where we don’t have to wait for government  – we can (and should) take matters into our own hands, as large and increasing numbers are.

One big change many people are making is to buy local, and to buy actual, fresh “whole” food, not processed “food products.”

There has been an explosion over the past several years in farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture farms (CSAs).  Buying local food is by far the best way to guarantee its healthfulness, and that it’s doing the least possible harm to the environment. (This also means eating mostly what’s in season; just because a corporation wants to sell you produce from the other side of the planet doesn’t mean you should buy it.)  Local food is also the freshest, most nutritious food you can buy, and it keeps money in the local economy.  We are blessed with great farmers markets and CSAs in our area, and everyone should patronize them.

Another important change is to reduce or eliminate meat in your diet. Yes, I love meat – my wife and I are in the “reduce” category right now – but we cannot ignore the destruction that industrialized meat production is wreaking on the planet (it’s one of the top producers of greenhouse gas emissions) or on our national health.  And if you do eat meat, once again, look for locally raised.

Perhaps the biggest – and most revolutionary – change you can make is to start growing some of your own food. Michelle Obama is one of millions of Americans now doing just that – food gardening grew by 10% in 2008 according to the National Gardeners Association, with a whopping 20% increase predicted for this year.

There are plenty of people who can help you (check out Takoma Park’s own Purple Mountain Organics, or the Master Gardeners’ “Grow It, Eat it” program), and our temperate climate allows for an especially long and productive growing season. It’s economical as all get out, and there is no healthier, tastier, more satisfying and more environmentally sound food than that you have grown yourself – guaranteed. Too many trees in your yard? Grow in a container on the porch, join or help form a community garden, or find a neighbor with a sunny plot to share at

Of course, replacing our current dysfunctional food system with a largely locally based one will take lots of work, but it can be done – at another time of great crisis Americans managed to grow almost half their own produce in millions of World War II Victory Gardens. Getting back to that won’t be easy, but such an effort will bring the immense benefits of local self-reliance, community-building, good exercise and reliably safe, healthful and delicious food.

And ultimately, in the face of global warming and a demonstrably unhealthy, unsafe and even toxic corporate-controlled food supply, is there a better option?

Note: Members of the local food gardening community are starting a “Montgomery Victory Gardens” project, and we’re looking for individuals who participated in victory gardens in the past. If that’s you, please contact me at, or at 301-801-3406. Thanks!

So Now Torture is Okay?

April 22, 2009

“I believe strongly in transparency and accountability…
the United States is a nation of laws.”

– President Barack Obama, April 16, 2009

I know that many of the people who voted for me for Congress in 2008 also voted for Barack Obama.  I understood and still understand the reasoning. And I have been only too happy to give President Obama credit for his good acts, such as when he ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay prison in the first week of his Presidency.

Unfortunately, there has been far too much on the other side of the ledger in the weeks that followed. We found out soon after the order to close Guantanamo that the Obama Administration is working diligently to deny any legal rights to prisoners in other U.S. prisons abroad, such as Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.  Attorney General Eric Holder has echoed the national security and state secrets arguments used by the Bush Administration in trying to squelch lawsuits and investigations into illegal surveillance and the rendition of terrorist suspects to other countries.

And last week, President Obama took another deeply disturbing step.

In response to an ACLU lawsuit, the President released four previously classified “legal” memos written for the Bush Administration to justify torture, and he did so over the strenuous objections of current and past CIA directors.  Excellent transparency. So far so good.

But then… President Obama made clear he would launch no investigation, and that no one who participated in these grossly illegal and immoral activities would be prosecuted by his Administration. Indeed, he went on to say that his Administration would actively defend any suspected torturers subjected to lawsuits.

In other words, transparency with no accountability whatsoever.

The memos themselves are sickening – they are detailed instructions on how to commit torture. Stripping people naked, slamming them into walls, depriving them of sleep (for up to 11 days), the now infamous “waterboarding” (which was used on one captive 183 times – in a single month).  They describe activity that cannot possibly be justified by any memo.

And yet President Obama defended those guilty of violating U.S. and international laws against torture by saying they were relying “in good faith” upon legal advice received from their superiors. In other words, they were just following orders.

As more than a few commentators have pointed out in the days that followed, “just following orders” was the defense used by war criminals after WWII to justify Nazi atrocities, including torture.  And it was a rationale destroyed at the Nuremburg trials that followed – or so we had hoped.

In making his pronouncement to shut the door on inquiries and prosecution (which his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was quick to add would include those who wrote and approved the memos as well, although now it’s being suggested it will be up to Attorney General Holder to make that decision), President Obama violated the very essence of his campaign promises (if such a thing even matters anymore), which were to bring transparency and accountability back to government.

Even more importantly, President Obama – a  Constitutional lawyer, no less – also violated his oath of office to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution (does that matter?), since the Constitution makes it pretty clear, in Article II, Section 3, that the President has an absolute obligation to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” He does not have the discretion to let lawbreakers go uninvestigated and unprosecuted just because it might be politically expedient to do so.

And perhaps most importantly of all, he is encouraging the very behavior he claims to oppose. For what is the lesson when one commits high crimes in government, the evidence is produced, and yet no consequences follow?  To quote the great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, from his opinion in Olmstead v. United States:

“Decency, security, and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen…. Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.”

All of this is terrible enough. But for those of us who appreciate having a President who can actually string words, sentences and thoughts together when speaking, it’s also worth noting that President Obama is now using his considerable rhetorical gifts against us – including many of those who voted for him – and the policies many of us hoped we would gain.

For what does it mean to claim we are “a nation of laws,” at the same time he refuses to go after those who commit some of the worst crimes imaginable?  How can he claim to “believe strongly” in accountability, yet refuse to apply it when it matters most?

And check out the words with which Mr. Obama ended his statement:

“This is a time for reflection, not retribution. . . . nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.”

So in Obama-speak, at least on the issue of torture, justice for crimes committed equals “retribution.”

Investigating and prosecuting horrific crimes for which there is ample evidence is now a waste of time and energy, nothing more than “laying blame for the past.”

And those of us who still insist on equal justice under the law, no matter what station in life (or government) the lawbreaker may hold, we are now “the forces that divide us,” and we must be “resist[ed].”

Pardon me for having to ask the question, but apart from the fact that it was more artfully done, what exactly is the difference between what President Obama just said, and the Bush Administration lackeys who attacked critics of their policies as unpatriotic (or worse)?

Thanks a lot, President Obama. And pardon me again if I choose to disagree with you on what constitutes our core values. I trust I’m not the only American who believes equal justice for all is about as core as it gets if our “nation of laws” is to mean anything.

It may not end here, though. A lot of people are pretty damned upset, as we should all be, and even some members of Congress are saying that investigations must be held. A lot will depend on how much pressure they now feel.

I encourage you to go to the links below, and sign the petitions urging Congress to investigate torture in the Bush Administration, and to impeach Jay Bybee, the federal judge who was one of the main authors of the torture memos. And please forward this email to your friends so they can sign them as well. Signing online petitions may be the least any of us can do to defend our nation of laws, but it’s a start – and it’s more than the President is willing to do. So far, anyway.

To sign the ACLU open letter to Attorney General Holder calling for a special prosecutor and full investigation, click here.

To sign the Democrats.Com (“The Aggressive Progressives”) petition to Congress calling for a full investigation and other critical actions, click here.

To sign the Progressive Democrats of America petition to Congress calling for the impeachment of Judge Bybee, click here.

The Greatest Generation Speaks (Part II)

April 1, 2009

(The following is an update of a post from this past December; it will appear in the April issue of the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Voice.)

It was only a matter of time before the imminent failure of one or more U.S. auto makers pushed AIG and the financial crisis off the front pages, at least temporarily.

And now that it’s here, and we have to listen to talk of “restructuring” and “automobiles of the future” for the next month or so, I urge you to keep in mind just one historical fact:

At the beginning of World War II, the entire U.S. auto industry, then the largest industrial manufacturing center in the world, completely converted from making passenger cars to military vehicles, including tanks and airplanes, in less than one year. One year.

They went from producing 4 million cars in 1941 to virtually none in 1942-1944, as they pumped out  a quarter million aircraft, along with tens of thousands of tanks and additional military vehicles.

Think of that whenever you get into and out of your car. One year.

This small miracle is emblematic of the group we call “the greatest generation.”  It exemplifies their discipline, willpower and ability to work collectively against great odds to win a titanic struggle. The sort of grit and American can-do personified by Rosie the Riveter.

It turns out, oddly enough, that Rosie was a lot more willing than the auto company executives, who had to be threatened and coerced by Franklin Roosevelt to make the shift.  Which is one lesson the greatest generation has for us in our own time of titanic struggle: don’t leave it up to the “captains of industry” to chart the path.

The more important lesson, though, is the sweeping, transformative nature of the changes they wrought – and the extraordinarily short time in which they were accomplished. The greatest generation didn’t deal in half-measures.

A comparison to the present day is not a particularly favorable one. Short timelines notwithstanding, the Obama Administration is still leaving it up to the auto companies themselves to determine the “restructuring,” with even greater layoffs and decreased health care for workers a given. And the President’s goal of putting two million hybrid and electric cars on the road by 2015 represents a mere 2.2% of the roughly 90 million cars that could be sold between now and then (at 2008 sales rates) – and less than 1% of the 250 million vehicles currently registered in the U.S.

One year?  More like one century.

If the twin crises of global warming and job loss are to be met, the greatest generation’s approach would be far different. The President should simply tell the auto industry that it has one year to convert to the production of plug-in hybrids, electric cars and vehicles for mass transit, such as buses, light rail cars, etc. (They’re made of the same stuff as cars, and it’s what we want to encourage, right?)  Oh hell, give ’em two years – but that’s it.  They’ll get all the support they need from Washington, including appropriate subsidies for consumer purchase and a desperately needed revitalization of our national and metropolitan rail systems. But just two years.

And if the industry execs don’t like the idea, they should be shown the door as summarily as G. Richard Wagoner of General Motors was, and replaced with business leaders who do.

Are we capable of such truly great, transformative changes anymore?  Because that is exactly what is required to meet many of the challenges we face. Simply spending prodigious amounts of money (borrowed money, lest we forget) is not a substitute for the systemic changes we need.

Take the health care crisis. President Obama is trying to cobble together more than $600 billion as a “down payment” on universal care, while leaving the system in the hands of private insurance companies that  limit or deny coverage to increase their profits.  The greatest generation would simply scrap the current dysfunctional system and switch to a privately delivered, publicly financed “single payer” system – one used successfully in other nations and which would be a huge boon to businesses struggling with health care costs (like the auto industry).  But it’s not “on the table” for discussion. Why not?

How about the collapsing financial system? Congress and the new President are continuing to dump literally trillions of (our) dollars into failing banks, with little or no evidence it’s working, or any idea what we’re getting for it.  Why not, the greatest generation might ask, simply march in to insolvent banks,  kick out corrupt bankers, clean up the books and then reopen under new management? (And if the companies are “too big to fail,” but not too big to destroy our economy, then they should be broken up. The President should channel the other Roosevelt, trust-busting Teddy, on this one.)

Of course it’s not just up to our political leaders. We need to make great personal changes ourselves. Americans in the 1940’s sacrificed all manner of material goods to win the war.  They learned whatever job needed to be done. They grew more than 40% of their own produce needs in 20 million Victory Gardens.

We all need to be part of the change. Because now is the time not simply for big or bold action, but for truly great action, something to make our grandparents proud.

Are we up to the challenge?