Exploring the “Eater’s Manifesto”

October 8, 2009

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.

These hardly sound like words to spark a social revolution. Yet when I went to hear food author Michael Pollan speak in Baltimore earlier this year, I was amazed to find the hall crammed with over 1,000 people (and a pretty damned healthy-looking thousand people at that). Apparently he’s been drawing even larger crowds all over the country.

Mr. Pollan laughed about his “rock star” status that night, and modestly redirected attention away from himself. There is no question he is a brilliant thinker and writer, and has done much to provoke and guide the current food revolution, but as he noted it’s really not about him, but rather about the millions of Americans who are taking matters into their own hands: growing their own food, seeking organic, sustainable and local food, and just generally refusing to eat what the corporate food system tries to shove down our throat every day.

There is no shortage of reasons for this new behavior, from regular and increasing incidents of salmonella and e-coli in our national food system, to concerns about organic and sustainable agriculture, a wish to support local farmers, or to confront the crisis of climate change (in which modern industrial agriculture plays a major role).

Perhaps the most intriguing reason Mr. Pollan presented that night is the idea that eating is “the proto-political act.” Noting that the universally understood signal for “no”  – shaking one’s head from side to side – starts when as toddlers we try to avoid having food we don’t want put in our mouth, Pollan theorized that choosing what we eat constitutes our earliest attempts to exert influence over the world around us. And hence, the method we return to most easily and naturally.

Whether you agree with that or not, there is no question that Americans are involved in a food revolution right now, increasingly growing their own food or seeking it from local, non-industry sources. And the “Eater’s Manifesto” outlined in his current book, In Defense of Food,  is Pollan’s answer to the questions he posed in his previous bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Millions of Americans, including this author, are taking his advice to heart.

Of course there is a lot of explanation behind this simple phrase, an entire book’s worth, in fact, so below please find the ultra-condensed, Cliff Notes explanation of the manifesto. (Bold headings are Pollan’s as are the direct quotes; the rest is closely paraphrased summation.)  Use it in good health! (And do, by all means, follow this up by reading Pollan’s most recent books, if you haven’t already. They are fantastic.)

The Eater’s Manifesto: Eat Food, Not too much, Mostly Plants

EAT FOOD: FOOD DEFINED

  • Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. – Your great grandmother would not eat yogurt in a tube, for instance.  But since the food industry is actively trying to fool your senses, and could sometimes even fool your great grandmother, a slightly more detailed policy to capture imitation food is required – see below.
  • Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting. – You can bet it’s not good for you.
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable,  c) more than five in number, or that include  d) high fructose corn syrup. – Such items are not real food, but manufactured products of an industry that has goals other than providing you the healthiest possible food.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims. – “For a food product to make health claims on its package it must first have a package, so right off the bat it’s more likely to be a processed than a whole food….. Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign they have nothing valuable to say about health.”  Remember that until very recently food science considered trans-fat-rich margarine to be healthier than butter, but it turns out that it gives people heart attacks. Health claims have become so hopelessly corrupt that you will now find them on bags of chips, boxes of sugary breakfast cereal, and even ice cream.
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. – Most supermarkets are laid out the same way, with processed foods dominating the center aisles and the fresh food – dairy, produce, meat and fish – lining the walls.  Sometimes these items are still only ostensibly fresh, however, so consider a more radical strategy…
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. – Go to farmers’ markets, do a CSA, visit the farm yourself.  The best food system is the one that puts you closest to the food production and producer.  Whenever possible, shake the hand that feeds you.  Wendell Berry famously wrote that “eating is an agricultural act,” which means that we are not simply consumers but co-creators of the system that feeds us.  Shopping this way may take more money and effort, but it’s ultimately the strongest action you can take to create a much healthier and more sustainable food system – as well as to provide you and your family the healthiest possible food.

NOT TOO MUCH :  HOW TO EAT

  • Pay more, eat less. – Even without the current American crisis of obesity, there is ample scientific evidence that eating less is healthier. Unfortunately, the cheaper foods in America tend to be the more processed, less nutritious and more fattening foods.  And because they are cheaper, we tend to eat more of them.  They are also more likely to be “convenience” or quickly prepared foods, which also causes us to eat more of them.  Better and healthier food tends to be more expensive because they are grown with more care, less intensively, and less commercially.  And they usually take longer to prepare, the “time cost” of food.  But as the French and other traditional food cultures have shown, you can have much greater “food experience” and pleasure with less food if you take longer to enjoy it, both preparing and eating it.
  • Eat meals. – There was a time not long ago when there was a mild social taboo against snacking between meals, but most Americans today mark time each day with snacks.  One recent study also found that roughly a fifth of all American eating now takes place in cars, and the food industry talks about “eating occasions.”  Meals, conversely, are social occasions and a major way to avoid bad eating. At meals we socialize and civilize our children, teach manners, enjoy the art of conversation, determine portion size, model eating and drinking behavior, and enforce social norms about greed, gluttony and waste.
  • Do all your eating at a table. – See above – and no, a desk is not a table.
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does. ‘Nuf said.
  • Try not to eat alone. – When we eat alone we often eat mindlessly, and eat more.  And once again, eating with others becomes a ritual of family, community and/or culture, and not simply an act of animal biology.
  • Consult your gut. – Most of us use external visual cues, such as the size of a portion or the proximity of food, to tell us when to stop eating.  Alter the external cues by doing such things as serving smaller portions on smaller plates, but also cultivate your other senses and look for internal cues.  Does the third bite of this dessert taste nearly as good as the first? I could eat more but am I still hungry? It takes 20 minutes for the brain to get the message that the stomach is full, but many of us eat our food in less time than that – another advantage of an actual meal over an “eating occasion.”
  • Eat slowly. – Slow in the sense of deliberate and knowledgeable eating as promoted by Slow Food, the Italian-born movement dedicated to the principle that “a firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life” – “a coherent protest against, and alternative to, not only the Western diet and way of eating, but also the whole ever-more-desperate Western way of life.”
  • Cook, and if you can, plant a garden. – “To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our own sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be fast, cheap and easy, that food is a product of industry, not nature, that food is fuel, not a form of communion, with other people as well as other species – with nature.”

MOSTLY PLANTS: WHAT TO EAT

  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. – The benefits of a plant-based diet provide the only point of universal consensus among nutrition experts.  Vegetarians and near-vegetarians, or “flexitarians,” are less suspectible to Western diseases including heart disease, obesity and diabetes, are generally healthier, and live longer.  By eating a plant based diet you also consume fewer calories, which is good.  Meat is not necessary, but is also not necessarily a bad thing, and can be very nutritious.  However, eating vast quantities of meat – the average American consumes 200 pounds a year – from a highly industrialized food chain is not good for you.  “Thomas Jefferson probably had the right idea when he recommended using meat more as a flavor principle than as a main course, treating it as a ‘condiment for the vegetables.” Such vast quantities of meat are also not good for the planet: it has been determined that factory farm meat production is one of the leading emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide.  It is also notoriously brutal in its treatment of animals.
  • You are what what you eat eats too. – The industrial meat industry produces immense quantities of meat quickly by feeding animals energy-intensive grains such as corn, even though many of these animals, particularly cows, evolved to eat grass.  Large amounts of antibiotics are then used to treat the animals, which are perpetually sick as a result of the inappropriate diet. And beware marketing labels:  “free range” can mean only that there is a dirt lot that the chickens can roam in, and all cattle are “grass-fed” before they get to the feedlot. Look for terms such as “pastured,” and “grass-finished” or “100% grass fed.”
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer. – Freezing food is a good way to eat well on a budget, since you can buy in bulk, whether it’s meat from a local producer or  local produce at the height of its season. Freezing also preserves the nutritional value of produce much better than canning.
  • Eat like an omnivore. – “Biodiversity in the diet means more biodiversity in the fields;” the growth of monocultures and our dependence on a very limited number of plant and animal species – those most suitable for the industrial food system – is dangerously unstable. Plus the more species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. And don’t be fooled by the diversity of food products in a supermarket, since many of them are made from the same small handful of plants, principally corn and soy and wheat.
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils. – “Organic” is a good starting point, but there are plenty of exceptional farmers and ranchers who for one reason or another are not certified organic – don’t overlook them. And remember that Oreos and high-fructose corn syrup are not health food, even if the ingredients going into them are organically grown. Ideally you want to look for food that is both organic and local, since food shipped from the other side of the country, in addition to consuming huge amounts of fossil fuel, can lose much of its nutritional value in route.
  • Eat wild foods when you can. – Wild foods are usually much more nutritious than their cultivated brethren. However, there are simply not enough wild animals for us all to eating more of them, so keep this in mind and don’t overdo it.
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements. – While it’s probably a good idea to take a multivitamin-and-mineral pill after age fifty, studies show they don’t do much good for those of us younger than that.  However, people who take supplements are typically more health conscious and better educated. “So, to the extent that you can, be the kind of person who would take supplements, and then save your money.”
  • Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese or the Indians or the Greeks. – People who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet. Traditional diets developed over hundreds of years because they work, and keep the people who eat them healthy. This includes both the actual foods eaten and how they are eaten. For instance, the Asian practice of fermenting soybeans and eating soy in the form of curds, or tofu, makes a healthy diet from a plant that eaten almost any other way would make people ill.
  • Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism. – Soy is again an interesting case in point.  While the food industry is eager to process and sell the vast amounts of subsidized soy coming of American farms, it is very unclear whether products such as “soy protein isolate” or “soy isoflavones” are good or bad for you.
  • Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet. – Reductionist science loves to break everything down to its components, but in the same way that foods are more than the sum of their nutrient parts, dietary patterns are more then the sum of the foods that comprise them. Complicated interactions among nutrients and non-nutrient substances in the traditional diet cannot be teased apart, as much as scientists and the food industry would like to do it.
  • Have a glass wine with dinner. [Editor’s note – my favorite advice at the very end!] – Traditional diets have understood the healthful benefits of alcohol for centuries, and there is now abundant scientific evidence demonstrating that those who drink moderately and regularly live longer and suffer considerably less heart disease than teetotalers.

Resisting Endless War in Afghanistan – Monday, October 5th

September 29, 2009

As I reflect on Afghanistan, it’s incredible to realize that the first nonviolent action in Washington D.C. resisting this war, organized by myself and a few colleagues, was nearly eight years ago, on January 20, 2002. Think about it – children who were only  ten years old when the planes struck the World Trade Towers and Pentagon on 9/11 are now being suited up to fight in Afghanistan.

When will this madness end?

When will we ever hear a clear or valid mission for our troops, or learn the true number of Afghani civilians being killed, or see the pictures of the ongoing death and destruction on our TV screens? When will someone in charge remember why Afghanistan is called “the graveyard of empires,” and acknowledge that our military occupation has no more chance of succeeding than did those of the Soviet Union, Britain or Genghis Khan?

It’s only getting worse. This year has already become the deadliest for U.S. troops in our eight years there, and it’s only the end of September. President Obama’s newly appointed commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, has arrived in Washington to urgently request more troops be sent –  as the military always requests when a war isn’t going well.

For his part, the president is now said the be “re-evaluating” the strategy in Afghanistan, with no deadline set for  a decision on more troops. And yet, as the relentlessly pro-war Washington Post editorial page reminds us, it was only this past March 27 when Mr. Obama set forth what he called “a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan” that “marks the conclusion of a careful policy review,” and sent thousands more troops there as a result.

So do we need a new strategy every six months? Or could the President’s reticence have something to do with the fact that the American public suddenly seems awakened from its slumber, with a majority now opposing our open-ended occupation of Afghanistan?

And it’s more than just Afghanistan, of course, as Mr. Obama is spreading this war into neighboring Pakistan more and more everyday through the illegal and immoral use of unmanned Predator drones – cowardly attacks that, according to Congressional testimony by David Kilcullen, former adviser to General Petraeus, kill about  50 bystanders and/or innocent victims for each targeted “extremist.” Yet drone attacks have increased under the Obama Administration, and incredibly enough they plan to increase them still more, even as newspapers report a (wholly predictable) increase in anti-American sentiment sweeping Pakistan.

As the late, great author and humorist Molly Ivins once noted, it’s hard to convince people that you’re killing them for their own good.

It seemed only fitting that, in the middle of all this, I had the privilege to see The Actors’ Gang production of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Daniel Berrigan’s play about the burning of draft files in 1968, a nonviolent direct action which helped spark the anti-Vietnam war movement. It was immensely powerful to hear the testimonies of the nine activists (and remarkable to realize how much they were allowed to say in court) –  to hear their personal encounters with American militarism around the world, from South and Central America to Vietnam, that compelled them to act.

It also seemed somehow dated, even quaint. It is difficult for a contemporary audience, so numbed by daily sanitized reports of bombings, violence and war, to comprehend how anyone could be so moved as to risk imprisonment (which they all received) in an attempt to call attention to a moral outrage being perpetrated by their own government. Too many Americans today have come to accept the belief that they are powerless to effect anything important. That’s our loss – and humanity’s.

Because the opinion of a large number of Americans, even a majority, is important, but it’s not enough to stop a war. When Henry David Thoreau observed that “dissent without resistance is consent,” he might as well have been talking about public opinion polls. Majorities telling their opinions to pollsters means nothing. Physical actions, including nonviolent resistance, do mean something, as we can see in every successful social change movement in our nation’s history.

Those who want to act against endless war in Afghanistan and Pakistan have an ideal opportunity this coming Monday, October 5th, the eve of the war’s eighth anniversary. On that day a coalition of national groups, including the War Resisters League, Witness Against Torture, Veterans for Peace, Peace Action, Voice for Creative Nonviolence and my old friends and colleagues at the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, are organizing a direct nonviolent action at the White House, accompanied by local actions around the country.

The action is in opposition to eight years of a brutal and senseless war we are inflicting upon the Afghani (and now Pakistani) people, to our government’s continued occupation of Iraq, its continued use of indefinite detention (at Guantanamo and now Bagram prison in Afghanistan), and its unwillingness to seek accountability for torture.

For more information on the rally, march and nonviolent direct action, go to www.nogoodwar.org

Moral outrages and government crimes begun under the Bush Administration are now being continued by the Obama Administration, and our collective opinions will not be enough to stop them. Action, including nonviolent direct action, is required. It is time to start showing President Obama that we mean business, and bring these wars to an end – before yet another generation of children is sacrificed on their bloody altar. Join us on October 5th.

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Gordon Clark is the former national director of Peace Action (1996 – 2001), the nation’s largest grassroots peace organization, and founder and former coordinator of the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, formerly the Iraq Pledge of Resistance (2002-2007).

The State of Hope – September, 2009

September 19, 2009

[The following article is featured in the September issue of the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Voice.]

August is supposed to be a “slow” news month, but the one that  just ended was a busy one indeed, and the news not particularly encouraging.

Perhaps my favorite item was the Federal Reserve’s prediction that we might be headed toward a “jobless recovery.” Excuse me, but what exactly is a “jobless recovery?”

Probably a lot like what we saw over the summer: the newly recovered big  banks raking in record, multi-billion dollar profits and paying out huge bonuses to themselves, while at the same time home foreclosures continued at a record pace, and the economy shed hundreds of thousands of jobs.

But September is a fresh start, in many ways just as important as New Year’s, maybe even more so. We come home from vacations, we re-engage in our work,  start new projects and our kids begin a new school year.  It is a time of hope and change, like all new beginnings should be.  And as we enter this crucially important season it’s important to consider: where are the hope and change we voted for last fall?

Bank bailouts and the crippled economy persist as major bummers, to be sure. And these realities are not unconnected to the economic advisers President Obama has surrounded himself with, high rollers who come from the banks themselves and who helped create the financial crisis in the first place. Not surprisingly, the prospects of re-regulating the banks, to prevent another such calamity from occurring, seem to be dwindling with each passing month.

Ending the war in Iraq was supposed to be another point of hope for us, but what’s going on there? A slow motion withdrawal from that country has been coupled with a massive expansion of forces in Afghanistan, which is quickly becoming Obama’s Vietnam.

Military spending is up. Unmanned Predator drone attacks are way up. Civilian and military deaths are up.  The Obama Administration announced last month it will continue the Bush era practice of renditions, or sending terror suspects to other countries for “interrogation.” They even continue to employ Blackwater, the infamous private fundamentalist paramilitary operation populated by former Bush friends and officials.

Okay – how about the all-important battle against climate change? After years of delay and denial in the Bush Administration, this is another issue on which many of us had high hopes.

And yet  the Democratic-controlled House – one in which two Maryland Representatives, Steny Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen, are top leaders –  produced a climate and energy bill so compromised and corrupted by big oil and coal interests that NASA climatologist James Hansen, one of the world leaders in calling for dramatic action to confront global warming, denounced it as a “disaster ” and “less than worthless.” Many are expecting it could get even worse in the Senate – if anything even passes this year at all.

On related environmental fronts, the mindless process of blowing off mountain tops to remove the coal underneath will continue relatively unabated under the Obama Administration, which also recently okayed the deal to build a tar sands pipeline from Canada – tar sands being the most environmentally destructive way yet discovered to produce oil. (And the possible final nail in our climate change coffin.)

And what, finally, of the health care debate?

On this issue, August was truly a month of bizarre and surreal spectacles –  town hall meetings that turned into shouting matches, with Medicare-recipients demanding that government stay out of their health care (??), while  gun-toting patriots kept vigil outside. (At events with the President, no less; remember how they used to arrest you at Bush events just for wearing an anti-war T-shirt?)

The contribution by members of Congress hasn’t been that much better. Republicans for the most part have been fear-mongering cheerleaders, escalating hysteria with the most inflammatory accusations in an attempt to destroy any reform, while Democrats, with a few bright exceptions (such as our own Donna Edwards), are playing their usual role in big policy debates – confused, spineless, and all over the map.

So much so, it turns out, that there are key Democrats in the Senate who probably want to see real health care reform defeated almost as much as Republicans. (Hint: they take millions of dollars from the insurance industry too.)

How it will all turn out this fall is anyone’s guess, but as August closed and September starts, Obama and much of the Democratic party leadership seems perfecly willing to give up on a strong public health insurance option – already a major compromise from a single payer system, and the only policy component that would prevent the whole reform effort from being yet another massive giveaway to corporations (hello – drug companies making $300 billion a year are being asked to contribute a mere $8 billion a year in “savings” to the effort?). And this is happening largely because President Obama started to back away from it in his own public speeches, referring to it as only a “sliver” of the reform agenda.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the utter lack of fight evidenced by the President and many Democrats. You fight for what you truly believe in, but on the issues above, can you name anything – anything – they have been willing to go to the mat for? And they control Congress, for goodness sake!

The activist right-wingers are often accused of being out of touch with basic facts, and we’ve seen plenty of them. But right now it takes an equal disregard for the facts to argue that the Obama Administration and this Congress are pursuing anything remotely resembling a progressive agenda.

So where does that leave our hope? Where it has always been, probably – in our own hands. We cannot depend on this Administration to fight for what we want – on many issues it appears we have to fight against them. We cannot depend on this Democrat-controlled Congress to do it either.

Nope, if we want those things we truly hope for and believe in during these extraordinarily challenging times, we’re the ones who are going to have to fight for them. With the Obama White House, with our members of Congress, and, most importantly, in our own communities.

This is probably not the work most of us were thinking about as we start our fall. But look at it this way – it will keep us busy while we’re looking for jobs.

After the Cheering Subsides, What Was Actually in Obama’s Speech?

September 11, 2009

Like many who watched President Obama’s health care address Wednesday night, I experienced moments of exhilaration.

There was some moral fiber, conviction and even passion to many of his words, reminiscent of his speeches on the campaign trail. And who couldn’t love the fact that he actually, finally, lambasted some of his critics on the right? I mean, when’s the last time you heard any politician denounce a lie as a lie, a “flat out” lie no less?

Hopefully, however, those of us who were thrilled by his words before have learned to exercise a little caution when it comes to applauding his actual policies – think Afghanistan, mountain top coal removal, climate change and energy policy, Wall St. bailouts, etc..

Because when you look at the actual policy he was proposing in his primetime speech, the assessment of one NPR reporter rings singularly true: the left got the rhetoric, and the centrists got the substance. Which means, of course, that the country will get the shaft.

But before I get ahead of myself, here’ s a quick look at some elements in his speech, and the profound problems with them.

“I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits.” Official factcheckers are already debunking the math behind this dubious assertion, as has (previously) the Congressional Budget Office. Of course Obama is far from the first politician to sugar coat a financial reality, so part of me wants to give him a break. But wouldn’t it be better to actually fess up to the real costs involved, and make the forthright statement that spending money on health care for all Americans is worth it? Because if we start with this false premise, how much health care will we lose in the future when it becomes clear what the real costs are?

“…not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this plan.” Following on the previous statement, Mr. Obama is telling us he will pay for most of his plan by wringing $500 billion in savings from Medicare in ten years – but only by cutting waste and fraud. Right. How often do politicians tell us this about cutting costs, and how often is it true? If I were a senior citizen, I think I’d have some real concerns about my Medicare right now.

“Under this plan, it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing condition.” This is a good idea and a real attention grabber, with its strong progressive tone, but how much does it ultimately matter? Health insurance companies and drug makers have spent years figuring out how to bend or evade every conceivable rule applied to them, and if they get caught every once in a while and have to pay a fine, that’s just a cost of doing business for them. Did you know for instance that earlier this month pharmaceutical giant Pfizer reached a $2.3 billion settlement with the U.S. Justice Department – that’s $2.3 BILLION –  for unlawful prescription drug promotion? And that in so doing, Pfizer broke a record set only seven months before by fellow drug maker Eli Lilly & Company, whose settlement at that time was described by the Justice Department as the “largest individual corporate criminal fine” in U.S. history?

“Now is the season for action….Now is the time to deliver on health care.” … but… “We will do this by creating a new insurance exchange….this exchange will take effect in four years.” Excuse me, but if it’s so bloody important to pass health care reform NOW, why will a supposedly central chunk of said reform, an insurance exchange for individuals to buy insurance at (allegedly) reasonable prices, have to wait another four years? Am I the only one that finds the timing a little suspect – that we’ll have to wait until after the next Presidential election for this plan to take full effect?

Elections aside, this delay is a perfect example of the moral timidity if not outright bankruptcy of many Democratic proposals. They tell us, for instance, we should be deeply concerned that upwards of 20,000 Americans die each year for lack of health insurance – more than one every 30 minutes – but when it comes to solving the problem… um… could they have a few more years? Perhaps someone should erect a “death clock” on the Capitol grounds, like the deficit clock in New York city, except this one would tally the number of Americans dying from lack of health care while we wait for Congress to deal with the problem.

“I have no interest in putting insurance companies out of business. They provide a legitimate service.” Really? And what might that service be – apart from funneling millions of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians and funding disinformation campaigns to kill any reform?

The various deceptions and policy problems above, while fairly damning, are typical of most politicians and are used on most issues. But at this point, President Obama is showing his true allegiances in this battle when he defends the hated (and rightfully so) insurance companies.

Let’s be very clear on this – health insurance companies do *not* provide any legitimate service in our health care. They perform no tests, no procedures, provide no health counseling. They never delivered a single baby or took a single temperature. All they do is stand between you and your doctor, make everyone’s life miserable when you try to get health care, and then take a big fat slice of your health care dollars for doing it. To quote a colleague, only in America would huge profits for a value-negative intermediary corporate process be considered as making any sense whatever.

And only if you’re one of the people making money from that deal, as Mr. Obama and the Democrats most decidedly are, every time they take another campaign contribution from those insurance companies.

And then, the clincher from the speech:

“An additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange…. by avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits, excessive administrative costs and executive salaries, it could provide a good deal for consumers…. It would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better.” However… “It is only one part of my plan… and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.”

So there you have it. President Obama finally gives a coherent, compelling explanation of why a public option is necessary – and then follows up by saying he’s not going to fight for it. Poof – you can consider it gone already.

Of course this is what he and his aides have been implying for some time now, and it’s just a logical follow up to his position of ruling a single payer plan off the table from the get go. And why not? Single payer is only the most proven, cost effective system for delivering  health care, one that is used in one form or another by every other industrialized country in the world, all of which surpass the U.S. in virtually every health statistic. Who would want that? Other than about 60% of the American public, that is? (And remarkable, isn’t it, how President Obama can call single payer “radical” even though it is supported by such large majorities of Americans.)

It may actually be good if this so-called public option dies, because it has already been so watered down in the health care bills coming out of the House that it might not achieve anything at all, other than giving public health insurance a bad name.

And on top of all that, the President and Congress want to mandate that everyone buy insurance, delivering us all, along with our money (whether paid individually or through a taxpayer-funded subsidy), to the tender mercies of the same private companies that helped create this massive problem to begin with. (And the president is using a faulty auto insurance analogy to support this. Sorry, but driving an auto is a privilege subject to all sorts of restrictions; health care is, or should be, a basic human right.) Not surprisingly, the individual mandate was the basic goal of the insurance industry all along, as it will force millions of new Americans to start giving them money.

As Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi, whose detailed and delightfully expletive-ridden expose can be read here, sums it all up:

“First, they gave away single-payer before a single gavel had fallen, apparently as a bargaining chip to the very insurers mostly responsible for creating the crisis in the first place. Then they watered down the public option so as to make it almost meaningless, while simultaneously beefing up the individual mandate, which would force millions of people now uninsured to buy a product that is no longer certain to be either cheaper or more likely to prevent them from going bankrupt. The bill won’t make drugs cheaper, and it might make paperwork for doctors even more unwieldy and complex than it is now. In fact, the various reform measures suck so badly that PhRMA, the notorious mouthpiece for the pharmaceutical industry which last year spent more than $20 million lobbying against health care reform, is now gratefully spending more than seven times that much on a marketing campaign to help the president get what he wants.”

Nothing President Obama said last night, however momentarily inspiring, changes any of this.

Mr. Obama ended his speech with an emotional appeal to what he called “fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.” Regrettably, the plan he is offering does not support fundamental principles of social justice, and the only thing it says about the character of our country is that we still have a government thoroughly controlled by wealthy corporate interests.

If this plan passes it may take us a few years to figure that out. But we will figure it out, because this legislation will not fix our health care crisis. You can count on it.

As debate rages, where in the world is Chris Van Hollen?

August 22, 2009

[Check out the bottom of this email for a glimpse of a real progressive arguing for health care!]

The health care debate is raging in this country, and the welfare of millions, perhaps the entire nation, rides on the outcome.  And where, exactly, is Rep. Chris Van Hollen during all of this?

Did Mr. Van Hollen co-sponsor H.R. 676, the bill that calls for a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system?

No.

Did he add his name to the letter House Democrats recently wrote to President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, demanding that a more modest public option be maintained in any final health care bill?

No.

Is he using the Congressional recess to hold town hall meetings, listening to the citizens of the 8th Congressional District or trying to rally public support for health care reform?

No.

This last absence is particularly galling, since one of the few items on his website referring to the health care debate, a press release dated August 1, notes that  “as we head into the August district work period [House] Members will be talking to their constituents and getting the message out that continuing the status quo is not an option.”

Well, maybe other House members, but not Chris Van Hollen.

Isn’t it interesting that when the going gets rough, when major issues are being hotly debated and we need leaders to stand up and pound the table with the truth, this self-proclaimed “progressive” member of Congress, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and part of the House Democratic leadership, just sort of melts into the background?

All the more interesting when his newly elected neighbor from Maryland’s 4th district, Rep. Donna Edwards, immediately signed on to H.R. 676, signed on to the House Democrats’  letter, and has made it clear that she will not vote for any bill that does not contain a public option.

Thank you, Rep. Edwards, for demonstrating what political leadership looks like.

I’d like to tell you all to call Mr. Van Hollen’s office and urge him to support (and vote for) single-payer or even a public option, but it’s not clear that he cares what his constituents think. Of course you might still want to make that call, but here’s an even better idea, if you’re as outraged by this as I am: why not write a short letter to one of the local papers – the Post, the Gazette, the Sentinel or any others – or even your neighborhood listservs and ask this simple question:

During this battle for  health care, where in the world is Chris Van Hollen?

Because some of us would sure like to know.

Yours in fighting for real health care,

Gordon Clark

p.s. – for an example of an actual progressive who knows how to argue for real health care reform and isn’t afraid to do it, check out this video of Rep. Anthony Weiner from a recent MSNBC show (at the bottom of the linked article). Why can’t we get someone like him to represent us?

When Republicans Attack

August 13, 2009

The battle on health care reform turned considerably testier last week. Obama’s public approval rating on the issue fell, polls showed  Americans growing leery of changes in their health care, and Republicans and their corporate allies (or am I being redundant?) mobilized their followers to show up and disrupt public town hall meetings of a number of Congressional Democrats.  In Maryland’s 1st District, protestors went so far as to hang first-term Rep. Frank Kratovil in effigy.

What the hell is going on?

It’s easy enough to point to those spreading outright  lies on the issue (such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and most of the Republican leadership in Congress), or those nominally-public groups organizing the disruptions (like former Republican Congressman Dick Army’s corporate-funded Freedom Works), as the source of the problem. But that’s just stating the obvious – and skimming the surface.

Because after pondering the deer-in-the-headlights reaction of many of our “public leaders” at these meetings (I’m not confident they could lead the public out of a paper bag, if necessary), what struck me was: where are all the people who actually want our health care system changed? All the folks who are sick and tired of being screwed by insurance companies, of being denied coverage even when they have insurance, or of paying sky-high prices for drugs while pharmaceutical companies make out like bandits? Where are they?

I’m not even talking about organized liberal or progressive groups, although as many have noted it would surely be helpful if they attended the meetings as well. I’m just talking about the general public. I’ve been at public meetings before with unruly individuals, and I can assure you if the majority really want to hear the presentation, if they are truly engaged, they will find a way to shut up the disrupters themselves.

Therein, I believe, lies the problem: the vast majority of Americans who care about this issue are simply not engaged.

And can you blame them? How many people reading this column, for instance, could describe what’s being debated in Congress in any greater depth than vague concepts such as “public option?”  Who can name the basic operating principles behind any competing plans, or how insurance companies will be reigned in, or how drug costs will be controlled? Who has any real idea what the final deal will cost, or who will get the bill?

Hell, the Congressional Democrats I’ve seen interviewed recently can’t even explain it. Yet we are being urged by them and President Obama to support “reform” – without having any real idea what that means. How excited can anyone get about that?

Worse still, for anyone trying to pay attention, you can’t help getting the sinking feeling this particular “debate” is rigged and, not unlike the Wall St. bailout, when it’s all said and done those who are causing the problem will remain firmly in charge.

Surely most Americans realize the elected officials making this momentous decision in Congress are simultaneously taking large sums of money from the insurance and drug companies.  Do you need to be a health care specialist to understand that when the U.S. Senator who has the greatest power over any negotiated agreement, Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Montana), received more than $3.9 million in campaign contributions from the insurance and drug industries in the last six years, something is terribly, terribly wrong? (Figures courtesy of the Center for Responsive Politics.)

Now it seems that President Obama is in on the game too, as it was recently revealed by the New York Times that his White House has been having secret meetings, and possibly cutting some sort of deal, with former Democrat Congressman – turned- Republican-turned-corporate exec Billy Tauzin, the head honcho at Pharma. (The same guy who negotiated his multi-million dollar salary while he was in Congress crafting the Medicare prescription drug plan – which worked out quite well for the drug companies, thank you very much.)

Such meetings are a 180 degree reversal of Mr. Obama’s campaign promises, which included not only going after the pharmaceutical industry (as opposed to cozying up to them), but also holding any health care negotiations “on C-Span” so people could see who was advocating for them and who was advocating for corporate profit. (For a mildly disturbing collection of Obama’s reversals and broken promises on health care, click here.)

Adding significant insult to injury, the Obama Administration has now resorted to the Bush-Cheney ruse of refusing to make public the White House visitor log – just like when his predecessors wouldn’t tell us which oil company execs were “advising” their energy policy.

So politics, it appears, continues as usual. Can you blame people for losing hope – or at the very least interest?

The sad truth is that Democrats have mostly themselves to blame for this current morass.  If they had been willing to regularly articulate and forcefully defend the huge success of Medicare for the past 40 years, they wouldn’t have to be dealing with so many frightened – and frightfully uninformed – people right now, such as the gentleman at a recent town hall meeting who demanded his representative “keep your government hands off my Medicare!” (Medicare is, of course, the 100% government run health care program for the elderly.)

And if Democrats were willing to discuss, let alone advocate, the obvious and logical extension of Medicare, a single payer health care plan for all Americans, there would at least be a coherent, understandable progressive vision for health care that ordinary Americans (not the folks who listen to Glenn Beck, but the rest of us) could unite around at these town hall meetings. But despite its support by large majorities of the American people, President Obama and the Democratic Party leadership have ruled single-payer “off the table” from the get-go.

And if the Democrats had ever done anything real on campaign finance reform, they wouldn’t be looking at leading members of their own party being just as bought off by the health industry as the average Republican.

But none of this has happened, so instead we have the spectacle of Obama and the Democrats in Congress – who control Congress, lest we forget – compromising  right and left  (but mostly right)  on health care since the debate began. And they continue to seek “bi-partisan” agreement and “industry buy-in” even as the Republicans are telling them to shove it, and the health care industry mounts campaigns against reform.

And what’s their response to this latest round of bullying by the minority party? Incredibly enough, many Democrats appear to be backing away from the public option altogether – the only policy shard that makes any health care reform package even marginally worthwhile.

The late, great Senator Paul Wellstone (D- Minnesota) once said “If you don’t fight hard enough for the things you believe in, at some point you have to realize you don’t really believe in them.”

Can you name anything – anything – in this health care battle that Democrats have been willing to fight for? Like really go to the mat for?

Given their unwillingness to fight for anything, is it not possible that they are actually more or less okay with the health care system the way it is, their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding? A deal which for them includes not only their own generous government-funded  health care coverage, but millions in contributions from the very health insurance and drug corporations they will leave in charge. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.

Of course Wellstone’s quote applies to the rest of us as well, and the only thing that might put some fight back in the Democrats is if we constantly harangue them. Some right-minded members of Congress have managed to force a vote on single payer in the House in September. Make it your mission this August to contact your Representative regularly and demand that they vote for single payer health care. Tell your Senators too. Go to their town hall meetings, and to their offices as well, now that they are on break.

And when you talk to them or their staff, don’t worry about their political calculations, or them you’re okay with a weak public option. Just demand single payer.

Believe me, they will figure out how to find a compromise all on their own.

Welcome to Montgomery Victory Gardens!

August 6, 2009

[A new initiative that might interest my readers in Montgomery County, Maryland – or anyone else you might live, where I’m sure someone is doing the same thing!]

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Do you want healthy, delicious food, free of chemicals and contaminants?

Do you want your food grown closer than 1500 miles away?

Would you like to build community with friends, neighbors, and the farmers of Montgomery County, Maryland?

Then welcome to Montgomery Victory Gardens – a new non-profit initiative devoted to helping people grow their own food, and connecting us with each other and local farmers and food suppliers to build a more vigorous, self-reliant and sustainable local food system in Montgomery County, Maryland.

As documented by authors such as Michael Pollan, (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), and current films (“Food, Inc.” and “Fresh”) our national food system is not only unhealthy and unsustainable, it’s downright dangerous.

From the effects on our national health of a high sugar, high carbohydrate diet (1/3 of all Americans born after 2000 are expected to contract diabetes), to the now regular outbreaks of food-borne illness such as salmonella and e-coli in our overly centralized system, to the effects on the land, water and atmosphere of an industrial, chemical and fossil-fuel based system of agriculture, it is clear that we have to change the way we get our food.

Montgomery Victory Gardens is our response. The collaboration of local food gardeners, farmers, and food and environmental activists (yes, I’m one of them!), Montgomery Victory Gardens is a way to build (or grow!) that local food system.

Visit Montgomery Victory Gardens to find the following:

* Easy-to-use resources to grow your own food, including written materials, phone and email hotlines and classes with Master Gardeners

* Community gardens in your area, and yard sharing options with neighbors

* Farmers markets, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), and restaurants
featuring local food

* Opportunities for young people to learn food gardening and sustainable agriculture while receiving Student Service Learning credits

* Updates and news on local food developments

and much more!

In another time of great challenge, Americans grew nearly half of their own produce in millions of World War II “Victory Gardens.” As we face the many challenges of our day, it is time for us to step up again.

For a victory over an unhealthy and dangerous corporate food system…

For a victory for a nutritious and delicious diet, local farmers, and a restored and renewed landscape in Montgomery County…

Come join us at Montgomery Victory Gardens!

Gordon Clark

Note: – While I have occasionally posted commentary on food issues in this space in the past and no doubt will again, Montgomery Victory Gardens is a separate entity and email list which will be devoted entirely to food news and the establishment of a sustainable, enjoyable, LOCAL food system. Come join us!

What exactly is Obamacare? Call Congress now while they decide!

July 30, 2009

President Obama is barnstorming the countryside, urging Americans to get behind health care reform.

Republicans, predictably, have gone into full lunatic mode. To hear it from them, any government involvement in health care means we’ll be standing in endless lines while Stalin himself rations out medical treatment.

But what exactly is Obama’s health care plan? Did you know that it might become mandatory to purchase health insurance? And that might mean billions more – including our tax money, through subsidies – directly into the hands of the insurance companies, who will still be left in charge?

“Public option” sounds good as a slogan, but the shape it takes is up for grabs, and the idea is under ferocious attack in Congress. The last thing we need, as Pennsylvania State Senator Jim Ferlo said in an inspired speech at this afternoon’s single payer rally at the Capitol, is “some bullshit, watered-down public option.” Yet according to all news accounts that is exactly what is happening in both the House and the Senate right now.

For an excellent discussion on what health care reform currently is – or might become – listen in on Bill Moyer’s recent interview of two of the top women medical journalists and editors in the country.

And then call into your Representative and Senators at 202-224-3121 (the Capitol switchboard) and demand what the former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and so many other doctors, nurses and experts across the country say we need – single payer health care. (H.R. 676 in the House, S. 703 in the Senate.) Even though these bills won’t pass, the more pressure we can create for a truly public system, the better the outcome will be for any “public option.” And you’ll have the glorious feeling that comes with speaking the truth, and asking for what you really want, and we all need.

20,000 Americans die each year for lack of medical care.

An estimated one million Americans face bankruptcy each year due to medical expenses.

Enough is enough. Call you members of Congress today at 202-224-3121 and demand what the majority of Americans want and need – single payer health care.

Thanks,

Gordon

p.s.  – As a special treat, watch as The Daily Show’s  Jon Stewart hoists arch-conservative Bill Kristol on his own petard on the subject of health care. While the quality of care our veterans receive is actually not what it should be, it’s delightful to watch Stewart catch Kristol in saying that the government can run an excellent health care system – and that the rest of us don’t deserve it.

Bill Maher on Democrats and Republicans / Go see Food Inc.!

July 3, 2009

Be prepared to laugh.

If you think the Republicans have gone to la-la land, and you’re a smidge disappointed in the Democrats because of, oh, I don’t know – expanding war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, backsliding on civil rights, gay rights, government transparency and mountaintop removal coal mining, wholesale capitulation to corporations on health care reform, climate change legislation and Wall St. regulation – then you will enjoy this short interpretation of our current political scene from comedic superstar Bill Maher.

He explains pretty clearly why I ran as a Green last year against a centrist, corporate Democrat… except of course that Bill Maher is much funnier when he says it.  Enjoy!

(Please note: the relevant piece comes about 2 minutes into the video, although the first two minutes are pretty funny too!)

Click here to watch Bill Maher on Democrats and Republicans

Go see Food, Inc.!

For those of you thinking more and more about food issues, you should check out Food, Inc., currently playing at the Bethesda Row Cinema and the E Street Cinema in D.C.  It features (among many others) Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, and is a powerful exposé of our current highly dangerous, corporate-controlled food system – and also tells you what you can do about it.

Happy 4th!

Healthcare Rx – Arrest the Doctors

June 22, 2009

The following article appears in the June issue of the Takoma/Silver Spring Voice. The healthcare “debate,” such as it is, is reaching a climax in Congress – votes are expected this summer. There is no better time than now to call your Rep and Senators at 202-224-3121 and demand the same health care system available to people in almost every other county in the industrialized world, the same health care members of Congress get. Tell them you want single payer now!

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Dr. Pat Salomon, a Montgomery County resident and pediatrician with 35 years experience delivering services to children in medical clinics, went to the Capitol on May 12th to speak in front of the Senate Finance Committee, advocating for a single-payer health care system. For her trouble, she was arrested and shackled to the wall of a D.C. jail, along with seven colleagues who also spoke out.

As Congress prepares to vote on healthcare legislation this summer, how on earth did we get to a point where Democratic Senators – yes, Democrats – are having doctors arrested and hauled out of hearings?

Our health care system is in crisis. Medical costs are sky-high and rising 6% a year.  More than 45 million Americans have no health insurance at all. And with insurers loading the rest of us up with deductibles and co-pays while simultaneously trying to limit coverage every way they can, most people who have health insurance don’t realize how inadequate it is until they become seriously ill or injured – and then, God help them. Medical expenses are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S.  – accounting for more than half of them – and 70% of those losing their shirts actually had health insurance when they got sick.

In the United States we pay twice as much per capita for health care as any other industrialized country,  yet we come in near the bottom of the list on everything from  infant mortality and immunization rates to life expectancy and preventable deaths. How can this be?

The problem is the middlemen who come between us and our doctors – the private insurance companies. One third of every dollar we spend on health care goes to administration and overhead, including CEO salaries (among the highest on the Fortune 500 list), and endless paperwork, much of which is used to deny needed care. The problem is that we have put the public health in the hands of private insurers, who have every financial incentive to limit and deny coverage because that is how they increase their profit. The less care they have to pay for, the more profit they make.

The answer to this problem is a national health care plan, also called single payer.  Our healthcare would still be privately delivered by doctors, nurses and hospitals of our choice, but instead of multiple private insurers trying to squeeze every last dime out of us, there would be one public insurer – the government – which has no interest in making a profit off our illness or health. We would pay for our healthcare in taxes, and the government would then pay the medical bills.

This is the eminently sensible system used in Canada and all those other industrialized countries that surpass us in health care, and for half the price. It is the principle behind Medicare, which, despite the fact that it’s subsidizing private insurers by taking the most medically needy citizens off their hands, still far outperforms its for-profit counterparts. (Only  3% of every Medicare dollar goes to administration and overhead, a mere 1/10 the amount consumed by private insurers.)

This answer to our healthcare crisis is so clear that in recent polls 59% of doctors and 65% of regular Americans say some form of national single payer health program is their preference.

And yet, incredibly enough, the single payer plan is not part of the healthcare reform “debate” in Congress.  Dr. Salomon went to the Senate Finance Committee because its chair, Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, had seats at his hearing for the insurance companies, the drug companies, even the conservative Heritage Foundation, but not a single seat for anyone advocating single payer  – despite having received thousands of such requests.

What about President Obama? A video clip dug up by veteran journalist and commentator Bill Moyers shows  the young Illinois state senator telling an AFL-CIO meeting in 2003 that he was “a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program.” But, he added “… you know we might not get there immediately because first we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate and we have to take back the House.”

So here we are six years later, with Barack Obama as President, a strong Democratic majority in the House, and a soon-to-be filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate.  And where is single-payer for the new administration? Off the table. Not even being discussed. If it wasn’t for a threatened White House protest by the Physicians for a National Health Program (www.pnhp.org) , the President would have barred single-payer advocates from his own health care conference earlier this year. (Two were reluctantly admitted, but not allowed to speak.)

What happened to Barack Obama in those six years? Well, he became a U.S. Senator and then President. And he started accepting contributions from the health insurance industry and drug makers.  Not surprisingly, Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus is the third highest recipient of insurance company money in Congress.

The health insurance and pharmaceutical industries give millions of dollars in contributions to members of Congress, Democrat and Republican alike, and spend millions on lobbying – $134 million in the first quarter of 2009 alone – to keep a system which is quite lucrative for them just the way it is.  And so far,  the majority of members of Congress, Democrat and Republican alike, are more than willing to appease these profiteers  by refusing to even discuss single payer. They are so under the influence of insurance company money they can’t even hold an intellectually honest debate on healthcare, one that would include the proven and effective system favored by most Americans.

Of our area Congresspeople, only Rep. Donna Edwards has co-sponsored H.R. 676, the single payer healthcare bill in the House. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the chief fundraiser for the House Democratic majority, refuses to do so. And neither of our Senators, Mikulski or Cardin, have co-sponsored the companion bill in the Senate, S. 703.

It’s really quite simple. Basic healthcare is a human right – not a commodity to be provided or denied based on personal income or a corporation’s desired profit margin. If you agree, take some inspiration from my friend Pat Salomon, contact your members of Congress at 202-224-3121, and demand that single-payer be included in the health care debate.