The poisoned feast

A listening device

Like most publications produced on a tiny budget, Counterpunch is very uneven in quality.  In April, for example, they came out with an issue that was mostly taken up with a monologue that their reporter JoAnn Wypijewski heard from some man she met while covering an anti-Obama rally.  The monologue was an exposition of the man’s crude racism.  When Wypijewski demurs from one of his antiblack tirades, he tells her that he isn’t surprised to hear that from a white woman, that the white race is destroying itself and so it only makes sense that she would seek to survive by giving her allegiance to “a savage race.”  It went on and on in that vein.  The conversation ended with the man giving Wypiejewski’s business card back to her because her name includes a sequence of letters that spells “Jew.”  I suppose the point of giving so much space to this sort of garbage was to show that racism is alive and well in the USA and is an animating force on the political right.  The editors may have decided to include some portions for comic relief; I must admit there were moments when Mrs Acilius and I laughed out loud at the man’s idiocy.  Still, I can’t believe it is really necessary to give so much publicity to such foolish views.

The issue for 1-15 May is much better.  There’s an interview with Michael Pollan, who has become well known as a critic of the way Americans now produce and consume food.  The interview is excerpted from Kreisler’s new book Political Awakenings.  The part that most stuck with me was Pollan’s identification of the four tenets of what he calls “the ideology of Nutritionism.”  This ideology tells us, first, that “foods don’t matter, nutrients do”; second, that “you can divide the world into good and bad nutrients”; third, “if the important thing in food is a nutrient, and nutrients are invisible to normal people, you need experts to tell you how to eat”; fourth, “the whole point of eating is health.”  To follow these doctrines is to be estranged from “our sense of eating as a complex social, as well as biological, phenomenon, involving community and identity and pleasure.”  While a dish is defined as food because it is part of customs that bind people together, whether by eating in family groups or giving a meal to a guest or sharing a feast as a community, a chemical is defined a nutrient because of its role in the functioning of a single body.  While food can excel aesthetically, and like other aesthetic experiences can always offer us something new to learn, a nutrient can only be judged by preset standards derived from medicine.  While food is governed by cultural norms that have evolved over the millennia, nutrients are overseen by an infant science that has barely advanced beyond superstition.  While the production of food is a process that has traditionally nourished both humans and soil, the extraction of nutrients depletes soil and pollutes the human body.  I wonder if it would be helpful to go further than Pollan and to define food as a gift.  A gift we receive from a host, from nature, from God; a gift we pass on to those with whom we share important bonds.  Perhaps this sense of gift is the key to a truly healthy use of eating. 

The other story in the issue is also an excerpt from another publication, this time from the Russian magazine Smena.  Like Pollan’s interview, it tells of a corrupted gift, a poisoned feast.  Igor Atamanenko gives us the story of a gift the United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union received from Stalin in 1943.  It was a magnificently carved wooden piece depicting the Great Seal of the United States.  The ambassador hung the piece in his private office.  He and the next three to hold the post kept it there until 1952, periodically redecorating the office to highlight the extraordinary beauty of the carving.  As it turns out, the carving enclosed an electronic listening device that gave Soviet State Security access to all of the ambassador’s conversations.  The device was so sophisticated that when it was finally discovered, it took the Americans years to produce a working copy.  As it turns out, the inventor responsible for this extraordinarily advanced listening device was none other than Lev Sergeyevich Termen, known to music-lovers in the West as Léon Theremin, inventor of a musical instrument that is played without being touched.

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