civil engagement + Congratulations, America!

Hooray! The presidential campaign is finally over and it seems Obama did more than just “eek out” a victory. Alas, the shameless and obnoxious stumping can cease and we can all get on with our real lives and, maybe, even work to make the country better. In all truth, if Romney had actually won I’d need to seriously consider migration to some other, more sane country. (Although I do hate to say that because I truly believe the extreme polarization of our politics will eat us in the end.) But, yes! Obama won!

There’s a great thread on the New York Times Opinion page right now, though, about how elections might change if youth as young as 13 could go to the polls and vote. I’m not sure the inclusion of more pop culture and music into the political process would necessarily improve it, but I do think candidates would be forced to engage more relevant, diverse, and social concerns. I imagine we’d have more civic engagement too because kids would have more time to develop habits and routines involving political engagement and voting.

healthy living, politics

breasts, beadledom, and bad business

On September 24 Fran Drescher, America’s favorite nanny, unwittingly stepped into a puddle of controversy while out promoting her new movie. Did you hear about this? Fran Drescher, a uterine cancer survivor and founder of Cancer Schmancer, warned mothers that their breast milk could be passing poisonous, toxic chemicals to their babies and urged nursing mothers to have their milk checked. Oh the audacity! Mothers from every corner seemed to cry out in anger and outrage that she would question their American milk.

I’ve come up against this before. A few years back Luke and I attended a lecture by a renowned doctor and researcher at the University of Washington in which she made a strong case for paying closer attention to the kinds of household products and commodities we purchase. There are harmful chemicals and toxins in everything from household cleaners to couches and living room furniture to make-up and other toiletries to babies’ bottles and developmental toys. Indoor air quality is reaching devastating lows as a result of so many noxious pollutants in consumer products we fill our homes with and our bodies are acting as sponges soaking these harmful chemicals in day by day. The problem is pervasive. The problem is serious. And the problem is not disappearing.

Family and friends had a hard time accepting our turn towards more natural products and our vigilance in choosing against products laden with artificial fragrances. We were told again and again that we were taking it too far and that we should just loosen up and relax. When I mentioned the dangers these chemicals pose for things like breast milk my mother-in-law, brother-in-law and his wife all responded with exasperation and annoyance. That was it; I had crossed the line. Nothing compares to the intimacy and bonding of breast feeding, they cried. And breast milk is healthy and transfers immunities and important nutrients, they insisted. The resentment directed towards my remark was fierce enough that I never broached the topic again in their presence, never mind the fact that I had never suggested an alternative to breastfeeding.

It is a strange phenomenon in my view that the response from my family but also, it seems, from various mothers across the country is outrage when the topic of breast milk is brought up in relation to toxic chemicals. The defensiveness is outright and palpable as these mothers seem to take the very mention of the topic as an attack on their responsibility as mothers. In fact, the issue at hand is our failure as a global community to take our health and the health of our children seriously.

The research and science has been in for almost 3 decades, minimum. With very little effort, one can substantiate Fran Drescher’s comments from a myriad of sources. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), the Environmental Working Group, the New York Times, The Scientific American, the Environmental Science & Technology Journal, the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, NPR (National Public Radio)… these are just some of the sources you’ll find on Google. Tap into some academic databases like pubmed.gov, WorldCat, Web of Knowledge, Springer Link, or JSTOR and you’ll find yourself awash in scholarly journals corroborating Drescher’s claims.

And yet the overwhelming critique of Drescher was she is not a doctor, she is not a researcher, she cannot know what she’s talking about so don’t listen to her. Of course they’re right. Fran Drescher is an actress not a doctor. It’s an easy criticism to make but it distracts us from the implications of what she’s sharing: namely, our compliance as consumers with hazardous business practices is putting our children in danger and we need to change the way our products are made.

In 2005 Florence Williams wrote an incredible article for the New York Times Magazine that put the issue facing nursing mothers in very stark yet approachable terms. She wrote, “When we nurse our babies, we feed them not only the fats, sugars, and proteins that fire their immune systems, metabolisms, and cerebral synapses. We also feed them, albeit in minuscule amounts, paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deodorizers, cosmetic additives, gasoline byproducts, rocket fuel, termite poisons, fungicides and flame retardants”. Some of these chemicals will stay with the babies long enough to be passed on to their offspring. In October of 2007 the scholarly journal Advances in Neonatal Care reported that the average nursing child consumes about 50 times the daily PCB intake of average adults. The journal estimated these exposures are 18% higher than formula fed babies.

Interestingly, the larger issue of harmful toxin up-take had been recognized internationally in 2001 when 120 nations met in Stockholm to craft a treaty that would begin the process of banning these poisonous chemicals. In 2004 the Stockholm convention went into effect without US participation. Even though the treaty was accepted in over 50 other countries, the U.S. senate refused to ratify it. And so, it comes as no surprise that today American women have some of the highest concentrations of flame retardants and other pollutants including pesticides, heavy metals, organic compounds such as DDT, PCDDs, PCDFs, PCBs, and even traces of some chemicals that have supposedly already been banned even in the United States in their breasts.

The facts are startling, frightening, infuriating, and unsettling. Everyone should be concerned. And everyone, especially nursing mothers, should know that the argument here is not that breastfeeding is bad. Breastfeeding is the example of the problem that hits home the hardest.

Nursing mothers should consider getting their milk checked because it is worth knowing what you’re feeding your child and what you, yourself, have been exposed to. However, there is no Nestle conspiracy here. Almost every authority on the subject agrees that for most women breastfeeding will still be considered the healthiest choice despite present toxins. Formula has its own problems with pollution and lacks important nutrients and benefits that breast milk offers. Again, the point is not to challenge the practice of breastfeeding. The point is get the word out that we are being exposed to pernicious toxins and should work to limit our exposure both individually but also collectively on the national and global scale.

The easiest ways to limit ones’ exposure to these chemicals is to avoid cigarettes and alcohol; to restrict contact with paints, glues, furniture strippers, nail polish, and gasoline fumes; to avoid artificial fragrances; to wash and peel fruits to minimize pesticide consumption; to abstain from swordfish, shark, and other freshwater fish; and to tend towards a vegetarian diet because up to 90% of human exposure to fat-soluble toxins is attributed to meat and fish in our diet. Things like flame retardants can be difficult to minimize because they’re sprayed on our mattresses, sofas, carpets, and other furniture items. However, we can dispose of old foam filled items, choose hardwood floors when possible, use vacuums fitted with HEPA filters, choose pajamas made with natural fibers over ‘fire resistant’ pajamas, and inspect labels on pillows to find ones without harmful retardants.

The more difficult step we need to take as a collective is to pressure our government to put our health first and reform fire safety laws, consumer packaging and labeling requirements, farming practices, and put stronger measures in place to protect and inform the consumer. Once again at the state level California seems to be leading the way in their efforts to exempt breastfeeding pillows, strollers, infant carriers, and bassinets from the requirements that they be made fire resistant. On a larger scale though, the NRDC needs support in urging congress to update and strengthen the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 that was intended to ensure chemicals are safe throughout their lifecycle but has been undercut by the current powerlessness of the EPA. In some cases chemicals that have been identified by the FDA as dangerous for human consumption and are banned in food are left unregulated in the manufacture of cosmetics, toiletries, household cleaners, and toys.

This isn’t a partisan issue. Republicans, democrats, libertarians, independents, unaffiliated, and the politically inactive all value the health of their family and friends. They may go about ensuring the health and safety of our citizens in different ways in different circumstances but in this instance industry has proven it requires regulation to guarantee compliance. Companies left and right continue to use proven, dangerous chemicals in the manufacture of household items and, in some cases, deliberately leave these additives off the labels of products sold. The honor system isn’t cutting it. We have to speak up, we have to stand up, we have to make our voice heard.

food ethics, politics

yes, proposition 37

Surely you’ve heard the argument that with each dollar we spend, we cast a vote for the kind of world we believe in. Anna Lappe gets credit for the quote but I think the idea has surfaced often over the last few decades in various arenas of the public and academic sphere. I take issue with this line of argument in many ways. For one, it is dangerous to confuse voting with shopping. They are not the same thing, nor should they be. But more importantly, it evades the important question of what is placed on the ballot in the first place.

To be clear I believe there is a place for ethical consumerism and that choosing more carefully where we spend our money can effect some degree of change. Buying local or buying green products helps to slowly expand the market for these kinds of items and perpetuates the values they derive from. Certainly boycotting a particular brand or product can similarly help to shrink a market and encourage alternatives. However,  we cannot shop our way to better, more sustainable regulation and legislative action. Spending every Saturday morning at the farmer’s market doesn’t do enough to demand a change in factory farming practices. Outfitting your roof with solar panels, while a fantastic demonstration of conscience, doesn’t stop the coal industry from trudging on. And no matter how many times you eat lunch at Chick-fil-a, clicking your proverbial heels, you’re never going to walk back out into a world in which gay people don’t exist.

Moreover, we cannot shop our way to less consumption. We can work to harness our waste, treat our property well so that it lasts as long as possible, and be a bit more discerning about our purchases making wastefulness a part of the criterion used for making ethical decisions while we shop. Still, if our desire is to vote with our money, we’re inevitably going to be forced to sacrifice some values in order to “stand up” for others. Not to mention, we’re going to be out-spent.

That being said, it strikes me as significant that so many companies with merchandise for sale in our country find it acceptable to lie, deceive, and otherwise try to hide the contents of their products from the consumers who buy them. California’s proposition 37 has really brought this issue to fore in recent weeks. With corporate agribusiness exceeding $32 million in dollars spent fighting the initiative that would require genetically engineered foods be listed on product labels and that would forbid such products from being marketed as ‘natural’, one cannot help but shake their head at the state of our food industry. After all, the measure is far from oppressive allowing exemptions for alcoholic beverages, restaurant food, hospital food, and probably even school lunches. Our meat would still be packaged as usual – – no label changes for animals fed GM foods. No label changes for foods whose weight contains .5% or less of GM ingredients either. A rather approachable initiative, if anything I would argue it does too little, not too much.

It is no surprise that Monsanto has taken the lead in opposing this proposition. The bigger surprise is the list of allies Monsanto has found in their information war.

Rights of the consumer aside, people have a right to know what is in their food. We have a right to know what we’re eating, where it comes from, and how it was grown. There is a reason chicken farms don’t let folks stroll in and snap photographs. Its the same reason companies like Conagra, Dean Foods, and General Mills don’t want customers knowing what goes into their organic milk products and ‘natural’ granola bars. They’re not afraid of going out of business, they’re afraid of having to change their business practices.

It is ironic that some on the far right can claim America is not business friendly. With all the corporate outcry against the costs new labeling laws would force upon them, the unaware citizen might be surprised to know that 50 countries around the world already require GMO labeling, including all of Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India, and China.

Although the new labeling laws won’t go into effect until July 2014, I believe proposition 37 is an important step for our country. If the legislation passes in California, it will likely open up the gates for new labeling laws across the country. So, please, California: vote yes on Proposition 37. Stand up for our right to know.


who are you voting for?

With the election nearing one cannot escape the vitriol and ignominy of the campaigns in full swing. From both sides we are thrashed with moral indignation, recounts of political missteps, and chronicles of supposed sordid pasts. The problem for us, the political middle, is we’re the folks looking for compromise not controversy.

In a sensationalized, scandal-driven modern culture in which the inadequacies of Amanda Bynes or Lindsay Lohan behind the wheel are considered top news stories, it is no surprise that the majority of level-headed, calm-tempered Americans find it most comfortable to stay on the fringes of the political mosh pit. The major news networks are succeeding in their quest to make news entertaining to the point that most people take a passive and detached stance on political happenings. This is happening on both sides of the spectrum and as the great majority of Americans just sit back watching the dramedy unfold our political system is being hijacked.

Widespread disinterest in politics is not a new phenomenon all together. So many of us simply have other things to do — we’re busy working, studying, playing with our children, partying, traveling, drinking, cooking, making-out. We’re all busy living our lives and making ends meet. Some believe the system is working for them and therefore need not burden themselves with upkeep. Others believe the system is corrupt, will never work for them, and therefore need not toil fruitlessly. Ultimately, the stark truth is politics are boring.

It takes a special personality to enjoy watching real politics in action. When was the last time you spent an afternoon engrossed in C-SPAN? Sure, 45 minutes of interest is do-able. Maybe it can hold your attention for an hour. Perhaps if it rolls in the background of your daily life it can be tolerated for an extended period. For many though the soap opera antics of the news stations are far preferable to the dry, winded discourse that characterizes Congress or the Senate. After all, Bill O’Reilly or Jon Stewart are sure to get the good parts, right?

Those wishing to participate in the modern American political arena must come ready to fight. Sarah Palin and Sandra Fluke are not the first ones to learn this lesson the hard way. On the left and right the rules are remain the same:

1. If this is your first night at fight club, you have to fight.

2. Fights will go on as long as they have to.

3. Nothing is off limits.
The problem isn’t so much that the fighting is dirty and vicious but rather the fighting ultimately doesn’t result in a clear winner. There is no 3rd party, no neutral bystander, no authority that both sides will recognize. As a ever-expanding wedge is forced between the right and left the ability of our country to adapt and respond to the needs of our country is disappearing. So, in ushers a seeming stalemate in congress, restricted movements for the elected president, and a system in which real discourse is silenced because there are no sanctioned referees.

For instance, while there was nothing stopping Paul Ryan from delivering a convention speech laden with inaccuracies and lies, it should have been unanimously, unwaveringly identified as fallacious and his credibility should have been obliterated. A clear win for the American public, a clear win for democracy, the coverage of his speech should have added wind to the sails of representative government in action. Instead, the spin machine kicked into overdrive as Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson along with a slew of other television personalities championed the speech for the way it humanized Mitt Romney and bolstered the spirit of the convention — a striking choice given the fact that contributors from every news station including FOX was debunking almost every politically relevant claim in the speech.

We see a similar example in the recent efforts to restrict voting in this election. It is bad enough that a subset of the American population believes their vote is worthless following the controversial Bush-Gore election. Now, clearly worried that voting might actually change something, a select group of Republicans are trying to make it illegal. Once again, we see dirty, vicious fighting in which everyone looses. The image of the Republican party is tarnished, minority groups and the urban poor are stripped of one of their most basic political rights, and the more important issues like stabilizing the economy, narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, and the status of our troops in Afghanistan are left by the wayside. This debate was settled almost a century ago as the 19th amendment filled in the voting-eligibility  gaps left open in years prior. The clear win here should be on the side of democracy — republicans and democrats alike should be rooting for the voice of the American people to be heard.

I believe if a strong, intelligent conservative were given the Republican nomination they would win in a landslide. Unfortunately, the only true conservative in this election is running on the Democratic ticket. Obama has earned his conservative stripes to be sure in his role as commander in chief and in his handling of the stimulus package that heavily benefited big banks and their CEOs. The ironic truth about Mitt Romney is that deep down he is shallow and his running mate is a compulsive liar.

Plato once wrote, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”. Moderate Americans need to start speaking up. We’re seeing Plato’s prophecy come to life in America and the news outlets  don’t have what it takes to negotiate with the clowns holding our system hostage; indeed, they are complicit. Democracy shouldn’t mean the possibility of being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least. But it will not change without the American people, one by one, holding their representatives accountable for their words and deeds.

Obama could not have possibly lived up to the hype and dreams of his supporters following the 2008 election. Even among the more realistic expectations, Obama’s commitment to compromise resulted in a significant degree of dissatisfaction among supporters. However, I believe he was the best candidate running in 2008 and he remains the best candidate in the running now.

The implications of a Romney presidency for our national debt, women’s rights, foreign policy,  healthcare, and for education are enough to secure my support for Obama. In light of recent events, I champion the president all the more. I do not support a man’s delusions of adequacy when he is willing to alienate 47% of the country. I do not condone his efforts to lie to the American people or to circumscribe minority rights. I will not vote for Mitt Romney.