Good food

Another pointless post about food. And morality.

I bought a bag of impeccably “fair trade” chocolate-covered chunks of ginger from a charity stall. (A long-established and legit Fair Trade brand, sold at cost, on a voluntary basis.)

I’m less than completely convinced by many “fair trade” goods, but I’ll spare you the social analysis of international terms of trade and production relations in the developing world. For now…

People in work bring back communal sweets and biscuits (trans. candy and cookies) from wherever they’ve been on holiday (trans. vacation.) I never do this myself, although I tend to eat the lion’s share of any of these treats. It’s possible to go for days, in the main holiday season, without actually buying any food.

I have even been known to have subtly badgered one co-worker into making a 300 mile return journey to the place from which he’d brought comically expensive handmade real (70% cocoa solids) chocolates to get more. At a total chocolate cost of over £50 (trans, about $80 now, I think.) And not even Fair Trade. (Look, I didn’t know how bloody expensive they were. Nor how far away the shop was. OK?)

I even add insult to injury by using the packaging for an ironic “art installation” and by insulting any over-hyped but disappointing chocolates, like the French ones from the Ritz.

So, to appease my vague feelings of guilt about being just a taker of confectionery and never a confectionery provider, I bought some Fair Trade biscuits, as a baseline contribution to office goodwill, and chocolate gingers, as a purely indulgent treat.

And made a song and dance out of sharing them out, in the hope that anyone keeping a conceptual chocolate altruism ledger would notice that they finally had something to put on my credit side.

Hmm. Chunks of ginger, covered in chocolate. I assume that anyone would think that is great, by definition. The first person I offer them to says “What’s ginger?” Duh? “What’s ginger?” Is this a trick question? I am too confused to offer an answer that is either educational or sarcastic. I can only say “Well, it’s ginger. You know, ginger. Everyone knows what ginger is.”

Two people are now too embarrassed to admit they don’t know what ginger is and each takes an offered sweet. Dare I say it, gingerly.

They insert sweets into mouths. Omigod! Have they been poisoned?

Unbelievable facial contortions. They pretend to be eating, but their faces are betraying them. They are clearly trying to swallow – to get the taste away from their mouths – in the face of a natural reflex to gag. But the chunks are too big so they are forced to chew, fighting their jaws every inch of the way.

I stare in fascination for about three minutes until I remember to do the decent thing and say “Look, just spit it out if you don’t like it.” Explosively emitted ginger chocolate turns the waste paper bins into ad hoc spitoons.

An other worker just says “You have got to be joking,” when I try to offer him a chocolate.

I say :”I don’t believe this. Everybody likes ginger.” (I am clearly speaking in the face of the evidence.) “I will do a survey then.”

I approach every single person in the pretty sizable office, offering a handful of chocolates. One man says “I love ginger” but won’t accept more than one. And I don’t actually see him eating it, so it may have been a polite bluff.

Everybody else, without exception, refuses. And these are people who will polish off a packet of Dorritos or All-butter Shortbread almost before you can blink.

Three refusants produce variations of “I’m being good today”

I know it’s a polite way of saying “No, I don’t want to try those outlandish sweets” but it still really irritates me.

Firstly because of my own serious shortcomings in the “polite” department, I have grown a protective self-justifying moral coating – the view that “polite dishonesty is more insulting than impolite honesty” (Yes, I know it isn’t true. I did say self-justifying.)

Secondly, because I find something offensive in the idea that being “good” means “on a diet.”

The underlying assumption is straight from a life-denying religious worldview. “I enjoy food X (Not the case here, obviously) so not having it makes me morally superior.”

Are people doing some bizarre penance for their physical existence. The body is evil so letting it have what it wants is “bad”. Mastering one’s bodily desires for food is “good.”

Now, in this case, the Fair Trade sweets were probably “better” in genuinely moral terms than any other food on offer. You can argue the toss over the theory and practice of Fair Trade initiatives, but they do have a “moral” basis in aiming to improve the lives of the producers, to provide schools and medical treatments and a living wage. However, they were seen as “bad”, as food containing sugar and fat.

Our sense of “morality”, in food terms, isn’t reached through a rational process of thinking about where food is produced, how it’s distributed, and so on. It’s some sort of kneejerk response, a dilution of monotheistic moralities that see “goodness” in terms of appeasing some arbitrary set of external rules. Organised religion is really effective at instilling ideas of “good” and “bad” conceived of in terms of obedience to rules. This seems to survive even when people have no actual religious beliefs.

Except, in the case of food, it’s not just priests or gods that we are obeying. It’s the food police in our heads – the government health warnings; the anecdotal nutritionists; the claims on the sides of products; the magazine articles; the slimming magazines, and so on.

Of course, there is a religious element in food choices. Every culture or religion has food rules. What we eat is part of our identity. It’s hard to disentangle the “morality” that consists of “following rules set by some authority” from an autonomous “morality” that involves making endless contingent choices.

But then, it’s a waste of our puny human lives if we don’t even bother to try.

Ex-archbishop sees News of the World as moral force

If you live outside the UK you probably don’t have newspapers like the News of the World. Just thank Freya. It’s not even possible to describe them adequately but the link might give you some idea of their idea of “news”

The NoW recently lost a privacy case based on its deeply unpleasant activities – paying dominatrix prostitutes thousands to secretly film a client (who was already paying more than my month’s salary for an evening of their services) and to add a fake Nazi element because his long-dead father had been a well-known fascist.

(Well, it makes a change from Amy Winehouse. Just don’t get me started on the Amy Winehouse coverage.)

You might think “comically distasteful, but definitely none of my business.” The good old News of the World tried to pretend this was somehow our business because his father had been famous in the 1930s and because he’s the boss of Formula One or something.

Well the guy won his court action and got a fairly huge sum, plus they have to pay some part of his incredibly huge legal fees. This seems fair enough to me, and nothing to do with freedom of the press. I can’t see what the private behaviour of the Formula One Boss has to do with public interest. To be honest I don’t even know what Formula One is. But, even if I did, I can’t believe I would base my private morality on the actions of its multi-millionaire boss.

Not so Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, apparently. He has written – in the News of the World, no less (LOL) that this judgement set a dangerous precedent.

Without public debate or democratic scrutiny, the courts have created a wholly new privacy law. In itself that’s bad enough.
But, as a Christian leader, I am deeply sad that public morality is the second victim of this legal judgement.
Unspeakable and indecent behaviour, whether in public or in private, is no longer significant under this ruling.

D’uh? D’uh, again? So, to the Archbishop, the News of the World’s use of techniques normally associated with blackmail isn’t “unspeakable and indecent” behaviour? Fear of the gutter press is a pillar of public Christian Morality?

More from the ex-Archbishop-

In the past, a public figure has known that scandalous and immoral behaviour carries serious consequences for his or her public profile, reputation and job.
Today it is possible to both have your cake and to eat it. But a case can be clearly made for a direct link between private behaviour and public conduct.
If a politician, a judge, a bishop or any public figure cannot keep their promises to a wife, husband, etc, how can they be trusted to honour pledges to their constituencies and people they serve?

Can the ex-Archbishop not see the difference between being the boss of some racing sports association and being a politician or a judge? Is this man’s public exposure actually doing any service to his wife? Who else is he supposed to have made promises to? What’s his constituency?

Lord Carey is upholding a view of “morality” that barely touches upon any version of the concept that I can recognise. I started to disentangle the contradictions in this argument and its bizarre conceptual basis but I gave up because it seems so self-evidently ludicrous.

I can only assume that the Church of England doles out a really mean pension to its ex-leaders, so they are reduced to producing moral underpinnings for the NoW’s prurience. Please, up the man’s stipend, ffs, Church of England. Thor only knows what shameful activities he may be forced into next in the search to earn a crust.

Atheism and morality

This month’s New Scientist discusses God and morality. That link is more or less useless, though, unless you have a subscription. You have to buy the magazine to get more than the first few hundred words. (Or read this, written from the smug perspective of someone who can read it all.)

Referring to Dawkins and the many others who dispute that religion is the necessary source of morality:

Their views have recently been bolstered by evidence that morality appears to be hard-wired into our brains. It seems we are born with a sense of right and wrong, and that no amount of religious indoctrination will change our most basic moral instincts.

New Scientist doesn’t want to offend readers- atheists or theists – so the discussion is quite cagey, with a general suggestion that both religion and morality are mentally hardwired.

I followed their link to some 2005 Baltimore research by Gregory Paul that argues that societies with high rates of religious adherence are those that consistently have the worst social morality.

He concluded that countries with higher rates of belief and worship had higher rates of homicide, death among children and young adults, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy and abortion.

(New Scientist)

I like this paper so much, I’m going to post the abstract here and put the most salient bits in bold.

Large-scale surveys show dramatic declines in religiosity in favor of secularization in the developed democracies. Popular acceptance of evolutionary science correlates negatively with levels of religiosity, and the United States is the only prosperous nation where the majority absolutely believes in a creator and evolutionary science is unpopular. Abundant data is available on rates of societal dysfunction and health in the first world. Cross-national comparisons of highly differing rates of religiosity and societal conditions form a mass epidemiological experiment that can be used to test whether high rates of belief in and worship of a creator are necessary for high levels of social health. Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and antievolution America performs poorly.

Gregory Paul said that “In the United States many conservative theists consider evolutionary science a leading contributor to social dysfunction because it is amoral or worse, and because it inspires disbelief” This is fascinating. Who’d have thought that a scientific theory can be held accountable for people’s morality? “Sorry, Your Honour, but I was acting under the influence of the Second law of Thermodynamics.”

Van Jensen challenged Paul’s conclusions in another study, based on cross-cultural homicide rates research, arguing that dualistic theism – i.e. belief in God AND a Devil – is what you need to make a really murderous society.

There’s nothing really new in the argument that religion fosters immorality, though. Jensen refers to “Durkheim’s hypotheses that religious passion, as a variable characteristic of nations, is a positive correlate of homicide rates.” In English, that means: the more fanatical belief, the more murders. That’s Durkheim, born 1858 – died 1917, by the way. Some messages just don’t get through.

There’s much more interesting information in the New Scientist article. Researchers have looked at the subject from the perspectives of psychology, evolutionary biology, brain chemistry and more. Every piece of research could spark a full-scale post here, with ranting &/or raving at will.

If you are interested in religion and morality, it’s worth getting hold of a copy of New Scientist and following the links to the actual research papers.

New TV low

Endemol has excelled even its own proud record of providing “entertainment” in the true tradition of the Roman arena.

It’s about to produce a reality show on Dutch tv where three people who need transplants will compete for the kidney of a dying person.

What can you say? What fun. Life for one winner. Death for 1 person for sure and possible death for the 2 losers. Continue reading

Wild birds don’t pay taxes

We seem to have escaped one potential side-effect of the Bernard Matthews bird flu. The first news of the out break focussed on wild birds as the carriers of the disease. After a few days, in which it bcame obvious that importing turkeys from an area hit by bird flu was probably not wholly unconnected, wild birds were temporarily off the hook. For how long?

On 17th February, the BBC had the grace to recover some of its credibility on the issue by running an interview/article by Dr Leon Bennun, of BirdLife International. He argues that wild birds are likely to get blamed and that threatened species are likely to be culled or be subject to deliberate destruction of their habitats. However, he argues that bird flu infections in wild birds are limited and unlikely to spread to humans. He argues that the global poultry industry is the most likely vector of the disease.

It may also be time to take a long, hard look at the way the world feeds itself, and to decide whether the price paid for modern farming in terms of risks to human health and the Earth’s biodiversity is too high.

OK, I have to declare a vested interest here. I am a long time vegetarian (though I can’t claim any moral high ground because I eat milk and eggs.) I can’t see why there is such a necessity for everyone to have access to ultra-cheap although taste-free chicken and turkey. Taking up a morality in food theme that I already did to death a few weeks ago, I can’t understand how we have become so confused that we talk about “being good” when we mean passing up an extra biscuit but believeg we have no responsibility for the conditions in which our meat is produced.

These poultry are reared in conditions that defy belief. They are stuffed in their thousands into barns where their “lives” must make a mockery of the term. The scale of the Bernard Matthews operation is breathtaking. When the news broke, the numbers of turkeys reported Killed was a lot more than I would have believed there could be in the whole country. And they were in a handful of barns. Is it any surprise that these conditions give rise to diseases.

A few hundred workers were laid off by Bernard Matthews today, with more job losses likely if the public don’t forget their temporary revulsion. The government scientists are doing their best to reassure us. The reassurances have even been rephrased from the original self-contradictory message last week, which was that there was no chance that bird flu could get into the food chain but make sure you cook all poultry thoroughly.

We are now so squeamish compared to people of a couple of generations ago. We don’t even buy poultry if it can be visibly distinguished from Quorn. This makes it much easier for us to ignore what goes on to bring that prepackaged and blamelessly sterile-looking product to the supermarket.

And what goes on is much more repellent than killing creatures to eat, which is what people have done for our entire history. It first involved hunting wild creatures (clearly the best bet from the creatures’ point of view.) Then it involved capturing them and keeping them confined in a simulation of their natural environment until we wanted to kill them (next best bet, although even this is starting to threaten the ecology of the planet as more and more of us need feeding and more and more forest is burned for cattle.) But, what about keeping animals indoors in terrifying and insanitary conditions and feeding them wholly unnatural foods, including the ground-up brains of their own species (does anyone remember BSE?).

There are laws of cause and effect. We are indeed animals ourselves but we somehow believe we can escape the natural laws that seem to govern ecosystems. Species that grow too numerous for their environment and start disturbing its balance too drastically are pretty likely to become extinct. We are turning our planet into a potential hellhole for ourselves.

But, bizarrely, as Leon Bennun points out, we don’t question the global meat industry. We turn on the few escapees from our destructiveness and blame them, failing to understand the role they play in keeping the ecosystem going. I assume this is because wild birds don’t employ people. They don’t pay taxes.

The massive “agricultural” companies employ a fair number of people. Many more people would be employed if the law compelled turkey and chicken “farmers” to rear their poultry using free range methods. It might cost a little more for poultry, but then, it might actually taste of something, so value for money would be about the same. It would surely be safer. The bird flu outbreaks that affected humans in the far east did involve small producers. However, they were localised in their effects. Can anyone even begin to imagine the scale of the effects of an outbreak that could infect humans if it originated in one of these monster turkey/chicken production units?