It’s been a very political week. Between political debates, a redux of recalled voting results in the Iowa squeaker, surprisingly effective SOPA protests and pointedly public attacks on our new local Sheriff – who somebody up there really doesn’t support – it’s made it impossible to be anything but thoughtful about the wheels and gears behind government and its relationship to our lives. That’s why I feel compelled to bring this recent news story to your attention: The FBI wants what it calls “food activists” prosecuted as terrorists.
The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which is the foundation for the FBI’s potential action against those who secretly photograph livestock growing conditions, has been on the books since 1992 and was signed into law by former president GW Bush in 2006; but there’s been a resurgence of interest in the application of the law because of the recent exposure of the poor practices and cruel treatment of chickens at Sparboe Farms in Vincent, Iowa that led to McDonald’s and Target dumping them as suppliers after the video footage, taken by a Mercy For Animals activist, was made very public via an ABC news 20/20 segment. I am glad that McDonald’s and Target did not want to be associated with poor treatment of animals and backed away from the ‘outed’ supplier, but regardless of one’s stance about animal rights and treatment, common sense should dictate that bad and unsanitary treatment of an animal or vegetable resource that leads to health risks such as widespread salmonella outbreaks is bad business. Why does the FBI need to go after the people who are investigating things that, ahem, maybe they themselves should be investigating on the American people’s behalf?
As we know, there is now no coming back from the label of terrorist especially with the recent passage of National Defense Authorization Act and its stripping of any rights or traditionally democratic due process for someone who has been branded a terrorist. Learning of the FBI’s attitude has raised quite a few questions for me, aside for the most obvious one, that is, who will be deciding what constitutes terrorism on an ongoing basis as regards food activists? Is Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, the famous muckraking novel about horribly unsanitary conditions of a meat packing plant in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century now someone who would be on America’s Most Wanted?
Sinclair was a professional journalist, after all, who worked undercover in the stockyards to witness the terrible practices first hand, not unlike our McDonald’s supplier’s whistleblowers. (Sinclair’s book has been in print ever since it was first published in 1906 and its shocking contents led to the swift passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 under the Theodore Roosevelt Administration. He was primarily interested in exposing the inhumane work conditions for the human beings but the public outcry following publication was mostly about the rancid, diseased meat being sold to an unsuspecting public.) Is Michael Pollan the food activism movement’s spiritual leader for causing so many of his readers to question the status quo of commercially established food industry and USDA regulations and restrictions that stifle alternative means of smaller scale food production, and if so, will that mean that all his assets can be siezed without a trial or phone call to his lawyer? It’s a relief, really, that Paul Newman is dead. After all he’s done for the world I would hate to see him dragged away in chains for coming up with healthier versions of junk food and successfully selling them for profit – for charities. I sense the implied hostility and criticism aimed at the junk food empire – as well as capitalism itself – in the whole Newman Organics ethos, don’t you?
And what about us bloggers who point people to seasonal vegetable charts and farmer’s markets in our home towns? Are we bad guys too? And by whose definition? I had already begun to suspect that I was potentially an economic enemy of the state for canceling my gym membership and surreptitiously using the 50+ steps up to my apartment as a replacement (organic) stairmaster. And with the speed that the DuPont-bot found me and left a thinly veiled warning comment the morning following my evening post about the potential hazards of non-stick pans I know I should watch my step. It’s still a jungle out there, apparently. I just hope I still have the right to say so.
I wonder how Frank Capra and Robert Riskin and the writers of other populist American films of the 1930s and ’40s would respond to our current political climate. They are the director and screenwriter, respectively, of some of our most beloved American films about the failure of greed to triumph in the face of the moral high ground of the honest Everyman. The heroes of these films, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe and It Happened One Night, shaped our idea of what society valued. If the hero was eccentric or unsophisticated, like Gary Cooper, he eventually won over a hard-boiled, cynical woman because his honesty restores her faith. In the case of It Happened One Night, Gable’s character is no goofball, but a headstrong individualist who makes the the heroine, a spoiled daughter of a wealthy industrialist, understand the values of simplicity. It’s the adherence to her privileged lifestyle that keep her from being happy. These sorts of tales still circulate today and are practically our country’s mythology. I, for one, grew up on them and passionately swallowed them whole. Now it is hard to say, in our divided nation, what makes a hero.
In light of the FBI’s broadening perspective on who and what actions constitute terrorism, my mind keeps wandering to a mash-up of It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Think about Jimmy Stewart’s clean-cut, naïve U.S. senator character getting a chance to see what his life would be like – via Clarence the angel – if, in the midst of Smith’s Senate-floor filibuster, also known as holding the Senate hostage with rhetoric, his mother and loyal accomplice/secretary enlist young boys to take to the streets with their little red wagons, hauling anti-government pamphlets that expose a profiteering plan sponsored by corrupt political bosses for financial gain. (Little red wagons and eager, patriotic boys being the prototype for the smartphones and social media sites of today.) In my mind I’m calling it Mr. Smith Goes to Guantanamo.