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Workin' On The Food Chain Gang

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Eating Liberally Food For Thought
by Kerry Trueman

For a free country, we’ve got an awfully tyrannical food chain. Our current system of food production is really founded on a contempt for life; it pummels the planet and exploits migrant farm workers, defying the laws of both nature and man. If we truly are what we eat, I guess that makes us a nation of nature-hating misanthropes.

We’ve shoehorned corn into every corner of Iowa, and shoveled it into every cow--or so it seemed to me as I watched the screening of King Corn that Eating Liberally co-hosted this week at the Tank with our friends from the Green Edge Collaborative. We’ve taken the already fertile soil of our heartland and jacked it up on steroids, to grow a bazillion bushels of a variety of corn you can’t even eat till it’s been processed into some sort of by-product.

We coax an astonishing amount of corn from each monocropped acre by saturating this precious topsoil with fertilizers and herbicides, and then we convert this nutritionally bankrupt bounty into high fructose corn syrup, or feed for cows whose digestive systems literally can’t stomach it (hello, E. coli), or the eco-disaster we call corn-based ethanol.

As King Corn’s food court jesters Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis discovered in their pilgrimage to our feedcorn fiefdom, this ultra-efficient method of growing corn has created ever larger farms run by fewer and fewer farmers, draining the soul of our rural communities even as it depletes the soil (and drives our diabetes epidemic, and fuels global warming, and makes cheap spaghetti sauces sickeningly sweet, and--oh, nevermind.)

And this is the model of agriculture that Wall Street, K Street, and Main Street all celebrate as a shining example of good ol’ American know-how that the rest of the world would do well to emulate. Feedcorn is on the march!

We were fortunate to have Ian Cheney on hand at our screening to do a Q & A, and the questions were pretty much the same ones people peppered Michael Pollan with at an Omnivore’s Dilemma reading I attended in April of 2006 (Pollan, an advisor to the King Corn crew, appears in the film expounding on the evils of industrial agriculture against the backdrop of his own abundant veggie garden, including a suitably monstrous patch of dinosaur kale!)

What folks want to know, after reading Pollan’s books or seeing a film like King Corn, is “What can we do about this awful food system?”

The knee-jerk response is, of course, to endorse community supported agriculture and farmers’ markets, but Cheney noted that we run the risk of creating an alternative food chain that serves only those fortunate enough to live in the more affluent communities where farmers’ markets and upscale stores like Whole Foods thrive.

Living at the Ethicurean epicenter of NYC, it’s easy for me to opt out of our crappy food chain; I can walk to Union Square and shop at the Greenmarket four days a week all year round, and whatever I can’t find there I can get at the Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s that are a stone’s throw from the Greenmarket. There are several mom-and-pop health food stores in our neck of the woods, too.

So it’s easy for me to follow Pollan’s advice to stay out of the supermarkets. But a few miles north of us, in East Harlem, they’ve hardly got any supermarkets left to stay out of. As the New York Times reported last Monday:

A continuing decline in the number of neighborhood supermarkets has made it harder for millions of New Yorkers to find fresh and affordable food within walking distance of their homes, according to a recent city study. The dearth of nearby supermarkets is most severe in minority and poor neighborhoods already beset by obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

To us farmers’ market fanatics, the very notion of a New York supermarket as a source for fresh, healthy food seems laughable; the typical supermarket is a food desert to us, with aisle after aisle of mysterious food-like substances encased in plastic and no grass-fed anything. But when your only sources for food are bodegas and fast food joints, a supermarket that actually sells fresh--though far-traveled--fruits and vegetables is a step up.

No wonder more and more city dwellers are becoming urban farmers, as another New York Times article noted yesterday; communities decried as food deserts are creating their own oases by reclaiming unused lots where they grow fruits and vegetables for themselves and even sell the surplus to others.

The Times article heralds the revival of urban agriculture that’s taking root all around the country, with the help of organizations like Milwaukee’s Growing Power, and NYC’s own GreenThumb and Just Foods, two groups who’ve done so much to support our community gardeners and local farmers. I had the pleasure of hearing Growing Power’s founder, Will Allen, speak at the Food & Society conference in Arizona last week and came away convinced that Growing Power’s one-acre farm represents the future of urban agriculture.

As the Times notes, this “one-acre farm crammed with plastic greenhouses, compost piles, do-it-yourself contraptions, tilapia tanks and pens full of hens, ducks and goats…grossed over $220,000 last year from the sale of lettuces, winter greens, sprouts and fish to local restaurants and consumers.”

Allen’s model demonstrates that city dwellers do have the capacity to produce at least some of their own food in an eco-friendly, socially responsible manner. And as more and more folks become aware of the rampant abuse that’s a hallmark of industrial agriculture, from cruelly confined chickens to Florida’s enslaved migrant farm workers, people are seeking alternative food chains untarnished by institutionalized exploitation and environmental degradation.

For a really comprehensive and inspiring look at the enormous potential of this movement to provide less privileged folks with an abundance of fresh, affordable produce while building community, preserving open space and creating an environmentally beneficial habitat, check out “Vitalizing the Vacant” from Thoughts On The Table blogger Annie Myers, who never ceases to astonish me with her clear, beautiful prose and even clearer observations.

Annie’s one of a dozen or so twenty-somethings I’ve met who blow me away with their commitment to changing our world; I was too cynical and alienated when I was that age to do much more than mouth off about our decaying culture. I’m doing that still, while folks like Annie and the Real Food Challenge students and “Greenhorns” filmmaker Severine Von Tscharner Fleming are running around remaking the world the way they want it to be. Considering how badly we've messed things up, it’s the least we can do to cheer them on.

How The War On Drugs Takes Horticultural Hostages

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Eating Liberally Food For Thought
by Kerry Trueman

It’s a safe bet that diabetics outnumber crackheads in the U.S. by a big fat margin, but the corn cartel’s got carte blanche to fill us (and our gas tanks) with their Beltway-blessed by-products. So U.S. drug policies focus more on coke addicts than Coke addicts, despite the fact that soda’s the more abused substance.

We’ve got a knack for waging the wrong wars, lately, and we can’t even keep our conflicts from conflicting. Just look at how the War on Terror has undermined the War on Drugs; last year, according to the Globe and Mail, Afghanistan’s poppy crops hit a historic high, if you will, providing more than 92 percent of the world’s opium and heroin. U.S. officials estimate that the Taliban derives anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of its income from opiate exports.

Poppy production skyrocketed after we invaded Afghanistan in 2001; at a time when shortages of rice and wheat are shaking things up all over the world, the Globe and Mail reports that this year’s poppy crop “will produce 40 per cent more than the world demand — which means that huge quantities will be stockpiled somewhere.”

Afghanistan’s farmers would actually prefer to grow onions than opiates, but the warlords and the Taliban have pretty much hijacked their fields, forcing them to grow poppies. Talk about a Catch 22—we can’t root out the poppies till we uproot the warlords, whose power is fueled by those fields of fuzzy pods.

And our proposed solution to this problem is to carpet-bomb Afghanistan with an herbicide called glyphosate, aka Roundup, a Monsanto-manufactured weed killer. Ah, the military-industrial complex-is there any world crisis that Monsanto can’t solve?

John McCain’s all in favor of using Roundup to rein in the poppy posse, but the locals look darkly on the prospect of being under a cloud of chemicals. American officials insist that glyphosate is “one of the world’s safest herbicides,” according to the New York Times, which cites a State Department fact sheet claiming that glyphosate is “less toxic than common salt, aspirin, caffeine, nicotine and even vitamin A.”

But Britain, which heads the anti-narcotics effort in Afghanistan, thinks this tactic’s toxic in more ways than one, as does the Afghan government. So the search for a solution drags on while the buds and the bad guys flourish.

OK, so we’re totally losing on the heroin/opium front in the Golden Crescent, but aren’t we making some progress in our efforts to curb South American coke production?

Well, funny story, actually; our campaign to convince South America to stop growing coca leaves and switch to legitimate crops hasn’t made a dent in the world’s cocaine supply, but it’s just about destroyed America’s asparagus farmers.

Sadly, the MSM’s too busy focusing on the follies of those other American Spears, Britney and Jamie Lynn, to soil its shallow soul by reporting that the American asparagus farmer is an endangered species. So it’s left to us lefty, dirt-encrusted bloggers to tell you about the superb “stalkumentary,” Asparagus!, which I’m delighted to announce is now available on DVD after reaping a bumper crop of prizes and plaudits; New York magazine called it “oddly brilliant.”

Asparagus! documents the alternately hilarious and heartbreaking saga of Oceana County, Michigan, which was the asparagus capital of the world for thirty years. Then came the Andean Trade Preference Act, which gave Peru the right to export its fresh asparagus into the U.S. tax-free as an incentive to discourage drug production and trafficking. Thanks to this obscure bit of legislation, Peru’s now overtaken Oceana to become “the world’s largest asparagus industry,” and the good farmers of Michigan are facing bankruptcy.

Filmmakers Anne De Mare and Kirsten Kelly put a poignant and compelling face on this freakish case of collateral damage, letting the local folks weave their tale of War On Drug-induced woe in an entertaining and infuriating film that will leave you shouting “S.O.S.”, as in Save Our Spears!

Ironically, there’s $15 million in aid to American asparagus farmers tucked into the current Farm Bill, in order to offset the unforeseen consequences of the Andean Trade Preference Act. See Asparagus!, and you’ll see why Bird’s Eye is right on target, while Wal-Mart misses the mark. Just say no, indeed! To Peruvian asparagus, that is.

Secret McCain Campaign Slogan Memo Leaked

Laughing Liberally To Keep From Crying
By Lee Camp

With McCain likely to face Obama in the general election, it appears his staff has realized they have an uphill marketing battle ahead of them. Obama has some of the best marketing money can buy: he has a brilliant logo, multiple slogans, a pretty face, and he's even laid claim to the words "change" and "hope." The following memo by a high level McCain staffer was accidentally leaked to the press, demonstrating the McCain campaign's struggle to find the perfect slogan.

West Virginia, Where Art Thou?

Drinking Liberally Shot of Truth
by Justin Krebs

I need a friend in West Virginia...somebody I could have a beer with.

It's been nearly five years since we started drinking liberally in a backyard in Hell's Kitchen. In May, 2003, a few weeks after Mission Accomplished, progressives weren't very hopeful...and we regularly heard the joke: "Guess liberals need a few beers to dull the pain."

Our response: "No, we need a few beers while we organize." From the start, our social club wasn't about sharing depression -- it was about sharing ideas, energy and commitment.

People are now Drinking Liberally all over the country, and it spreads because local liberals grab hold and make it happen....sometimes in the unlikeliest of areas.

Our fifth chapter, beating out such liberal hotbeds as Boston and Austin, was Boise, Idaho, leading Atrios to demand of his readership why Idaho had a chapter and Philadelphia didn't. (A Philadelphia group launched within 24 hours of that blog post; the Boise chapter still meets, and has been visited by their Mayor.)

Salt Lake City -- in a deep red state not known for liberals or drinks -- has a booming chapter. There are two clubs in South Dakota, and three in Mississippi. The Idaho Falls chapter (it always comes back to Idaho) has been involved in local anti-war activism, as have our Wyoming groups.

So...what's the matter with West Virginia?

Actually: West Virginia, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Hawaii. Those are the four hold-out states left as we reach our five-year mark, with no spots for liberals to congregate and organize over a few drinks. But not for long.

Drinking Liberally turns 5 on May 29th. We're kicking off our anniversary month with a Living Liberally fundraiser this Saturday, May 10th, in New York City, honoring CREDO / Working Assets and their political director Becky Bond (with Open Lefters Matt Stoller and Mike Lux on the host committee). During the course of the month, we'll be launching a new website and new tools.

And we're going to hit all 50 states for the first time. If I have to raise a pint in North Dakota myself, we're going to do it.

But I'm hoping I won't have to travel to North Dakota (at least not this month). The 240+ chapters that exist weren't started by me -- they were started by you -- liberals that wanted to gather, build community, share stories and a few pitchers. And now we need you to help realize the social parallel to Dean's 50-State Strategy: our own 50-Bar Strategy, promoting democracy one pint at a time.

Know anybody in West Virginia?

Top 10 Outrageous Quotes From McCain's Spiritual Advisers

Laughing Liberally To Keep From Crying
by Katie Halper

Before Jeremiah "Obama's Pastor" Wright spews even more nonsense, and quotes even more ambassadors, we want to shed some light on the brilliant gems uttered by some of McCain's own spiritual advisers, Pastor John Hagee and Reverend Rod Parsley. When Hagee endorsed McCain, because he is a man of principle, McCain said he was "very honored by Pastor John Hagee's endorsement." Reverend Parsley calls McCain a "strong, true, consistent conservative" and McCain calls Parsley "a spiritual adviser." Because the liberal media refuses to give any credit to McCain, it is up to us to be fair and balanced. So here are the top 10 Memorable Quotes said by McCain's religious advisers:

1. "Do you know the difference between a woman with PMS and a snarling Doberman pinscher? The answer is lipstick. Do you know the difference between a terrorist and a woman with PMS? You can negotiate with a terrorist."
- Pastor John Hagee in his book What Every Man Wants in a Woman (Charisma House, 2005)

2. "The Quran teaches that [all Muslims have a mandate to kill Christians and Jews]. Yes, it teaches that very clearly."
-Pastor John Hagee

3. "I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans...I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are -- were recipients of the judgment of God for that...There was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades.... The Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment."
-Pastor John Hagee

4. "The military will have difficultly recruiting healthy and strong heterosexuals for combat purposes. Why? Fighting in combat with a man in your fox hole that has AIDS or is HIV positive is double jeopardy."
- Pastor John Hagee on Don't Ask Don't Tell

5. "[Gay marriage] will open the door to incest, to polygamy, and every conceivable marriage arrangement demented minds can possibly conceive. If God does not then punish America, He will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah."
- Pastor John Hagee

6. "It is impossible to call yourself a Christian and defend homosexuality. There is no justification or acceptance of homosexuality.... Homosexuality means the death of society because homosexuals can recruit, but they cannot reproduce."
- Pastor John Hagee

7. "Only a Spirit-filled woman can submit to her husband's lead. It is the natural desire of a woman to lead through feminine manipulation of the man...Fallen women will try to dominate the marriage. The man has the God-given role to be the loving leader of the home."
- Pastor John Hagee in his book What Every Man Wants in a Woman (Charisma House, 2005)

8. "I cannot tell you how important it is that we understand the true nature of Islam, that we see it for what it really is. In fact, I will tell you this: I do not believe our country can truly fulfill its divine purpose until we understand our historical conflict with Islam. I know that this statement sounds extreme, but I do not shrink from its implications. The fact is that America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed, and I believe September 11, 2001, was a generational call to arms that we can no longer ignore."
- Rod Parsley in Silent No More (Charisma House, 2005)

9. "Gay sexuality inevitably involves brutal physical abusiveness and the unnatural imposition of alien substances into internal organs, orally and anally, that inevitably suppress the immune system and heighten susceptibility to disease."
- Rod Parsley

10. "Only 1 percent of the homosexual population in America will die of old age. The average life expectancy for a homosexual in the United States of America is 43 years of age. A lesbian can only expect to live to be 45 years of age. Homosexuals represent 2 percent of the population, yet today they're carrying 60 percent of the known cases of syphilis."
- Rod Parsley

A version of this originally appeared on Nerve Scanner.

Journalists and Scribes

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Reading Liberally Page Turner
by Amanda Milstein, Living Liberally

I was being interviewed by a radio station about a snarky article I’d written for a paper-and-ink (and also online) magazine, and they referred to me as “journalist Amanda Milstein.” This struck me as clearly false (although far be it from me to argue with them, given it sounds better than “part-time job-holding, part-time interning, soon-to-be grad student Amanda Milstein”) - and it looks like I'm not the only one who thinks so. One of the arguments made by Clay Shirkey in his new book Here Comes Everybody (which Matt mentioned here yesterday ) is that the title “journalist” is increasingly meaningless when anyone can write a blog post about an issue and publish it — and even if they are blogging about an issue as trivial as a lost phone, it is possible for them to get a large audience.

Shirky begins by describing a Gutenberg-era pamphlet written in defense of scribes, whose jobs were being taken over by the printing press. The pro-scribe argument was printed off on a printing press for maximum efficiency — it’s always bad if your chief defender can’t even be bothered to use your services. All much like how my childhood best friend’s instant messenger screenname was something like luddite77; if you’re bothering to have a screenname, you’re clearly not devoting yourself to smashing machines.

Shirky takes this prologue as a launching-pad to deal with multiple aspects of the internet community-building revolution, from the efforts of Wikipedians and lay-run online groups to help people navigate software, to the the power of informal online photo-sharing in areas where important news events are occurring. To hear Shirky extend the metaphor, as the masses are storming communication, those now called "journalists" may well soon be the scribes of our era. The ways we meet people, communicate with friends, form community and many other facets of our lives will dramatically change as well.

While I found the book a bit tedious to read, it was clearly well-researched, and had much to say that will help people understand the new dissemination of information we are witnessing in our society. If you're interested in a nibble of Shirky's ideas before you commit to the many-course meal of his book, check out his blog first.

Sometimes I wish I could cast off modern technology and just go hang out with people in the park, and potluck in my spare time. And then I run off to send those I will soon be picnicking with a frantic g-chat message to make sure that someone knows to bring plates, check my friends' blogs to make sure I am updated on the key events of their lives — and still kind of wish I could communicate via loud drum. But, as Shirky points out, the technological and communication revolution is irreversibly upon us, and we just need to figure out how to adjust to the huge new swaths of information that are now available. I personally plan on configuring my google reader to scream at me to go outside instead of keeping up on my friends' blogs — right after I change my screenname to luddite88.

One Small Step For Liberals, One Long Bike Ride For Houstonians

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Biking Liberally Pedal For Progressivism
by David Robertson, Drinking Liberally Houston

For tonight's look at promoting liberal ideas through living liberally, we wanted to highlight one of the coolest projects that've come out of our Drinking Liberally chapters in recent months - Biking Liberally, an effort to get Houston liberals to live their values through their mode of transportation. I'll let David, the main organizer, take it away from here.

One day at Drinking Liberally, I biked and another member biked as well. While here we were discussing the MS 150 ride leaving Houston, I asked, "Why not have a Biking Liberally group?" E-mails were sent and replies were received. The word was out. Biking Liberally was born.

As I am an avid biker of the roads, as are many of the other DL'ers, Houston has many trails to offer us. I thought as a group we could exploit these routes less taken. I realized the group would promote exercise and friendship one mile at bikekid.JPG
We met at Onion Creek, a local bar in the Heights, which hosted a benefit for the MS 150 ride later that day. The ride was small but fun was rampant. We had a strong showing of five people, including (I believe) the youngest member ever to come to BL or DL. (He is two years old.) We toured the David Addicks gallery, where you can find busts of former presidents. From there we visited Washington Cementary, a new park, Discovery Green, and finally the Menil Museum.

Back at Onion Creek, we partook in lunch and beer. Four more Drinking Liberals joined us and we had a great time talking about whatever.

I just never knew that biking and drinking could go so well back to back. I just really want more people to become familiar with all the trails that Houston has to offer and enjoy the city's beauty.

The future holds many more BL trips as people from the last DL requested it more frequently. My plans are to host at least one to two bike rides each month in hopes that this will help the group grow more bikers. I believe that, as the word gets out, this will happen - we are looking to expand into themes for each ride. a time, took the idea from a another biking group in town and made it my own extension of DL.

If Science Is For Liberals, Then So Is Bonk

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Reading Liberally Page Turner
by Amanda Milstein, Living Liberally

Today the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is holding a hearing about the catastrophe that is Abstinence-Only Education. In honor of that, I am reviewing Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach, while filled with hope (OK, I am way too cynical to be filled with anything that even remotely resembles hope) that, in the future, science and sex will be more closely linked in classrooms around the United States.

"Since when did Science become a liberal issue?" a comic asked at last week's Laughing Liberally in NYC. I would guess that that occurred sometime between when Galileo got in trouble with the church and the Scopes Trial. But now the truth is oddly liberal, so I hereby claim Bonk for liberals and those with a high threshold for the somewhat alarming.

I was going to a Passover retreat with a left-leaning crowd and was placed in charge of books and games, so I decided Bonk would be able to entertain pretty much everyone for seventy-two hours. This was more than true — I at least entertained myself by interrupting discussions on Jewish law in order to read people quotes about testicular grafting surgery such as "At one point [the surgery-performing doctor] described curing a twenty-two year old youth of, among other afflictions, the 'frequent writing of incoherent, rambling dissertations on architecture.' It seemed no ailment stood strong in the face of another man's testis."

Seriously, is that funnier than what you can and cannot eat on Passover, or what?

I spent most of my time reading Bonk laughing so hard that I was either forced to read passages out loud or having people read over my shoulder because they wanted to know what was so funny. During a bus ride from New York to Silver Spring I read the book at the same time as a friend because we both refused to put it down.

Mary Roach discusses a variety of sexual experiments performed by such notables as Masters and Johnson, and weirdos like the great grand-niece of Napoleon Bonaparte. Roach is experimented on numerous times (she and her husband have sex in an MRI machine, she inserts a vaginal photoplethysmograph while being experimented on in a place called the Female Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory), she visits a sex-toy factory, and discusses historical sexual scientific advances and mishaps in a way that caused me to laugh so hard I thought I would sustain serious injury to my lungs. Bonk is a gleeful and hilarious exploration of the past and future of sexual science, and covers a variety of vital topics, from a discussion of the dangers of severed penises being eaten by ducks, bizarre cures for impotence, to everything else weird and related to sex that you would, quite frankly, never be able to imagine.

Maybe America's children don't need to know how to most efficiently stimulate pigs while artificially inseminating them (There are five steps that apparently include bouncing the pig up and down — I don't really want to describe the other steps), but it would be nice if they knew enough to know more than teens in Florida, a state with abstinence-only education leads sexually active teenagers to believe that "...drinking a can of Mt. Dew would prevent unintended pregnancy, or drinking a capful of bleach would prevent HIV/AIDS." Because the science of sex can be hilarious, but not knowing anything can be downright tragic.