A lot of health-related politics has less to do with philosophy than with tribal allegiances. Those tribal allegiances are strong and make people disinclined to listen to each other or to examine the weaknesses in their own arguments.
In a saner, calmer world, for instance, one probably would not have to deal with people who regard it as un-American to avoid eating beef fat nor with people who think that evil corporations will destroy the world merely by sewing genetically-modified corn.
But here we are.
In a very funny column for OpinionJournal.com, conservative writer Dave Shifflett defended the recently-deceased founder of Wendy's, Dave Thomas, against critics: "While a normal American salivates at the thought of a tri-decker cheeseburger wearing a top hat of bacon and pickles, these people will jump out of a high window if one is brought into the room." Mimicking a famous statement of Hermann Goering (a statement repopularized by the punk band Mission of Burma and the techno musician Moby), Shifflett notes that when "normal Americans hear the words 'surgeon general,' of course, they reach for the safety catches on their Pez dispensers."
There's something inspiring about that health-be-damned, large-living, robust attitude and the capitalist drive on Thomas's part that inspired Shifflett's column. On the other hand, that sort of hyperbole is what inspires anti-corporate, anti-biotech, anti-meat industry, vegan radicals like the ones who are descending on a weary New York City even as I write this column.
To be sure, the hordes of anti-globalization protesters coming to oppose the World Economic Forum have more on their minds than corporate food production. Indeed, they have a wide array of causes and are themselves a diverse, overlapping, admirably decentralized network of activist groups that might be thought of as a sort of antiglob, if you will. But two of their favorite themes are the evil of eating beef and the terrible danger of biotech foods, and one never knows just how far they'll go to stop these things. After all, they're willing to put a stop to international commerce to stymie them the need to stop global trade is their unifying belief.
What will happen in New York is uncertain. As a Yahoo News item by Patrice O'Shaughnessy put it: "With labor unionists, students, environmentalists, civil rights activists, and all manner of self-proclaimed anarchists meeting in midtown, police are preparing for street dramas that may range from puppetry and tango-dancing to vandalism and service disruptions."
How one creates rational dialogue between camps as opposed as the Wendy's fans and the McDonald's-vandalizers I don't know, but science seems like a nice, neutral common ground upon which to start. Science tells us that eating at places like Wendy's and McDonald's too frequently is unwise (which might make Shifflett unhappy), but it also tells us that there's little to fear from genetically-modified corn (which would no doubt enrage the antiglob).
On the count of three, if everyone will put down their Pez dispensers and their puppets, we may be able to talk about these things rationally.