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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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January 27, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 42

  A just image or just an image?
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Jean Luc-Godard observed once what might well be said again, this time of our own most recent government debacle on the international scene. Godard wrote, "It is not a just image, it is just an image."

The image we're presenting this time is not messianic militarism. This time the posture we're taking is righteous indignation. And it's not about making the world free for democracy; it's about making the world free for sugar. Ours. No one doubts the indignation; it's the righteousness of it that fails to persuade.

If you want to find out how the rest of the world sees the United States, go to Europe. Here you get news about the United States that you will never hear in the United States. Or at least you hear it from a completely different perspective.

This week, for instance, Irish and British TV fixed on U.S. participation in the current World Health Organization meeting in Geneva. The only member of the WHO executive committee that refused to ratify the WHO plan to cap sugar content in processed foods at 10%-15% lower than the current U.S. standard was the United States. The WHO draft plan also suggests that nations restrict junk food marketing, label sugar content clearly and increase prices on unhealthy foods to discourage widespread use.

European reporting of the event mixed exasperation at the U.S. refusal to support the WHO recommendations about so major a threat to world health with a barely oblique cynicism about why in a "country whose business is business" that would be the case.

Fascinated by the amount of attention given in this part of the world to criticism of the U.S. position on the WHO recommendations, I searched the Internet looking for a sampling of U.S. interpretations on the subject. Obesity, the topic of the conference, looms as a growing problem in Europe, yes, but it is actually a much greater health risk in the United States. In France, obesity is a problem for 11% of the population; in England for 16%. In the United States, 25% of the population, including children, are now defined as obese, many of them seriously so.

If any one country would stand to benefit from production regulations on sugar consumption, it would surely be the United States, the country where dieting is a major business and, it seems, a major failure.

Obesity, the medical community tells us, causes heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, even cancer. Obesity, it seems, ought to be taken seriously. In a country where medical research spends millions on the development of therapeutic drugs, one of the more obvious things killing people, rendering them disabled, limiting their employment options and raising the cost of health care for Americans in general is the problem of excess weight. Capping the percentage of sugar that can be added to any and all commercial food production would go a long way toward responding to that problem.

American media reported the event, of course. Few of them, however, examined the American position in depth. Reporting on American soil about American participation in the meeting was clearly, not to put too fine a point on the subject, "thin." U.S. news bureaus gave the gathering far less attention than newsgroups in Europe. The question is why. If the obvious advantages to health care can't be the reason, it must, European analysts imply, be the alliance between the U.S. food industry and U.S. government, both of which want to obstruct the emergence of international standards that would serve to limit U.S. multinational food producers. What else?

What is at issue, the U.S. delegation argued, is the role of the consumer to take personal responsibility for what they eat. "Sugar," William Steigher, chair of the U.S. delegation, young Yale graduate and godson of the senior George Bush, said, "is not tobacco." Which, I suppose, is meant to imply that sugar, unlike tobacco, is neither an addictive substance nor a controlled substance, nor a carcinogenic substance. Really? Tell that to a chocaholic. Tell that to a recovering alcoholic who knows that the brain processes sugar in exactly the same way it processes alcohol. Tell that to children who live at pop machines even at school. Tell that to members of Overeaters Anonymous.

The joint U.S. government-U.S. food industry brief also argues that WHO's three-year study which calls for less sugar and more vegetables in the average diet rests on "questionable science."

They say we don't have clear evidence that marketing fast food increases the risk of obesity or that any particular foods, such as soft drinks, have been linked to weight gain.

And that's where Godard's distinction between a "just image and just an image" comes in. To attack the science that underpins the obvious is just idle posturing. It's an image of credibility meant to deceive the public, not a just intellectual position. It's a standard ruse, long hidden behind by corporations to avoid moral responsibility and now apparently about to be the hiding place of sugar companies, too. The only problem is that everybody else knows where we're hiding.

There are places, in other words, where the collaboration of American politics with American industry in international discussions gets to be downright funny. If not downright silly. If not downright pathetic. This one, unfortunately, is particularly transparent, particularly base.

The U.S. position on sugar content in food raises a number of questions:

How is it that the WHO guidelines, which approximate the very standards now being promoted in the U.S. itself, would be so fiercely challenged in the international arena if not for the purpose of capturing the world market in low-cost fast foods?

How is it possible to argue "personal responsibility" in a world where poor people have little possibility of choice in the foods they eat and the rest of us are equally captive to the sugar content in every can of processed food?

How is it possible to argue for the U.S. obligation to provide military "protection " of peoples we decide need to be protected and then refuse to protect them from the food they get when we are the ones producing it?

How is it that we did not learn a lesson from the tobacco industry whose high-paid lobbyists and election contributions earned them the right to block all attempts to control tobacco for years on the grounds, too, that the science on which the reports were made was specious? By the time we mustered enough national conscience to control the sale and use of a substance we knew was killing people, far too many had already died from the effects of them.

From where I stand, that's too great a price to pay to keep the world safe for bad business practices.

The determination whether or not to accept the U.S. arguments and scuttle WHO's recommendations to curtail the use of sugar products will be made at the meeting of WHO in May. I'm happy to report that I won't be in Europe then. It's too embarrassing to see what has always been the just image of the country exposed as just one more cheap illusion.

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