The Reagan Cheeseburger

August 27, 2015

I was never one for fad diets, ones with trendy names I loathe those based on bad and fleeting science. I flirted with “healthy” food in fits and spurts over the years though which gradually entered my typical grocery shopping list and daily diet. Then, several weeks ago I made the biggest and most concerted changes to my diet than ever before.

I get an annual physical. A couple years back the doc noted I should watch my BP—it wasn’t an issue yet, but I should keep an eye on it to make sure it did not become one. I thought nothing of it. Earlier this year I had my physical and my new doc said though everything else was solid, my BP was too high and my cholesterol was ticking up—not high yet, but worth addressing. I once again ignored it but agreed to come back in a few months to follow up–at which point, being that I had not made any changes, things were still too high and she said to avoid medication, which she thought I should do my best to do at my age, I should immediately begin a healthy “DASH” diet and increase my exercise.

For many years I had strenuous jobs that kept me on my feet running around all day. I stayed fit without trying though I stayed stressed and angry which began a slow uptick of BP.  But I have worked 90% of my hours in the past year from a desk and my 3 times a week on a stationary bike simply wasn’t cutting it. So, I began committing a minimum of 45 minutes a day 6 days a week to exercise. I also did two major things with my diet which immediately began to feed off of each other for the better—I drastically increased the number of fresh fruits and vegetables I eat in a day and I began eyeing the label on everything I bought to check for salt, saturated fat and cholesterol numbers—which in turn made me opt for fresh rather than processed and packaged options almost every time. I learned several vegetarian recipes that not only suffice but taste better than many of my meat recipes. I began eating whole unprocessed unsalted nuts and omega rich fish, small scoops of almond butter, oats and grains but less packaged bread. I began grazing through the day and eating smaller portions in my sit down meals. I stopped eating processed meats and though I will likely opt for an occasional steak or burger again soon enough, I cut out red meat for the time being.  I scaled my coffee back to a rational level and though I love a glass of wine, a craft beer or a tumbler of scotch I also began notching those units and skipping them a few days a week.

At this point I know most readers are like—who cares? And what does this have to do with anything least of all Reagan?

Well, my diet has done a few things. One, it quickly shed 10 pounds of fat from me and cut my BP numbers way down to good healthy numbers. Two, it doesn’t feel like a “diet”. It feels natural. I like what I eat and I’ve learned new foods that I enjoy whether it’s a vegetable ratatouille, mushroom risotto, roasted almond kale salad or an egg white omelet loaded with vegetables. But more than that I enjoy basic, simple fruits—blueberries, peaches, apples I enjoy carrots and tomatoes. They taste better than they used to. I haven’t had a greasy bag of chips in months and I had those almost every day for far too many years. Here’s what I, like many before me, quickly learned.

When you give yourself real food, real things taste better and it clicks that this is what you are meant to eat, what you are meant to feel like after a meal. Conversely, fake shit just tastes fake to put it bluntly. It’s funny but you know how if you drink enough fizzy sugary carbonated cola water simply tastes wrong because it’s clean, clear and doesn’t burn going down? I remember as a store manager—and even when I ate like crap and drank too much as a college student I chugged water throughout the day because running around as a retail manager one must be hydrated or miserable—but my younger employees would far too often complain that “water tastes bad I need something that burns my throat” when no soda was available for their consumption. See, if you eat the fake shit long enough you get used to the fake shit. It’s comfortable. It’s what you know, what you resort to at every convenience. It takes no effort. In its own way it’s comforting because it’s high sugar high fat high salt—it hits all your pleasure spots in a quick blast and then you feel like shit but in a few hours you can do it again. A fast food or prepackaged junk food diet is very similar to a drug habit.
As a nation we have a junk food diet relationship with politics too. Reagan was our cheeseburger. Trump is shaping up to be our Hardee’s  obscene extreme burger with fried eggs and 4 patties.
I’ll back up for a minute.

I think to fully understand American politics in the twentieth century one must deal with both Roosevelts’, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton. But I think to quickly look at where we are right here right now in the political landscape of America 2015 we need compare only Carter and Reagan. Carter was the healthy kale salad that America found ourselves with after years of eating only bad airline meatloaf. He was the healthy, balanced, right choice but he had only 4 years (or less in public opinion) to change the tastes of the populace to want what was best, what was healthy for them in leadership , governance and foreign relations. Americans, by and large, quickly responded by dumping the salad and opting for a greasy cheeseburger in the form of Ronald Reagan.

Where Carter was devoted to peace, diplomacy and safeguarding the disbursement of weapons from warring nations Reagan was most often the opposite in all matters. Where Carter was cognizant of the looming energy crisis (even installing solar panels on the WH) Reagan doubled down on fossil fuels and short term solutions. Carter urged restraint, patience and community—Reagan ushered in an era of corporate greed, unchecked consumption and unregulated industry. Reagan was America’s cheeseburger—instantly gratifying (at least if you weren’t poor, gay or a minority). He did not ask you to sacrifice in the short term for the long term gain—he was full throttle ahead for making and consuming as much as possible and damn the consequences. It was what America knew and hell, even if it was bad for us we could just repeat the process again…and again…until the market collapses, the environment dies and the wheels come off. Those who were already wealthy or on the cusp of being able to be wealthy (particularly if they were of the “right” demographics) embraced Reagan as the solution to Carter. He allowed them to unleash their most basic impulses, to capitalize and flourish in business at the expense of those who worked under them and at the expense of the country and environment as a whole.

The modern perils we face—global warming, economic policies, healthcare, wage disparity and the global landscape particularly the situations throughout the Middle East—were typified in the disparate competing goals, perspectives and actions of Carter and Reagan. Every conservative President or candidate since Reagan has aspired to his example, most often even pushing far to his right. We have seen a few candidates but few successors to Carter’s legacy though we caught glimpses of it in some of Clinton’s actions and have increasingly witnessed it (except, unfortunately, in many military actions) in Obama’s presidency but now we see its fullest potential in candidate Bernie Sanders. And here’s the catcher—there is an entire generation of people who have grown up at least knowing that the fake shit is bad for you. They know the real thing is so much better. The question is—will they outnumber the fearful loud crowd who wants to say screw it and head to Hardee’s for a sack full of thick burgers via the Trump route?

I know myself that one of these days, likely in the next few months I’ll take a hiatus on my diet and head to Red Robin to celebrate something. At which point I’m having the biggest burger covered in bacon, cheese eggs and hot sauce, a plate of fries and one of those whiskey bacon milkshakes. I’ll walk out of that place a bit happy but a bit crappy feeling. I’ll go back to my diet. The problem with America taking the Trump route is that we would be forgoing our diet for a minimum of 4 years and I don’t know how long it would take us (and the world because of us) to recover from the catastrophic damage of four years of sustained over-consumption of fake shit.
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trumpimage

In my posts on character and what makes a “good” person I wrote that no political party or ideology corners the market on good or bad character or “morality”.

That being said, we all know of an American political party that for years has proclaimed to be the bearer of good character and “traditional” morality. The Republican party since the moral majority days of the 1980s have positioned themselves as the moral party. Ironically, their formation by a Christian fundamentalist base (spearheaded by Rev. Jerry Falwell) began by thwarting the reelection of an avowed Bible-reading Christian peace-maker (Carter) to win a victory for a Hollywood secular  pro-business pro-war candidate (Reagan). That’s a story for another day (and covered excellently and in depth in Michael Sean Winter’s “God’s Right Hand”)

Whatever loose claims the GOP have left to morality and character are severed with the emergence of Donald Trump. There is nothing moral, ethical or of “good character” in Trump. Those that champion him as a “truth teller” must think xenophobia, casual sexism, unabashed greed and unchecked ignorance is “truth”.

He may very well have a chance. That is the scariest part of the equation–a candidate who stands for nothing but his own crass self-promotion may be ushered into office to wreak havoc simply because he’s loud and shares the fears and worst impulses of our nation. With his consistent place at the top of the polls Trump signifies something alright–if not the death of the Republican party as some have forecast then certainly the final severance between any semblance of “morality” and the Republican party.

There’s this interesting article written by a doctor (“The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking is Healthy”) which compiles research and experiential data from around the world as well as statistics. He points out that in countries where more people drink, more people drink regularly, and often even where more people drink heavily there are paradoxically fewer accidents, illnesses, deaths and social ills related to alcohol abuse. In fact, people tend to live longer in cultures where drinking (of any kind: wine, beer or liquor) is ingrained into a social, casual atmosphere. Mr. Peele of course acknowledges the genuine threat of alcoholism and stresses that for those who can’t control their drinking–and that such folks exhibit non-subtle behavior–should indeed avoid alcohol. But Peele stresses that even here in the US, divorced from those dangerous behaviors and pathology, regular drinking even above the designated limits provides more positive health benefits than negative consequences and he even points to alcohol abstinence as a probable (and avoidable) risk factor for heart disease.

Conversely, this week the BBC published a story (then picked up by US News and World Report, etc) a with the trigger headline that there is a “Cancer risk ‘even from light drinking'”. If you read the first paragraph beyond the story, however, they quickly narrow the focus to the correlation between alcohol use and breast cancer in many women. They then state all in all,  the risk is “very low” for those that consume within the “designated limits” however. Later they mention that those limits are currently under review so we should stay tuned for updates. You can read the actual abstract complete with all numbers and details here which most news-stories fail to fully summarize. Basically, as I understand it, the actual data shows that drinking even within the suggested range for women can slightly raise the chance of developing breast cancer and that drinking even within the suggested range for men who have smoked in the past (but not significantly for men who have never smoked) slightly raises the chance of certain cancers (colorectal, prostrate). The headlines I’ve seen don’t particularly convey that nuance, however. Nor do the blanket statements made by some of the spokespersons quoted by the media on the story. The variables are so complex as well as causation can’t be established only association which at such a low link percentage is hard to completely elaborate. Many of the stories also get bogged down on the “red wine’ factor (which the first piece I linked completely debunks proving it was never about resveratrol but the alcohol itself as the benefit).

I find these stories fascinating for several reasons. Primarily I find them interesting for their use of data and their varying (often in a quite bipolar manner) interpretation of data. A new story emerges every month or two about the good or bad affects of alcohol. This ties into my recent exploration of facts, logic and context– I believe we live in a time when people “double down” on hyperbole and erroneous claims when cornered rather than admit wrong. I believe most of our current “hot button” issues could theoretically be calmly discussed and resolved using facts in context but I think that despite the wealth of information at our finger-tips we all far too often cherry-pick “facts” to suit preformed conclusions.

These alcohol studies give me pause as  I try to fit them into the conversation or at least use them as an example of the situation we find ourselves in. I wrote a blog several years ago about two conflicting alcohol use pieces–one of which is very similar to the “new” BBC piece and another that boldly proclaimed that “heavy drinkers outlive abstainers”. I read a lot of science these days, and as someone who didn’t appreciate or study science seriously until my adulthood I am playing catch up quite often but I like to think when presented with good information I am capable of comprehending most issues. When it comes to some issues, particularly if they’re in an interest area or hobby of mine I research a bit in depth just out of sheer curiosity. For example, I enjoy a cigar or two most months (though rarely in the winter). I am talking about real, hand-rolled non-additive all organic cigars not factory rolled additive laced “cigars”. I realize that tobacco consumption is not innocuous but I also know that when pipes or cigars are smoked as intended–not inhaled and not daily–they statistically pose very little risk and in some research even promote positive benefits. I also know that within my usage range my insurance providers classify me (for all intents and purposes) as a “non smoker”. I also know that a less-than-25-a-year cigar smoker often finds himself in a bracket where a lot of odd conversations and explanations have to come out because if you like me try to be honest and disclose the fact (on say a life insurance policy or to an English as a second language nurse or doctor) you have to elaborate for quite some time (and often provide blood) to not be lumped in with the 2-pack a day cigarette smokers. I mention all of this to point out that I get why this is even if I dislike it–certain forces declared war (with good reason) on the tobacco industry for a laundry list of abuses and health concerns. Couple that with the fact that most people who check off that they only smoke cigars on medical surveys in fact smoke a pack a day of factory produced additive laced “cigarillos” while inhaling and I get why neither the government or the health care industry is going out of their way to understand the varying degrees and contexts of “tobacco use”. But with alcohol almost all people in the industrialized world still use alcohol in some form or other on a somewhat regular basis. Who is aligned on what side of the alcohol impact studies and to what agenda? I’d like to think the doctor’s in all of these studies are first and foremost concerned with public health. Most probably are. If alcohol poses a risk to people even in light use then we all should be aware of that and weigh the cost-benefit of our quality of life vs potential impact on our length of life vis-a-vis alcohol consumption. But there are a lot of factors that go into play on this issue–factors not always made clear in the headlines (which are all that many people read and share). Does moderate alcohol consumption positively affect heart health but slightly increase the chance of developing breast cancer? Well, which runs in your family (if this is an issue) and what other controllable risk factors do you face? Who funds these studies and pays for ads in these stories? Are their any agendas beyond difference of opinion and competing interpretations of facts? Many have claimed so and many others have claimed those seeking hidden agendas are simply conspiracy nuts or those who want to cling to their vices by any means necessary. Obviously health is a total package–I know I exercise, eat certain foods, don’t eat other certain foods because of my health and what I believe those factors will affect. I also know I have vices or lazy traits that off-set some of the good I try to do. It’s a balancing act of trade offs as everything in life is–and none of these do and don’t psychical and diet choices can curb or prevent a shortening of life by accident, random violence, genetics or circumstance. My position in discussing this here is really not even about the issues themselves but more about how facts and data are employed and used so differently and to question what that reason might be? How can such a plethora of data and often the same studies prompt such disparate conclusions?

Some things are clear cut when data is consulted—the overwhelming majority of scientists point to the  large amount of data conclusively linking human action and fossil fuel usage to climate change. With medical research, sometimes the signifiers are just as clear and sometimes they are not. For this recent 30 year study it appears the data shows a slight (almost insignificant) increase in cancer risk for non-smoking males, a slight (and slightly larger) risk for smoking or ex-smoking males, and a slight but noticeable risk for women who drink of developing breast cancer (particularly if there is a family history). I just find the way that this information is disseminated intriguing, as well as the way it is digested and the way it is applied (or ignored). I also find it interesting when concurrent studies produce different results. All in all this, combined with a recent debate I had over issues less data driven and far more political give me pause in my hope that facts alone can settle every issue–because interpretation of facts is never as straightforward as one would think.

“Some people go to church so that they can love God instead of their neighbor.”

I’ve seen the above quote floating around lately and to the best of my knowledge Michael Eric Dyson accredits it to his late mentor the Rev. Dr. James Washington.  Dyson employs the quote when discussing those who are sanctimonious or religious but who oppose policies and actions that would benefit their fellow humans. In relation to my recent article about character and what makes a “good” person I’ve been thinking about quotes like that and polls like those that show the large number of Americans who would refuse to vote for a presidential candidate who identifies as an atheist. Though that number has changed remarkably in the past 100 years, there are still at least 40 % of people who who exclude any candidate on that basis alone. The reason is simply because many still equate “morality” with theism and/or religiosity. But there are also those, like Rev. Washington and Dr. Dyson allude to, that use their religion in such a way that is sometimes the cause of immorality rather than morality. More extreme examples are certainly prevalent as well (Isis, Westboro Baptist).

So what I want to do here is take a few key theistic concepts that many people still believe are intrinsic to morality and being a good person. Let’s turn them on their heads and explore them in terms of good character. I am not saying this is the way it is in a preaching manner–I am saying, assume that a key western theistic concept is not as you may believe it to be long enough to see if morality is possible nonetheless–in the (even if just temporarily imagined) “absence of God”.

Forgiveness-
Many monotheist Christians, Jews and Muslims around the world appeal to God for forgiveness on a daily basis for wrongs against God and neighbor. Now, obviously many also try to make their sin right with their neighbor as well but what if there is no “third party” deity to forgive you when you commit a wrong act?

If you can’t seek forgiveness from a third party (God) then the only way to seek forgiveness is by direct appeal to the person you have wronged. Regarding personal failures–if it’s something you’ve done that is unethical or wrong–why is it wrong? If it is harmful to you or your world and you wish to correct it or atone for it the only way you can proceed in the absence of God is by making it right–quitting, stopping or otherwise correcting the failure and trying to live in the way you seek to. Forgiveness “in the absence of God” (whether real or imagined) could only be obtained by directly seeking it from the wronged party (if the sin was against neighbor) or by ceasing the action that is physically, emotionally or otherwise bothering you as an individual and moving on without it, i.e. “forgiving yourself”.

Prayer-

If there is no Deity listening to your prayers then the only way you can try to make something happen is by acting. So prayers that God will intercede in the world, your life or the “natural” order of things are fruitless–unless speaking, thinking or contemplating on those ills in the world or your life in prayer help to solve a problem by coalescing a thought and plan of action and/or by spurring you as an acting agent to do what you can to address that problem you are praying about. Many other styles of traditional prayer could in theory be quite applicable even in the “absence of God”–centering prayers, meditations that calm the mind and body, communal conversational prayers of gratitude, celebration or consoling prayers of lamentation. All such prayers could in theory work just as intended even in the real or imagined absence of God for some people, people for whom prayer is ingrained and inescapable or for people simply suited for prayer so to speak. Yet morality would certainly still be possible for one who simply does not pray–if one is not conditioned to or of the habit of praying or meditating and also does not believe in a higher power then the act of praying would seem completely foreign and would be doubtful of producing many positive results. But such a person can still gather with a community to voice gratitude and share in celebration, speak collectively to address an injustice, etc. Yet ultimately such a person would be left with the constant knowledge that action requires an actor and thus must incur that responsibility if they want to change anything.

Afterlife-

If what we see is what we get and there is nothing after death, then we only have this life to enjoy and/or suffer through. That means “heaven” and “hell” are both in this present world if they exist at all. Can a person be moral if they believe death is the final stop? Certainly–and many Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders have stressed that the most moral among them live as if this is so with no hope for reward or fear of punishment. If life is it then life matters all the more and we must make the most of each day. If life is it then those who suffer now will not be rewarded later–so we should be even more rushed to assuage their suffering right here right now. In fact, so many of the virtues and commandments people associate with theism function perfectly from a “no afterlife” belief system–service for the poor and sick, leaving the world better than you found it, raising children mindfully, etc. Plus enjoying life and being thankful for the good and beauty you are able to find right here right now not only function with this belief comfortably but some might argue easier.

So is morality possible in the (real or imagined) “absence of God” ? I cannot think of any way in which it isn’t possible. Certainly nihilism is a possible route an atheist can take but there are religious forms of nihilism as well–living with “one foot in the afterlife”, discounting the joys and sufferings of this world in patience for the next, accepting the tragedies around the world as “God’s will” and all sorts of extremist shades. As I wrote when introducing my “what is a ‘good’ person” piece that sort of kicked off this entire thread, no religion or political ideology corners the market on good or bad character and I believe that includes non-religion. There are “good” and “bad” atheists, constructive and destructive atheists. Religion and theism itself are conducive to both good and evil. So should America be willing to vote for an atheist? I don’t see why not as belief in God seems to have little bearing on good or bad behavior as an independent factor and belief (or disbelief) in God is not a factor in the American form of government.

good

I’ve had reason to think about “character” lately. What distinguishes good character? What must a good leader or simply a “good person” possess to be counted as such? In fact, what is the purpose for choosing to possess those qualities and could some motivations for doing so discount those very qualities?

Should everyone “be a good person”? That may sound odd,  but seriously–could we live in a world where everyone was “good” ? Lacking the feasibility of that actually happening over night, are there dangers in living as a “good person” when those around you might not be so inclined? With political season upon us should we expect our leaders or those we vote for to be “good people” and will that lead to a better country, society and world?

Consider this piece a preamble to further dissections later–I will not attempt to  answer to all of these questions yet but I plan to come back to them in future tie-in posts. I’m simply going to start here by listing qualities I consider essential traits an ethical, moral “good” person possesses.

A first point needs to be made–no religion or political ideology corners the market on good or bad character.

* A good person is aware of their impact on others and strives to make that impact positive.

Simply put, a person of character is aware their words and actions affect those around them and so does what they can to speak and act in a way most beneficial to the rest of the world.*  A good person chooses their words wisely. This does not mean they only say “nice” things–nice things don’t always get the job done, they don’t always convey the truth nor do they always lead to the right actions. No, a good person chooses to speak in a way that expresses what needs to be said in the place it needs to be said and addressed to the people it needs to be. Conversely, a good person knows when to be silent–when not to express things that while possibly true will do more harm than good when expressed  to a particular person or in a particular place. A good person chooses to act in a way that does not harm others and when possible improves the lives of others. This means personal choices are important when they impact the lives of those around you. A good person thinks of the impact their decision will make on the rest of the world beyond just their own situation and this includes how a person votes.
*
A good person admits when they are wrong and moves forward.
This includes acting or speaking in a way that does harm to others but it also includes when a person is factually wrong–if a person teaches, shares or proclaims something that isn’t true upon learning it isn’t true they correct themselves. We live in a time when people “double down” on their hyperbole and nonfactual statements. This is not what a good person does, especially if the issue at hand affects the health and well-being of others or the world at large. This is also important when statements are character attacks on others–it’s one thing to “speak truth to power” which is important and the action of a person of good character. But if someone speaks ill of someone else, even if that person is in power and the basis of the claim against that person is untrue that is not a mark of good character.

*A good person speaks truth to the best of their ability.
Related to the above point, a good person does not intentionally spread false information–period. A good person does not insist on believing things they know are untrue. A good person does their best to understand the facts of any given issue or situation, places those facts in context as best as possible, and acts upon that truth they ascertain.

*A good person opposes violence.
Not in a moralistically simplistic way that conflates art with reality. You may hate all the “violent video games” you want but if you choose the “military option” every time as a first recourse you do not abhor violence. Art and Entertainment may help channel and exorcise in catharsis the violent traits embedded in humanity but actual violence–using arms against your neighbor, supporting war automatically when there’s still time for peace–is the root of all ills. There are hundreds of issues you can tie to this principle but as a general rule I suggest that at its most basic this means when there is a viable choice between war and peace a good person chooses peace–even more, a good person actively works for peace and against war. This also means that a good person does what they can to reduce the amount of violence in the world. This means alleviating the symptoms which cause violence and doing all that one can in daily life to make peace the easier choice for everyone reserving war and violence as the last resort always recognizing it as evil (even if at times a necessary evil).

* A good person is aware of their own biases
A good person recognizes when they are not truly objective and does their best to not let that affect their decision when it would be unwarranted. Many people based on selective experience or memory develop a predisposition for or against entire groups of people (races, religions, genders, social classes, rural vs. urban, etc.). Not just that, many people have a predisposition to prefer certain styles, characteristics and backgrounds. Regardless, a good person tries their best to become aware of the biases they have–to work against them or at least negate them when making decisions that might be affected by them.


*A good person is authentic.
A good person is who they are–they may love what they love, be proud of things they have a right to be proud of and perfectly inhabit their own identity–but they do not expect everyone else to share every one of their details to also be worthwhile. A good person does not shift those core principles, details and characteristics to merge into each and every group they encounter. As stated above, they may know when it is best to keep silent but they do not adopt a persona, view or characteristic contrary to their own identity just to fit into a different group much less as a means of furthering their career or position

These certainly aren’t the only good character traits but they’re some of the most solid universal ones I can verbalize at the moment. I welcome your additions (or dissent) in the comments below. I should add that I have my doubts that there are very many completely “good” or “bad” people, just people who exhibit good character traits more or less often than others. There are exceptions to this rule, but most often character is fluid and it takes time before someone consistently exhibits all of these traits.

Notes

  • * This sounds straightforward enough but it is not and thus dozens of ethics systems and books arguing for or against those systems have proliferated out of guiding principals similar to this. That’s because doing something that is good for one person might be bad for someone else. Furthermore, doing something you think is good for a person may in fact not be so should we judge the action on the intent or the result? We’ll leave most of those debates off the table at the moment