Ever since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance on May 13 of this year that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear masks in most indoor settings, while unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks, a magical thing has happened in this country, and that is the huge increase in vaccination rates everywhere, as evidenced by how few people are still wearing masks indoors in any setting. Before May 13, the fully vaccinated percentage of the population stood at about 35 percent; after May 13, it appears that percentage leapt to upwards of 70 percent. Incredible! Herd immunity achieved overnight!
A sign regarding mask policy at a Walmart in Chantilly, Virginia, on May 20, 2021, shortly after the CDC issued new guidelines. Note how the wording does not require unvaccinated customers to wear a mask as a condition of entering the store. Photo by Famartin.
It’s heartening to look around at fellow citizens in shops, grocery stores, and restaurants and assess by an eyeball estimate that even more than 70 percent of adults appear to be fully vaccinated. In some places around the country, the number of fully vaccinated adults could even be as high as 90 percent, based on visual estimates. What’s holding the vaccination numbers back for the total population is the lack of a vaccine suitable for children under 12. In some shops, young children are almost the only ones wearing masks.
The CDC has statistics putting the nationwide percentage of fully vaccinated people at about 50 percent as of late July. Fake news! Anyone can waltz into their local big box store, where signs at the entrance clearly advise unvaccinated customers to don masks before entering, and see with their own eyes that the CDC’s numbers don’t tell the whole story. The CDC must be gathering data from people outside of stores, or even from ones who never set foot indoors at a public venue. Since the CDC is obviously part of the Deep State, their numbers are not to be trusted by honest Americans.
It’s the honor system in operation, see, and since Americans are honorable people, they would never falsely represent their vaccination status in order to satisfy their own selfish whims and perverse ideas, not when behaving that way could endanger their fellow Americans, among them the honestly unvaccinated, such as young children and those who are immunocompromised. No, when it comes to weighing the evidence of one’s eyes and belief in the honorability of fellow Americans against the statistical mumbo jumbo disseminated by a cabal of Deep State scientists at the CDC, the scales definitely tilt toward siding with all the American patriots cruising maskless down the aisles of Walmart and Costco.
Supermarket social distancing signs in Ireland in August 2020. Follow the blue sign floor tiles! Photo by Ear-phone.
According to the CDC, as of July 25, 2021 the percentage of Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 was 49.1 percent. That’s an increase of only about 14 percent since May 13, 2021. Herd immunity won’t be reached until the percentage of fully vaccinated is over 70 percent. Considering how vaccination rates have been slowing, it’s unlikely Americans will achieve herd immunity before the onset of cold weather forces more activities back indoors for the winter.
Judy Garland as Dorothy in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, directed by Victor Fleming. In Kansas, the state Dorothy called home, the COVID-19 vaccination rate is 44.9 percent, 4.2 percentage points below the national average. In a land of alternative facts somewhere over the rainbow, the vaccination rate is much higher – away above the chimney tops, in fact.
It may be that a vaccination rate of about 65 percent will be a limit past which we cannot move due to the political and cultural divisions in the country, as honorable American snowflakes dig in their heels like recalcitrant children and refuse to become socialist tools by doing the right thing for others, even passing up bribes from state and local governments. They may kill themselves for the puerile satisfaction of owning the libs, and so be it, but in the meantime they will serve as incubators for new, possibly more dangerous coronavirus variants, and they will spread their affliction to everyone else, even within the magical realm past shop doors.
Schools around the country have either started the fall semester or are about to, some opening their buildings to students and others not, and everywhere there is confusion and apprehension about the changed circumstances due to coping with the coronavirus. Will students, especially the very young ones, be able to maintain their concentration when learning remotely? If they attend classes in person, will they endanger themselves and everyone in school as well as at home because of failure to maintain the new disciplines of social distancing, mask wearing, and frequent, conscientious sanitation?
Back in 1918 and 1919 during the worldwide outbreak of the Spanish Flu, remote learning meant home schooling. Social distancing was barely understood, and other measures to contain the deadly flu were haphazardly implemented from locality to locality. Where city-wide rules went into effect, such as in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where officials closed the schools and banned some public gatherings (notably excepting saloons), the contagion’s effects were limited in comparison to places like Boston, Massachusetts, where public life went on much as before.
Rosana Martinelli, mayor of Sinop, a city in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, meets with schoolchildren in May 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic gripped that country. Photo provided by Rosana Martinelli.
Schoolchildren, however, are a special case, then as now. Besides having a limited understanding of what’s at stake and the measures necessary to protect everyone from the coronavirus, many are incapable of respecting boundaries. Children, the younger ones particularly, by nature lack social control. For proper development, children need social contact of all kinds, whether that means actual touching or merely being in the presence of other children and adults. Can children, especially the very young, be expected to sit still and apart from each other for six hours or more every day, never getting close enough to play and roughhouse with each other?
The experiment of returning children en masse to in-person learning from teachers in school buildings is bound to fail. The primary reason for trying it out is to mollify those right wing supporters of the current president who are clamoring loudly for schools to reopen for a number of reasons, but mostly to do with denying the reality of the pandemic while somehow boosting their cult leader’s chances of reelection in November. The experiment will fail before November, and the school boards responsible for catering to right wing extremists can then say that they tried. Meanwhile, thousands of people will fall ill unnecessarily and some will die, sacrificed to the experiment.
An episode ofPocoyocalled “Don’t Touch!” wherein Pocoyo, a very young boy, tries and fails to restrain himself from touching, demonstrating a lack of self-control natural to small children. Narration is by Stephen Fry.
There are other people, surely, with reasons for wanting the schools opened for in-person attendance. Working class families, for instance, many with only a single parent, have managed with great difficulty the extra burden of their children staying home more than usual. Those are the people most in need of assistance now, both financially and by having school districts reach out to them with help in keeping their children safe at home and learning. Family circumstances have changed in the century since the Spanish Flu outbreak, when it was more likely that one parent would be home during the day.
It would not serve today’s parents well to have their children exposed to risk at school, where they might easily pick up the coronavirus from classmates and then bring it home to their families. Working class parents already expose themselves to risk because they cannot afford to quarantine at home, but most go out in public to work, many of them in low-paid service economy jobs with few, if any, health benefits. Keep the kids at home for now, where being out of touch during a pandemic can be a good thing.
“Where words fail, music speaks.” — Hans Christian Andersen
Binding of a Divan of Hafiz, from April 5, 1842 in Iran. Original lacquer “gul-u-bulbul” (flower-nightingale) motif with gold, red, and black decorative frame. The metaphorical relationship of the nightingale (active lover) and flower (passive beloved), frequently used in Persian poetry, especially by Hafiz, serves as an appropriate theme for the binding covering this manuscript.
The French musician and composer Camille Saint-Saëns wrote incidental music in 1901 for a play called Parysatis, based on a novel by the French archaeologist and explorer, Jane Dieulafoy. The play, about an ancient Persian queen and produced in 1902 for a summer festival in the southern French town of Béziers, has not stood the test of time as well as Saint-Saëns’s music.
“Le Rossignol et La Rose” is a musical piece for wordless voice in Act II. The title in English is “The Nightingale and The Rose”, and refers to Persian symbolism around love. There is a peculiar 1888 short story by Oscar Wilde titled “The Nightingale and The Rose” which is unrelated to music for the play Parysatis or to the play itself. Wilde wrote his story ostensibly for children, but its deeper themes are really beyond their understanding. Reading Wilde’s story is nonetheless instructive about love because of how he frames respect as an integral part of love.
Natalie Dessay sings “Le Rossignol et La Rose”, by Camille Saint-Saëns. Is the song sorrowful? Joyful? That probably depends on the mood of the listener. The pacing lends an air of melancholic contemplation. The song contains within it, in other words, the varied emotions of love itself. Incidentally, Ms. Dessay has sung the lead role in Igor Stravinsky’s 1914 opera Le Rossignol (The Nightingale), notably for a trippy French film adaptation in 2005 which aired on American public television. Stravinsky based his opera on an 1843 story by Hans Christian Andersen.
Without respect there is little in love beyond shallow self-interest and the words spoken sound out hollowly, like an echo. Giving respect to another is as essential as giving love, indeed is at the heart of love. Where there is little or no respect, there is little or no love, no matter the words uttered. Respect is demonstrated, is shown to another as well as to oneself. Understanding and remembering this is crucial if love is to deepen and widen beyond the initial merging of two souls, where the two converge to form a third part all its own, its own world composed of and known only to the two lovers, like two circles partially overlapping. With respect comes trust, and with trust comes the will to acknowledge fears and the courage to not run away. And then there is music, bringing love ’round full circle by singing directly to the heart and soothing fears.
— Vita “Music fills the infinite between two souls.” — Rabindranath Tagore
A doctor made it his regular habit to stop off at a bar for a hazelnut daiquiri on his way home. The bartender knew the doctor’s habit and would always have a drink waiting. But one day the bartender ran out of hazelnut extract, so he substituted hickory nuts. When the doctor arrived, he took a sip and exclaimed, “This isn’t a hazelnut daiquiri!”
“No, I’m sorry,” the bartender replied. “It’s a hickory daiquiri, Doc.”
A Lifebuoy Soap advertisement that appeared in a 1902 edition of the periodical Animal Life and the World of Nature: A Magazine of Natural History.
No one with any amount of sense can possibly take seriously the quack nostrums for coronavirus floated by the Snake Oil Salesman-in-Chief at the propaganda rallies and petty grievance sessions otherwise known as his press conferences. And it’s difficult to feel sympathy for those of his cult followers foolish enough to swallow his advice along with his every word, as mean-spirited and spiteful as are the words spewed and the behaviors exhibited by many of them. The ones who deserve our sympathy when they gullibly believe the irresponsible suggestions made by Clueless Leader are the naive, the innocent, and the truly stupid.
Who could have imagined a time when the national leader of this country would behave so irresponsibly that children and the mentally incompetent members of the populace should be shielded from him lest they act upon his remarks and harm themselves, and possibly others. It’s not just his medically unqualified suggestions for attacking the coronavirus that can lead people astray, but things he has said in the past encouraging violence and continues to say to this day. He is a threat to public health and well-being on many fronts.
There is a long history of quacks and snake oil salesmen having their moments of holding a portion of the public within their spell, and that will surely continue because enough people are willing to believe almost anything, and to back up their beliefs with their money. To have such nonsense emanating from the leader of a wealthy, powerful nation, however, is dangerous and disheartening, even sickening. Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil may be morons, and they are certainly capable of giving bad medical advice in the interest of bettering their television audience ratings and swelling their pocketbooks and egos, but neither of them is capable of swaying a significant minority of the populace to hit the streets in an armed insurrection, or to swallow or inject poisons. That kind of influence has always been exercised by cult leaders, and not by mere quacks or by responsible national leaders.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) performs many well-meaning services, and among them is listing on their website the houseplants that are toxic to dogs and cats who may chew on or ingest them. It’s alarming to read just how many houseplants can be dangerous to pets, and of course to small children as well, who similarly are drawn to taste testing unfamiliar plants. Reading the list, one comes to the conclusion that the only truly safe solution lies in ridding the household of plants entirely.
The photographer’s cat, Emmy, sits among houseplants. Photo by Wikimedia user Mattes.
Closer examination of the information available on the ASPCA website and elsewhere reveals that such drastic measures are unnecessary. Houseplants (as their very name implies) have coexisted with adult humans, their pets, and even small children for centuries without calamity. Two factors account for the relatively peaceful, if not entirely harmonious, relationship of flora and fauna under one roof.
One factor is the mostly small amount of toxicity present in almost any plant you care to name, and the other is the common sense tendency of most creatures to cease nibbling on a plant that tastes unpleasant before ingesting a poisonous quantity. Plants manufacture toxins because they are a defense against nibbling animals. A toxin is not deadly in small amounts, while a poison is deadly in any amount. Production of poisons uses up more of a plants’ resources than production of toxins, and therefore plants have generally evolved to ward off nibbling creatures with unpleasant toxins rather than deadly poisons.
This explanation is an oversimplification of the state of affairs, but suffice it to say that if the situation were otherwise, unfortunate humans and animals would be dropping dead to the point of depopulating the planet. They are not. Toxins of some kind are present in most plants, indoors and out, but they exist as a warning to animals not to eat too much of the plant, and thus destroy the plant’s ability to make a living. On the scale of toxic household chemicals, houseplants overall probably weigh in favor of improving the health of people and pets since many of them do valuable service in cleaning the air. Still, no one can fault people for exercising caution when their children or animal friends are at risk, but only for acting heedlessly in reaction to insufficient information.
“You, who are on the road, Must have a code That you can live by. And so become yourself Because the past is just a goodbye.”
— Opening lyrics of “Teach Your Children”, written by Graham Nash.
Organizers of Woodstock 50 have canceled the event scheduled for this weekend that was intended to commemorate the 1969 concert on a scale commensurate with the original. There were mounting difficulties in putting together the 2019 concert, and at the end of July the organizers threw in the towel. Instead there are small scale events scheduled for the weekend that have been organized by the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts near the site of the 1969 concert, and there are also some informal events happening at the original site.
It’s just as well Woodstock 50 fell through the cracks, because these continuing reboots of past successes have become tiresome and shallow scavenging for meaning grafted Frankenstein-like onto the present, as if clinging to the past would revive only the good times. For the promoters of such events and movies and television shows like them, there is profit to be made borrowing on memories. And since people continue paying for these popular culture revivals, there is no reason for promoters and Hollywood producers to stop digging up old things, slapping a modern sheen on them, and charging admission to the public for the dubious enjoyment of reliving the old days.
A protester holds up a sign at the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington, D.C., in March 2018. Photo by Flickr user Lorie Shaull.
Let the past be past. “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). Let the past be its own thing. For the important things that face everyone today and in the future, it appears children are taking the lead, while adults around them are either in denial or slogging along, many of them disheartened and looking in the wrong directions for answers. In the last couple of years, youngsters have marched in protest against legislators who drag their feet in addressing gun violence, and have struck from school and marched in protest against legislators’ unwillingness to effectively tackle climate change.
Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg is now on a sailboat crossing the Atlantic Ocean in order to attend the United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York City next month. She started striking from her school in Sweden last August, founding the Youth Strike for Climate movement, and she has attracted so much attention to the cause since then that earlier this year three Norwegian parliament members nominated her for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. If she wins, she would join 2014 winner Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan as the second teenage activist to win the Prize.
Greta Thunberg with her sign outside the Swedish parliament building in August 2018. The sign reads “School Strike for Climate”. Photo by Anders Hellberg.
More importantly, she will gain international validation for the cause, an essential step in repudiating and ultimately sidelining the hateful antagonism of skeevy jackasses such as British businessman Arron Banks, who tweeted to Ms. Thunberg as she set off on her Atlantic cruise “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August.” He later claimed his vile suggestion was “a joke.” Ha ha. It was a joke like the 2016 campaign trail hint from the skeevy jackass now occupying the Oval Office was a joke when he floated the idea of “Second Amendment people” assassinating his Democratic Party rival. Ha ha.
Make no mistake about it – when Greta Thunberg arrives in this country, the Oval Office Blowhard will heap scorn, derision, and personal insults on her simply for defying the power of entrenched interests in the fossil fuel industry, and his morally bankrupt cult followers will cheer him on because he will frame his invective as salvos in another battlefront of the culture war against politically correct liberals. Never mind that she is a mere child. Never mind that what she has taken upon herself is simply bringing to everyone’s belated attention the scientific fact that our house is on fire and we have to do something about dousing the flames now, not stand around arguing about it as the fire engulfs us. For bearing that unwelcome news, they will heap abuse upon her, and not reflect for even a moment on what they are teaching the children of the world.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performed at Woodstock in 1969, but “Teach Your Children” was not in their set list even though Graham Nash had written the song earlier, while he was still part of the British group, The Hollies. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young included the song on their 1970 album Déjà Vu. Here the San Francisco Community Music Center Children’s Chorus sings the song for Mr. Nash and attendees at a Climate One conference in 2013.
Editor’s note: This post has been delayed one day on account of dismally slow internet service, most likely caused by the service provider’s defective equipment. Thanks, Ajit Pai, Chairman of the FCC, for continuing to safeguard the interests of monopolistic corporations while disregarding those of ordinary citizens!
Waiting through an outbreak of severe weather can be nerve wracking if you’re one of the millions of Americans living in substandard housing. Related to withstanding severe weather events, substandard housing means no basement or a weak foundation, poorly engineered roofing, shoddy workmanship overall, bad drainage around the structure, easily shattered windows, and any number of other problems large and small generally not present in the well built housing of the upper classes. Should something bad happen to a substandard structure due to severe weather, the people living there often do not have the resources to recover from it.
Severe weather affects everyone, rich and poor, but what is usually overlooked is how the poor disproportionately suffer the adverse effects of it both coming and going. To know that should a tornado, a hurricane, a derecho, a hailstorm, ice storm, or flood deal even a glancing blow to the place you live causes many anxious days, first in watching the weather forecast and then during the day or days of the event. There’s personal safety, of course, and the possibility of unaffordable emergency medical attention, and then the possibility of damage to the structure and the unaffordability of repairs, if it is repairable. The last thing any person living in a structure without a safe, reinforced room or basement wants to hear is the freight train roar of an approaching tornado, and to have children to protect must make even imagining such a scenario unbearable.
Hurricane, Bahamas, an 1898 painting by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).
All things are relative, and while comparatively few people in the United States have to exist in notoriously unsafe conditions like those in a Brazilian favela, there are still far too many in this rich country who live a hair’s breadth away from personal and financial disaster, a ruin which can befall them in a few unfortunate moments with the caprice of bad weather. As severe weather outbreaks become more frequent and as the population continues to increase, the possibilities for deaths, injuries, and property damage will also increase, all of which burden poor people more than others (yes, even death, because of the costs to survivors).
In the 1978 BBC television production of dramatist Dennis Potter’sPennies from Heaven, Bob Hoskins as sheet music salesman Arthur Parker encounters a busker called The Accordion Man, played by Kenneth Colley, who in return for Arthur treating him to a meal treats Arthur to a rendition of the song “Pennies from Heaven” (lip synched to a 1937 recording by Arthur Tracy).
Insurance companies’ business model currently has them paying out after disaster strikes (contesting the payout all the way, and digging in their heels where they can), while offering little incentive for builders and developers to proof structures against disaster. Eventually, as expenses incurred by natural disasters mount to insupportable levels, insurance companies will have to come around to a more preventive strategy of offering lower premiums for stronger structures, something easier for them and builders and developers to cooperate on for wealthier homeowners. Where government can step in to protect poor people is to enforce insurance policy standards for their housing, rather than continuing to allow the corruption and slapdash oversight which currently riddles the market. Meantime, as always you’re on your own out there, particularly if you’re not rich, and you have to look out for yourself to stay safe. Good luck.
“Believe we’re gliding down the highway When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.”
— from “Slip Slidin’ Away”, a 1977 song by Paul Simon.
Recently the Virginia House of Delegatesrefused to vote on ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), defeating it perhaps for good. If Virginia had voted in favor of the Amendment, that would have been the 38th and deciding vote among the states, and then the measure would have returned to the United States Congress for reconsideration of whether the time limit for ratification should be extended.
The State Seal of Virginia. On February 21, on the grounds of the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia, two pro-ERA activists posed as the figures depicted in the seal, and one was arrested.
The Equal Rights Amendment is meant to constitutionally protect women’s rights and should be a common sense addition to the country’s legal framework, but anti-abortion activists and those who cling to traditional gender roles have long suspected the amendment would be used as grounds for protecting abortion rights of pregnant women besides guaranteeing women’s rights when they are at odds with men’s long standing privileges, and consequently they have done everything in their power, high and low, to defeat the amendment.
Meanwhile, in an official ceremony for a high school in Wisconsin, female cheerleaders were given “joke” awards for their physical attributes, such as largest breasts or butt, or skinniest body. When some parents and faculty objected to singling out emotionally immature girls this way, the cheerleaders’ coach, Patti Uttech, expressed dismay that “politically correct” people couldn’t understand how the awards were all in good fun. Last year another Wisconsin high school made national news after people became aware that a photographer posing a group of boys for a prom picture had encouraged them to raise their arms in what can only be viewed as a Nazi salute, and almost all the boys appeared to comply with enthusiasm.
Then there’s Goodloe Sutton, 80-year-old owner and editor of The Democrat-Reporter, a weekly newspaper in Linden, Alabama, who in a February 14 editorial railed against Democrats he supposed were plotting to raise taxes in Alabama, and called for the Ku Klux Klan to raid the homes of Democratic legislators in Washington, D.C.. He added even more hateful remarks when asked later for elaboration by other journalists from Alabama and elsewhere once his editorial became notorious. In 2019, Mr. Sutton’s beliefs and attitudes are more in tune with those from the year of his birth, 1939.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel perform “Slip Slidin’ Away” in the September 1981 Concert in Central Park in New York City.
Did those beliefs and attitudes ever go away in the intervening years? Perhaps partially, although mainly they went underground. Now with encouragement from the current resident of the Oval Office, ignorant and hateful talk is bubbling back to the surface across the land, and here and there action has followed. In the current environment, it will only get worse. The Ku Klux Klan of 1939 is resurrected by a bitter old man with a newspaper in Alabama. The Nazi Party of 1930s and 40s Germany is evoked by laughing schoolboys in Wisconsin. Again in Wisconsin, a high school cheerleaders’ coach hands out awards that would not have been out of place in 1950s America, though even then most people might have deemed them in questionable taste given the age of the recipients. And in Virginia an amendment to the United States Constitution goes down in flames because even in 2019 there are people – not all of them men – who cannot step away from controlling all women as if it were their right.
Animal shelters in Germany are imposing a ban on pet adoptions this Christmas in hopes of discouraging the poorly thought out and whimsical decision to give a pet as a gift. Animal shelters in Germany and in other countries celebrating Christmas have always had to cope with a surge in animal drop-offs after the holidays, as families come to grips with the realization their decision was poorly thought out and whimsical. As always, it is the animals who suffer. Don’t add to the problem this Christmas by giving a pet as a gift. A pet is not a gift to be returned after the novelty wears off, but a living being deserving of and requiring commitment to his or her care.
Perhaps animal shelters in other countries will follow the excellent example set by the German shelters. Unfortunately there are still pet shops and breeders who will sell animals to nearly anyone who has the money. It’s more likely that the kind of person who visits an animal shelter to adopt a pet is not the kind of person who is as cavalier about that pet’s well-being as someone who purchases an animal from a pet shop or breeder and considers the creature a commodity or toy. Animal shelters often charge to adopt a pet as well, but in their case the fee is not for profit but to help offset costs of running the shelter, and as a hurdle, however low, to impulse adoptions.
Child with Cat, a painting by Otto Scholderer (1834-1902).
In a better world, there would be no pet shops and breeders selling animals. In a better world, the necessity for animal shelters would dwindle because responsible people would take care of the first priority in pet adoption and have their pet spayed or neutered. But until a better world comes into being, reconsider giving a pet as a Christmas gift and consider instead making a financial donation to an animal shelter. The youngster whose heart is set on adopting a pet can, with the help of an adult in the family, volunteer a few hours a week at an animal shelter to help with the care, feeding, and socialization of the animals. Once the youngster gets a real grasp on the commitment required, then it may be time to consider adoption as a responsible and giving way to bring a new member into the family, not as the equivalent of a toy under the tree on Christmas morning, without needs or feelings.
Since 1968, when the New England Journal of Medicine editors precipitously and unfairly saddled adverse reactions of some people to Monosodium glutamate (MSG) with the name Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG has been stigmatized as a food additive that is apart from and somehow unhealthier than other food additives. The first person to report symptoms to the Journal was a Chinese-American doctor, Robert Ho Man Kwok, who complained of numbness at the back of his neck, general weakness, and heart palpitations after eating at a Chinese restaurant. On this slim testimony and that of several others, the Journal coined the phrase Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.
A type of kelp known as Dasima in Korea, and Kombu in Japan, is a key ingredient in Dashi, a broth from which Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda identified the quality of umami in 1908 that led him to the discovery and production of MSG. Photo by freddy an.
Use of MSG is not limited to Chinese cookery, however, and it can be found in many processed American foods such as Doritos, which millions of Americans appear to consume regularly without complaint. It would be interesting to see if more people would attest to adverse reactions to eating Doritos if they were made aware the product contained MSG. It is listed among the ingredients on the package, and using its most recognizable name, too, rather than one of the many names that can hide its presence, such as autolyzed yeast.
This is not to say no one can have a real adverse or allergic reaction to MSG. But for just about any ingredient in food there are some people who react badly to ingesting it. The main thing to remember is that in scientific studies of MSG, as opposed to the purely anecdotal stories that appeared to satisfy the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, no one has found that MSG is any more dangerous than any of a multitude of other food additives. If it were as dangerous as some people appear to believe it is, not only would the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) likely take it off its generally recognized as safe (GRAS) list, but thousands or even millions of Asians and Asian-Americans would be suffering every day from its effects.
Yet Asian chefs and home cooks continue to add MSG to their meals. They are either perverse in their determination to eat the possibly unwholesome ingredient, or they are unconvinced by the nearly hysterical denunciations of it coming from some people in North America and Europe. Given the ubiquity of MSG in highly processed foods that Americans eat and enjoy every day, any real or imagined adverse reaction to it could just as easily be called American Junk Food Syndrome. There is already one name for that, which is Obesity. American food processors discovered around the time of World War II that MSG was a useful flavor booster for otherwise bland or even flavorless foods like canned vegetables and corn snacks. MSG by itself does not encourage obesity, but its overuse in helping to make some rather unpalatable and non nutritious foods delicious does contribute to obesity.
Shavings of Katsuobushi, a preserved and fermented skipjack tuna used in Dashi, the umami broth from which Professor Ikeda first isolated MSG. Photo by Sakurai Midori.
At the same time as food scientists and agribusinesses were discovering how to make cheaply made, highly profitable junk food flavorful, they were also inadvertently taking the flavor out of healthful foods by manipulating them to improve qualities like pest resistance, standing up to shipping, or tolerating being confined on factory farms, all at the expense of flavor and nutrition. Those practices yielded bland, watery supermarket produce, and meats needing seasoning and breading and all sorts of treatments in order to taste like much of anything. It’s not all that mysterious why shoppers, particularly poor ones who can’t afford to seek out higher quality ingredients, turn to highly processed, highly flavorful foods, even at the cost of poor nutrition and cumulative destructive effects on their health.
In this country, people like to blame the victim. After all, free enterprise and free choice means people don’t have to eat junk, doesn’t it? It’s also useful to have an Other to blame, as in Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. The sensible thing would be to teach children in schools about moderation in all things, including sprinkling additives on their food. A little bit of MSG on already healthful food gives an umami flavor boost and has not been shown to do harm to the great majority of people who eat it that way. MSG put on every unwholesome, processed food cannot be healthy since the bad effects of poor quality food combine with excessive amounts of this otherwise relatively harmless additive. Enormous amounts of any additive are probably not healthy, not just MSG. School administrators could stress in the curriculum healthful eating instead of allowing vending machines full of snacks, sodas, and sugary fruit drinks in the hallways. In the case of young people at least, free enterprise and free choice should take a back seat to learning healthy habits.