Friday, January 12, 2018

Adrienne Rose Bitar's "Diet and the Disease of Civilization"

Adrienne Rose Bitar is an American cultural critic specializing in food, health, and concepts of American civilization. She is a postdoctoral associate in the history department at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Diet and the Disease of Civilization, and reported the following:
Scholars call it “imperialist nostalgia:” the double-edged sadness that simultaneously mourns a dying race and celebrates the success of the civilization that conquered that race. Page 99 of Diet and the Disease of Civilization reprints John La Farge’s 1895 painting [below left; click to enlarge] of Fayaway, a character from Herman Melville’s earlier novel Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. Fayaway is the beautiful, innocent maiden who disrobes to sail her canoe with her own loincloth.

There’s another scholarly term that’s useful here: “present absence,” or the idea that cultural meaning comes from precisely what isn’t being said. The nostalgic myth of Fayaway is powerful for what it hides: the ugliness of conquest, the sullying of innocence, the clunky violence of encounter. Melville’s myth of Fayaway recasts the mechanics of colonial power – sailing, ships, the overthrow of nature – as nothing more than the peaceful, feminine embodiment of uncorrupted sensuality.

If La Farge prematurely mourned Fayaway, Western narratives today mourn a corrupted, now-obese Fayaway whose tragedy portends doom for the human race. Even as Hawaii touts its reputation as the Health State, Native Hawaiians suffer from extremely high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other “diseases of civilization.” Over 40% of Native Hawaiians are obese. Native Hawaiians are 2.5x more likely to be diabetic than the white population.

No one better summarizes this than health guru Paul Bragg, writing that the “effects of Western civilization’s diet of death on other races is more rapid and therefore more apparent than what we are doing to ourselves. But the white man is eating his way out of existence.” Media and medical research still regularly report on the “lesson from the Pacific,” claiming that isolated islands act as a “natural experiment” for testing the cause and consequence of Western diet and disease.

Discussions of the paradise paradox in “precolonial” diet books retell a more mature story of Fayaway as a cautionary tale about the costs of civilization. Like La Farge, diet leaders today mourn a lost Eden, a now-ugly paradise, beautiful maidens made fat with McDonald’s and canned meat. Imperialist nostalgia captures the sadness that imbues precontact diet, but misses the dread. Weston Price, a still-influential mid-20th century diet researcher, put it like this:

“They [the “doomed island races”] know that something serious has happened since they have been touched by civilization. Surely our civilization is on trial both at home and abroad.”

The story told by Western diet reformers like Price often goes like this: your fall is not only our disgrace but also signals our demise. Western disease had put civilization on trial and found it guilty. Stories like Price’s aren’t limited to the Pacific Islands or even the colonial legacy. Rather diet books like these raise the stakes and tell a bigger, even more important story about civilization itself: is it sick? Is it sickening? And do any of us stand a chance?
Learn more about Diet and the Disease of Civilization at the Rutgers University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue