The Malign Magic of Misdirection

Terry J. Allen

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It’s the oldest trick in the book. The magician flashes the shiny object to misdirect the audience’s attention from the real action. In the theater of politics and economics, the magic consists in getting people to focus on poor options so as to shift their sight from wider, more fundamental possibilities for reform. Distracted by half-truths and seduced by shortsighted strategies, we squander time, energy and political capital. 

Think of it as the plastic vs. paper bag choice at the grocery store checkout line. Forget about parsing the relative carbon footprints and recycling potentials. Even if one bag is marginally less worse for the environment, both paper and plastic are lousy solutions. Reusable bags are the way to go.

Misdirection proliferates: We are distracted by arguments over such fundamentally flawed propositions as whether it is unhealthy to drink milk from cows dosed with bovine growth hormones (BGH) or eat meat from cloned cows. 

Or whether increasing gas mileage of cars, substituting alternative fuels and switching to hybrids are effective strategies for countering global warming. 

Should we help the environment by consuming Midwest lamb rather than chops all the way from New Zealand? 

How can we alter lifestyle choices to lower cancer risks?

Is irradiated food toxic? 

Is Sen. Hillary Clinton’s or Sen. Barack Obama’s proposal the better solution to America’s healthcare crisis?

Although each of these misdirections glitters with argumentative allure, they give aid and comfort to sloppy thinking and relatively trivial positions. The wrong question is unlikely to yield the right answer.

The problem with cloned meat, BGH milk and irradiated food is not the danger to personal health. Even if real, these risks pale in comparison to economic and environmental effects. 

Safe to eat or not, meat from cloned animals should be banned because the proliferation of such herds would strengthen the worst aspects of factory farming and weaken the genetic pool. Cloned herds would take enormous up-front costs and become a monoculture crop of genetically identical animals susceptible to the same stresses and diseases. 

The key harm from treating a dairy herd with BGH is not to us, but to cows and independent farmers. The treated cows burn out quickly and get sick; the farmers become economically dependent on chemical companies for the next fix of the drug. 

And the larger impact of irradiated food is to allow manufacturers to sell fecal matter-laced foods, create a market for nuclear waste, and endanger workers and the environment. The argument over whether irradiated food is safe to eat is largely a distraction.

While raising fuel economy for the family car is a good thing, it is no substitute for an extensive public transportation system. Nor is the switch to biofuels – which raises global food prices by diverting farms from food production, encourages clearing new land and, in the case of palm oil production, devastates communities and the environment. Rather than providing an economically and environmentally sound solution to the oil crisis and global warming, these short-sighted choices allow us to perpetuate an insane system. 

As for the lamb chops: It turns out that the carbon foot (hoof?) print of New Zealand lamb, which graze in open pastures, is lower than that of Midwest sheep that rely on factory farming, drugs, and grain raised with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. But the distinction is tiny. The critical problem centers around the amount of meat we eat and the way we raise animals.

When it comes to cancer, until research money goes into examining the effects of carcinogens in the environment, and until we ban the poisons, lifestyle tinkering will do little to lower most cancer rates. (Smoking being the big exception.) But eliminating environmental carcinogens is less profitable than treatment – and far less attractive to pharmaceutical companies or to politicians reaping largess from polluting corporations.

And finally, neither the Obama nor the Clinton health insurance plan does the one thing essential to lowering costs and improving access to quality healthcare: Eliminate profit from the system by cutting out the insurance companies and for-profit hospitals. By shying away from fully funding healthcare with tax money, both plans diddle around the edges of the problem and create convoluted systems that diffuse demands for fundamental change.

When the magician is waving the shiny object, it is sometimes hard to focus on the other hand that is quietly picking our pockets and stealing our future.

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Terry J. Allen is a veteran investigative reporter/​editor who has covered local and international politics and health and science issues. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Boston Globe, Times Argus, Harper’s, the Nation​.com, Salon​.com, and New Scientist . She has been an editor at Amnesty International, In These Times , and Cor​p​watch​.com. She is also a photographer. Her portraits of people sitting in some of the 1900 cars lined up outside a Newport, Vt., food drop can be seen on www​.flickr​.com/​p​h​o​t​o​s​/​t​e​r​r​y​a​l​l​e​n​/​a​lbums. Terry can be contacted at tallen@​igc.​org or through www​.ter​ry​jallen​.com.
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