If you live in ZIP code 10021, the odds are that you don’t have diabetes, that no one in your family has diabetes and that you don’t know anyone who has diabetes. In your neighborhood, 1 percent or less of the population has this affliction. The odds are that you are wealthy or rich or very rich, and there is even a decent chance that you are, by the use of your money and power, partly responsible for people in some other place suffering and dying from this monster killer-maimer disease.
That some other place is close by: It’s the next ZIP code immediately north of you, beginning on the other side of 96th Street. There, the odds are good that you have diabetes or that someone in your family has it. In Spanish Harlem, 16 percent of your neighbors will also have the disease.
Altogether, some 800,000 New Yorkers have diabetes, thus making the Big Apple the financial and disease capital of the United States. In percentages of the population who suffer from this killer, Gotham outranks Los Angeles and Chicago. It should be a matter of special pride to the idiot males who live for the athletic rivalry between here and Beantown that the New York diabetes rate is double that of Boston.
We know this and much more courtesy of The New York Times. The newspaper’s huge, four-part diabetes series wipes out the paper’s recent sins and should make us readers tolerant of its tardiness in printing stories which have appeared elsewhere two or three days earlier. The Times deserves a bushel full of those journalistic rewards it lives for on this one. It attacks the story medically, socially and economically, but it doesn’t venture into the political arrangements which doom millions to die from diabetes, which blinds, causes the loss of toes, feet and legs, inflicts stroke, heart attack, infections and kidney failure, and the excruciating pain of various kinds of neuropathy.
In the old days, you could tell the rich people because they were fat—and, we suppose, a lot of them got diabetes. Now rich people are mostly thin; they exercise a lot and they don’t get diabetes. The farther you are down the income tables, the more likely you are to suffer from the disease, which is going to kill upwards of 15 percent of New York City’s residents. Millions we would think of as middle class die of it as well.
Diabetes is out of control. It lacks a powerful political constituency that would get the money for effective public education and legislation. The rich, who are seldom afflicted, put their money to work on the diseases they get. AIDS, which doesn’t begin to take as many lives in America as diabetes (Africa is another tragic story), gets a huge amount of attention, money and talent. There is little political power in mere numbers, so diabetes gets the short end of the stick.
Hospitals that started programs to inform and train people in healthy ways of living have had to give them up because there’s no money to pay for them. The Times’ series lays out how the big bucks are made, not by public education or offering physical exams or teaching people to protect themselves, but by allowing them to sicken until they need heart operations, dialysis, amputations, and other acute and expensive therapies.
Public schools have all but given up physical education except in the case of the occasional youngster who gives promise of becoming a star athlete. The schools actually aid in habituating their students to food-choice and eating habits that will literally kill them. Rec rooms and cafeterias are festooned with vending machines dispensing noxious eatables. The City of New York has sold exclusive rights to sell beverages (water excepted) in the schools to Snapple, whose products are loaded with sugar.
But what processed food or drink isn’t loaded with sugar? With $40 billion in government subsidies, sugary high-fructose corn syrup is cheap enough for food and beverage manufacturers to drown us in the stuff. Anyone who raises an objection to the contents of what is served in the schools or anywhere else is scored off as a left-wing ideologue or a Ralph Nader–type crackpot.
Unless you’re a skilled cook or have an educated taste, you will eat the foods that will cost you your life because they taste better, since they are cooked in grease and sweetened with sugar. When they introduce this franchise killer cuisine in places like China, Japan and France—which have magnificent national cuisines—American fast food corrupts the locals faster than you can say “Big Mac Attack.”
Asians abandon diversity and their national cuisines at double peril. It appears that people from these lands have an inherited vulnerability to diabetes triggered by a diet dominated by American fast food. The voices are few and weak which warn them that the new foods they eat today will kill them tomorrow.
The Times speaks of “a culture that promotes overeating and discourages exercise” and goes on to observe that, “Many doctors who treat diabetics say they have long been frustrated because they feel they are struggling single-handedly to reverse a disease with the gale force of popular culture behind it.”
But culture is not an inanimate force of nature, although it is often spoken of as though it were. Culture is entirely man-made (and woman-made); therefore, it can be remade and changed. Coke and the Whopper didn’t arise from the people; they were invented by someone who wanted to sell them, and they were promoted by advertising agencies seeking to popularize them. The “gale force” behind this part of the popular culture is money and lawyers and legislators and judges.
It wasn’t a popular culture that has arranged things so that no way exists to weaken the mass blandishments for toxic nutrition. The Times reports that “the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have called for tighter restrictions on advertising to children, similar to limits in Australia, Canada and England.” With the national and state legislatures bought and paid for by the Jack Abramoffs who own American politics, there is no chance.
A twisted and distorted freedom of speech—once thought to apply exclusively to people, ideas and the expression of opinion—is now claimed by corporations and the advertising of death-dealing substances called “food.” The processed-food industry spends $10 billion a year on advertising directed at children without let or hindrance and with impunity.
Even if Madison Avenue didn’t train us to crave the things that will bring us to a premature and painful death, even if all of us knew better, it’s questionable how many of us could change our habits. Healthy eating is expensive and time-consuming; takeout can be cheaper than making a meal from scratch.
Uncounted numbers don’t know how to cook; they wouldn’t know what to do with an uncooked vegetable if it were to jump, uninvited, into their shopping carts. They only know how to microwave factory-prepared comestibles. In New York, countless thousands live in dwelling units that can boast of little more than vestigial kitchens, not good for much except for transferring unmentionable edibles out of cardboard containers onto plates. When you work as hard and are as tired as many a non-rich New Yorker these days, do you have enough left in the tank to cook a healthy meal for the kids? Particularly when the kids have spent the day being taught that what you set before them sucks?
The diabetes series, aside from being a shameful horror story—one out of 12 New Yorkers have this disease—is also a description of a society shanghaied by greed.
It’s probably too late for the populace to seize the popular culture and make it their own. No mechanisms to force such changes exist: no political parties, no strong interest groups, nothing to forge a new course before the few kill the many by inducing them to eat themselves to death.
We have become a nation of pâté de foie gras geese, held by our throats, stuffed to the bursting and unable to do anything but flap an occasional wing.