The truly phenomenal thing about a true mass culture phenomenon is rarely the book, fad, belief or thing-in-itself but the way in which taking a clear position on that thing quickly becomes an individual obligation. You can climb aboard the particular, immense bandwagon or you can throw yourself under its carriage, but if you are to outrun cultural bankruptcy, you cannot say, “I am largely unmoved by the movement of that bandwagon”.
The ice-bucket challenge was either “inspiring” and “joyous” or an empty act of self-gratification. Fifty Shades of Grey was either “inspiring” and “liberating” for women or “a handbook for domestic violence”. The Paleo lifestyle is currently either “inspiring” and “revolutionary” for dieters or it is a pack of dangerous lies.
It certainly is true that the Paleo program of eating and Pete Evans, its most identifiable Australian advocate, make false and potentially hazardous claims and these are only inspiring to those critically un-inspirable souls otherwise likely to purchase infomercial secrets that They Don’t Want You To Know. But what is also true is that, short of burning the kale supply and slipping all the grass-fed cattle GMO grain, it is currently impossible to jam this bandwagon. At least not with recourse to facts.
On several occasions in Crikey, I have personally tried and comprehensively failed to employ widely available facts to puncture these pre-industrial tyres. I will again remind adherents of the diet that its foundational claim “All body fat is made from glucose” opposes the teachings of biochemistry. I will restate that the unanimous view of Paleo-anthropology is that nutritional claims made by Evans and Co. are more historically fantastic than Game of Thrones.
I restate that medical consensus remains diverse and undecided on the matter of “good” and “bad” fats and that the Cambridge University meta-analysis — which led to well-received but badly conceived “Loads of Lovely Animal Fat is Good For You!” headlines — remains the subject of qualified dietary debate. I say that for every morsel of pro-beef pseudo-scientific propaganda, there is a study examining the benefits of low-protein eating, especially for those in midlife, and that the mummified body of Otzi the iceman is no Palaeolithic plus. Guy had brain damage, cardiovascular disease and a gut disorder without the help of hot chips fried in canola.
Facts don’t work to detonate this phenomenon. This is for several reasons. First, “facts” to the Paleo faithful are the product of an agro-industrial behemoth supported by the evil and/or institutional naivety of the Dietitians Association of Australia and their good friends at Monsanto. They Don’t Want You To Know the “real” science that only a celebrity chef can access.
Second, I have personally learned that unless you are as profoundly tanned and cheerful as Pete Evans, you have no authority to speak on the matter of health communications. (Seriously. I have received so many comments on my disqualifying pale appearance that I think this fallacy deserves a name: argumentum ad melanin.)
Third, it’s impossible to argue with people who feel temporarily good. Just try telling a woman who has just used Fifty Shades as a fap-aid or an ice-bucket challenger who has just got 50 “likes” on YouTube that the thing they love is rubbish. A former cream-cake habitue who has just seen their genitals for the first time in a decade thanks to the Paleo plan, which, shock, works to reduce body fat by reducing calories (who knew!?) is not going to listen to facts. Finally, any challenge to Paleo is seen by a Paleo idiot as an endorsement of the Monsanto Chemical Plastic Food Cult of Eating Late Western Industrial Cheese In A Can. Why do you want the children to die of diabesity, Helen? Why do you hate life and innocence and kale chips lightly toasted in cold-pressed natural oil?
Look. I’m not a complete tool of industry, and I know quite well that as the processed foods and broadacre crops consumed in the West move to other regions, particular diseases follow. The food activism proposed by thinkers like journalist Michael Pollan and former banker Raj Patel has no little merit. But, Paleo, a burgeoning mini-industry in itself, whose local star, Pete Evans, has recently announced his intention to make his “inspiring” recipes more “Thermomix friendly”, is hardly the voice of a revolutionary class.
The way to undo a complex biopolitical system drained of intrinsic morality is not to show me how to pour fucking bone broth into a $2000 German benchtop appliance. And don’t give me “but you can do Paleo on the cheap”. First, bullshit. How much do you earn and who in your lovely household has all this leisure time to activate an almond? (Which, by the way, is a cultivar agriculturally created by post-Palaeolithic humans.) Second, the aspirational and demonstrably false nature of this newly fat quacking duck is as market-friendly as a Happy Meal. Pollan and other slow- and ethical-food advocates have publicly decried the “principles” of a for-sale lifestyle that uses the appearance of ethics to hide its crazy capitalist core.
So. There’s no point in using facts to persuade Paleo idiots.
But recently A Current Affair tried to do just that. Evans is the subject of popular scrutiny for his lopsided “Paleo” dietary claims. That ACA, a non-news program that has previously advocated for all kinds of woo — from magnet “therapy” to the uncovering the “medical myths the big drug companies don’t want you to know” (here, we are reassured that it’s OK to sink piss while taking a course of antibiotics, TAKE THAT AGRO-INDUSTRIAL-MEDICAL COMPLEX) — chose to cover this story is curious.
Of course, it is easy to take pleasure in Pete’s pain, and it’s fun to see how, in recent days, he’s been busy taking down some of his more incendiary YouTube declarations thanks to the ACA attack. I’ve had immense fun watching his veneer crack on social and terrestrial media, and see a limp defence emerge that amounts to: How could I be dangerous when I’m just a simple chef? These claims lose a little of their intended humility when told to 1 million Facebook subscribers and about the same number of dicks sufficiently thick that they listen voluntarily to the Kyle and Jackie O Show.
Such claims seem especially disingenuous when you hear Pete utter hopes like “Where I want to take my career is to reach as many people as I can globally” or to upturn the official Australian dietary pyramid using “science”. By which we mean the borrowed, tertiary, anti-grain ramblings of slick Americans, whose Kevin Trudeau-like promises to reveal the truth They Don’t Want You To Know are enough to convince a simple chef. A simple chef who, when asked by one of the employees of the American organisation from which he attained his health coach qualification how he “got clear”, a turn of phrase not in common usage outside the Church of Scientology, answered that it was the motivational speaker Anthony Robbins who set him on the path to righteous recipes.
It’s easy to piss on Pete and the insubstantial “lifestyle” he naively advocates. It must be, because ACA has done it. But what is not so easy is to stop this bullshit bandwagon onto which hundreds of thousands have loaded their dreams and their dollars in the last few days. Pete’s Facebook page is enjoying a great surge in subscription and Kyle and Jackie O treated him to a very sympathetic spot. With every “fact”, and there were some actual and uncharacteristic facts in the ACA story, the evidence to people who don’t know or care what evidence is mounts that there is a Truth They Don’t Want You To Know.
There is, of course, no They. The market, of which Evans and the Paleo industry masquerading as a cause are a very successful part, is less often a case of conspiracy than it is of complex events. Just as Evans absolutely believes “food is medicine” that can “heal” a range of diseases including autism and multiple sclerosis, the market implicitly believes nothing. The market has no human face and no capacity for intentional evil or good. What it does have is the implicit faith of many that it can correct the world, in this case through a series of “healthy choices”.
As Pete might say, “Someone has to ring the bell, because I think a lot of people are asleep”. The belief that a simple, and woefully misinformed, chef can detonate agro-business through responsible use of a Thermomix is as deluded as the claim that better television will make a better society or that a media campaign urging us to be nice to people will prevent mental illness.
The media and the market economy they endorse don’t fix shit. These complexes unwittingly cause problems, sell solutions and then give us an occasional Woodstein to help us believe that real evil can be meaningfully revealed and addressed.
Our only current hope for real revelation and proper address of social problems, from obesity to mental illness, lies with science and scholarship. Of course, as Pete reminds us, as these processes can be compromised by the market; we remember the dietetic disgrace of the CSIRO. But the solution to this bias is not to falsely declare that there is truth They Don’t Want You To Know, because there really isn’t, but to fight for the health of the organs of reason in the hope of finding and testing real solutions to disease.
As for this bandwagon and all its easy temptations to either climb it or laugh at its absurd clientele, perhaps it’s best left to run out of fuel. Frankly, if a few lives and colons are negatively impacted by its low-fibre cheering, I don’t really mind. But, I do mind the circular nature of a debate, which sees conspiracy on both sides where, really, there is none. There is no conspiracy in the market. All there is, in this sale and critique of Big Hope, is business as usual.