May 23, 2007


Caption: In this poem, Whitman takes the long view.

The guiding thread through this week's Goat Rope is Walt Whitman's 1856 poem "Song of Prudence." There is also lots of stuff on current events. If this is your first visit, please click on the earlier entries.

To read the whole poem, distasteful section and all, click here.

The poem begins, in typical Walt fashion, with the poet strolling through Manhattan and musing on the human condition. Full disclosure: every time El Cabrero goes there, I try to do the same but with no poetic result so far.

The prudence he ponders is basically the question of how much of what we do really matters in the long run. The answer he comes up with is basically everything all the time and forever. Here's the opening:

Manhattan's streets I saunter'd pondering,
On Time, Space, Reality—on such as these, and abreast with them Prudence.

The last explanation always remains to be made about prudence,
Little and large alike drop quietly aside from the prudence that
suits immortality.

The soul is of itself,
All verges to it, all has reference to what ensues,
All that a person does, says, thinks, is of consequence,
Not a move can a man or woman make, that affects him or her in a day,
month, any part of the direct lifetime, or the hour of death,
But the same affects him or her onward afterward through the
indirect lifetime.

The indirect is just as much as the direct,
The spirit receives from the body just as much as it gives to the
body, if not more.

Then follows a Whitmanesque list (with some distasteful examples regarding onanism and veneral sores that I'll skip) and a statement that there is nothing a person does

But has results beyond death as really as before death.

In other words, we're playing a game with no end, one in which

Charity and personal force are the only investments worth any thing.

That can be today's take home message. Now on to the prose...

E COLI CONSERVATIVES. If you feel like gambling these days, you don't need to visit a casino. Just buy some food for yourself or your pets. As you may have noticed, the whole food thing is becoming riskier and riskier for animals and people. There is plenty of blame to go around, from globalization to Congress to corporate greed, but Paul Krugman blames Milton Friedman.

To be more exact, the cult of the market god of which Friedman was a prophet downplayed the role of government to protect consumer safety and argued that in a free market businesses have an incentive to sell good products. As a result, our food safety now is about where it was before Teddy Roosevelt read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle:

The economic case for having the government enforce rules on food safety seems overwhelming. Consumers have no way of knowing whether the food they eat is contaminated, and in this case what you don’t know can hurt or even kill you. But there are some people who refuse to accept that case, because it’s ideologically inconvenient.

That’s why I blame the food safety crisis on Milton Friedman, who called for the abolition of both the food and the drug sides of the F.D.A. What would protect the public from dangerous or ineffective drugs? “It’s in the self-interest of pharmaceutical companies not to have these bad things,” he insisted in a 1999 interview. He would presumably have applied the same logic to food safety (as he did to airline safety): regardless of circumstances, you can always trust the private sector to police itself.

O.K., I’m not saying that Mr. Friedman directly caused tainted spinach and poisonous peanut butter. But he did help to make our food less safe, by legitimizing what the historian Rick Perlstein calls “E. coli conservatives”: ideologues who won’t accept even the most compelling case for government regulation.

Maybe Voltaire was right: "Let us cultivate our garden."


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