Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Being American: Cheetos and Arrogance

Manfred writes from the UK, "What is this 'Cheeto' of which you speak?"

Cheetos are bite-size, fried corn-based starch covered in the salty orange dust of curdled milk. Cheese puffs for the post-atomic age. Or, according to parent company frito lay: "playfully mischievous cheesy crunch that add a little lighten-up moment to any day."

Cheetos turn your fingertips bright orange, leave gummy residue stuck between your teeth, and make you thirsty. All of these conditions are cured by Diet Coke. This duo, in my opinion, is the perfect accompaniment to the long distance car trip. (I never eat Cheetohs at home.) They ensure that you have to stop frequently at "rest stops" along the highway, too, which is good if you are in the car with one of those nonstop drivers.

So, I went to google for a photo of Cheetos for my international readers and found a new twist on Cheetos: they are one of God's vehicles for transmitting news of his presence in the world! This May, Sarah Bell, a woman in Texas, discovered this image of Jesus in her 99 cent bag of Cheetos, (which she'd bought at a gas station--see? see?). She said it's "a reminder of her blessings from God." She and her husband call it Cheesus.
She also said she might sell Cheesus on eBay.

Anthropology from the Inside

Lately I've been thinking about what it means to be an American, in anthropological terms. Like, what are the beliefs and practices of this, my tribe? This story catches a couple key things in our lives.

First, like all humans, we seek meaning in everything around us. Since we Americans are more commonly in touch with processed foods we purchase from places that dispense fuel for our vehicles than we are in touch with, say, the antlers of majestic stags (that's where Saint Eustace saw the cross of Jesus), that's where we find signs of God--in snack food, pools of oil, or what have you. These are the material of our lives, and I appreciate our ability to find grace in them.

Second, as a culture, we are obsessed with money and money-making. We always have an eye out for the main chance. So it makes sense that what this woman would do with a gift of God is sell it. There's a sense in the USA that God wants people to be industrious, so this would not be sacreligious.

Based on what I can infer from photos and geography, I'm willing to bet (bag o' Cheetos?) that Ms. Bell is a Protestant and eschews the worship of idols. She would likely be horrified to think her experience is akin to the medieval popularity of the relics of Christian saints, which survives in pale form in the Catholic Church, but it is. There was a brisk trade in those too.

Small Rant about Ignorant Arrogance

I've been seeing a far less sweet side of us as I've worked on a book about malaria this week. Reading up online, I have encountered well-meaning Americans expressing the opinion--presented as fact--that the Western world did not care about malaria until God sent us Bill & Melinda Gates and their foundation. One American wrote that malaria has not affected Western countries, which is why we have selfishly not cared about it.

This is all cloaked in moral righteousness---now that Bill Gates has shown the Western world the light, by donating billions toward eradicating malaria, we Americans are the Good Guys Who Care.
(See what industriousness does? You can make billions and donate them to the good cause of your choice.)

[Low-cost methods of controlling malaria-carrying mosquitoes help hugely too. Donate (as little as ten bucks) a low-tech but highly effective insecticide-treated bed net here:
Nothing But Nets]

These Gates-worshiping Americans are well-meaning. Their point is that we should care about dying African babies and use our resources to help them.
Patronizing tone aside, I agree. Whatever problems exist with leaving charity up to the whims of billionaires, I agree the Gateses are using their power well, in this case.

What strips the enamel off my teeth quicker than Diet Coke is the ignorance.
No, not the ignorance. There's nothing inherently wrong with being ignorant--it's not a permanent condition, to begin with. It's the arrogance that attends the ignorance:
These fellow citizens of mine--and they are not unusual, in my experience--obviously know little or nothing of history or geography. That's not so bad--it comes partly from living in an enormous country that spans a continent and has long considered itself strong enough not to have to ask for help. The problem is they don't think they need to know history or geography to speak--and act!--with authority.

They never thought about the British in India, the French in West Africa, or even the United States in Panama or Vietnam (or the early swampy years of Washington, D.C., for that matter). And yet they accuse other Western nations in outraged tones for not having already addressed the challenge. Further, they give no thought whatsoever to the governments, scientists, educators, etc. in malarial nations--they don't seem to know they exist.
It's all just big-eyed African babies waiting for Bill Gates's billions to save them.

Cultural arrogance like this is annoying. In this case, it's not terribly damaging (though I think I can hear howls of pain carried on the wind from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine).
But it reminds me of a more dangerous kind of arrogance, found in the refrain of a country-western song popular after 9/11:
"I'm not a real political man,
don't know the difference between Iraq and Iran."

Being proud of ignorance is bizarre to me; but I don't object to my people not knowing the difference between Iraq and Iran or the history of gin and tonic, in and of itself. I mean, I'm not proud of it, but I don't know how my refrigerator works either. I do object to them thinking it's OK to send our military and our snack foods * into these countries without bothering to learn about them first, or even to ask other Western nations what their history has shown.

Cheesus wept.

* (Cheetos, it appears, contain pork enzymes.)


momo said...

Fresca, I would pay to read a book by you.

bink said...

I love your closing line "Cheesus wept"... I couldn't stop laughing!

Pork enzymes in Cheetohs? What a bastard food! But as carving material for little saint statuettes they might really have a useful life... I could see them glued to car dashboards.

Your UK readers should know that the texture of cheetohs is pretty much the same as styrofoam. So if you like your styrofoam chemically cheesy, salty and porky--you'll love cheetohs!

Couldn't agree more about the rest of the post.

deanna said...

Laughing so hard, every time I see that picture. Thanks for the whole post; I mentioned it in mine today. And thanks for making the page-loading go much more quickly for my elderly compy thing!

Manfred Allseasons said...

Ahh...they are called Wotsits in the UK.

And...what a post, Fresca. You should have a column in the Herald-Tribune...

Manfred Allseasons said...

...and that particularly Cheeto is surely Godzilla! Expect to see Mothra in doughnut form before too long! Its the end of days, I tell you!

rr said...

Obviously US munificence to the poor Africans is in the zeitgeist. I read this this morning:
but can't, for the life of me, work out where the bednets are being made. Because if they were being produced in factories in Africa by workers in Africa then that would be, like, really cool. But if, as I strongly suspect, that is not the case, then yes! let's all pat ourselves on the back for creating a MARKET among the POOREST. Because hey, that's what life (er, sorry, capitalism) is all about isn't it.


(PS I'm being sucked back into the internetting after some time out of its clutches!)

Fresca said...

Great comments!!!
I'm leaving for Montana in 15 minutes and still have to pack, so only have time to add that I'm pretty sure Louis Vuitton has set up a bed net-making factory in Darfur. Also manufactures novelty donuts....

I'm thinking the Montana movie may be titled
"The Alien and the Anchorite.
We shall see... Taking the laptop so may report from there (for my column in the International Herald).

If I should, however, be bit by a rattlesnake (they live out there) and die, I just want you all to know I LOVE YOU! : ) (But really.)

Beth W. said...

Hi from the Florida piney woods, Fresca -- I just discovered you via Deanna's blog. (Thank you, Deanna.)

My husband has an old blue Cool Max t-shirt that he wears all day and also to sleep in. It has gotten so threadbare, it looks like one of those burned-out velvet paintings. I told him the other day that as soon as the remaining threads start to look like the Virgin Mary, that sucker is going on E-Bay.

Loved your post. (I guess I am not the only person who goes around with a sticky, day-glo orange steering wheel.)

ArtSparker said...

See Karen Armstrong's "the Story of God" for the adaptation of Calvinism in North America to form the basis for American Exceptionalism - That the maker blessed us with all the good stuff, and third world people are supposed to suffer cause they're not, you know, us.

fresca said...

BETH: Thanks for commenting! Nice to "meet" you. (Thanks to Deanna.) I'm glad you liked the post. Great idea about selling your husband's T-shirt when the BVM appears on it. That's the spirit! : )

ART SPARKER: Wonderful point about American Exceptionalism--thanks!
I'm sure Karen Armstrong has influenced my thinking over the years, even without me knowing it. I never read her "Story of God," but she was in town for a couple talks a few years ago when she gave an overview of some key points in her world view. And I was probably most fascinated, though, by what she said about her own life and her autobiographical book "The Spiral Staircase."