HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 23, 2005
Peanut Allergies and Asperger's in the Social Counterrevolution:
When Bad Things Happen to Good Children

James Adler


Judith Warner has a chilling article in this week's New York Times called "Mean Grown-Ups."

It is about, she says, "the food fight now raging between parents of children with life-threatening food allergies and parents of the allergy-free." Warner explains:

"The latter, apparently, have started to push back against "peanut-free" school regulations
to assert their children's natural right to eat whatever they darn well please."

Warner continues:

"One parent joked on a message board about having his daughter dress as "the Death
Peanut" on Halloween. A North Carolina father at a parent-teacher organization meeting
said he'd continue to send his child to school with peanut butter sandwiches and "tell his
child to 'smear' the peanut butter along the hallway walls."

A few -- just a few -- of the online talkbacks were almost as scary.

"TCB" writes about many of these "mean grown-ups":

"I can sympathize with the skepticism and frustration that some parents feel about all the
allergy regulations at their schools. The problem is that these allergies seem suddenly to
have become much more widespread and severe than they were when the current generation
of parents were kids."

In other words: because something didn't exist 30 years ago, the parents are skeptical that it exists today. 

Well.

The incidence of peanut allergies and Asperger's etc., may have changed in 30 years, but changed even more is the discrepancy between the poor and the rich, the middle class and the upper middle class, the number of homeless (there were essentially none in Cambridge, Mass. 30 years ago), and sky-rocketing price of housing that leaves the middle-middle class (like our family) still renting.  Thirty years ago families could do well on one income.  Now they need both partners' incomes, not for fulfillment but for economic survival, and for the poor, multiple shifts and jobs.  You bet-- a lot has changed in 30 years.  Where are the complaints about the economic counterrevolution against the straight middle-middle class in this country? Union jobs have plummeted to insignificance.  Corporations are abandoning their retirement promises to decades-long employees in retirement.  But instead, the creeps, maybe because they're also suffering in this counterrevolution in which we're becoming a third world country of haves and have-nots, are complaining of peanut allergies.

Why don't those who wonder about increased incidence of allergies and Asperger's instead complain about the leapfrogging numbers of homeless, disparities of income, and prices of real estate and all of the above? A home in Francis Avenue in Cambridge that our church owns cost $30,000 in the 1960s.  In the same 1960s when I was growing up in the Midwest, our home also cost $30,000, but now our church's home on Francis Ave. costs 5 million dollars, and our sold home in the Midwest costs about $45,000.

Thirty years ago there was no HIV or AIDS.  Thirty years ago some of us were kids, also mosquito and tick bites were safe and common, and we gotten bitten to pieces all the time without a second thought.  There was no West Nile Virus. No Lyme Disease No Tick-borne Encephalitis. 

Nor was there a resurgence of TB.  Nor the threat of Avian Flu.  Nor disease-resistance to antibiotics and antivirals, for treatment of everything from strep to pneumonia and influenza.

All of this has happened in the past 30 years.  No one questions all these new medical realities, or the realities of the radical changes of that require families to have (at least) two incomes and exponentially skyrocketing real estate and the masses of the homeless.  So why do people question the reality of changes that have generated peanut allergies and Asperger's and other learning disabilities?

For remedies and future prevention, we are forced to a crucial question: Why? Is it sterile environments? Chemicals in childhood vaccines?  Pollution? 

But also (in a different sense):  Who cares why?   Why all the other radically bad medical and social changes as well?  We know more in some instances than we do in others. But no one questions their overwhelming impact and reality.

The Buddha speaks of a man dying of an injury and an onlooker wants to know why and how the injury happened.  And the Buddha says: Yes, there's a time and a place to ask those necessary questions.

Such as why all the changes in the last 30 years-- why all of them, why every one of them?  But the main thing, the Buddha says, about besetting ills, is not to ask a maze of questions-- but to help out.

We have also in the last 30 years become a drastically more mean and cut-throat society.  Does anyone deny as well the fact of this most pervasive and awful reality?


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