This Happened on TAM Airlines…or Somewhere, Sometime, Maybe…

If you can read this, you’ve probably seen this: the story of a “50-something woman” who took issue with being seated next to a black man on Brazilian airliner TAM, and is smoothly upbraided by an airline attendant when she offers to reseat the black man in first class, to the rousing applause of nearby passengers.   It seems disingenuous to call this hopeful  story a “hoax“, although it’s certainly an urban legend, almost as old as the Internet itself.  Original circulation of the tale dates back to 1998.

What’s touching about the story is how many people want to believe it’s true, and therefore a sign of the times – of better times, and better people, who stand up for what is right and good and true.

It’s kind of disappointing to realize this story probably doesn’t have any basis in reality – or perhaps only remotely so – but that there really is a chicken nugget girl, who ate almost nothing but chicken nuggets for 15 years (and only recently became sick?), and that a blob of glue vaguely resembling Homer Simpson just sold for nearly $240,000 on eBay.  Why are the stupid things true?

Most of us would like to believe that we could be good and noble like the unnamed flight attendant who put the racist passenger, quite literally, in her place.   And maybe a lot of us actually would.  Most people I know really are good and kind and noble.  We’re just not always in the right place at the right time to exercise our good intentions.  We just read about awful things in the newspapers or see them on the news, and are left to wonder if we’d step in to stop the fight, dispel the argument, bring common sense to bear in a situation that badly needs it, or if it would be another one of those times when you think of the perfect thing to say or do long after the opportunity to say or do it has passed.

Stories like the TAM Airlines tale give us hope, help us rally, inspire and empower us.  Does it matter whether it really happened, if it inspires us to speak out?

Hoax-Slayer observes, “The Facebook version of the story calls on users to “share if they are against racism”. However, as with similar stories that ask people to share to fight against child abuse or animal cruelty, it is difficult to see how simply sharing will do anything to help. The act of sharing such posts often leaves people with the largely misguided belief that they have actually done something to remedy the specified problem. Unfortunately, racism is still deeply entrenched in many people and societies. Often, racism is exhibited in much more subtle – but equally destructive – forms than the blatant example outlined in the story above. Of course, effectively combating racism in all its insidious forms requires a lot more than sharing a story on Facebook. “

That’s true – but I also think the act of sharing the piece, which I saw being passed around by friends who really do work to combat social injustice in their everyday lives, is also an act of solidarity.  In sharing this anecdote, they’re saying, “This is what justice can look like.”   Combating racism requires feet on the ground, but it also requires dialog. Stories create powerful dialog and this little piece of mythology can be another tool in the social justice arsenal against the mythology of racism itself, a good fiction against the bad fiction that some people are better and more important than others just because of the color of their skin.

Whether it really happened on TAM Airlines is moot.  That we want to believe the story is true and consider it an example of how we can stand up against racism and hate, is deeply relevant and important in creating a world where this kind of story would also be ancient history.

Chicken Nugget Girl and the Fate of the Free World

From the annals of weird but true stories comes this “nugget” from the UK:  A 17 year old British girl who has eaten almost nothing but chicken nuggets since she was two years old, collapsed recently and had to be taken to a hospital, where she was found to be suffering from anemia and swollen veins in her tongue.

Where to start with this one…

First, I did some rudimentary research to confirm it really was a true story, coming from The Sun , and all.  But sure ‘nuff, Stacey Irvine, who looks relatively okay, has in fact eaten primarily processed chicken nuggets for the last 15 years of her life, with fries (or chips, across the pond) and the occasional culinary venture into toast for breakfast and the rare potato chip for a snack.  Doctors call hers a “beige” diet, a blandly descriptive enough term.

I’ve got one of those monochromatic eaters – she has Asperger’s Syndrome , in which a limited diet is fairly common. But as a young adult who was exposed to a wide variety of foods at a young age and who hails from a family that generally likes to try new foods,   her diet ranges to some reasonably healthy shades of yellow and red,  and includes the proper amounts of most of the necessary nutrients.  Interestingly, she’s fond of chicken nuggets, too, but is also well aware that while chickens have wings and breasts and legs – nowhere does their anatomy include a “nugget.”

“McDonald’s chicken nuggets are my favourite,” Irvine told the Sun. (I’ll keep their spelling, for the full effect). “ I share 20 with my boyfriend with chips.

“But I also like KFC and supermarket brands. My main meal is always chicken nuggets every day.”

While Irvine’s OD-ing on chicken nuggets on her bed of happy meal toys, on this side of the Atlantic Mrs. Obama is hitting the streets and neighborhood schools with her healthy eating campaign and the USDAs My Plate in hand.  Her efforts are intended to showcase USDA improvements to school meal requirements that increase the availability of health food choices, and also seek to limit the total number of calories in an individual meal.

Those chicken nuggets Irvine is so fond of – and which plenty of public schools serve – contain 58g of fat and 926 calories in a 20 nugget meal – exceeding daily recommended intakes of 56g fat, and comprising almost half of the daily recommended 2,000 calories a day.  If that’s not scary, maybe this video  of what’s actually in that chicken nugget might do the trick. At the very least, the pink boa constrictor of mechanically separated chicken should be sufficiently horrifying.  (Although the YouTube closed captioning on the piece is rather entertaining.)

But maybe it’s not horrifying enough for American sensibilities.  Healthy eating guru Jamie Oliver, a TED Prize winner with a winning way of getting people to reconnect with good food, tried one of his food deconstruction programs with a group of American school children a couple of years ago.  After carefully separating a whole chicken into its normally edible parts, Oliver then dramatically processed the remaining carcass, bones and all,  in a blender while describing how chicken nuggets are made.  Presenting the pink glop of chicken parts puree to the children, he asked them, “Who would eat this now?” After just a moment’s hesitation, every hand shot up.

A clearly thunderstruck Oliver then cooked up the patties and served them to the children, who happily ate them.  Reflecting on his failed experiment later, he said, “What’s scary is that we’ve brainwashed our children so completely, so even though they know something is disgusting and gross,  they’ll still eat it if it’s in that friendly little shape.”

Humans are creatures of habit and convenience. Give us the two together, and we’re set, even if it kills us, which eating out of convenience and habit might well do.   So the battle for the Western world’s waist line and cholesterol levels rages on – with Jiminy Crickets like Mrs. Obama and Jamie Oliver perched on our shoulders cautioning common sense and restraint and beckoning us to the joys of healthy eating, and the fast food foxes luring us to the next donut and the promise of the immediate gratification of corn syrupy endorphins coursing sluggishly through our clogged arteries.

Maybe if we could see it for what it really is: Our lack of self control in our eating habits is at least partly symptomatic of a lack of control in other aspects of our lives, which leaves us open to manipulation and control by others. We fancy ourselves a “free people.” But we’re not. We’re often slaves to what anyone wants to sell us, from politics to processed poultry.

Pleasure Island is making chicken nugget donkeys of us all, and it will continue to do so until we see it for what it really is, take control of our health and our lives,  and truly become free.