Watching Albert Arnold Gore Jr., Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., and their fellow juniors consistently duck the tough questions about the scientific shortcomings of their elaborate phantasm of global warming, carbon footprints, hybrid automobiles, fluorescent light bulbs, greenhouse gases, toxic emissions, shrinking icecaps, melting glaciers, homeless polar bears and boring documentaries, it suddenly hit me: if it ducks like a quack, it must be a quack.
The venerable American institution of quackery — quack science, quack medicine, quack theories of anatomy and digestion — seems to be revenant today. It is back in all its glory, now adorned with the sophisticated mantle of modern presentation. You may not realize it while reading Earth in the Balance or watching An Inconvenient Truth, but you are getting the updated flavor of the snake oil salesmen and castor oil prescribers and witch hazel appliers described in Huckleberry Finn.
What it is in the American psyche that renders him — or her, actually mostly her, well if not mostly than more so her, er… okay, dear, just him or her — especially vulnerable to the spurious — or worse still, delusionally misguided — offerings of Dr. Charles Charlatan or his British-accented crony, Dr. Monte Mountebank? Why do we go off to see the wizard of osteopathy and tour denial for chiropractics? Why are we so gullible in our travails and not seized by suspicion of lean and hungry casuists?
Let us take the most famous of dark wacky quacks, remembered most for the breakfast cereal he invented by accident, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943). He was a trained surgeon who for some reason was incapable of relations with his wife; some say it was physical due to mumps, others believe it was a psychological aversion like Havelock Ellis. He devoted much of his writing and doctoring to persuading couples to minimize their conjugal visits and maximize their therapeutic visits to his Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan.
That retreat was a singularly successful enterprise from its opening when Kellogg was just 24 until his death at age 91. No meat of any kind was served there; the diet was practically vegan, consisting mostly of grains in various forms. While experimenting with approaches to food preparation in 1897, they happened upon the surprisingly appetizing flake they patented as “granose.” Eventually, they decided the process worked best with corn and the product was marketed as the corn flake. His brother, Will Keith Kellogg, broke away in 1906 and made a rival company selling the flakes with added sugar. John Harvey was appalled at this innovation and they never spoke again.
The Sanitarium, known affectionately as The San, was a mecca for the rich and idle, complaining of a host of hypochondriac ailments. (Perhaps he should better have marketed oat flakes: “Oat-i-os for the otiose!”) Kellogg started them off with a rigid regimen of yogurt consumption, half via eating, half via enema. Then he put them through all manner of contraption, including the vibrating chair, the freezing bath with radium in the water and different levels of electrical stimulation. If none of that worked to perk you up, the surgeon’s knife came out. Over the years, he performed many operations to remove portions of intestines.
The satirical novel, The Road to Wellville by T. C. Boyle, captures the madness cleverly. It was later brought to the screen by a cast including Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg, Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda as patients, with Michael Lerner and John Cusack as hustlers trying to wangle their way into the corn flake business. All of this seems transparently nutso in retrospect, yet it was all quite respectable, even sought after, in its own day. Abolitionist Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) went there near the end of her life in the hope of capturing some of that rejuvenation everyone was talking about.
The truth is that present-day shysters often steal Kellogg’s material to great effect. In my four-decade career as an avid radio listener, I have heard at least three different revivals of the toxins-in-the-bowels gospel. There was one fellow hawking a book about ten years ago who sounded like he had lifted Kellogg’s spiel word for word. Apparently, there are still enough lemmings out there and you can make money by offering them lemming aid.
Gore and Kennedy are drawing upon this treasure trove in the American historical memory. They are pressing the same buttons in our personas and eliciting the same slack-jawed slavishness. The toxins are now in our gas tanks and air-conditioning vents; the corrupted bowels extend into the stratosphere. Apparently, they are full of, er… toxic waste. The solution is not the Sanitarium but the government. But the technique remains the same: corny appeals, flaky ideas.
Oh, and what was done with the San building up in Battle Creek? It is now a Federal building.