Fluoride and the Commies of the ’50s
Reading the fluoride controversy in Aspen and returning from a visit to the dentist to replace four old, deteriorating fillings reminds me of my childhood in a small rural town in Michigan in the 1950s. Everybody worried a lot about the Russians at the time, resulting in two articles of faith: First, we needed to watch out for the water supply; and second, Joe McCarthy was right.
The town drew its water from a municipal well, and the controversy was whether to put fluoride in the water, which didn’t occur until after I left town to go to college. The majority of the town believed that water fluoridation was a fundamental part of the Communist plot to take over the country. The Commies, you see, had figured out that over time, fluoridation turned your brain to mush and, before long, would render enough of us insensible that they could just walk in and take over without our really noticing. Joey Mac from Wisconsin assured us that the Russians were everywhere, and you simply couldn’t let your guard down for a minute lest you suddenly find them in charge and it would be too late. My town of a thousand souls was going to fight that eventuality tooth and nail, right down to the last cavity-ridden bicuspid.
I was waiting in the barber shop one day when I picked up a magazine article entitled “The Big Red Lie.” It asserted that Sputnik was a Communist plot of some sort and that the satellite did not, in fact, exist. We couldn’t see it, after all. We had only the word of the Russians to take on whether they had actually put it up there, and they were known liars. I pondered this for a while. At home, we read the Chicago Tribune, which every day praised McCarthy and excoriated the liberals as deluded wusses because they refused to act on strongly held beliefs without any observable proof. The inability to actually see either spies or satellites was more proof that they were there, and how incredibly devious the Russians were in their plots to overthrow us. Belief was the key to action, rather than any discernible facts.
It seemed to me that we were getting contradictory messages from the conservatives. The Russians were, on the one hand, unbelievably clever in their ability to undermine our society, and constant vigilance was required to make sure they didn’t destroy us; on the other hand, they were no match for the can-do American spirit, so when they claimed they had rockets, they probably really didn’t because they couldn’t possibly match us technologically. They were very deadly and very backward at the same time. That was the first, but not the last time, when it occurred to me that the conservatives seemed to hold mutually contradictory beliefs without being bothered by the contradiction.
The preponderance of medical evidence is that fluoride in the water is a good thing. You can, whether you are conservative or merely silly, prefer belief over evidence. But although you may not be overrun by the Commies, you are very probably, like me, going to have bad teeth.
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