Not Your Grandfather’s Anti-Fluoridation Movement

May 22, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Fight Mental Health.”  The gag bumper sticker from decades ago was funny because of the double-take you did to realize what it literally meant. 

Yesterday, the citizens of Portland, Oregon voted No on fluoridation (a news story is here). I had thought that questions about fluoridation had been settled long ago, and that most Americans had made their peace with water that reduced tooth decay.  But the issue never really went away.

The “fight dental health” movement is no joke.  But the constituents and ideology have changed somewhat.  Here’s what it was like back in the day.
In Seattle, Washington, in 1951, for example, the anti-fluoridation committee drew support from Christian Scientists, a few dentists, health food operators, and fervent anti-Communists.*               

Those fervent anti-Communists seemed awfully worried about boundaries – the boundaries of the nation and the boundaries of the body.  McCarthy and his followers seemed less troubled about external threats – the military might of the USSR – than about internal ones.  Actors, directors, writers, schoolteachers and others – Americans all – had to be rooted out lest they insinuate an alien ideology into our unsuspecting brains.  

The anti-Communist imagery reminds me of Animorphs, a series of books once popular among grade-school kids (or at least among the one who lived in my house).  The series premise is that aliens from outer space have come to earth, but only the Animorphs -- our quintet of teenage heroes – knows about them.  The worm-like alien creatures, Yeerks, threaten to take over the country not by force but by stealth – taking over our minds.  A Yeerk slips into the porches of a victims ear, slides inside, and swift as quicksilver wraps itself  around the victim’s brain.  To others, the victim appears unchanged, an ordinary American citizen, but he is now under the control of the evil aliens.

As with Animorphs, so with fervent 1950s anti-Comnunists. Three months ago (here), I quoted Gen. Jack Ripper of “Dr. Strangelove”:
It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual, and certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.
 Gen. Ripper and the Animorphs are fictional.  But they’re not far-fetched.
During the 1950s, Golda Franzen, a San Francisco housewife, became the leading exponent of the idea that fluoridation was a “Red conspiracy.” She predicted that fluoridation would produce “moronic, atheistic slaves” who would end up “praying to the Communists.” Franzen's warnings, echoed by such groups as the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan acquired particular salience during the anti-communist fevers of !he McCarthy era. For his part, C. Leon de Aryan, editor of an antiSemitic publication in San Diego, described the spread of fluoridation as a plot to “weaken the Aryan race” by “paralyzing the functions of the frontal lobes.”
 Maybe the Yeerks too wrapped themselves around the frontal lobes.

The mood of the anti-fluoridation forces today in Portland seems different, at least according to the WSJ account, more lighthearted (they have a film called “An Inconvenient Tooth”) and perhaps more concerned with filtration than with infiltration.  Rock musicians, not usually known for rigid boundary maintenance, participated. Local bands – the Dandy Warhols, the Guantanamo Baywatch – were part of the opposition.  On the other side, the Decemberists, who rock globally, were acting locally in favor of  fluoridation. 

The purity-of-essence argument still has exponents, but they do not look at all like the anti-Communist Jack Rippers of the 1950s.  Their quest is not for freedom from insidious foreign influence but for what is “natural.” (A major organic food vendor was on board.)  I would guess that they prefer acupuncture and herbal remedies and don’t want their children inoculated.  I would also guess that even with Portland’s water still uncontaminated by fluoride, they drink only bottled natural spring water.

But the dominant non-medical theme seems to have been “choice.”  The government should not force you to do things without your consent, even if those things are good for your health.

* From Donald R. McNeil (1985) “America's Longest War: The Fight over Fluoridation, 1950 —” (full text behind a paywall here.

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