Commentary

Curb Your Enthusiasms

This article appeared on Reason.com, February 10, 2006.

In the fall of 2004, CKE Restaurants introduced the Monster Thickburger at its Hardee’s franchises. It was a 1,420-calorie, 107-grams-of-fat double-patty slab of decadence, topped with four strips of bacon, three slices of cheese, mayonnaise, and a buttered roll. The chain promoted these enormous sandwiches with some provocative advertising, including a spot in which model Cameron Richardson rides a mechanical bull while seductively mouthing the burger to the Foghat tune “Slow Ride.” In another, Paris Hilton eats a sandwich while washing a car, wearing virtually nothing.

You have to admire CKE’s efficiency. The company managed to enrage both left-wing public health activists and right-wing public values activists with a single ad campaign. Among the food scolds, the Center for Science in the Public Interest called the sandwich the culinary equivalent of a snuff film. Among the family values scolds, Brent Bozell called the campaign a “sleazy attempt to sell burgers with pornography.” It was a tidy moment of convergence, repeated in a pair of recent books from two young ambassadors of those campaigns: class clown cum fast-food muckraker Morgan Spurlock and tenderfoot conservative newspaper columnist Ben Shapiro.

Spurlock’s Don’t Eat This Book is a breezy polemic against the food industry, written as a sort of reading companion to his documentary Super Size Me. Although the book itself is little more than a recitation of talking points from public health activists—its thin bibliography draws on the usual lineup of consumer groups and nutrition activists like New York University’s Marion Nestle, Harvard’s Kelly Brownell, and the self-aggrandizing tort lawyer John Banzhaf—Spurlock’s hipster credibility will bring those talking points to new audiences.

For Spurlock, the problem with CKE isn’t the sex it uses to sell its product (although he loathes advertising in general); it’s the product itself. As we’re all hunkering down to battle obesity, he asks, how could a corporation be so irresponsible as to offer something so indulgent in the first place? The Monster Thickburger, he notes, was introduced the same week the British Parliament proposed a ban on advertising junk food before 9 p.m. Asks Spurlock: “Can you see the difference in our priorities and ideals here?”

As for Shapiro, his Porn Generation isn’t all that different from the typical Regnery screed against Hollywood, rock ’n’ roll, and the Internet, save for its hook: It’s written by a judgmental 21-year-old virgin (self-proclaimed). With chapter titles and subheads like “The Lotion Picture Industry,” “Abercrappie and Bitch,” and “The president’s goodnight blowjobs,” the book smacks of a kid who, having chosen chastity, is trying desperately to make virginity hip. Shapiro’s sourcing is no better than Spurlock’s: His supporting evidence consists largely of quotes from conservative interest groups, columnists, and activists. Shapiro lambastes the Thickburger commercials as well, along with the entire intersection of sex and advertising, and concludes, “At a certain point, it’s difficult to morally differentiate between paying for sex on the street and buying a pair of jeans.”

Neither Spurlock nor Shapiro would like to be compared to the other, which of course is half the fun of doing it. But although they come from opposing sides of the left-right divide, the two are fellow travelers in a time-honored tradition: Both are merchants of moral panic.

The term moral panic was popularized by the British sociologist Stanley Cohen in 1972’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Cohen described the phenomenon as the process by which prejudice or prudery isolates for scorn a subset, trend, or habit in the broader culture. The scorned tend to be “deviant,” or at least to display characteristics unsettling to established cultural norms. Scorn soon sours to contempt, activists emerge, and the panic is on. Truth, perspective, and context give way to urban legends, hyperbole, and hysteria. A well-executed panic leaves vigilantism, ill-considered legislation, and eroded civil liberties in its wake.

American history teems with such episodes, from the Salem witch trials to reefer madness to the ongoing methamphetamine scare. Other panics include the 1950s hubbub over horror-themed comic books; 1980s fusses over heavy metal, Satanism, and Dungeons & Dragons; and more recent furors over violent video games and the Goth subculture.

Spurlock’s panic is the “obesity epidemic,” the target of a public health crusade that’s equal parts Victorian restraint, fear of business, distaste for conspicuous consumption, and disdain for fat people. While he certainly didn’t start America’s obesity panic, there’s no question that Spurlock has played a big role in popularizing it. Super Size Me was nominated for an Academy Award, and with more than $11.5 million in gross receipts, it stands today as the sixth-highest-grossing documentary of all time. Since the movie, Spurlock has won two cable television shows, with the F/X network and with Comedy Central.

Spurlock’s book opens with an attack on American consumption, delivered wholly without context or perspective. He writes, “in 2003, we spent nearly $8 trillion on all kinds of crap. That’s right, trillion. How insane is that?…We buy almost twice as much crap as our nearest competitor, Japan.” Spurlock posits a peculiar and unsubstantiated connection between our pursuit of “stuff” and our consumption of antidepressants, our waistlines, and our health, concluding that advertising and marketing make us want to buy more, that wanting more makes us depressed, and that depression makes us want to buy more. For Spurlock, we don’t merely have too much flesh around our waists; we have too much everything.

This theme is reflected in Spurlock’s apparent fondness for countries devoid of consumer culture. He fondly anticipates an upcoming trip to Cuba, for example, writing that he’s eager to visit before Castro dies and the country is “flooded with American consumer crap.” At one point, he writes that there’s little difference between the line to get a burger at the Moscow McDonald’s and the lines to get government-issued food in the former Soviet Union. Later, he suggests that our modern diet is giving us cancer and announces: “Diets high in animal fat seem to promote cancer and inhibit recovery from things like breast and colon cancer. Where do people eat high-fiber, plant-based diets? The nonindustrial world, that’s where. Where do people eat too much meat and fat? Guess.”

He neglects to mention the vast disparity between the industrial and nonindustrial worlds when it comes to life expectancy, infant mortality, and the eradication of communicable diseases. If there’s more cancer in the Western world, it’s at least partly because we live longer.

Having damned consumption, Spurlock then praises restraint, making his point with an odd retelling of history. “Everybody in the world, in every culture, has known that overeating is bad for you,” he writes. “In the Judeo-Christian tradition…overeating wasn’t just bad for you, it was bad, period. As in morally wrong.” After recapping Dante’s account of what Hell offers up for gluttons, Spurlock sighs, “In just the last thirty years, we’ve trashed those thousands of years of civilized tradition.”

Spurlock’s synopsis is not just ridiculously broad. (Everybody in the world has condemned overeating? In every culture?) It’s mistaken. In most cultures through most of history, adiposity has been a sign of vigor, beauty, and good health. Well-proportioned women graced urns and canvases as the epitome of beauty. Ruben’s nudes would drive today’s obesity warriors to apoplexy. Anthropologist Lionel Tiger notes in his book The Pursuit of Pleasure that today’s ultimate flattery—“I see you’ve lost weight”—would through most of history have been “a mark of sympathy and dread.” (There is a difference, of course, between being well-fed and obese. But the absurd parameters of today’s Body Mass Index pushes the well-fed into the overweight category.)

It might at first appear odd to see a leftist critic lamenting the fact that we’re less likely to pass judgment on one another’s personal habits than we once were. But this tendency actually is fairly common, if sometimes subtle. In the fat panic, it isn’t just the food industry that’s demonized. It’s overweight people themselves. In a 2001 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, for example, journalist Greg Critser, an early, vocal, and prolific obesity doom-and-gloomer, wrote: “In an abundant and permissive world, gluttony has gotten a good name. It’s time to restigmatize the once-sinful act of excessive eating.” Tiger observes in his book that fat people are assumed to lack backbone. Paraphrasing critics (with whom he does not agree), he writes: “They are self-indulgent. They enjoy bad food and too much food too well…They bear the equivalent of the scarlet letter on their indecently curvaceous bellies.”

Worst of all, Spurlock spreads myth and innuendo. In two particularly egregious passages, he bizarrely hints that McDonald’s might use human remains in its food, although he keeps enough distance from the charge to maintain plausible deniability. In the first, he relays an anonymous post to his Web site in which someone claiming to be a former funeral home worker writes that the smell of the cremated human flesh from an obese man reminded him of the smell inside a McDonald’s. In the second, Spurlock clumsily invokes the Charlton Heston movie Soylent Green—in which human remains are rendered into food—just before embarking on a rant about the contents of processed food.

Sometimes Spurlock forthrightly embraces falsehoods. Attacking the diet drink sweetener aspartame (a.k.a. NutraSweet), he writes, “There were far more troubling studies possibly linking aspartame to birth defects and brain tumors, one conducted by the [Food and Drug Administration] itself as early as 1981, but they were overlooked in the rush to get Nutra­Sweet approved and marketed.”

This is an urban legend. It continues to get play on Web sites devoted to alternative medicine and conspiracy theories, but it has been refuted—even scoffed at—in the pages of Time and The Lancet, as well as by the FDA and by researchers at MIT. Spurlock need only have visited the popular urban legend site Snopes.com to see his aspartame fears deflated.

Don’t Eat This Book is overflowing with similar rubbish. Spurlock publishes as fact countless accusations against the food industry that either have been debunked, are described without context, or were never backed by much evidence to begin with.

Spurlock’s larger point is that fat will eventually be our undoing, either by putting us all in the hospital with cancer or heart disease or by bankrupting us with spiraling health care costs. But there’s just not much evidence that our thickening waistlines portend doomsday. The bloody shirt that anti-fat warriors have been waving for a decade—a study claiming that obesity kills 400,000 Americans per year—was recently shown to be off by a factor of 15. New research actually suggests a modest health benefit from being mildly overweight. Although Spurlock dutifully recites obesity warrior talking points linking excess weight to cancer and heart disease, deaths from and incidence of both illnesses have been dramatically declining since the early 1990s—the very period during which America has been getting fatter.

At least Spurlock limits himself to one moral panic. In Porn Generation, Ben Shapiro juggles several, although his main beef seems to be with the trend toward sexual permissiveness and pop culture “indecency.”

“I am a member of a lost generation,” Shapiro writes. “We have lost our values. We have lost our faith. And we have lost ourselves.…The ‘live and let live’ societal model is a recipe for societal disaster.” He wrote his book, he continues, to “reexamine the true consequences of the oversexed society in which we live.” He hits all the religious right’s hot buttons, from sex education to “slut pop” to Internet porn to Abercrombie & Fitch. Rappers, Shapiro writes, “need to get over their obsession with their own genitalia…or there’s no end to the damage this destructive culture can create.” He posits that the famous Brittany Spears–Madonna kiss at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards precipitated a “wave of bisexual chic” and warns, “If one lesbian snogfest…can set off so much bisexual activity among young girls, what effect does constant promotion of promiscuity have on them?”

On the prevalence of pornography, Shapiro writes, “We’ve been told there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality or premarital sex—so what’s so bad about checking out a few dirty pictures? Or visiting the local strip club?” His reply: “Hugh Hefner would agree. Ted Bundy wouldn’t. Neither would his victims.”

Like Spurlock’s predictions, Shapiro’s grim forecast of where our sex-saturated society is headed doesn’t have much basis in fact. The evidence of a link between porn and sex crimes is scant. Sex crime rates in Europe, for example, have remained stagnant or declined since the onset of the porn age. Japan is notorious for its widely accessible, particularly violent varieties of pornography, yet its rape rate (2.4 per 100,000 people) is far lower than that of the U.S. (32 per 100,000). The U.S. rate has dropped by about 25 percent since the early 1990s, when porn first became widely available over the Internet. This happened even as the stigma against rape victims has eased, making the crime more likely to be reported.

There’s also little evidence to support Shapiro’s broader thesis, that the sexualization of pop culture and acceptance of other lifestyles is “reshaping society” in “vastly destructive ways.” In 2004 the conservative magazine City Journal cataloged trends in behavior and beliefs among Americans in their 30s and younger. Multiple polls, it revealed, show that young people today are more conservative than their parents when it comes to issues of personal morality. Teen sex, teen pregnancy, and teen abortions have all dropped dramatically since the early 1990s, and all are at their lowest rates since the mid-1970s. Drinking and pot smoking among teenagers are also on the decline, as is violent crime.

All of these trends have been taking place since the early 1990s—the same period in which American culture was allegedly getting trashier. According to City Journal, the same age group tends to be more tolerant of homosexuality, less judgmental of single parents, and actively engaged in the music, movies, television, and Internet that Shapiro finds so corrupting.

Where Spurlock employs myth and innuendo to push his panic, Shapiro is more inclined to use “folk devils,” a term sociologist Cohen coined to describe our penchant for singling out villains as the embodiment of a purported threat. Shapiro trots out such tired family-values pariahs as Marilyn Manson, Madonna, Eminem, and Sex and the City. (It’s fun to read him recounting lurid lyrics and bawdy conversations from the HBO show, if only because it’s easy to imagine him breaking a sweat as he wrote them.) Occasionally, Shapiro offers an isolated news story or personal anecdote in an attempt to link one of his folk devils to an actual crime. But he’s never able to convincingly cite any widespread harm.

Shapiro doesn’t have nearly as much pop culture cache as Spurlock: He’s a rock star on the College Republican circuit but is largely unknown outside of it. Still, with the GOP in power, the panic he’s pushing is more likely to resonate with policy makers. Many in Congress, for example, want the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to extend its power to regulate “indecency” to cable television and satellite radio. Leaders from both parties are looking to slap new regulations on explicit music and video games. And Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently told his army of U.S. attorneys that prosecuting pornography—not terrorism or organized crime—would be the Justice Department’s top priority while he’s in office.

Spurlock’s and Shapiro’s books don’t merely share a weakness for moral panic; the panics themselves are closely linked. The late cultural critic David Shaw suggested in his 1994 book The Pleasure Police that restraint from sexual pleasure and restraint from culinary pleasure have the same Victorian roots. The Victorians, Shaw argues, taught that “bodily pleasure, whether taken between the lips or between the legs, was to be avoided at all costs.” In the 1859 guide to Victorian living Self-Help—literally the self-help book of its day—author Samuel Smiles cautioned that “man should arm himself against the temptation of low indulgences,” which Smiles defined as “defiling his body by sensuality.” That meant not only lust but hunger. Shaw quotes the social historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg, who explains that Victorian women were taught not only to be prudish toward sex but to “distance themselves from eating.…To be hungry, in any sense, was a social faux pas.” Shaw’s thesis comes to mind when the Center for Science in the Public Interest issues warnings about “food porn,” in which it singles out the grub—low-carb cheesecake, for example—that it considers too decadent and tempting for decent people.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with advocating personal restraint or self-denial, be it in food or in flesh. The problem with Shapiro and Spurlock is that neither stops at mere advocacy. Completing Cohen’s pattern, both call for government intervention. Neither is satisfied simply to urge better choices. Both seem genuinely perturbed that “bad” choices are available in the first place, and they are ready to use laws to take them away.

Spurlock dismisses the healthier options available at McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants, such as salads and fresh fruit, on the grounds that only a small percentage of diners actually order them. His beef with McDonald’s, then, seems to be not that the company doesn’t offer nutritious food but that it offers more indulgent options as well. He then heaps praise on Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a politician he says “gets it.” “Getting it” apparently means sponsoring, as Harkin has, a panoply of legislation aimed at authorizing more government oversight of the food industry, including mandatory nutrition labeling on restaurant labels, Federal Trade Commission restrictions on all advertising to minors, and Medicare coverage for diet counseling.

Shapiro is blunter. He writes, “We must press government to use the force of the law against pornography, obscenity, and indecency across the board…from TV to radio to the Internet, from music to movies.” He also endorses the drive to let the FCC censor cable and satellite television, including pay channels such as HBO and Showtime.

Given the intellectual vacuity of their books, it’s tempting to dismiss Spurlock and Shapiro as too shallow to be taken seriously. But they are taken seriously—or, at least, many of their arguments are. Moral panics come and go. The panics that leave laws behind are the ones that do lasting damage—and that tend to return.

The debate over vice is often framed as a conflict between the rights of individuals and the collective good. But that gives alarmists like Spurlock and Shapiro too much credit. More often than not, the actual collective good is plugging along just fine, whatever the Chicken Littles may say. The real debate is usually between the right of individuals to live their lives as they please and the desires of others to control them. As H.L. Mencken put it, “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false face for the urge to rule it.”

Radley Balko is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute specializing in “nanny state” and consumer choice issues, including alcohol and tobacco control, drug prohibition, obesity, and civil liberties