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Moral Control

Reason online recently ran an interesting article comparing two moralists. One from the left and one from the right. The examples were in the form of books, the first by Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame and the second by Ben Shapiro, a self-proclaimed virgin and anti-pornography (this is a broader category than it appears) advocate.

Writer Radley Balko, a policy analyst at Cato, hits early and often, pointing out portions of Spurlock’s Don't Eat this Book as more moral opinion than anything factually based.

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.

But Spurlock gets better:

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.

Wow, I may actually have to read that to believe it.

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.

I’ve heard several talking heads discuss how our government perpetuates an appropriate diet that is too high in certain products, perhaps animal-based food like meat and dairy, in order to prop up agricultural industry. I’ve heard on multiple occasions that the medicine industry is designed to keep us continually medicated by only suppressing our symptoms. That the removal of several environmental conditions (food, etc) would result in the source of the symptoms being remedied. I actually do find the idea interesting, but I’ve never run across any scientific research or defense of these ideas. Anyone?

Back to the subject at hand, another example of Spurlock using supposition and faintly researched information as fact to get the reader in line with his moral high-ground:

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.” ... Spurlock need only have visited the popular urban legend site Snopes.com to see his aspartame fears deflated.

This is all unfortunate. I went to Super Size Me in the theaters and enjoyed it as entertainment. I understood his beef with McDonald’s advertising, but more from a parental point-of-view rather than a governmental oversight angle. But even as I listened to his editorializations I was suspicious. I enjoyed some episodes of his television show, 30 Days, but whenever he’d throw in a voice-over I would block it out. This is in contrast to watching Penn & Teller: Bullshit! which by-in-large presented information that I could easily Google and verify immediately after watching the show, though I’ll admit at times became a little disingenuous with its desire to entertain. In any case, at one point in time I had vast respect for these documentarians even when they got it wrong. Now I don’t consider them (the repeatedly wrong “them”) nearly as hard of workers since they do not actually dig in to an issue enough to find the truth.

As for Shapiro’s book, Porn Generation, claiming our recently oversexed society is going to be cause for an apocalyptic failing of social mores and lawlessness and degradation throughout the nation? Well, Balko tidily wraps that up with a little thing he calls 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.

From the reading of Balko’s article, it seems that 21-year-old Shapiro’s basis for the book is different than the myth-based Don't Eat this Book. Shapiro focuses on isolated stories and anecdotes to “prove” a vast societal devaluation. He shows his intellectual dishonesty by denigrating homosexuality rather than pointing out that allowing homosexuals to join the marriage coven would give that section of our population the official ability to commit to the same monogamous and publicly recognized (and socially accepted) relationships as the rest of us. It’s unfortunate that a book that has no time for basic research methods or statistical analysis could gain the ear of policymakers, but it appears that some on the right are listening.

And the scary thing is that there are drastically too few real conservative law makers on the job in Washington. Whether it is from the right or the left, nearly all of the people on the Hill wish to enact laws limiting what you can or cannot do to satisfy yourself in private. The pursuit of happiness is perilously close to losing its “right” status. Whether you’re obese, homosexual, or heterosexual (rest assured, the restrictive sexual legislation does not stop in the bedrooms of gay people), you could stand to improve and the government is here to “help” you. Balko neatly summarizes:

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. ... As H.L. Mencken put it, “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false face for the urge to rule it.”