Curb Your Enthusiasms

Moralists left and right want to control your carnal desires.

Don't Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America, by Morgan Spurlock, New York: Putnam, 320 pages, $21.95
Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future, by Ben Shapiro, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 256 pages, $27.95

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.

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.)

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