Social Issues

Editor's Note: Guilty Pleasures


In college I had a yoga instructor named Jagdish who was, to put it euphemistically, Buddhaesque—he must have carried over 300 pounds on a six-foot frame. Despite his bulk, he was very supple, able to strike all the necessary postures for the benefit of the class. Though born in the U.S. (his birth name was Richard), he peppered his conversation with quasi-Eastern insights such as "There's no such thing as 'all or nothing,'" "Scratch an itch if it helps your concentration," and "Guilty pleasures are neither."

Everyone liked him, but there's no question that his weight undercut his authority. Finally, someone got up the nerve to ask the question that had silently filled the room since our first meeting: "Jagdish, why are you so fat?" Jagdish smiled broadly and repeated the question slowly and deliberately. "Why am I so fat?" he mused. "Because I eat too much."

I thought of Jagdish's weight—and wisdom—often while putting this issue together. Americans have long had an ambivalent relationship with pleasure, and we've always been quick to vilify our objects of desire. This month's cover story, "The Anti-Pleasure Principle," by Senior Editor Jacob Sullum (page 24), deconstructs the avowedly moderate image of the influential, media-savvy Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

That's the crew that famously dubbed fettuccine Alfredo a "heart attack on a plate" and wildly predicted gastrointestinal armageddon if the fat substitute olestra ever became popular. CSPI has, Sullum notes, "the ability to grab headlines, kill sales of products it doesn't like, and shape regulatory policy." Yet Sullum shows that CSPI, far from being a source of thoughtful, responsible research, represents yet another variation on the grand old impulse toward puritanism, aptly defined by H.L. Mencken as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

Other stories in this issue underscore that CSPI is hardly alone in its hostility toward anything that smacks of fun. In "Birth of a Medium" (page 57), Associate Editor Jesse Walker reports on legislation aimed at adult-oriented video games such as Grand Theft Auto III, and in "Machine Melee" (page 64), Associate Editor Brian Doherty discusses some people's discomfort with the "violence" inherent in TV shows such as Robot Wars and Battlebots, which feature technologically advanced metal contraptions fighting to the finish.

Even the massively popular Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter movies—whose deep appeal is elucidated by Michael Valdez Moses in "Back to the Future" (page 48)—have been cause for concern. Some years back, literary critic Harold Bloom sniffed that Harry Potter's popularity merely confirmed the "dumbing down" of the American mind.

Give credit, then, to the enterprising and audacious Illinois pols described in Joe Bob Briggs' "Socialized Gambling" (page 16). After years of tightly regulating casinos, officials in the Land of Lincoln have now decided they want to own and operate them instead. As bad an idea as that is, it almost represents progress when it comes to pleasure seeking.