The Anti-Pleasure Principle
Jacob Sullum has made something of a career pooh-poohing the dangers of tobacco, so I wasn't exactly surprised to learn that he's similarly dismissive ("The Anti-Pleasure Principle," July) of the concerns the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) raises about various foods and food additives.
First of all, to say that CSPI is "anti-pleasure" or out to impose some kind of code of self-denial on others just isn't supported by the facts. We certainly don't force anyone to buy our books or read our Nutrition Action Healthletter, which Sullum admits has some 800,000 subscribers.
For every restaurant meal or food product we've criticized in our pages, we've praised another. For every "Food Porn" we've highlighted a "Right Stuff." We've said good things about sirloin steaks and roast beef sandwiches, along with the less charitable things we've had to say about nutritional nightmares like the Bloomin' Onion. I bet Sullum knows this, though he didn't care to tell your readers. I think what really troubles him is that somewhere, someone is getting information about food from something other than a big food conglomerate.
Take olestra. Sullum is certainly welcome to believe olestra is safe if he wishes, despite the science surrounding it. (For what it's worth, [discredited journalist] Stephen Glass, too, famously smeared our efforts to block the sale of olestra-containing chips.) Sullum laments that the negative publicity about olestra's side effects was largely to blame for its "disappointing performance in the marketplace"—as if that's a bad thing. Is corporate advertising the only form of communication that should trigger a market response?
If ever there were an example of "extremism disguised as moderation"—a charge leveled by Sullum at CSPI—it is food advertising, particularly fast food and soda ads aimed at kids. After all, what's "moderate" about supersizing or Big Gulps? One would think that a libertarian would be more welcoming of our efforts to balance the billions corporations spend telling people what to eat.
When Sullum laughs at us for urging consumers to wash fruits and vegetables, you get the sense he's just piling on for the sport of it. And sportingly, he fails to mention that CSPI led the successful fight for easy-to-read nutrition facts labels on packaged foods; it has stopped scores of deceptive advertising campaigns, reduced the number of deaths due to sulfites, and encouraged major restaurant chains to add more healthful options to their menus.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that poor diet and physical inactivity cause about 500,000 deaths a year. Food-borne illnesses cause another 5,000 deaths per year. Sullum makes it sound like we do food safety advocacy just to scare people away from meat, poultry, or other foods. But we do this work for its own sake, to make all of those foods safer to eat. I'd suggest that it's Sullum, rather than CSPI, who is "determined to find the catch, even when there is none."
Michael F. Jacobson
Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest
I just slogged through Jacob Sullum's lengthy hatchet job on the CSPI, and I must say I am disappointed. As U.S. obesity rates have skyrocketed in recent years, CSPI is one of the only organizations consistently drawing attention to a basic cause: the food we eat.
In a country filled with industries, lobbyists, and special interests invested in a fatter and less healthy America, I hope you feel satisfied by your effort to villainize one of the few organizations trying to help Americans eat right by providing them sound and detailed scientific information about food. Thankfully, the quality of their activism and education has resulted in broad popular support, and is little impacted by the likes of you.
CSPI's achievements, which have included pressuring movie theaters to remove unnecessary fats from movie popcorn and the more accurate labeling of food, far outstrip what any one callow reporter might achieve working to support the status quo.
Ann Arbor, MI
Jacob Sullum replies: The fact that Michael Jacobson describes me as "pooh-poohing the dangers of tobacco"—something I have never done—gives you a sense of his commitment to accuracy. His attempt to impugn olestra by noting that Stephen Glass once defended it suggests that logic is not his forte either. Glass' fabrications as a journalist are legendary, but that does not make him a reverse barometer of the truth. Even CSPI gets things right sometimes.
When it doesn't, the group's critics should be able to question its claims without being accused of trying to silence an alternative source of information. In the case of olestra, "the science surrounding it" is on the side of the product's defenders. Some consumers inevitably will experience gas or loose bowel movements after eating any product; that fact alone does not make those symptoms "side effects." You have to ask how many of the complaints cited by CSPI involved purely coincidental symptoms, especially when a placebo-controlled, double-blind study finds no gastrointestinal impact from eating olestra products.
Even if olestra snacks do not agree with everyone, many people would like to purchase them. It is important to recognize that CSPI goes beyond providing "information about food" when, as with olestra and Quorn, it asks the government to prevent consumers from buying products they want.
Finally, I have no problem with washing fruits and vegetables. But I do not agree with CSPI that it's reckless to eat an unpeeled apple or pear because pesticide residues lurking in the skin have "the potential to cause serious public health effects."
Cutting the Tripwire
I think that Doug Bandow ("Cutting the Tripwire," July) makes many important points about the North Korean crisis. Surely we should have left Korean issues to South Korea and the rest of the Asian community a long time ago, but I am disappointed that Mr. Bandow did not address two important points:
First, while we should be out of South Korea, is this really a great time to be leaving? Leaving now could be an even greater mistake than Reagan's pullout from Lebanon. If we exit now it looks like we're running away because of nuclear blackmail—a position of weakness that will only encourage more rogue behavior by such unseemly states as North Korea.
Second, what about the dangers posed by the exportation of North Korea's nuclear weapons? You can argue all day about whether our past mistakes created this crisis in the first place. The fact is that North Korea has nukes, and it has shown that it is all too happy to export any military technology to get its hands on hard cash.
There is much that needs to be discussed about this issue, but I think that any article purporting to solve the Korean problem needs to mention these dangerous realities.
Doug Bandow replies: Advocates of an American presence in Korea will never believe it is the right time to depart. The existing forces are not necessary to defend the South, will become nuclear hostages if the North develops a usable arsenal, deter Seoul from strengthening its own defense, encourage anti-Americanism in South Korea, and fuel the North's dangerous paranoia. The troops should come home.
There is much to be said about the nuclear issue, but that was not the thrust of this article. All regional parties need to be involved in developing a package of carrots and sticks regarding the North. Nuclear exports to terrorists are the most serious threat posed by Pyongyang's current course and should be dealt with accordingly. But America's conventional commitment is of no use in any case.
As an old Illinois politics watcher, I believe that a great deal of the nuttiness over casinos that Joe Bob Briggs identifies ("Socialized Gambling," July) comes from a combination of a moralistic political culture north of I-80; hard-core Baptist anti-gambling sentiment in western and southern Illinois; the perception that only the politically connected get to have licenses; and outrage by those connected who get shut out. What an explosive combination.
Media Critic, Critique Thyself
I have to take issue with a minor element of Cathy Young's dissection ("Media Critic, Critique Thyself," July) of Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media? She quotes Alterman's prodding of Ann Coulter about footnotes, but anyone who even opened Slander, much less read it, would know that it is extensively footnoted. Each chapter has about two pages of footnotes, but Young doesn't mention this.
A minor point, perhaps, but it curdled the milk a bit more for me when she asserted that Ann Coulter is the right's Michael Moore. I don't think the knock on Moore is that he is a strident polemicist: It's that he is a liar. If Ann is guilty of objective mendacity in print, I should very much like to see it pointed out. I don't think you will have much luck.
On Bernard Goldberg's book she is on much firmer ground; it was personal to the point of puerility. But Young devotes most of her analysis to this weaker example. To me, this smacks of an overabundance of deference to the left. The reason this grates so is that reason seems to bend over backward to slap left and right with equal vigor, regardless of the merits. Moral equivalence has done much to sap the life from debates in all fields lately, but I wouldn't expect such an acceptance of conventional wisdom in reason.
There has been a long-running liberal bias in media, and it is explained as follows: From the Depression through the election of 1994, Democrats generally controlled Congress, and the national psyche was dominated by a New Deal-spawned belief that government should assume a role in any and every perceived problem. What followed was that news people began to see themselves as participants in these grand adventures—and ultimately as believers in what was being done.
We should admit that to be human is to be biased. What will mark the superior news person is whether he can maintain skepticism of government, whether run by liberals or conservatives. At the most basic level, news people are trustees of our First Amendment rights of speech, press, and petition for redress of grievances. They need to be ever vigilant to remind us of our founding fathers' belief that these freedoms pertain especially to freedom from government. And this duty would seem to imply that the best reporters would naturally be biased toward conservatism.
Albert B. Hall
Friday Harbor, WA
Back to the Future
Thank you so much for Michael Valdez Moses' article ("Back to the Future," July); I so rarely have the occasion to read anything worthwhile about the macro-trends in filmmaking.
A minor point from the opening of the article, though: Lucas has actually been rather adamant on the point of there being no third Star Wars trilogy. The series will be complete once episode III (now shooting in Sydney) is finished.
I agree that the story of The Lord of the Rings is essentially anti-modern and parochial, confined to the sensibility of an Englishman, and with a world apparently populated with neither women nor any dark-skinned faces. There is simply no aperture from Middle Earth into the modern world that you and I live in, and for that reason I find it extremely difficult to relate to these films.
The Republic of the new Star Wars trilogy, by contrast, is much like our own glittering, Byzantine world—and Anakin is much like the teenager of today. I'm not certain what forces can stop our descent into the same kind of political and moral decadence that corroded Rome, and Lucas seems similarly pessimistic. The problem is inner, hidden, more psychological in nature. The basic idea is that when the final crisis comes, when the tyrant finally takes off his mask, no will be able to stop him. In fact, he will be welcomed.
These problems weigh on me all the time. Generally, however, I don't see them addressed in films at all, and certainly not with any style. Lucas' saga has been, for over a quarter century, a refreshing exception to this trend.
West Haven, CT