The world seems agog at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest attempt to forcibly improve the health of his subjects. He is proposing—and seems very likely to be able to fully implement—a ban on the sale of sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 oz at restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas and street carts (i.e.: pretty much anywhere other than standard grocery stores, where fortunately you’ll still be able to take home a 2-liter Pepsi and embrace death by high fructose corn syrup).
A move like this is tailor-made for lengthy expressions of outrage over the incremental loss of freedom in modern American society. And, you know, have at it, by all means—but as for me (who happens to be a citizen of New York City), this particular effort is only good for chuckles. Is reducing the size of the available drink actually going to keep those who want to drink more from doing so? Are such people too dumb to realize that they can just order two 16 oz drinks in order to get the more fully-thirst-quenching 32 oz quantity which they desire? No one is really being prevented from doing anything here. It’s merely a perfect example of government nannyism run amok, expending pointless effort and over-regulating private enterprise with the vain goal of altering gluttonous human nature. A good knee-slapper is what it is.
As to the broader question of the rise in power of the health fascists, I believe the decisive turn in that battle was fought and lost (or won, depending on your point of view) years ago, and it too happened in New York.
I remember, before I moved to New York, how I regarded the city. I’m thinking specifically of when I lived not so far to the north, in Boston, Massachusetts. It was the late 1980s and early 1990s, an era of rabid political correctness. I’m sure that movement has not by any means called it quits, but at that time and in that place it seemed especially conspicuous and stifling. Language and thought seemed to be subject to the most rigorous inspection by self-appointed arbiters of what was good and appropriate and what made everyone feel comfortable and diverse. Hopping on the train down the coast and visiting New York City, however, I noticed a funny thing (which was also corroborated by friends): political correctness did not rule in New York. Certainly, New York was and is overall as politically liberal a town as any in the U.S., but it was too rough and tumble to be governable by speech and thought police. There was too much freedom for that. The freedom was in the air, on the sidewalks, in the stench and the grimy beauty and the crazy cacophony of the city. No one thing, no single philosophy, political ideology or creed could possibly dominate. No one seemed afraid to speak his or her mind. I guess this must have been one of the key aspects of the city which seduced me and made me want to live there.
New York in those days also would have been the very last place in the world where I could have imagined that the smoking of cigarettes would be banned in, of all places, bars.
Now, health fascism is not political correctness; they are different animals, but they share some genetic code. They both carry stiff strains of puritanism and sanctimony. Think about it: just as with political correctness one is ordered not to use certain words because they might make someone else feel uncomfortable, so with what we might call “health correctness” one is not allowed to smoke—even, now, in Central Park!—just in case a whiff of it might be detected by another human being.
Indeed, I am convinced that it was the implementation of these kinds of strict anti-smoking rules, spearheaded by Mayor Bloomberg himself in New York City (although we now see them in many locales), which tipped the balance in favor of the health correctness movement. Momentum counts for a lot in these matters. Once you have allowed the government to prohibit what was previously perfectly normal and legal behavior in the name of protecting people from theoretical health consquences, you have opened up a very large hole in the fabric of personal freedom. It was nothing from there to progress to the variety of other health-correctness-dictates which have emanated from New York’s preeminent nutritionist and nurse, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
I am not a smoker (that is, I quit over 15 years ago). Smoking is not good for you. However, society gave up something important when it decided to treat cigarette smokers like vermin, to be scorned and kicked out into the street. I wrote about it once before, calling it “the death of hospitality,” and contrasting it with how the world once seemed to work:
Back when I was a little lad, my parents didn’t smoke, but ashtrays were kept in the house to be offered to visitors who did. I learned that the proper answer to someone asking, “Will it bother you if I smoke?” is “Of-course not! Go right ahead.” It had something to do with courtesy, hospitality and tolerance of eachothers’ vices (we do all have them, after all). Of-course, courtesy was also expected from the smoker, too—the asking of permission being part of it, and the avoidance of smoking to such an excess that it could not but annoy others. It was always, perhaps, an uneasy kind of détente, but it was based, as I said, on a mutual understanding of human foible and a willingness to accommodate one another cheerfully.
There is no accomodation anymore. Now we use the law to take care of these things. We are so much more civilized.
So, you’ll forgive me, I hope, if Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on Slurpees seems to me like only a very minor advance in the all-consuming war on potential ill-health.
This war will finally end in total victory for those on Mayor Bloomberg’s side when we are all utterly prevented from doing anything which might possibly injure our health, thus relieving us of any remaining reason to go on living.