Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Of sugar taxes and porridge gospels

These days if you enter a McDonald’s restaurant in Australia or New Zealand and order a medium frozen Coke, they ask you if you wouldn’t rather have a large one, since they both cost $1 anyway. And why would you have the smaller one, when after all you can stop drinking it whenever you want? This basement price for the beverage – part of a promotion that began three years ago – could well be below cost, and seems designed to get you into the restaurant in the hope you will be persuaded to consume something else as well.

A large Frozen Coke contains the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar, give or take. The daily recommended intake for an adult is anywhere between seven and 10, depending on whom you ask. If the tax on soft drinks with a high sugar content approved a few mohths in the UK were extended to these parts as was most recently suggested by Green MP Julie Anne Genter  McDonald’s large Frozen Coke would likely attract the highest of the two levels of taxation, affecting the chain’s bottom line. But that’s not to say that the extended promotion would be discontinued. This would be dictated by whether or not the extra cost was enough to offset the benefits in terms of extra hamburgers sold. The choice, in other words, is not the consumer’s, and never was. Just like the choice of the legislator on how to restrict availability of food products judged to be unhealthy isn’t restricted to taxing consumers. A government could pass laws to restrict or ban marketing, or to limit the sugar content of drinks below a certain level, or to label foods more clearly. The benefit of the tax, however, is that – as the UK Office for Budgetary Responsibility expects – it will be passed on entirely to the consumer, thereby reinforcing the ideological notion that obesity, like lung cancer before it, represents a failure in the exercise of personal responsibility. A failure that must be priced accordingly.

The introduction of the ‘sugar tax’ by George Osborne was lumped in with his announcement of devastating cuts to disability benefits. Apart from opposition from the food industry, ranging from the obviously self-interested to the frankly baffling (one industry representative feared at the same time that it wouldn’t raise enough money and that consumers wouldn’t bear the brunt – which apparently would be a bad thing), the tax has also been accused of being classist. However on this latter score I find its defences more interesting than the attacks.

On the one hand, you have the Dickensian paternalism of Jamie Oliver, who cried on cue in front of a camera at the reception he got in ‘the fattest town in the US’ by citizens less than impressed by his decision to reform them, and who has championed the tax in front of a select committee of the House of Commons as the means of ‘sending naughty kids to the naughty step’. On the other, you have the pragmatic rationalism of the likes of Henry Zeffman, who defended the tax on account of its being regressive. ‘Well of course it’s regressive,’ he wrote. ‘So is sugar and so are its effects. The country’s obesity crisis … disproportionately affects the poorest.’ He went on:
That’s not to say the levy is a silver bullet. There are background socioeconomic factors which mean that the most poor too often consume unhealthy diets. Further benefit cuts are hardly going to help in that regard.
Gorge on the saturated irony content of this argument: obesity disproportionately affects the poor. The poor have just been made even poorer, therefore will soon be more obese. Therefore taxing their consumption is the next logical step.

Evidently Zeffman’s vocabulary doesn’t include conjunctions such as instead or but also. His premise lucidly states that poverty, and not the high affordability of sugary drinks, is the problem. Therefore, he should conclude, alleviating that poverty ought to be the solution.

But he has no problem with a government that exacerbates poverty with one hand, and taxes consumption regressively with the other, as if the two measures weren’t produced in the same political space. We must always make distinctions, he appears to say. We must above all be rational.

So long as we are talking health, there is nothing healthy for our societies in heaping stigma upon obese people, an act whose consequences are both psychological – for the individuals affected – and more broadly ideological.

Obesity is the latest sin of the poor, like malnutrition was one hundred years ago. I’ve had the opportunity to write before for Overland about Maud Pember Reeves’ remarkable study of working-class lives in early twentieth-century London Round About a Pound a Week. That study into the food habits of the inhabitants of the suburb of Lambeth actually began as a mission to civilise them. More specifically, to inculcate in the mothers of those one-income families the principles of the neonate science of nutrition and in particular what Pember Reeves and her fellow high-society socialist women called ‘the gospel of porridge’.

Porridge, they reasoned, is cheaper than a breakfast of margarine and toast, and far more nutritious. Their mission therefore, as well as documenting the flawed diets of those families, was to initiate them to the simple practice of preparing this cornerstone meal. However – and this is what makes Pember Reeves a better human than Jamie Oliver – what the book ends up recounting is quite a different story from the one the author expected to tell. Her conclusion is this: the women of Lambeth managed as well as anyone could, better than Pember Reeves – still armed with science but deprived of her income – would have herself. And this goes for the porridge too, which would have taken far too long to make, and even if the women somehow had had the time, they lacked a good enough pot to ensure it wouldn’t burn, and even if somehow they had had the time and a good enough pot, they couldn’t afford the cream or milk to make it palatable to the husband and the children.

It is quite possible that a sugar tax would work, by a very limited definition of working, but I wish we could tax paternalism instead. I wish we could tax the logic that says that if the poor suffer poor health, it’s because of poor habits. Perhaps, like Pember Reeves, some people need to be made to see. To be made to survive on little money and less time, not for a week – as in a Survivor-style holiday – but for a year or a decade. Then they might grasp that the choice afforded to us by market capitalism is false, an absurdity, like asking for a medium Frozen Coke when the large one also costs one dollar and one dollar is all you have.

Originally published at Overland

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Alpha women unable to love

There is nothing especially novel about the ideas espoused by author Suzanne Venker on Fox News last week, but if the internet age of media has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes all you need to do to pierce the wider public consciousness is to come up with a catchy headline. Say hallo to ‘Society is creating a new crop of alpha women who are unable to love ’.

In her panel discussion with the ghastly cast of characters of Fox & Friends, as well as in the essay that accompanies the clip, Venker urges women in search of love or of a more harmonious marriage to be softer, less critical, more compliant; or, in what is undoubtedly her best turn of phrase, to ‘be more service-oriented’. Men, she informs us, ‘are so much simpler than women.’
What men want most of all is respect, companionship and sex. If you supply these basics, your husband will do anything for you—slay the dragons, kill the beast, work three jobs, etc. Men will happily do this if, and only if, they are loved well in return. It is when men are not loved well that problems arise. That is the nature of the male-female dance.
It's like in the game of chess, you see, in which the king is the most important piece but also ‘one of the weakest’. So, too, in marriage will the man follow a woman’s lead, and where she must lead him is a world in which she is ready for him to take charge. ‘It’s liberating to be a beta!’ Venker finally declares.

There’s a whole book to go with this advice, and I’m almost curious to find out how Ms Venker managed to stretch those few cheerfully reactionary ideas into the required length. Or rather I would, had I not stumbled some time ago into the definitive book on the subject.

Modern Woman, The Lost Sex is the work of Ferdinand Lundberg, a financial journalist and adjunct professor of social philosophy, and of the redoubtable Marinya Farnham, a New York-based psychiatrist who also appeared in a memorable short propaganda film aimed at encouraging women to abandon the workforce and resume their roles as homemakers after the end of the Second World War. The book was published in 1947 and became a best seller, going as far as to receive a mostly positive review in The New York Times by no less an authority than Margaret Mead.

It is also quietly horrifying.

The book’s central tenet, echoing Venker’s self-help memoir, is that modern woman is an enigma.
Women in general are a more complicated question than men… for they are more complicated organisms. They are endowed with a complicated reproductive system (with which the male genito-urinary system compared in complexity not at all), a more elaborate nervous system and an infinitely complex psychology revolving about the reproductive function.
Sometimes this nature is so complex that the observer can’t help but glimpse in it a hint of malice.
Each sex represents an organic tracing of reality. But in one instance the tracing is simple (relatively), in the other complex and even devious.
Twisted between nature and nurture, this new brand of devious woman is now ‘the cause of mass unhappiness and uneasiness in our times’, responsible for the spread what the authors call – in a formidable crescendo of pathos – ‘emotional slums’.
The emotional slum may be defined as existing wherever there is unhappiness and deep discontent not generated by poverty, disease or crippling physical disability: unhappiness and deep discontent that is not cured by some rearrangement of external circumstances.
In another striking (and extremely contemporary) turn of phrase, women are depicted as
the principal transmitting media of the disordered emotions that today are so widely spread throughout the world and are reflected in the statistics of social disorder. (My emphasis.)
This apparently recent statistic, which opens the segment on Fox News, is also used as a key piece of evidence in Modern Woman (1947)

Temperamentally unsuited for the independent, competitive life outside the home that the twin forces of consumer capitalism and the feminist movement have pushed her into, women have become riddled with anxieties – and these anxieties in turn have become the veritable index of the era.
Her insecurity, thus revealed, is the insecurity of the age and its future. it is an insecurity that billows around her in ever-widening circles, engulfing all
Evidence of this global creeping malaise is to be found in ‘all the questions that are raised recurrently about them’ (meaning the women). I hope you’ll appreciate the circular thinking at work here. A host of impossible, conflicting demands are placed on women – observe Lundberg and Farnham – resulting in as many conflicting pieces of advice and a great deal of fretting in the popular press. Therefore, the recurring formulation of such questions (along the lines of ‘Society is creating a new crop of alpha women who are unable to love’) is evidence of the problems caused by women, and that they are causing them.

Women, quite simply, are guilty of everything. Of the things they themselves do and don’t do, and of the things that men do and don’t do. Because while it’s true, as the authors graciously concede, that most of history’s major villains, including such recent ones as Messrs Mussolini and Hitler, were technically men, one need not go far to find a female influence in their lives. Indeed…
men, standing before the bar of historical judgment, might often well begin their defence with the words: “I had a mother”.
We may find in this crass psychoanalytic reading of history a precursor to contemporary conspiracist thinking, in which a mass of disparate events or social phenomena are taken as evidence of a theory without bothering to establish causation. Thus, the authors go on to enumerate a vast catalogues of sins, many of which – such as homicides, or white collar crime – are committed mostly by men, but only in order to link them to female anxiety, or to anxiety due to the changing social role of women. Even cynical pessimism in literature, which the authors trace back to Ibsen and a group of almost exclusively male authors, is to be blamed on women. Even conspicuous consumption. Even the over-prescription of drugs.

If terrible men have mothers, as do the male authors of terrible books, then so do terrible ideologies, and Modern Woman devotes one of its most appalling chapters to the vilification of Mary Wollstonecraft, or ‘God’s angry woman’, whom the authors subject to a dubious psychological post-mortem in order to declare her with absolute diagnostic certainty ‘an extreme neurotic of the compulsive type’. And because the ideology of feminism arose ‘out of her illness’ (as the author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman), then the ideology must be tainted as well.

To feminism, and the ‘sexual revolution’ (covered separately) Lundberg and Farnham devote a treatment that reminds us again of Suzanne Venker’s advice. It is only by reclaiming her ‘natural’ feminine role, and ceasing to put herself in competition with the husband, that a woman can fulfil both her own desires and his. In Modern Woman, the consequences of failing to do so are nothing short of catastrophic.
Where the woman is unable to admit and accept dependence upon her husband as the source of gratification and must carry her rivalry even into the act of love, she will seriously damage his sexual capacity.
In this rigidly heterosexual world, in which oral sex performed by anybody on anybody is seen as a form of deviance, pleasure itself is a function of filling one’s role in the proper social order.
The rule therefore is this: The less a woman’s desire to have children and the greater her desire to emulate the male in seeing a sense of personal value by objective exploit, the less will be her enjoyment of the sex act and the greater her general neuroticism.

It is when it comes to solutions that the authors of Modern Woman show a breadth of purpose far exceeding the mere call to ‘find your inner beta’, for their proposals are aimed at the policy makers, as opposed to the troubled individual reader. These include the mass funding of psychotherapy; the establishment of a federal department of welfare tasked among other things with ‘rehabilitating maladjusted families’, hence with various forms of social surveillance and intervention, but also with bestowing upon women honours for bringing up good citizens (here the Fascist and Nazi practice of giving medals for exceptional motherhood is explicitly praised); the introduction of cash payments to mothers, to subsidise them for not working outside the home as well as to promote fertility, again in quasi-Fascist fashion; and finally various measures aimed at ‘reconstructing the home’ (meaning the pre-modern nuclear family), including preventing unmarried women from becoming teachers, since ‘they cannot be an adequate model of a complete woman either for boys or for girls’.

Modern Woman was published exactly 70 years ago, but in this era of constant time slippages, you could be excused to think that it comes from the near future. For that boundary has never ceased to be patrolled, just as the language of reactionaries has never ceased to mix cries of national or racial supremacy with calls for the preservation of an archaic social order within the home.

When neo-fascists call men of other persuasions ‘beta cucks’ on the internet, they are laying claim simultaneously to virility and reason, stamping their arguments – as it were – with their manhood. Never mind how profoundly, shatteringly insecure you would have to be in order to use such language. The code stands for something else.

Armed not with the pseudoscientific veneer of evolutionary psychology, like a Dick Dawkins or a Bill Maher, but rather with Freudian psychoanalysis and the entire Judaeo-Christian apparatus for blaming sin and unhappiness on wayward women and impure mothers, Lundberg and Farnham leveraged their best-seller on the idea that ‘the unceasing debate about what women should and should not do and be, is only a surface indication of something much deeper’. On this, at least, they were certainly correct, just as the debate about same-sex marriage or transgender toilet rights in schools is the surface indication of something much deeper: namely, the attempt to restore an archaic, repressive social order, on which to build an equally archaic and repressive political system.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

In other times

When Judie Walton’s 5 year old son asked her mother ‘How old will I be in one thousand years’, she would reply: ‘1,005.’ At this time the Waltons – that is to say, at least the parents, then aged 27 and 32, but quite possibly the children as well – carried on their persons at all times medical bracelets such as this one, with instructions as to how their body should be treated in case a fatal accident should befall them.

The story is included in the February 20, 1967 issue of Life magazine, meaning the parents would now be in their seventies or early eighties. The Life Extension Society of Washington, DC ceased operating by the early 1970s, but it’s quite possible that the Waltons switched to the Cryonics Institute founded by Richard Ettinger, the author of the section of the article that concerns them. Ettinger himself ‘died’ in 2011, aged 92, and his body lies frozen in a cryonic capsule in the Institute’s vaults, along with over one hundred other hopeful cadavers.

Old magazines are one the cheapest available forms of time travel. Should science and capital ever bring back Ettinger and the other immortalists back to life, one of the most efficient ways of catching them up on human affairs would be to leave them in a room with some mainstream titles from successive decades. Not the august Life itself, obviously, since it too ceased operating, first as a weekly in 1972, then altogether in the year 2000. But hopefully one or two paper magazines will still exist for Ettinger and his acolytes to readjust their eyes and brains to when they are reanimated.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that I collect old magazines, but I do enjoy picking them up randomly at fairs. My single best find was probably an Italian film magazine from 1940 featuring, among other remarkable things, a message of friendship and good wishes from Joseph Gobbels. Or a $5 bound volume containing several issues of The London Illustrated News published in the 1870s. However, the best decade for general interest magazines is probably the 1960s. This was the heyday, the time of maximum prestige and authority of this kind of journalism. It was a time before ‘fake news’, or rather a brief interlude during which faith in the press was such that the notion of alternative facts needed not be seriously entertained (at least not by the majority of people). My December 1963 issue of Life is of particular interest in this regard due to its spread on the Warren Commission. This was an attempt to calmly establish the basic facts of JFK’s assassination (‘Was it Really Oswald who shot Kennedy? Yes.’ ‘Did Oswald have help? No.’) and included a forensic photographic reconstruction of the view from the shooter.

Faith in American institutions, including the press itself, is especially evident in a 1960 issue of the magazine on US politics. Here, over a gold background, the editors insert a quote from Hoover that – whilst highly dubious to begin with – sounds frankly hilarious to Trump-era ears.
The Presidency is more than executive responsibility. It is the inspiring symbol of all that is highest in America's purpose and ideals… That office touches the happiness of every home. It deals with the peace of nations. No man could think of it except in terms of solemn consecration.

As for the possibly conflicting truths of other nations, in 1961 Life launched a special book to warn readers against ‘the nature of the enemy’.

For a mere dollar, the reader would also receive a ‘fold out map of the world in full colour showing the global scope of the Red offensive’. (Magnificently, in my copy of the magazine this ad was printed opposite a full-pager on an innovative remedy against crab grass.)

I don’t want to caricature these publications, however, which besides the stunning, epoch-defining photography, contained instances of fairly enlightened journalism; of its time, to be sure, and most glaringly so when it comes to gender and race relations, as well as international politics. But also serious and occasionally bold, for instance in a piece on the urban migration of African Americans that – fifteen years before Reagan’s welfare queens – attempts to dispel growing conservative myths about ‘calculated patterns of brood mothers bringing up babies on relief ’.

However, the reason why these magazines still circulate has little to do with social history, or history writ large. It’s that they were visually gorgeous. Their aesthetic was based on a mix of the world’s best photojournalism, fashion and advertising, and is still extremely appealing .

A full page portrait of Nixon supporter Mary Whiteside during the 1960 presidential election

In its occasional acts of self-promotion, Life explicitly reminded readers of the cultural impact of the magazine industry’s images, as in this ad referring to its pioneering use of Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson’s pictures of living embryos.

If the photography in the 1960s was still primarily in black and white, advertising was visually elevated by making full use of colour. There are some exceptions, such as this sexually aggressive ad for Listerine.

Or this ad promoting portable televisions as a means to escape the crushing tedium of looking after small children.

Or this almost petulant request for people to send telegrams. Remember telegrams? Send a bloody telegram. At least on your father’s birthday, for chrissakes.

By contrast, the premium ads were in the most garish colour imaginable. This is a golden age of print journalism, so we’re talking about big brands and full page ads selling for exorbitant prices. Tobacco, alcohol, cars, perfumes. Top-end electronics.

First-class air travel.

And always, or nearly always, Coca-Cola.

All of these brands, the backbone of American capital, directly underwriting journalistic truth. Back when cigarettes didn’t kill you.

Or alcohol didn’t cause dependence.

Back when cars were synonymous with industry, from the thunderous Buick Wildcat to the humble, unassuming Datsun.

It’s not just that these ads paid for the stories and the pictures, or for the cost of shipping these magazines internationally. It’s that all of these corporations existed in a feedback loop with journalism – or rather, the journalism industry, that is to say the business of selling news – in a virtuous circle of mutually reinforcing ideologies.

That era is well and truly over. Advertising no longer needs to lurk among attention-grabbing news items and is delivered more and more by media companies whose own market value far exceeds that of industrial manufacturers (save for Apple Inc, which builds the devices that make the advertising truly ubiquitous). Exit the magazines of the Mad Men decade, now reduced to sociohistorical artefacts of limited antiquarian value – and for this reason more interesting to me than they ever were.