A conservatory of Ldotter blogs.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Last week at work. . .

. . .brought the arrival of the summer intern. A more engaging, personable, hardworking, helpful, thoughtful, young lady you could never hope to meet. I'm really looking forward to working with her over the summer. She also happens to be a striking young woman, which serves to further endear. But, even if she looked like the bastard offspring of Ernest Borgnine's drunken, one-night fling with Camryn Manheim, she seems like a delighful person, and a joy to be around.

She also happens to be a fitness nut, and an English major, which puts her directly at odds with me on several fronts, but not to any extent that can't be lessened with a little recommended reading and persuasion. The exchange has already begun, in fact.

As I was making the obligatory "get-to-know-you" visit to her in her office, I asked what she was studying in school, which eventually led to a short discussion of beliefs and philosophy. What really seemed to animate her was the role of food in people's lives, and how society has been affected by the disappearance of the sit-down meal among families. She's apparently of the belief that the prevalence of fast food in people's lives is contributing to not only a health crisis, but also the breakdown of the family unit -- an idea that strikes me as worthy of consideration, if only for the mere fact that one more person will be looking into the causes of the breakdown.

We talked for a few minutes -- long enough for me to suggest that she read Thomas Sowell and a few other selected writers, and for her to offer to bring a DVD for me to watch. The next day, she brought it -- a documentary titled "Supersize Me," inspired by the book "Fast Food Nation," by Eric Schlosser.

I'd heard about it, and read about it, and was pretty sure I knew what I was in for, but I thought it only fair to give the movie a chance. After all, if my beliefs can't withstand exposure to ideas that run counter, I really have no business writing a blog, or working at a law firm. So, I took the movie home with me that night and watched it with a critical, but open mind.

My overall impression was that it was a well made documentary, speaking strictly in terms of watchability. The message of the documentary itself is a different story altogether. What was proffered as a look at the effects of including fast food in your diet turned out to be something much closer to an all-out assault on Evil Corporate America, using McDonald's as an object lesson. For the uninitiated, the film is about what will happen to you if you go for one month eating nothing but McDonald's food, three times a day. In it, the documentarian (Morgan Spurlock) sets out to prove just how horrible the consequences of such a senseless diet are by doing just that -- Mickey D's three times a day for 30 days.

At the outset, Spurlock has tests performed by several doctors and a frou-frou New York health center, or some such, to establish a benchmark by which his health will be judged over the course of the experiment. He then proceeds to go about his life as if McDonald's had control over his every mealtime decision -- even to the point of always saying yes when asked if he'd like to "Supersize that." Not surprisingly, by the end of the experiment, his health had deteriorated considerably -- having gained nearly 20 lbs., and turning his liver into a barely functioning mass of mostly fat.

But, aside from being an utterly asinine experiment to begin with, there were several points in the film that struck me as glaring overreaches that would cause anyone going in with a critical bent to roll his eyes. For instance, Spurlock's vegan girlfriend only makes one consequential appearance in the film -- and what do you suppose is the subject of that appearance? Well, of course, she's there to tell us how McDonald's has caused him to suddenly develope erectile dysfunction. What better way to convince otherwise skeptical young men to abandon their love of Quarter Pounders than to suggest that it threatens their manhood? I envisioned some poor college sophomore sitting in a student center theater with the chick he met in his contemporary literature class when that little slice of film comes runs through the projector, leaning over and saying, "Those sons of bitches! I had no idea! It's as if McDonald's doesn't care about women's pleasure at all!" Of course, this has more to do with the liberal view that the only way to a man's mind is through his genitalia than it does with any real concern for men's health issues. You see, to the left-liberal, nearly every ill that plagues humanity can be traced back to the presence of testosterone.

Aside from this utterly fatuous appeal to the legendarily fragile male ego, the whole idea behind the documentary struck me as more than a tad absurd. The notion that any rational person would, by choice, take his every meal at McDonald's strains credulity. Yes, in a nation of 300,000,000 people, there will inevitably be some who do that -- but, the emphasis here is on the word "rational." Mr. Spurlock seems to be of the opinion that legislation, court decisions and national health policy ought to be based upon the actions of the undeniably irrational people who live their entire lives the way he lived for a month. But, how many of those people are there in the world? And, if Spurlock's experience is in any way indicative of the consequences they're facing as a result of their diets, don't they all die in a couple of months, anyway?

That's not to say that the film is completely without its good points. There is a segment where Spurlock examines the food served in school cafeterias that is at least concerning. In fact, if I hadn't been desensitized by the constant refrain of "for the children" during the last decade, I'd have likely jumped off my couch/claw sharpener, and declared my conversion to communism, just like I did when I discovered only two pair of underwear in what I thought was a three-pack.

In all honesty, the school lunch segment didn't really shock me -- I've been aware of the basic truths behind that for some time now. But, it did elucidate some cozy relationships between junk food manufacturers, government contractors, and public schools. I don't have any kids of my own, but I do remember junk food being very available when I was in middle and high school. I didn't turn out to be particularly corpulent -- and was rail-thin all through my youth and well into my twenties. Some would even say I still am. But, in a time when there are so many dangerously overweight kids, it seems at least wrongheaded, if not downright negligent, to place more enticement in front of them. It's one thing to put something on the market for consumption by adults who are expected to know and accept the consequences of their choices. But, to put Ring Dings and Twinkies in a school cafeteria full of kids is just contributing to the problem. For one thing, the only exercise a lot of the kids get comes from running to make sure they get there before the Twinkies and Ring Dings sell out. That doesn't even address the fact that kids just don't give a damn about nutrition, and there aren't any moms or dads around to tell them "no". It's not like the schools will step in. They think they're getting a good deal from the kickback.

As far as the schools are concerned, there's plenty of blame to go around. But, one thing every school administrator ought to know, but apparently few do, is the fact that government contractors are just like any other business. They seek to turn a profit. And, when you dedicate an ever-expanding supply of taxpayer money to any entity, you've essentially chummed up the waters for profit-seeking government contractors. That doesn't make them evil any more than it makes the schools evil for dealing with them. They're simply doing what businesses are supposed to do. It's up to school administrators to examine the offers placed before them and consider which one has provided the most balanced proposal -- bearing in mind the health of the kids, as well as potential revenue.

In fairness to Spurlock, he does confront a school administrator concerning the matter, rather than simply leveling all the blame at Evil Corporate America. At one point, he even features an alternative school for at-risk youth which offers only nutritious meals prepared on-site through a company that provides them at a cost comparable to the inferior services available in typical public schools. Still, you don't come away from the scene with the feeling that you're supposed to call your school and demand someone's head if things don't change. You come away with the sense that you're supposed to be mad as hell at someone, and it might as well be the guy with the most cash.

In the end, the film unfortunately misses an opportunity make a great point by focusing on the silly conceit that McDonald's is somehow guilty of causing the epidemic of obesity (which isn't exactly a settled issue, by the way) in America today. McDonald's is guilty of nothing more than making bad food taste good, quickly and cheaply. It's a generally accepted fact that you don't go to McDonald's in search of nutrition, just as it's a generally accepted fact that you don't go to a strip club in search of a wife.

Yes, McDonald's targets its advertising toward kids -- and yes, they do it very successfully. But kids can't buy a single Happy Meal without first getting approval and money from a parent. The fact that some parents refuse to exercise the judgement and control required to keep themselves and their children from becoming physical wrecks isn't a reason to hold a restaurant chain responsible. If you want to punish McDonald's, throw some chicken breasts in the oven and make a salad while they bake. Then, sit down at the table and ask your kids what they had for lunch at school.

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