You are what you eat

Culture | Mental malnutrition and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Clinton's great escape," Feb. 6, 1999

The food police
Are you ready for the fat tax? Just when you thought it was safe to grab a Big Mac, here come The Food & Drink Police(Transaction). That's the title of an iconoclastic book from economists James T. Bennett and Thomas J. DiLorenzo, who point to an ongoing campaign from regulators, Naderites, and even Mothers Against Drunk Driving to nag us into submission. Take Kelly Brownell of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, who wants food taxed based on nutritional value. "The least healthy would be given the highest tax rate," Dr. Brownell wrote in The New York Times. Oh, no, complain Mssrs. Bennett and DiLorenzo, why not just throw overeaters in jail? The authors aren't opposed to healthy eating, but they see these movements as giving excuses for the Feds to move in. "Politicians themselves thrive on crises," they write, "for crises enable them to rush in, before the cameras, and sincerely promise to 'save' us from the latest threat to our well-being, real or imagined." Mssrs. Bennett and DiLorenzo say the worldview of groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest emphasizes "self-denial without the religiosity, without any elevating motive, really, beyond a drearily utilitarian view of the human body." So they wittily jab those they say want to serve them up salvation with shredded wheat and soy milk. They also defend beef from those like Jeremy Rifkin who call the cow a cancer-causing, grain-gorging, environmental disaster on legs. Sure, everyone should eat right-and gluttony is obviously a sin-but we don't need a merry band of policy wonks ordering our lives from the beltway. One doesn't have to be a libertarian to ask whether Leviathan and its courtiers have the right to set the standards for all of life. Save some spheres for somebody else. Why classical writings? Americans need to dig in and learn about the Western tradition, but who will be there to teach them? That's what classicist E. Christian Kopff wonders in his book, The Devil Knows Latin, from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. "If we want the advantages of Western culture," he writes, "we need to immerse ourselves and our children in the languages, literatures, and ideas that shaped that culture." Mr. Kopff, heavily critical of many efforts to prop up the West, worries that "A civilization without educated citizens will cease to be educated." Mr. Kopff spends most of this book talking about thinkers he likes (Russell Kirk, Clint Eastwood) and dislikes (notably Harvard's Paul DeMan). He also includes an interesting chapter about how three men-A.E. Housman, James Frazer, and Gilbert Murray-used the Greek tradition to attack Christianity with books like The Golden Bough. The problem that Mr. Kopff glances past is that the classical tradition is a little like gun ownership: It requires responsibility. After all, Christians have spent centuries sorting wheat from chaff in the classics, yet there are still thorns among the roses. Do we want pagan evangelism like that at the end of Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, where Stoicism becomes a moral center? Athens and Jerusalem are different. Still, Mr. Kopff impressively presses the point that there's lots of work to do. The postmodernist hoax
Three years ago, physicist Alan Sokal pulled the wool over the eyes of trendy postmodernists by publishing a parody article, which was taken seriously and published by a trendy postmodernist cultural studies journal called Social Text. This launched a swarm of giggling over the mind-numbed state of the Academy. Now Mr. Sokal and co-author Jean Bricmont have published Fashionable Nonsense (Picador), a field guide to postmodernism's misuse of scientific theories. While the authors strongly disavow any ties to the culture wars, they point out, step by step, how the pomos play fast and loose with science. Fashionable Nonsense is a little like going backstage at a magic show and watching the performer prepare his tricks. "They imagine, perhaps, that they can exploit the prestige of natural science in order to give their discourse a veneer of rigor," they write. "And they seem confident that no one will notice their misuse of scientific concepts." Targets include superstar psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, sociologist Bruno Latour, and Jean Baudrillard, who is still a must-read for those studying postmodernism simply because of the nihilism of his writing. The empiricist authors say these people have only a vague notion of what they are talking about. And at one point they refer to the attempt to hide nonsense behind reams of bad prose with hazy justification as a new religion called "secular mysticism": cryptic, esoteric writing that gains appeal because it rejects traditional belief. "Not all that is obscure is necessarily profound," they warn. Authors Sokal and Bricmont themselves are skeptics, and they sadly believe "fundamentalism" to be a bigger threat than postmodernism. They do not understand that without a "fundamental" basis for objective truth, postmodernism is the only alternative.

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