It sounds creepy; it is creepy. But it’s also plain to see. Yes, it’s unlikely there’s a cabal that sits down and asks, “How can we kill more kids tomorrow?” But Freudenberg details how six industries — food and beverage, tobacco, alcohol, firearms, pharmaceutical and automotive — use pretty much the same playbook to defend the sales of health-threatening products....There is no "playbook." It's just as if there were a playbook, because the 6 industries are all doing the same thing, which is simply the obvious thing: They don't put their promotional resources into reminding you how their products could cause harm. Except to the extent that they do. I've seen liquor ads that tell you not to drink too much, and liquor ads don't show people overindulging or even seeming tipsy. Ads for foods and drinks show slim models, which subliminally urges us to keep slim. Gun ads don't scare us with the not-unknown news that these things could kill you, but gun companies promote gun safety — maybe not the gun safety policy some NYT readers prefer (i.e., no guns) — but safety features on guns and safe gun use. Car companies build safety features into their products and call attention to them in their ads.
But I notice the care Bittman took in the phrase "to defend the sales of health-threatening products." The companies still want to sell their products, and if anyone threatens their sales, they go to an argument about the consumers' role in choosing which products to buy, and that argument takes the form of "rights" talk:
All of these industries work hard to defend our “right” — to smoke, feed our children junk, carry handguns and so on — as matters of choice, freedom and responsibility. Their unified line is that anything that restricts those “rights” is un-American.And that is the way we talk in America. We think we have rights, and we get stirred up when anyone seems to mobilize to take them away. It's not surprising that successful marketers know what pitch works on us. There doesn't need to be a playbook, but if you want to imagine an American playbook, that playbook is about freedom from constraints; it's about personal autonomy over the choices that affect our lives and, especially, our bodies.
And in fact, we do have rights! Some of our rights are constitutional rights, and these cannot easily be taken away by the actions of legislatures and executives. But even where we enjoy freedoms that are subject to loss by the actions of government, we have the right to do what we want until government displaces our personal autonomy, and we can defend these rights to make our own choices by opposing the government actions that intrude on them. The "corporate consumption complex" has an economic interest in stimulating our awareness that we can fight in the political arena to preserve these rights.
Bittman, referencing Freudenberg, portrays the nefarious corporations as reaching in beyond our conscious minds, by making products that we really like — that are "difficult to resist and sometimes addictive," products that "appeal to our brains’ instinctual and learned responses," and "to our 'unconscious "reptilian instincts."'" You see what that means? Bittman either doesn't see this or maybe he's has a playbook that's followed by some politico-journo-academic complex that defends its regulatory power by disparaging the human mind. Oh, you pitiful little beings, who accept the flattery of the corporations who tout your right to choose what you want to buy. You imagine that you are free and that you are thinking and preferring and selecting, but you are mere dupes of your lower brain to which the corporations maintain secret access. You think you like to drink a Coke, but that's a ridiculous illusion.
Bittman likes Freudenberg’s debunking of notions of "rights and choice," because he agrees that "we need... more than a few policies nudging people toward better health." As Freudenberg told Bittman: "What we need... is to return to the public sector the right to set health policy and to limit corporations’ freedom to profit at the expense of public health." Oh! Did you see that? Freudenberg said "right." He said "right" in the context of government, and he spoke of returning this "right" — a right to control people — to government. He's saying "right" where the legal term is actually "power." He wants government power at the expense of rights. And the fact that he speaks of the "return" of power to the government is either deceptive or unAmerican. We are free and have a right to do what we want until we give power to government. If the laws that restrict us are repealed, it makes sense to speak of returning rights to the people, but it's wrong and really offensive to characterize new restrictions in terms of returning a right to the government.
Freudenberg in his rights-reframing effort, speaks of the public's "right to be healthy" that supervenes the corporations' freedom to urge people to choose to buy products which they might then use in a way that would make them unhealthy. Individuals have an interest in health, but Freudenberg and Bittman don't trust them to make their own decisions, as we've seen. So the government must take over the responsibility and deprive them of the low-value freedom of following the signals emanating from the "reptilian" portion of their brain. Freedom is slavery, as Orwell wrote. For true freedom, you want government control.
I'm sure this notion of the right of the government to control people to serve our right to be healthy appeals to many readers of the New York Times and other fans of paternalism. But why does it appeal? I'd like to suggest that it appeals because it reaches in beyond their conscious mind and is difficult to resist and even addictive. It appeals to their brain's instinctual and learned responses, to their unconscious reptilian instinct.
Either our minds work well or they do not. We're each of us somewhere on a continuum that runs from reptilian to fully and consciously human. What would enhance our movement toward true human individuality? I hear the Bittman-Freudenberg contingent saying: nothing. Give up on those minds. Let's shift our concern to those bodies. Keep them healthy. No more dangers. No more suffering. We may not have much going on in our brains — but we've outsourced the important thought-work to the government — and the containers of those brains, our bodies, are functioning effectively and looking trim and fit.