Burgers -- deadlier than el-Qaeda?

Realistic assessments of facts are the key to sensible policies

SCMP February 24

Could McDonald's represent a bigger threat to our civilisation than al-Qaeda? At first glance, that might seem an absurd question, comparing a mostly well-liked global purveyor of fast foods with a revolutionary organisation with many murders under its belt. But it may be an example of how moral sentiments and ingrained prejudices distort our view of reality, and so lead to wrong decisions.

Think of McDonald's as being shorthand for the junk-food industry, and one could well believe that it is one cause of the galloping advance of obesity, not just in the Western world but increasingly in Asian and other societies rich enough to eat too much. Poor nutrition has become the biggest public health problem in much of the developed world, responsible for at least as many deaths as smoking, and well ahead of car fatalities. About 300,000 deaths a year in the US are associated with people being overweight, and other countries are catching up.

Even in the US, this enormous global public health issue has so far only just begun to be seen as fertile ground for public-interest lawyers. It looks set to become a major battleground for the food industry and consumer advocates. Stock analysts are waking up to the potential for civil actions that could cut deep into food industry profits and health campaigns and would cut junk-food consumption as surely as anti-smoking campaigns have slashed cigarette sales in the West.

I do not wish to debate the rights or wrongs of official campaigns based on public health needs, or to place blame for obesity on the food industry.

"Let the eater beware" is a reasonable maxim. Yet any controls are likely to be the subject of intense argument about individual rights and responsibilities. So it is worth contrasting the current lack of debate on a matter which is responsible for hundreds of thousands of untimely deaths a year, and the lengths to which governments, in Europe as well as the US, are going to undermine cherished freedoms in the name of fighting al-Qaeda.

The lack of a sense of proportion demonstrates how governments are more concerned with the appearance of "combating evil" than with helping citizens avoid untimely death in non-violent ways. The price of freedom whether to smoke, drive a car, drink too much or eat too many hamburgers, is the chance of early death.

In the case of the anti-terror measures, it should be abundantly clear that not only are the measures out of all proportion to efforts to reduce other threats to life - be they from obesity or lack of control on guns - but they may well be counter-productive. It is unlikely they will be effective against determined terrorists - as Israel has found. Meanwhile, the loss of foreign goodwill towards the US has been enormous and is mounting by the day.

Concerns among minority groups and civil rights advocates within the US have so far been drowned out by patriotic fervour. Unfortunately, the US public is so ill-served by its "patriotic" media that the common sense usually displayed by informed majorities in democracies has been muted. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted after last week's massive anti-war demonstrations in Europe, those who get their news from television not newspapers - probably the majority - would have been almost unaware of the depth of opposition in the nations supposed to be America's closest allies on the topic - Britain, Spain, Italy and Turkey.

Instead of looking at the realities of pan-European opposition, the media acolytes of the US and British governments chose to launch a xenophobic attack on France, a lone voice of reason in Europe, and the one government most aware of the dangers for all Europe of conflict with the Muslim world.

Instead of listening to the concerns of the Turks - hardly a nation of wimps - US President George W. Bush and his fellow draft-dodger warriors in Washington chose to arm-twist the Turks so publicly that they will rightly resent American arrogance for years to come. In effect, the US has been threatening a new international financial crisis for Turkey if it does not kowtow.

America may think it is exercising its overwhelming military power for the common good. But the perceptions of others matter, too. On that score, the US has turned its face against the reality that almost the whole world opposes this war, and even its closest allies are reluctant. It can ignore the reality, but only at the cost of its credibility, and the spread of its image of being an obese, spoiled and deeply-indebted bully.

Realism also suggests a shift in policy on North Korea is badly needed. For sure, the North is infuriating and potentially very dangerous. To its credit, the Bush administration has kept its cool in the face of the North's various provocations. But at the end of the day, the US must be prepared to deal directly with Kim Jong-il if it is to get what it, and South Korea, China and Japan, want - the ending of its nuclear ambitions.

It must be prepared to sign a peace treaty and, in conjunction with China, provide some security guarantees for a paranoid North Korea. That is not weakness. It is common sense to base policy on a verifiable trading of what the North has - nuclear potential - for what it wants: respect, security and money. Going on about an "axis of evil" and what a nasty regime Mr Kim runs may sound fine at Mr Bush's prayer meetings, but grandstanding and moralising will not help resolve the problem.

Realism is not amoral. It does assume that one proceeds in response to facts, not to dogma or the supposed guidance of some God. Let us face the facts, whether of obesity, Mr Kim's nuclear potential or Europe's interests in peace.




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