Two stories this week struck me as cases of asking the wrong questions and therefore getting the wrong answers. The first was Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign to ban sodas larger than 16 ounces in New York City. According to Bloomberg, the question is why are Americans so fat and the answer is soda. The second was the John Edwards case and the framing of it as one of sin and whether or not the sinner can be redeemed. Or as Katia Hetter at CNN put it, “Can Cheaters Change?”
But what if we asked different questions about both of these issues?
Instead of asking “Why are Americans so fat?” Bloomberg might have asked other questions like “Why are advertisers of non-food products, like soda, allowed to target children when tobacco no longer is?” or “Why are obesity- related illnesses like diabetes not randomly distributed throughout the population, but instead inversely related to socio-economic status?” In fact, socioeconomic status is a much better predictor of obesity than genetics. And because socioeconomic status is also not randomly distributed in the population, obesity is raced as well as classed. For instance, 37 percent of black American women are obese versus 24 percent of white American women.
So instead of asking why Americans are so fat, why didn’t Bloomberg ask why health is so stratified? How might access to health care, fresh foods, gardening spaces, schools with gym classes not slashed by shrinking budgets, and other perks of the upper classes be made available to everyone? Why didn’t Bloomberg ask why chronic stress, far more likely to be suffered by the poor and certain racial groups than middle class whites, increases obesity? Why didn’t Bloomberg ask what the city of New York could do to make health more fairly distributed rather than punishing the poor with yet another restriction rather than reward?
Instead, Bloomberg did what many privileged (and thin) Americans do: He blamed the poor. The ban on sodas will disproportionately affect the poor if it goes into effect next March as planned even while I can still have my 24-ounce Starbucks frappacinos, which actually has higher sugar content than sodas of the same size.
At the same time that Bloomberg was finding obesity in a 24-ounce soda, the lawyers and the press in the John Edwards case were talking about “sin” versus “crime.” Indeed, the Edwards defense consisted of “I may be a sinner, but I’m not a criminal.” It worked, but it also worked to create a series of questions that are about as useful as banning soda to combat obesity. The “problem” in the Edwards case was that he “cheated” on his wife. Thus begging the question: Can cheaters change?
According to Hetter at CNN,
Of course, many cheaters can change if they have the desire. Much has been made of Callista Gingrich, who had an affair with Gingrich while he was married to his second wife, helping her husband convert to Catholicism. It’s possible that Gingrich may stay faithful, if for no other reason than the 24-hour news cycle means public figures are being constantly scrutinized for evidence of bad behavior.
But, the article warns, there is a high recidivism rate among cheaters:
Affairs with married men or women are a high-risk gamble, says Lawrence Josephs, an Adelphi University psychology professor. Look at the evidence: Cheating is how he or she has chosen to solve relationship problems. “When you win such a man, you are winning someone who feels entitled to have his cake and eat it too and then lie about it,” Josephs said.
Here’s a question: Why do we care? Shouldn’t we measure a politician by his/her policies? If we want to include the person’s private relationships as a measure of their integrity, how would we possibly know what actually goes on behind closed doors? Perhaps a husband who is sexually faithful is actually completely a jerk in every other way telling his wife that she is stupid or fat or ugly or a bad parent? Perhaps a person who has an affair is actually doing so with the permission of his/her spouse who either doesn’t want to be lovers anymore or has a lover of his/her own?
If we are going to insist that the personal is political, then we must have some sort of public poll of close family members, friends, and employees that is made public, like tax returns. Otherwise we could never really know what went on inside a marriage or a family or even a place of work.
But instead of asking, “why do we care whether a politician has sexual relationships outside of marriage,” we decided such relationships made John Edwards a sinner who, like Newt Gingrich after Callista, might find salvation in monogamy.
The inability to ask the right questions makes me want to drink a super-sized soda and have an affair with a married politician. But that would just mean more wrong answers.