I watched part of an old ‘Frontline’ on tv the other evening. ‘Frontline’ is one of the few fairly good shows on US public tv – actually one of the two, I would say, ‘Nova’ being the other. US public tv is so mediocre it’s painful. (And public radio is even worse. But that’s a separate subject.) It was about ‘Alternative’ Medicine. One part of it I found particularly extraordinary – an interview with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. I’ve always disliked Hatch, frankly. He’s very conservative, and he has an irritating voice. He sounds like someone who’s trying to soothe a rowdy room full of six-year-olds – in fact I suppose he sounds a bit like Mr Rogers. Mr Rogers was a very nice fella, but I’m afraid those soothing calming bland voices make me want to punch something.
But that’s neither here nor there. Hatch could have an irritating voice and still be a good Senator. (Though perhaps not one of the best. It may be that a really good voice is basic equipment for a Senator. That’s an interesting question…but not the one I want to look at right now.) But there’s more wrong with him than the voice. The excerpt from the interview was about a 1994 bill he sponsored that de-regulated ‘dietary supplements,’ which means that the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration) cannot monitor dietary supplements in the way it can (and must and does) monitor drugs. It can only act after a supplement has been shown to cause harm, after it has gone on the market. Here is what Hatch says on the matter:
We had to take on the whole FDA and the whole raft of left-wing groups that believe that everything in our lives should be regulated and that we can’t– we’re so stupid as a people, we can’t make our own decisions and that we’re so dumb that we don’t know what’s good for us. It’s the attitude that government should tell you everything you should do. You don’t have any right to make any choices yourself. And they threw everything but the kitchen sink at us, but we had the people with us. And the reason we had the people is because a hundred million people have benefited from dietary supplements.
I’ve heard a lot of infuriating right-wing rhetoric in my time (as we all have) but that takes the biscuit. Though it certainly is impeccably conventional – the right does just love to pretend that any form of safety regulation amounts to assuming that people are stupid. But Hatch of course doesn’t bother explaining how all these brilliant people are supposed to know what’s in the bottles on the shelves. What – we just know by looking that the contents are safe? Are what they claim to be? How? How, exactly, do we know that? How do we look at a heap of gleaming capsules and divine what is inside them? Do we carry a laboratory with us when we go to the store and buy our vitamins and other supplements?
And I was reminded of Hatch’s comments when I read this Guardian article in which the Health Secretary, John Reid, makes a similar kind of claim.
The health secretary, John Reid, angered health campaigners and anti-smoking groups when he said yesterday that smoking is one of the few pleasures left for the poor on sink estates and in working men’s clubs. Mr Reid said that the middle classes were obsessed with giving instruction to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and that smoking was not one of the worst problems facing poorer people…He said he was an advocate of informed choice for adults, rather than bans, describing himself as favouring empowerment, rather than instruction. Mr Reid fears advocates of a ban are behaving as if members of the public are incapable of coming to their own sensible decisions.
He favours empowerment rather than instruction? What can that mean? Are the two in tension? Are they mutually exclusive? Does learning something disempower people? If so, how? But that’s a trusty bit of rhetoric. If there’s something you disagree with, if you can manage to frame it as someone assuming other people are stupid, you’re on your way to victory, however nonsensical the claim may be.