Letters to the editor

Understanding Obesity

I read Marc Ambinder’s “Beating Obesity” (May Atlantic) with interest and empathy, as I lost 50 pounds in the early 1970s and have struggled mightily (but successfully) to keep the weight off ever since. The article framed the issue of obesity as a public-health matter and also pointed out that obesity affects low-income Americans significantly more than others, which led me to wonder why the author did not at least mention the possibility of restricting what foods can be obtained with food stamps.

James R. Brown
Omaha, Neb.

I believe that if we decided to tax food that causes our citizens to become obese—and therefore unhealthy and costly to our health-care system—and instead subsidize locally grown organic fruits and vegetables, we could very well see an amazing about-face in our collective health. How about a fast-food tax? Considering that “billions and billions” are served, the revenue could potentially pay off the national debt—even as the measure saved billions more on reduced health-care costs, since fewer and fewer people would be attracted to fast food if it was not so cheap anymore.

Scott Durkee
Vashon Island, Wash.

Marc Ambinder’s exploration of obesity in America is wide-sweeping and intelligent. But parents are nowhere to be seen. The earlier that parental intervention occurs, the more successful it is in changing problematic eating in children or teens. While not everyone who is obese has a diagnosable eating disorder (only about 20 percent report binge eating), we shouldn’t overlook the possibility that parents can indeed help.

Parents of alcoholic and drug-addicted teenagers were left in the lurch until one too many teens died in a substance-related car crash. Now, thanks to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, parents can turn the page of a newspaper and be told what to say to their teen if they think there’s a problem with drugs or alcohol.

We now need organizations that train parents in both healthy eating and healthy parenting—parenting that involves that ever-nuanced balance between limit-setting and independence, particularly when it comes to eating.

Judith Brisman, Ph.D.
Director and Founder, Eating Disorder Resource Center
New York, N.Y.

Today marks the one-month anniversary of my own weight-loss surgery. Like Marc Ambinder, I finally found severe diabetes and the limited life of a morbidly obese person too much to bear. Although for too long I saw weight-loss surgery as “the easy way out,” I finally came to realize that the factors that led to my own lifelong struggle with obesity were more than I could wrestle down on my own.

What I would ask my fellow humans to think about is that the most painful aspect of obesity is not the life-risking diseases like diabetes, or the limits on life. For me, it is (I still have a lot of weight to lose) the judgment and scorn of other people. People who ridicule, or even try to harm, those of us who are overweight. People who see us as “less than” simply because of our size.

I hope this excellent article opens a few minds to the underlying issues. Obesity is not just a matter of indulgence, or even willpower. The genetic and environmental factors that lay the foundation are very strong. Consider the addictive nature of foods in our society, along with the stresses and strains of daily life that lead to emotional eating; these are powerful forces to reckon with.

Sandy Lurins
Santa Rosa, Calif.

Marc Ambinder replies:

It is heartening to read the stories of those who’ve beaten their obesity, and it is terribly sobering to realize that these stories are bound to be the exceptions unless policy stasis gives way to entrepreneurship and serious action.

Limiting what food people can buy with stamps would be paternalistic, shifting responsibility away from those who need to take more of it. It would penalize the food industry, certainly. The sad fact is that some de facto limitations restrict what food stamps can buy: many farmers’ markets won’t take them.

I’m skeptical of a food tax, which would disproportionately target the poor and vulnerable. Of course, even a slightly queasy solution is better than none at all, but the insidious nature of food addiction suggests that only politically unpalatable and excessively punitive taxes would make a dent. People accustomed to eating 3,000 calories a day are going to find 3,000 calories a day; even if they have access to nutritionists and exercise rooms, long-term weight reduction is just not a reality. That’s why the focus ought to be—has to be—on preventing people from reaching this stage.

China’s Role in Africa

In his May article on China’s growing investment and influence in Africa (“The Next Empire?”), Howard W. French does a good job of presenting the expanding role of China in the region. However, he makes only passing reference to the Chinese government’s proxy oil companies, CNPC/PetroChina and Sinopec. These companies are recognized as critical enablers of the Sudanese government’s war against its people in Darfur, which is all the more infamous when properly labeled as the 21st century’s first genocide. Only when investors, Africa, and the rest of the international community hold China and its companies to at least minimal human-rights standards will China begin to play a positive role on that continent.

William Rosenfeld
Investors Against Genocide
Lexington, Mass.

Howard W. French replies:

I am as sensitive as anyone to the prospect of China or its state companies conducting business in Africa with no regard for democracy, human rights, or the environment. It was my 2004 interview with China’s then–deputy foreign minister, Zhou Wenzhong, that produced the famous quote that defines his country’s approach to Africa: “Business is business,” he told me.

That said, the label of “genocide” that William Rosenfeld applies to the violence in Sudan is debatable. I believe that when the United States and Europe, who themselves have much to answer for in this matter, promulgate and consistently observe at least minimal human-rights and anti-corruption standards in their dealings with Africa, they will stand a much better chance of obtaining China’s cooperation.

Meanwhile, China has no political control of any African country, certainly none direct. Indirect influence, however, is often wielded powerfully by an economic superior. Not so long ago, this was fashionably known as neo-colonialism.

This Moment in Music

The days of making millions by recording music are over (“The Freeloaders,” May Atlantic), and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Megan McArdle alludes to the idea that all we’ll be left with is a large inventory of substandard music. It may seem that way, but only because we’ve become accustomed to the highly polished, watered-down, mainstream music that has been pumped out by major record labels for the past 40 years.

I think that what we’re seeing now is music in its purest, rawest form, by actual musicians who aren’t influenced by the potential to make millions. This is not bad music, or substandard music, it’s just different from what we’ve been used to hearing; it’s what was there all along before it became bastardized by the record labels. The industry doesn’t need to change—there’s more good music being made now than ever before—we just need more ways to filter, discover, and share all the small unknowns out there.

Brian Stoner
Philadelphia, Pa.

As Megan McArdle notes, it is the abstract nature of digitized intellectual property that makes this debate so confused and confusing. Freeloaders trick themselves into thinking there’s nothing wrong with their actions, simply because they “feel okay.” But if consumers of the digital era eschew their responsibilities and refuse to pay for content, our culture will become more and more beholden to broad corporate branding and sponsorship. Music will no longer be made for fans; it will increasingly be marketed for use in bank commercials. Freeloaders who claim an anti-corporate posture are actually building a future in which desperate artists accept corporate patronage, and this is the tragic irony of the debate.

Chris Ruen
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Parsing Free Speech

Michael Kinsley seems to have achieved near-miraculous objectivity on the subject of journalists’ claim to a legal privilege to preserve the anonymity of sources even when any such right has been denied and disclosure required by due process of law. The courts may well decide that the enforcement of criminal laws and laws related to national-security interests requires disclosure in a given case. It is nothing but arrogant and self-serving for editors, publishers, and reporters engaged in the commercial activity of journalism to hold themselves and their nonexistent privilege above the law in such cases.

Kinsley is also right about the groundless hysteria sparked by the Citizens United case, holding that political speech by corporations, not just corporations engaged in journalism, is protected under the First Amendment. People who are organized as a corporation and use it as a medium for political speech are still people (corporations being fictional entities that can neither read nor write).

Roger Baker
New Orleans, La.

A Lack of Taste

On the contents page of the April issue of The Atlantic, one finds the caption: “Cute, cuddly, and delicious with a Foster’s: Australia cooks up its furry friends.” The force of the English language, and of the word friends in particular, makes one feel the wrongness of what is being talked about. When George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends,” he was in effect saying the same thing twice. The caption thus leads one to expect at least some discussion of humanitarian objections to the unregulated mass killing of wild kangaroos. In “Outback Steakhouse,” however, Marina Kamenev sees only the “sanitary” problems involved, and even they are quickly glossed over.

So what is that caption for? It is clearly not meant to draw a laugh or even a smile. The caption writer has merely lapsed into the callous frivolity that constitutes the default tone of Internet tabloids like TMZ.com. It is one thing if a contributor chooses to write like this, but captions are the voice of a magazine—in this case, a magazine generally known for a much more thoughtful use of language.

B. R. Myers
Atlantic Contributing Editor
Busan, South Korea

Just War

Thank you, Jon Zobenica (“Getting Their Guns Off,” May Atlantic), for stripping away more of the denial and romanticism about World War II and the “Greatest Generation.” Now you know why thousands of us veterans (I served in the Navy during the Vietnam era) have joined organizations like Veterans for Peace and similar groups. Honoring the warrior—as just another victim, reduced to committing violence for survival—but not the war, many of us treat our activities (providing safe water for Iraqis, giving away free phone cards to patients in VA hospitals, etc.) as necessary therapy for ourselves, making amends.

As a civilian substance-abuse counselor for the Army, I saw recruiters meet their quotas by raiding jails, rehabs, and homeless shelters, and helping kids lie about their legal histories and falsify drug tests. It’s obvious that only the poverty draft of this current Great Recession can provide enough blood for our endless energy wars. Zobenica is right to dismiss the myth of the Just War. It’s all just war.

Roland Van Deusen
Clayton, N.Y.


The opening photo credit for the June travel story, “Board Games,” on page 26, should have been Victor Fraile/Corbis. Howard W. French’s “The Next Empire?” (May Atlantic) referred to Chongqing as a province in China. Chongqing is a municipality.