If you had to think of one city on earth where the rulers should not try to impose a standard of ‘good behaviour’, it would surely be New York. Who in their right mind would seek to sanitise this concrete jungle, to sedate the city that never sleeps, to demand conformism and obedience from the inhabitants of a place which, in the words of a popular tourist T-shirt, is known as ‘New York F**kin’ City’?
You’d be surprised. New York is currently governed by a gaggle of health-obsessed bigwigs who believe they have a duty to grab New Yorkers by the scruffs of their outsized necks and drag them towards lives of bicycle-riding, non-smoking, booze-avoiding, fruit-snacking conformity. City Hall, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is awash with that new breed of psycho-politician known as the ‘nudger’, who believes that he has the right to use psychological techniques and brute censorship to manipulate and ‘improve’ human behaviour.
The Bloombergers have become world-beaters in the banning of public smoking and the demonisation of junk food. It is testament to their successful colonisation of these islands that the banning of smoking in all public parks, pedestrian plazas and beaches passed without incident, and even without much angry commentary, on 24 May. Under the Smoke Free Air Act (it is clever, in an Orwellian kind of way, to use the word ‘free’ in an act of law that diminishes freedom), New Yorkers can no longer light up in Central Park, Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Promenade, the Coney Island concrete walk or even Times Square, that flashing, noisy advertisers’ paradise where you can still watch naked cowboys play guitar and buy Sarah Palin condoms from streetsellers — so long as you don’t puff on a ciggie at the same time. ‘Where can I smoke now?’ one New Yorker said to a newspaper. ‘In an underground fortress of shame?’
In 2003, NYC became one of the first cities in the western world to outlaw the evil weed in bars, restaurants, workplaces and theatres. But the outdoor smoking ban is of a different, more jaw-dropping order. It gives the lie to the idea that bans on public smoking are driven by a good-hearted instinct to protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke. (How could that possibly be a problem in a space as vast and airy as Central Park?) Rather it exposes the Bloombergers’ desire to monitor more closely what people ingest, not only at work or on the bus, but now in Central Park too, a place that was originally designed, in the words of David M. Scobey’s book Empire City, to ‘enhance the experience of freedom’ and allow New Yorkers to ‘lose themselves’. The outdoor smoking ban has stubbed out something of the spirit of New York. As one smoker who was reprimanded by the NYPD for daring to light up in Union Square on the day ‘Smoke Freedom’ was enforced, put it, ‘New York is kind of lame now.’
Not content with policing what New Yorkers puff, the Bloombergers want to control what they scoff, too. City Hall banned the frying of food in transfats in all restaurants in 2007, which was bad news for those of us for whom half the attraction of visiting NYC was to tuck into the deliciously unhealthy fare served up in its diners. And in 2008, the city forced all chain restaurants and foodsellers to publish the calorific information of their food, in the same-sized font as the label for the food itself. Walking down Fifth Avenue, I saw a huge poster in a Burger King window advertising two burgers for the price of one, alongside an equally huge notice saying: ‘1320 CALORIES.’ Even the temporary stalls that hawk hot dogs and ice-cream in Central Park and elsewhere display calorific facts. That salted pretzel you buy as you stroll back to your hotel (‘500 CALORIES’) now comes with a side order of inner turmoil and gym fantasies.
It is hard to convey the impact of this state-enforced calorie-counting. It effortlessly zaps the fun from eating out. It is designed to induce caution, even guilt, in New Yorkers, to make them stop and think before snacking or dining, to make them treat calorific consumption as something akin to snorting cocaine — an act that can have grave consequences. As a regular TGI Friday’s patron told a reporter when the display law was introduced, after she noticed that the Brownie Obsession dessert had ‘1,500 CALORIES’: ‘I’m so upset. I wish they wouldn’t have done this.’
Some restaurant chains tried to assert their First Amendment rights in opposition to the calorie law, arguing that they were effectively being forced to publish a government message. They’re right, and the government message was this: ‘Do you really want this muffin? It will make you even wobblier than you already are. Go home and snack on lentil seeds instead.’ But the restaurant rebels lost and now you can’t go anywhere in NYC without having your brain invaded by gut-busting food facts.
The lowest blow in City Hall’s war on wicked food is its recurring efforts to ban the buying of fizzy pop with food stamps. In an initiative that could easily be titled ‘No Coke for poor black folk’, the Bloombergers have sought federal permission to prevent welfare recipients from using government cash to purchase fizzy drinks. The killjoyism of this campaign, the Scrooge-infused miserabilism of it, is astounding. City Hall has launched an advertising campaign demonising sugary drinks as one of the great evils of our time, and its internal email correspondence about the campaign, which was leaked to the New York Times, shines a rather harsh light on the evidence-lite nastiness of the modern-day nudge-and-nanny industry. Scientific advisers emailed Thomas Farley, Bloomberg’s overactive health adviser, to say that the ad’s claim that drinking pop can make you gain 10 or 15 pounds is ‘simplistic’ and ‘exaggerated’. Overriding them, Farley responded: ‘I think what people fear is getting fat, so we need some statement about what is bad about consuming so many calories.’ Who needs evidence when you have fear? The ad shows human fat gurgling from the top of a can of soda. One City Hall employee could barely conceal his excitement: it is ‘deliciously disgusting’, he said in one of the emails that was leaked.
‘Deliciously disgusting’ — that just about sums up how New York’s new rulers view the huddled masses of this extravagant city. In a complete reversal of the traditional democratic relationship, Bloomberg and co don’t consider it their duty to mirror the desires and outlook of those who elected them. They want to remake New Yorkers as models of what they consider to be healthy citizenship. Much of this stuff comes from Thomas Farley, who is championed by both Bloomberg and the liberal media as an admirably thin jogging aficionado who believes in the power of the nudge to remould the citizenry. He is a ‘superman’, the New York Times recently gushed, who has ‘grasshopper-like legs’ (eurgh), a result of the fact that ‘he exercises seven days a week, loves his vegetables and has never smoked a cigarette’ (boring). This fanboy fluff piece was illustrated with a picture of Farley leading a workout of not-so-thin black New Yorkers, his grasshopper-like legs just as sure a sign of his superiority as his white skin would have been 100 years ago.
Farley openly boasts about his ‘behaviourist message’, as originally outlined in his 2005 book Prescription for a Healthy Nation: A New Approach to Improving Our Lives by Fixing Our Everyday World, which had chapters titled ‘Humans behaving badly’ and ‘Curve-shifting people’s behaviour’. ‘People aren’
t logical’, Farley wrote, because there are ‘so many aspects of our environment that encourage risky behaviour’. That such a man, alongside Bloomberg, now governs a city as great and as loud and as rowdy as New York is terrifying. To paraphrase Sinatra, if the nudgers can make it here, they can make it anywhere.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 4, 2011