Shortly before Christmas a story of a San Francisco mother and a group called Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a lawsuit against McDonald's for marketing Happy Meals (including toys) to children. I have been meaning to comment on it, although not in the way that this kind of story is intended to provoke comment ("McDonald's is preying on children!" "Learn to parent rather than waiting for a judge to do it!" "Won't somebody please think of the children?")
The media are obsessed with this stories of this kind – the classic "The whole world has gone crazy, Ethel!" stories for middle aged men reading the newspaper in a well-worn recliner. It is intended to provoke ranting and a quick scan of the internets reveals that it works like a charm. Parents vs. Courts – vote here and be sure to use the comment section to let everyone know What's Wrong with the World.
That's why these stories bother me so much. It's not that they set people off a-rantin'. It's that they set people a-rantin' without even paying lip service to the issue of whether this is a representative example of…anything. Remember the tale of the college graduate who sued her alma mater in 2009 because she couldn't find a job? That kept the blogosphere and the talk shows and your nutty aunt who sends you 10 emails every day and the people around the water cooler busy for a week. Which is good, because unemployed graduates suing universities is an epidemic. Right?
This obsession with "News of the Weird" stories is the ultimate source of straw men in a nation full of people who don't know their neighbors' names. Uncle Al may not leave his house except to go to work and he may never have met a person from California, but goddammit, he knows exactly what them San Francisco libruls are like. He knows what Messicans are like too, not to mention the homos, big city black people, The Feminists, college kids, and so on. These stories fit the preconceptions of a nation full of angry, angry people – Look! Everyone else is an asshole! Everyone else has a gross sense of entitlement! Whatever happened to hard work? – and they provide what looks deceptively like evidence. Have you heard what the libruls are doing now? They're suing McDonald's!
Of course a reasonable analysis of the McDonald's lawsuit would see the plaintiff as someone cooperating with a small, relatively unknown interest group in what amounts to a publicity stunt. In the hands of our commentary driven media and society it becomes a harbinger of the end of Western civilization. And right now I sound like the crank, predicting doom from what appear to be harmless, somewhat silly news items. Maybe that's true. Or maybe these pieces of Culture War bait are yet another tactic aimed at creating prejudices and stoking distrust of the strange, scary world (and people) around us. I guess the best thing to do is vote for people who will protect Common Sense and Our Way of Life.