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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happy Meals

by James Lileks

Mayor Mike Bloomberg, leader of the Bloomberg faction of the Bloomberg party, was interviewed en route to China, where he was seeking to open diplomatic ties between Cathay and the colorful principality he governs. A quote: “If you look at the U.S., you look at who we’re electing to Congress, to the Senate — they can’t read. I’ll bet you a bunch of these people don’t have passports.”

Brace yourselves! We’re about to be governed by provincial illiterates. For folk like Mike, the Magic Passport possesses liberating qualities; running your fingers over its stiff blue cover makes you think of stepping off a plane, shorn of the thick sopping wool of America, ready for an experience that will add depthless wisdom to your perception of the world. They drive on the other side of the road! They have tiny cups of coffee! Salad comes after the main meal! These globe hoppers believe that someone who’s been to all 50 states is less informed than someone who lives on the Upper East Side all year except for a trip to Cannes. If a passport were required to go west of the Hudson, these people would be proud they didn’t have one.

Bloomberg is famous for his war against salt and fat and soda and tobacco; if you want those things, you’ll have to get a passport and go to France. C’est ironique! Makes you want to hang around his office and chain-smoke Slim Jims. His special blend of condescension and control is one of the things that do not endear him to average voters, which is why he’ll never be president. But he would probably carry San Francisco: In a move that must have made Bloomberg gasp at the brilliant audacity of it all, that city’s board of supervisors banned Happy Meals. Fast-food restaurants will be forbidden to give toys with meals that contain too much incorrect deliciousness. This is why the Right won the election: People suspect the Left’s agenda consists of taking away your right to eat what you want and giving Ronald McDonald the right to marry the Hamburglar.

Not a big fan of the Happy Meal, personally, and not just because it suggests Dad’s bag is a Slough of Despond Meal. Now and then, okay, but as a steady diet, no. Bad. Too many kids are so tubby they get winded trying to open the packet of ketchup. Still, you want to root for the Happy Meal, because its existence appalls the enlightened. We’re supposed to live on slices of goose-flavored tofu with tamarind compote wrapped in organic arugula. But the untutored tongue pines for grease, salt, and sugar. It’s elemental. It’s what our head wants: HEY! YOU THERE! SALT! PUT IT IN ME! Recall the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the monkeys hoot and holler around the mysterious monolith? If the alien intelligence had put up a Cinnabon stand instead, the monkeys would have invented money in three days, and the concept of paying for “extra icing” in four.

Ah, but it wasn’t the nutritional quality of the Happy Meal that made it doubleplusungood, it was the toy. The irresistible lure of plastic stamped in the shape of a licensed character or media-conglomerate movie tie-in. Their primary purpose is to acquaint the very young with the concept of instantaneous disappointment; their secondary function is to make the parent look for the origin — invariably, China — and imagine dark satanic mills belching out poisonous fumes, producing an endless stream of pink-and-purple plastic Princess pieces, which will be loaded into metal containers, hauled through the heaving seas of the Pacific, distributed throughout the land, and played with for one unenthused minute before they’re fed to the gullet of the trash bin, after which they will form a stratum of a landfill that will baffle archeologists of the future. Why did this people make 20 million tiny plastic cats, all alike? Does the tomato-condiment indicate blood, and if so, what ritual was involved? Even if you drive a Hummer with the windows down and the AC blasting, you feel a pang of environmental guilt when you throw this stuff away.

That said: It’s not the government’s call to bat them out of kids’ hands. It’s not their business. The point man for the anti–Happy Meal initiative stated that this wasn’t just about nutrition, though — this was “food justice,” a new concept that will soon join hands with the commerce clause to ban interstate transport of fast food, unless Taco Bell gets smart and markets its burritos as “undocumented wraps.” But to get back to Mike: Mayor Bloomberg said he worried about new congresspeople, because they didn’t know where China was, and might start a trade war. Yet his ilk would be happy if the kids were forced to drink a fiber-rich beet slurry without a toy on the side, and the cost to Chinese factories be damned. You want a trade war? There’s your first shot.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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