Peter Berger — 1929 - 2017

June 30, 2017 
Posted by Jay Livingston

Flashback Friday

Peter Berger died earlier this week. The Times obit is here. His field was religion, but his two most widely read books were Invitation to Sociology (1963), which you can probably still find on the intro syllabus at some schools, and The Social Construction of Reality, co-written with Thomas Luckman (1966). The book quickly became a staple in theory courses, but soon the phrase and concept “social construction” broke through and crossed over into general use. Here is the Googl nGram chart of its appearance in books.

Five years ago, I blogged about Berger’s work for the tobacco industry and his more recent efforts on behalf of the soft-drink industry. That blog post is what I am flashing back to below. At about the same time, Andrew Gelman, who knew well of Berger’s work as a shill for Big Cig, also had this to say (here):

But what impresses me is that Berger is doing regular blogging at the age of 84, writing a long essay each week. That’s really amazing to me. Some of the blogging is a bit suspect, for example the bit where he claims that he personally could convert gays to heterosexual orientation (“A few stubborn individuals may resist the Berger conversion program. The majority will succumb”)—but, really, you gotta admire that he’s doing this. I hope I’m that active when (if) I reach my mid-80s. (As a nonsmoker, I should have a pretty good chance of reaching that point.)

July 26, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociologist Peter Berger is hauling out the strategy he used when he hired himself out to Big Tobacco.  His role then in Tobacco’s fight against regulation and other anti-smoking measures wasn’t to defend smoking as virtuous or healthful.  Instead, he was paid to discredit anti-smoking sentiment and organizations.  Berger’s tactic for this purpose was basically name calling combined with accusations that even if true were irrelevant.

This time, in a longish (2400 word) article at The American Interest , he’s speaking up for the people who bring us sugar water.  Or to be scrupulously accurate, he’s trying to discredit the anti-obesity, anti-diabetes forces trying reduce the amount of the stuff that people drink.

As I said, it’s a page from the same playbook he used when he was working for the folks who bring us cigarettes. He refers to the “vehement passion” of the anti-smoking and anti-obesity campaigns, and he exaggerates their goals (while showing off his erudition):
I suggested that it was in an age-old tradition of the quest of immortality, first described in the ancient Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic.
He also accuses them or their supporters of venal motives.
Successful morally inspired movements typically ally themselves with powerful groups motivated by very hard material interests.
This from someone who was being paid by a multi-billion dollar industry to further their material interests. This irony is apparently lost on Berger, who, interestingly, does not even hint that he got penny from Tobacco. Maybe he forgot.

In going after the movement to improve public health, his number one target is Mayor Bloomberg and the proposed ban on the sale of huge-sized sugar-water drinks in theaters, restaurants, and other public places. 

Again, Berger is not arguing that obesity is good for you.  Instead, he dusts off the old “immortality” barb – equating a desire to reduce diabetes and other illnesses with the vain and impossible goal of immortality. Berger does not tell us how he managed to discover this immortality fantasy in the minds of others, a deep motivation the anti-obesity people are themselves are unaware of. He just makes it the title of his article  (“Mayor Bloomberg and the Quest of Immortality”) and asserts it a few times.  We have to take it on faith.

Berger makes the same arguments he used against anti-smoking campaigns:
  • The anti-obesity forces will be moralistic (Berger refers to them with religion-based words like crusaders, litany, preaching).  
  • They are elitist. Not only do they see their own lifestyle choices as virtuous, but they try to impose these on the working class. 
  • They ally themselves with people whose material interests are served by anti-obesity or with (shudder) bureaucrats. 
  • They are European, un-American.
I cannot say whether Bloomberg’s quasi-European lifestyle has anything to do with his idea of New York City as a quasi-European welfare state.*
Then there is the “slippery slope” argument – the scare tactic of exaggeration and false equivalency.
There is also an equivalent of the Saudi Arabian police force dedicated to “the promotion of virtue and the suppression of vice”—an army of therapists, coaches, educators, advice columnists, dieticians, and other moral entrepreneurs. To date (still) they mainly rely on persuasion rather than coercion. Wait a little. [Emphasis by Berger.]
Yes, you read that correctly.  If you can’t buy a 30-oz. cup of sugar-water and instead have to buy two 15-ounce cups, the Saudi police are just around the corner. 

I wonder what Berger and libertarians in general were saying back when the good-health forces were trying to get lead removed from gasoline and paint.  Could you pretty much do a find-and-replace for the current article, just as that article is a find-and-replace version of his tobacco work?**

UPDATE:  Baptiste Coulmont tweets a link to a 2006 article (here) by a French sociologist, Robert Castel, which uncannily echoes Berger’s arguments.  Castel uses the same vocabulary of religion in mocking the anti-smokers, and he attributes to them the same desire for immortality.
Le fumeur d’hier comme le fumeur d’aujourd’hui transgresse le seul sacré que nous soyons désormais capables de reconnaître, le culte du corps, de sa santé, de sa longévité, sur lequel s’est finalement rabattu le désir d’éternité[emphasis added]
He likens anti-smoking policies to Islamic authoritarianism:
ce mélange d’autoritarisme bien-pensant, de suffisance pseudo-savante et de bonne conscience sécuritaire qui caractérise souvent les ayatollahs de la santé. [emphasis added]
And he sees the same slippery slope.
L’interdit du tabac n’est pas la dernière des prohibitions que l’on nous prépare.
The major difference from Berger is that, as far as I know, Castel was not being paid by Gauloises.

*By the way, if you’re looking for an example of paralipsis or apophasis, look no further than that sentence.

** For more on Berger and Tobacco, see Aaron Swartz’s article (here).  (HT: Andrew Gelman).  And yes, this is the same Peter Berger that sociologists of a certain age may remember as the author of that staple of Soc 101, Invitation to Sociology, and also as co-author of The Social Construction of Reality.

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