COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS

Creeping Big Brotherism threatens to go too far

It was fine when state government put the clamps on easy purchases of assault weapons and Saturday Night Specials. And it was all right when California lawmakers banned smoking in office buildings, grocery stores and virtually every indoor public place. It was also a good thing when voters opted to force oil companies and others to notify the public whenever they're using substantial amounts of toxic chemicals. It was definitely the right move when state government forced listing of campaign contributions the Internet, where anyone can see who's giving how much to whom. All these measures increased public health and safety.

But all along the way, opponents kept raising the specter of Big Brother, the all-seeing, controlling dictator of George Orwell's classic book "1984." Now it turns out there may be some merit to their protests. For these moves, and other similar well-meant, do-gooder laws created a trend that threatens to spiral out of control.

The latest two possibilities show just how crazy the control freaks are getting. One bill raised in the state Senate last year sought to ban soda, candy and other fatty food fare from all California public schools. It failed, but the anti-junk food advocates were back during the springtime, trying this time to tax things like soda. When that also failed, they tried again with a measure to simply do away with soda in schools, but leave other things alone.

The rationale: Drinking pop makes kids fat. It also weakens their bones. "Let 'em drink milk," seemed to be the theme of the measure's chief sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Deborah Ortiz of Sacramento. The implication was that if soda were banned from school lunchrooms, milk and water would be about the only fluids left. Wrong. Does anyone argue that punch and coffee and tea are better for kids than soda?

At the same time, lawmakers were considering a bill to rid high school and college teams of any nicknames that might possibly insult anyone. Specific targets were names alluding to American Indians, like Braves and Redskins. But it turned out the bill also would have let the state Board of Education or the Postsecondary Education Commission (for universities and junior colleges) get rid of any group name they don't like.

(Disclosure: The writer is a graduate of Stanford University who has been known to insist he "will never be a Cardinal. Once an Indian, always an Indian." He also drinks an average of 1.7 cans of soda daily, while maintaining strong bones and reasonable weight. At least he thinks it's reasonable.)

The proposed name censorship law, whose sponsors vow to bring it back next year, could rid Hollywood High in Los Angeles of its Sheiks nickname. Loara High teams might cease to be Saxons. There could be no more Torrance Tartars, Alhambra Moors, Carlmont Scots or El Cerrito Gauchos. Sonoma State, of course, has already switched from Cossacks, with its marauding implication, to Seawolves, which means nothing specific to anyone but can hurt no feelings. Unless wolves have feelings, too, as the animal rights folks might insist.

What's left if you get rid of all these names, completely politically correct, but ludicrous monikers like the Anteaters (adopted as a satire by UC Irvine students in the 1970s) or the Banana Slugs (UC Santa Cruz)? If bullfighters suddenly arrived from Mexico claiming to be offended by all the teams called Matadors, would they suddenly have to become Lady Bugs? What about all those Vikings and Fighting Irish? Maybe they can become something more creative, like the Harry Potters.

On the soda front, Ortiz realizes what she's up against: Not just the soft-drink lobby and huge companies like Pepsi and Coca-Cola. But also many generations of ingrained adult taste.

"I've done some pretty controversial things in my career," she told a reporter. "Even a local gun ordinance when I was on city council didn't have the anger and venom of this issue."

Right. And it should have venom. What does Ortiz want morning Coke drinkers to do for a wake-up? Switch to coffee and multiply their caffeine intake while still pouring in plenty of sugar?

As for the team name censorship, sponsor Jackie Goldberg, a Democratic assemblywoman whose district includes Hollywood High, would rather they all became animals. "I would always err on the side of caution," she says. And, of course, eliminate all pizzazz and much exciting imagery.

Ridiculing both these proposed moves is easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Yes, government has an obligation to step in and preserve the public welfare when there's a clear need. But no such thing has been established in these areas, as has been done with smoking and assault guns, so it's time for the behavior and P.C. police to butt out.


Elias is author of the book "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," now available in an updated second edition. His e-mail address is thomas.elias@sddt.com.

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