This Cupcake Will Not Stand

Don’t you kind of wonder how this woman thought she’d come out looking from this New York Times article?

On one hand, she seems perfectly aware that most of the other parents at the schools her kids have been at don’t like her much, nor do the school administrators. On the other hand, she seems so serenely unperturbed by the existence of other people with other views than her own, or by a little thing we academics like to call “culture”, who knows? She might feel that a wider window into her actions would result in a round of applause from the wider society for her righteous crusade.


I’m in New York for a conference this week. On the train up, I happened to be next to a very talkative older woman. To whom I was perfectly polite, before you go on accusing me of anything. I was struck, though, at the way she described history, both personal and shared. Some of what she had to say was a garden-variety account of how the world is going to hell in a handbasket, a story we’re all prone to tell with increasingly frequency as we age. But her version had a particular flavor to it, in which all of her choices as a young person were exactly what they should have been, and all of the choices of everyone younger than thirty now were exactly the opposite. Some declension stories are about the world, and our helplessness before it, but hers was, “I did everything right, and now everyone’s doing everything wrong.” She worked hard, now the young folk are all lazy. She liked the right kinds of books and right kinds of movies and now the kids are all perverts. She fell in love with the right man, now young women fall in love with sex fiends and wastrels. Maybe she did live the right life, though in my mind, living the right life includes not caring altogether that much about how other people live theirs.

The interesting (if consistent) amendment to her view of the world was that there is one and only one group of people under 30 who have in fact done the right thing: her own adult children. They’ve chosen the right careers, live in the right places, married the right people, raised their own young children the right way. Which in her view I think is just a vindication of the rightness of her own choices.


The reason I recount this somewhat painful trip alongside the mother crusading against birthday cupcakes in the schools is this: if there is a single thing I’m prepared to get righteously aggravated by at this point in my life, it’s people whose vision of their own lives rises perpetually towards their own righteous vindication.

I’m all about the doubts these days, I wallow in uncertainty. Sure, I’m still right about all sorts of shit, and don’t you forget it.

I guess.

But if you want to be an aggravating irritant to the lives of every other adult trying to raise or teach a kid in your community, you’d better be damn sure the cause justifies it. If you’re Atticus Finch, green light, go for it. If you’re the scourge of the snacks, and brook no dissent? You might want to worry more about the epidemic spread of “lack of proportionality and self-awareness” before you worry about the epidemic of obesity. If you’re my seat-mate, would it hurt for you to imagine a story of your life where experience leads to humility, even a little teeny bit?

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11 Responses to This Cupcake Will Not Stand

  1. cgbrooke says:

    I must admit: to see that her name was MeMe made me laugh out loud.

  2. Alan Jacobs says:

    That’s short for MeMeMeMeMeMeMeMeMeMe.

  3. kit says:

    Nicely put. There’s a part of me that feels that this sort of taking-of-a-cause-to-extremes is related to what I perceive to be a culture of specialization. Doing one thing and doing it thoroughly, can spill over into social causes very easily. Thoughts?

  4. Lara says:

    Shapely Prose has been following MeMe Roth for a while now.

  5. north says:

    She’s AWFUL. What I find striking about that kind of self-righteous extremism is that it almost always backfires. My partner’s parents wouldn’t let her have sugar at home, and she was obsessed with sugar for years and years. Every time she went to her grandparents’ house, she’d go straight for the candy drawer. As soon as MeMe Roth’s kids get to adolescence, they’ll probably either go straight into some kind of disordered eating or just become junk food fiends on the sly. Similarly, I’ve read that evangelical teen-agers have sex earlier, on average, than secular teens (and are less likely to use protection).

    Partly this may just have to do with the kind of “f**k you, authority” reaction (I was going to call it a teen reaction, but I realized I still have it, and probably always will). I think it’s because when you demonize something (sugar, drugs, sex) you have to construct this caricature of it; as soon as people are old enough and independent enough to make their own evaluations of it, they realize it’s not the terrible evil monster their parents/DARE educators/preacher said it was. At the same time, those kids haven’t learned any tools for coping with the problematic item in question, so they’re more likely to end up making choices that get them in some kind of trouble.

  6. Bill McNeill says:

    To balance confidence in my own correctness and virtue with a healthy sense of self-skepticism I repeat the following mantra: “Forty percent of what I believe is wrong–I just don’t know which forty percent.”

  7. peter55 says:

    Regarding the lady on the train: I have experienced many people in my life who seek validation for their life choices (university, career, religion, etc) by trying to persuade others to make the same choices. In almost all cases, I view such people as profoundly (ie, fundamentally) insecure about themselves. Someone deeply at-peace with their own self does not try to force others to make the same choice, even when (or even especially when) he or she is regretful about his/her own choices.

  8. Daniel says:

    I read that article, and had a big problem with it, too. But not (so much) because the woman in question is obnoxious; more because the author (and some of the commenters) cast the issue as style v. substance – given that her substance is right, but her style is alienating, what shall we make of this? But her substance is wrong, or at least profoundly misguided about the main factors in the “obesity epidemic.”

    First of all, any given cupcake – or even cupcakes for every birthday of every kid in your class – is not going to make anyone fat who is otherwise eating healthy & exercising. And eating healthy & exercising are significantly related to class – if you are wealthy, you are more likely to have access to a gym (if you’re a grown-up) or nice playgrounds (if you’re a kid), etc. You are more likely to live close to a grocery store that sells fresh, nutritious food at reasonable prices. You’re more likely to live in a neighborhood where it’s safe to go for a walk or a run (although you’re also more likely to have a car and live in the suburbs where walking most places doesn’t make sense… so it’s also about how our cities and especially suburbs are organized across classes, too).

    Anyway, the question of style & approach is interesting given campaigns based on trying to change things that are really problems – harassment of LGBT kids in school, say – but the wrong debate when the crusader is crusading against cupcakes as a cause of obesity.

  9. Bill McNeill says:

    Daniel’s right–the substance of Roth’s tirades is off base too. (The links Lara provides above do a good job of pointing this out.)

    This got me thinking about what a slippery piece of rhetoric the word “epidemic” has become in the past fifteen years or so. My sense is that in this time its metaphorical sense of “widespread bad thing” has overwhelmed its literal sense of “widespread disease” in public discourse. It rankles me when I hear “epidemic” applied to anything other than a communicable disease, just as it rankles me when I hear “addiction” applied to anything other than a drug that produces withdrawal symptoms, and I don’t think I’m just being a usage curmudgeon here. There’s something shady going on.

    It was only in thinking about Roth’s cranky bullheaded obsession with the “obesity epidemic” this morning that I realized what it was: some amount of free will is involved in deciding whether or not you become obese. Sure there may be complicated environmental and genetic factors, but individual agency is definitely part of the equation. Not so with actual viral epidemics, where the best precautions can be undone by one passerby’s random cough. In an epidemic, individual good sense is beside the point. When you refer to things that aren’t literally epidemics as “epidemics”, you take on an undeserved air of medical authority and implicitly move the debate towards the point where people need to be told what to do for their own good, which is just where you imagine the Roths of the world want it.

  10. joeo says:

    There are apparently schools that don’t let parents bring in the cupcakes and donuts. All it takes is a loud enough subset of the parents complaining. Being an asshole about it is probably not that ineffective in a lot of cases. It can be easier for a teacher to just give in than to have to repetitively deal with asshole parents.

  11. joeo says:

    some amount of free will is involved in deciding whether or not you become obese.

    The change over time is the scary thing to me:

    Something is different between now and 1980. I doubt it is willpower.

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