- - Monday, August 6, 2012

Now that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has dispensed with poor, fat people and smokers, it only makes sense that he would declare open warfare on mothers. The city government has unveiled its latest exercise in bureaucratic maternalism, Latch on NYC, which aggressively promotes breast-feeding to new mothers by restricting their hospital access to formula and exposing them to schoolmarmish lectures by nurses when they have the audacity to request the breast milk alternative. Not content to allow the nanny state to remain a mere metaphor, Mr. Bloomberg effectively has appointed himself our municipal wet nurse, extending the coercive influence of his office to our citizens’ mammary glands.

Let us set aside that this is the creepiest name for a governmental program in American history. In a rare fit of prudence and mercy, Mr. Bloomberg did not commission a logo for the initiative, sparing New York City another culturally divisive debate about pornography and the limits of free speech. Nevertheless, this is where his political judgment exhausts itself, and what remains is an impressively ambitious attempt at self-parody.

The city government’s website describes the program in tortured doublespeak, masking a nudging maternalism as the championing of free choice. Its central purpose is to “support mothers who choose to breast-feed and limit practices that interfere with that choice.” But limit whose practices? Benighted mothers, of course, who choose wrongly if they opt for formula. So, while the program is billed as a fence against infringements upon a mother’s liberty to determine her own preferences, its real objective is to herd her toward rational enlightenment.

Even the language describing the role of the participating hospitals is studiously equivocal. Their involvement is depicted as a “voluntary commitment,” but it is revealed subsequently that their volition was encouraged by the threat to “enforce the New York City hospital regulation to not support breastfeeding infants with formula unless medically indicated.” “Soft administrative despotism,” to borrow a coinage from the great French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, requires persistent pushing versus shackles.

Why do these misguided bearers of children go astray? For the same reason New Yorkers drink sugary soft drinks or smoke: ignorance. To put it more euphemistically, it’s for want of “adequate education.” Again, the rhetorical slipperiness is insidious. The website feigns neutrality about the ultimate decision of the mother, presenting the motivation as the protection of free choice: “Women need accurate information and support to make their own decisions about how to feed their babies.” This implies they will be provided a dispassionate rendering of the arguments for and against and then be left to their own determinations. However, as reported in the New York Post, if a new mother requests formula, she’ll be shamed into rectitude: “With each bottle a mother requests, she’ll also get a talking to. Staffers will explain why she should offer the breast instead.” What could be more supportive than avuncular reproach?

One public-relations problem technocratic liberalism has never been able to solve is how transparently condescending it is. Its advocates characteristically respond to this problem by repackaging their own aggrandizement as our empowerment, spinning the reality of burgeoning regulation in the language of choice, and the fact of scolding micromanagement in the name of our unproscribable rights. They congratulate us for our choices and flatter our freedom as they circumscribe both. They assume we are dumb enough to thank them for their blandishments.

These efforts are always built around “public awareness campaigns” meant to free us all from our dark superstitions and unscientific prejudices. At least in Mr. Bloomberg’s case, they grow progressively bolder, insinuating themselves into our private affairs. Because the early bird gets the worm, it only makes sense to start the regime of subtle restriction at the moment of birth.

It’s worth noting that those who tend most zealously to protect a mother’s reproductive rights or her power of life and death over her unborn child are the ones who trust her the least to raise the child as she sees fit once the child is born. The rhetoric of liberty can be used to defend all kinds of illiberal impulses, redefining freedom as the right to make the choices deemed rationally acceptable by others. Besides being an affront to the dignity of free, rational individuals, it also remains to be seen what evidence exists in demonstration of the government’s superior intelligence. The example of the Department of Motor Vehicles alone should chasten the city government’s ambitions.

Common sense dictates that Mr. Bloomberg’s authority over our mothers’ lives does not extend under their shirts. New Yorkers should resist and lampoon his presumptuous intrusions.

Ivan Kenneally writes from New York City.