"We've got so many people who are fat, so many people who are smoking, so many who are not active, and that is really contributing significantly to our health care costs, not only to Medicaid but to the private sector as well."
That's Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm talking at the annual meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, DC. Granholm is doing her share to reduce the nation's need for relaxed-fit jeans by strapping on a pedometer and competing against 16 other pols to see who walks the most over a 16 week period. According to this account, additional fight-the-fat efforts by pols include South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's 300-mile bike ride through the Palmetto State, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue's banishing of Snickers bars from his diet, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry's "Texas Round-Up," in which taxpayers are exhorted to join a 10,000 meter walk and run to be held in Austin on April 17.
Sadly, there are no short piers from which these pols might begin their Long March to Muscle Beach.
Who would have ever thought that in a world blessed with increasing tolerance for lifestyles of all sorts that being a fat lard would become the subject not simply of the derision and scorn it always has been but a semi-legitimate topic of political discussion? (As someone who has spents periods of my life 25-plus pounds tubbier than I wanted to be, I still await the definitive Fat Like Me exposé of the contempt heaped upon even the most modestly double-chinned among us in the most tolerant nation on the planet.)
If history is any guide, it's safe to assume that a semi-legitimate topic of political discussion will quickly transform into a semi-legitimate topic of legislation, ranging from Twinkie Taxes to mandatory high school exit exams administered by the President's Council on Fitness. (Rumor has it that the Bush administration is drafting the No Fat Child Be Left Behind Act as we speak.) 500 Million Maoists performing mandatory calisthenics can't be any more wrong than 50 million Elvis or 50 Phil Ochs fans, right?
If being a fat load or a smoker—or being part of any number of groups that "contribute significantly to health care costs"—is a "public health" problem, the best way to deal with that is to make the individual internalize the costs the same way they scarf down the Big Macs that plump them up and the cigarette smoke that cancers up their bodies. That means reducing the taxpayer-financed elements of health care that gives politicians—and your tax-paying neighbors—any direct monetary interest in shaping your lifestyle. Which isn't to say that people shouldn't be able to nag fatsos into dieting, or to make fun of them, or to avert their gaze, etc. But there is something definitely creepy, pathetic, and deranged when politicians start calculating versions of a Body Mass Grave Index and start flapping their jaws about the dire need to control the "epidemic of obesity." The latest craze in foreign policy—nation-building—is morphing domestically into something like Nation Bodybuilding.
Of course, publicly financed health care is not going away any time soon, so it's worth articulating a different argument against the new political interest in creating a body-politic-by-Jake—an argument that like its target treats the subject with faux-patriotism and appeal to the common good.
I can almost imagine a zaftig, venerable senator or governor slowly rising from his or her chair to deliver an argument that goes something like this:
Freedom's not just another word for 10 pounds left to lose. My immigrant grandparents didn't come to this country so that their grandchildren wouldn't have enough to eat.
In fact, they left the Old World with its famines and wars and emaciated lower classes for almost precisely the opposite reasons; they dreamed of living in a country where even the starving masses required "husky" pants. Even as they went to their graves still possessing the lean-and-hungry peasant bodies they arrived in at Ellis Island, my grandparents must have looked upon the ever larger and fatter bodies of their descendants as the very incarnation of the American Dream.
The distance between Manifest Destiny and the Wendy's 99-cent Biggie Menu—once cheerily pitched by the deceased multiple-heart-attack-survivor and great American success story Dave Thomas—is shorter than we think, and in seeking to inject politics into diet, we may well accomplish little more than hardening the arteries of the greatest political experiment of modern times.
A skinnier America may be a healthier America. It will almost certainly a more attractive America. But if it comes into existence through politics rather than individual initiative and restraint, it will diminish America in ways that no way bathroom scale could ever calculate.