The Magazine

The Politics of Fat

A hefty problem for the left.

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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On December 15, the city council of Binghamton, New York--every member a proud progressive--unanimously passed an ordinance making it a crime to discriminate against fat people. The next day, David Paterson, the famously progressive governor of New York, proposed a special "fat tax" on soda pop because soda pop makes people fat.

When it comes to obesity, the authorities in New York have put their citizens on notice: We will get you coming and going.

Supporters make clear that each move is only preliminary to even greater reforms. Several legislators are interested in a statewide "weight-based" discrimination law, and fat taxes on other foods may prove irresistible.

Obesity is very today, very right now. Obesity is the new smoking. "What smoking was to my parents' generation," Paterson says, "obesity is to my children's generation." He means this in two ways. One is that kids today--these kids today!--eat fatty foods with as much ardor as their grandparents smoked tobacco. The other is that government intends to eradicate the first vice with the same ruthlessness as it did the second. And it's not an idle threat. The campaign against smoking was progressivism's greatest recent success. Over a span of 20 years, an ancient human weakness once enjoyed by nearly half the population and quietly tolerated by the other half became virtually outlawed.

The anti-smoking campaign shows how to turn a private vice requiring tolerance and indulgence into a public offense demanding regulation and official censure. Paterson is following the campaign step by step. First comes the misappropriation of the language of epidemiology. The terms are liberated from their scientific meaning and then attached to a widely shared activity or condition. The condition, in this case obesity, is renamed a "disease," suggesting that some kind of contagion is making the rounds. Then the disease inflates into an "epidemic," suggesting an urgency that only the foolhardy would ignore. "We find ourselves," says Paterson, "in the midst of a new public health epidemic, childhood obesity." Any libertarian qualms are quickly overridden, since not even the most hollow-eyed anarcho-capitalist would deny that government is obliged to guard against runaway disease.

To intensify the urgency, Paterson deploys neutral statistics from sources that are already on his side. The statistics are always improbably exact. Unnamed public health researchers at Harvard have discovered that obesity is "associated" with 112,000 deaths in the United States every year; not 113,000, and not 111,000. Each can of soda pop "increases the risk" of making a child fat by 60 percent. Not 59 percent. Not 61 percent. An increase of $1.25 in tobacco taxes saves more than 37,000 lives and $5 billion in health care costs. And Paterson's 18 percent tax on sugary soft drinks will reduce consumption by 5 percent. Not four.

From here the rest of the argument tumbles like dominoes, clack clack clack. Fat people are not merely drawn to eating unhealthy food; they are "addicted." As addicts, they are rendered helpless by their addiction. Helpless, they deserve the status of victims. Like all victims, they must be victimized by something. By unhealthy food? No: Not food merely, for food and commercial marketing combine to create the TFE--the "Toxic Food Environment." The TFE is everywhere in today's America; it is today's America. It emanates from the seductive advertising of food, from the media's quasi-pornographic obsession with food, from the scandalously low price of food, from the ubiquitous sale of food in such unlikely places as gas-station minimarts. (In simpler times, Americans got gas when they ate food; now they eat food when they get gas.) Created by cynical corporations, the TFE is the ghastly miasma in which we live and move and have our being, swelling with every Frito.

Thus a private failing becomes a public menace.