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.

This is the point in the argument where the city council of Binghamton jumps in. Actually, they perked up at the mention of the word "victims." Victims are citizens who have gone limp. They require the paternal care and protection of public officials. Researchers from Yale (no less) "found that obese adults were 37 times more likely"--not 36 times more likely, and not 38 either--"to report weight-based employment discrimination compared to 'normal' weight adults." Nonprogressives from places other than Binghamton might find this statistic less than eye-popping. Who else but fat people are going to suffer discrimination against fat people? But the very idea of such unregulated bigotry moved the city council to act. Specifically, it outlawed what has elsewhere been called weightism: "weight-based" discrimination in housing, employment, education, and public accommodation. The bill's sponsor explained the law by saying, "It is the human thing to do."

Well, it's certainly the progressive thing to do. Those same Yale researchers fleshed out the reasoning, if you'll forgive the expression. "Weight bias exists," they explained, because weightist bigots believe that "the only reason people fail to lose weight is because of [they're not teaching grammar at Yale these days] poor self-discipline or a lack of willpower." This wrongheaded notion "blames the victim rather than addressing environmental conditions that cause obesity."

The city council takes care of the first part of this incorrect thinking. Its new law reinforces the view that obesity, like sex or race, is an unchangeable condition deserving civil rights protection. The governor aims for the second part, by making the initial move toward taxing those "environmental conditions" out of existence; he will, in other words, directly attack the TFE and, if all goes well, cure the obesity epidemic.

The governor and the Binghamton city council acted independently, of course, but together they've concocted a perfectly progressive two-pronged approach, a one-two punch, a regulatory pincer movement designed to eliminate, all at once and simultaneously, not only discrimination against the obese but also the obese themselves.

One problem does suggest itself. If the government is to declare our hefty brothers and sisters a protected class, if they are to become a legal caste that cannot be singled out because of their weight, how can the government continue to go after their favorite foods? A "fat tax" on sugary soda pop punishes fat people by making the foods they love more expensive--merely because fat people love them. One tactic violates the other. It's only a matter of time before fat people will be able to sue the state of New York on grounds of discrimination for imposing a fat tax. And then where will we be?

I don't want to give anybody any ideas, but I have noticed an alarming number of dangerously skinny people drinking diet soda. It's like an -epidemic.

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Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.