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Pattie Thomas, Ph.D.

Pattie Thomas Ph.D.

Fat is a Libertarian Issue

Dichotomous politics misses the point when thinking about fat and public health

I live in Nevada, so it should come as no surprise that I hear a lot of libertarian voices here. Every afternoon on local radio stations, in between the lefties on public radio and the righties on AM radio are a couple of interesting shows that don’t quite fit the comfortable (false) dichotomous, binary, either-or categories of the usual “showdowns” and “face-offs” in the mainstream media.

What may surprise you is that I’m pretty comfortable with libertarian thinking. I do not like big government. Freedom is my highest value. I don’t think governments belong in our bedrooms, our kitchens, our front yards or our uteruses. I believe in tolerance of difference. I believe that a lot of social injustice would dissolve if people rediscovered social empathy and reason, and simply acted in their own best interests. I am skeptical that changes in laws have long-term effect. I suspect that common sense might do more to solve things than government intervention.

However, I also believe that big businesses do not belong in our bedrooms, our kitchens, our front yards or our uteruses. I believe that the money system needs a major overhaul and that the ongoing, systemic efforts to teach us and pressure us into dividing ourselves leads us to act in the best interests of billionaires instead of ourselves. This is creating more unrest and pain in the world than any of the government lackeys who help support the billionaires’ fiefdoms. As long as the few hold onto and control the majority of resources in the world, the many will continue to live as peasants.

Venus of Willendorf: Big People is a Good Thing, Big Organizations, Not So Much
When it comes to human bodies, I think big is good (as is small, medium, short, tall, dark, light, young, old, etc.). When it comes to human organizations, big is not so good.

Venus of Willendorf: Big People is a Good Thing, Big Organizations, Not So Much

I’m not a conservative because I think no business should be allowed to grow to the point where it becomes more important than people and I don’t buy the “corporate as person” crap. I’m not a liberal because I also know that the seesaw between big government and big business is a system that keeps the powerful and rich powerful and rich. Big government and big business are not opposites. They are a false dichotomy that limits and constrains my freedom and probably yours too.

So I was amused when I read Betsy Woodruff’s January 7, 2013 blog entry on the National Review website called Fat Politics . Setting aside for the moment the incredibly misleading cherry-picking of quotes she uses or that her argument about rights and definition of rights is a classic stigmatization ploy (“I have rights, but you are just whining.”), what struck me most about the article is that she missed the biggest evidence that she could have found that government is too large and too intrusive. By setting up her straw “man” to be “fat feminism” (feminism being a favorite scapegoat from which to bitch about the left), she totally ignores the most obvious conclusion anyone who knows anything about public health and the obesity epidemic can make if one wants to understand how bad big government can become. She starts off with Bloomberg’s silly “large drink” law and still misses this.

So Ms. Woodruff, here is the argument you should have made. Governments in the United States at the federal, state and local level (and we are by no means alone in the world on this) are going too far to tell us what to weigh, what to eat and how often to exercise. Attempts to regulate people via taxes and regulatory programs have failed miserably around the world.

The libertarian argument is simple. Government does not belong in our kitchens or our bathrooms. Government should not be telling us how to raise our children. Government should not be regulating our daily lives in such micro-management efforts, including sin taxes on sugar and fat.

Why? Because these efforts are exercises in social control and they usually have hidden agendas.

My more liberal friends often give Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move efforts a pass on this, stating that her heart is in the right place but her facts are wrong. But the Let’s Move effort is a perfect example of the problem with big government and big business partnerships that are designed to create big markets and take away money from the poor and stuff the pockets of the rich. Why would Kraft, Pepsico and other such producers of so called “junk food” support the Let’s Move efforts? Because diet foods are a part of the Big Food industry as much as other processed foods. I will save this rant for another time, but the point is that the creation of diet products aimed at children was a potentially huge market for companies that needed both to expand their markets and to look like they were not villain #1 in the so-called childhood obesity epidemic.

So here we have the righties, who are decrying fat as a social justice issue by claiming that all that is being hurt is the feelings of people who are essentially sub-human anyway. And we have the lefties, who are calling for regulation of industries with the usual result of such regulations, more money going into the pockets of the few at the expense of many. This is a microcosm of American-style, two-party, either/or politics. As long as the media frames this as a big government versus big business fight (with the right decrying government intervention and the left decrying corporate greed), we, the people, stand to lose.

So you may be asking at this point: Why does this woman write so much about this if she doesn’t want government protection of her rights to be fat? I write because as a sociologist I know that more is going on than politics. I write because while I believe that in a perfect world, we have neither big government or big business, we do not live in that world. I write because my experience is not unique, but it is devalued and so is the experience of many other stigmatized peoples.

I watched a documentary last night called Trumbo . One of the more creative biographies I’ve seen, the film used letters written by the subject to tell the story of Dalton Trumbo , one of the Hollywood 10 who was blacklisted and jailed during the red scare in the United States because he evoked the FIRST amendment rights of free speech and free assembly and refused to answer HUAC . (Ironic that it is the first amendment freedoms that the Supreme Court extended to corporations in the Citizens United case.)

The film Spartacus broke the blacklist by employing Dalton Trumbo as writer
One of the letters, which was read by Liam Neeson in the film, was to fellow black-listed writer, Guy Endore , in which he describes the real consequences of blacklisting, discrimination and choices made by people who participate in these practices:

The film Spartacus broke the blacklist by employing Dalton Trumbo as writer

Dear Guy,

I have had several days to ponder our discussion on the Saturday before Christmas. Though I have not yet had the opportunity to talk it over with the others, I have had second thoughts of my own, and a strong impression that I didn’t make myself clear as to my real opinions.

That day a prominent and liberal producer whose motives I do not at all doubt was quoted as saying to one of us: “Look, you people are simply stubborn and foolish. The committee and its requirements are a part of our time; they are the law; they are the country; they are the flag. That’s the way it is, and those who refuse to recognize this no longer arouse sympathy; they only isolate themselves and prevent their voices from being heard.”

I know and can read the first amendment as well as anyone else. I know it is the basic law of this country. I know that if it goes, all will go. Thus, the court has presented us with a dilemma that lies at the heart of all philosophies and religions. The dilemma best symbolized in the Faustian legend: Yield up your principles and you shall be rich; cling to them and you shall be less prosperous than you presently are.

That’s the problem: choice.

Not compulsion: choice.

Committee or no committee, law or no law, capitalism or no capitalism, movies or no movies, it is the constant necessity to choose that dogs every action of our lives, every minute of our existences.

Who is it then who compels us to inform? Who is it that denies us work until we week out the committee and abase ourselves before it? Since it neither the court nor the law not the committee, the man who compels informing can only be the employer himself. He is the one who urges us to inform, and he is the one who withholds work from us until we do.

He is, in fact, that same liberal producer who was quoted at our Saturday discussion. It is he and not the committee who applies the only lash that really stings—economic reprisal: He is the enforcer who gives the committee its only strength and all its victories. Disliking the nasty business of blacklisting, but nonetheless practicing it every day of his life, he places upon his country and his flag the blame for moral atrocities that otherwise would be charged directly to himself. And thus, since informing has nothing to do with the law and the country and the flag, and since the necessities of his life as he sees them oblige him to enforce what the committee can never compel, and since without his enforcement, the committee would have no power at all – what he actually said is that he is the law and the country and the flag.

Thinking back to our producer and his concept of country and flag, I am more than ever bewildered. I wonder if he has really seen this country, if he has really seen these American people, if he has really seen that flag. If he has, and his conclusions are honest, he has seen something I never imagined and don’t believe exists.

This profound and still relevant analysis outlines why I do not believe politics alone can answer our problems. All power is cooperative. Trumbo didn’t want to believe that it exists, but it does. Within our culture, we are enforcing the power of big government and big business. We do so by pretending we have no choices, by using terms like “for country” or “post-(fill-in-the-blank with scary world event) world” like these justify and absolve us of our choices.

The consequences of fat stigma are real. Fat people are systematically denied work, health insurance, quality health care, and fair wages. Fat people are shunned. Fat people have their children removed from their homes. Fat people are blamed for every social ill under the sun. These consequences are not “offenses” or “feelings.” They are material and economic realities that not only reduce the quality of life for fat folks, but waste human capital for the rest of us by using an arbitrary standard to block contributions these people could be making to the world, to us as a collective.

Trumbo was convicted in 1950 of contempt of Congress for standing up to them. He went to jail in 1951. Thousands of Americans were hurt by the red scare witch hunt after his black-listing. In the end, many “regular” people instead of just Hollywood royalty and high-visible targets. That’s how it works. You can decide that it is “for my health” or “for the health of the children” and believe that it doesn’t open up any doors that will impinge on your life because you have an acceptable body size.

What one must see is that freedom cannot exist if it is for the few. Freedom only exists if we are free to disagree, if we are free to make mistakes, if we are free to live with our choices.

I have the feeling that if you give most people in the world a choice between enough food for their children and shelter and clothing in return for their freedom of speech, that they will go for the food, the shelter, and the necessities, and freedom of speech becomes a luxury for which few fight, at the most.” – Dalton Trumbo

So to answer my own rhetorical question, I write because I seek social and cultural change, not only for acceptance and/or liberation of the fatter among us, but because regulation of our bodies is the most personal of invasions of our freedoms.

So, yeah, I care about fatness because I live in a fat body. I write about fatness because I can see that so much more is at stake than the size of my body or your prejudice against it. What is at stake is our freedom. Too bad Ms. Woodruff couldn’t see what allies we really could be. But then, she probably likes her corporate masters too much to question the party-lines.