It’s not that Obama is pushing double cheeseburgers and Super Big Gulps down your throat. Quite the opposite, insist a growing group of anti-Big Guv’minters: by suggesting that you eat healthier, Obama and his fanatical, green-gardening wife with the oh-so-toned arms are taking away your liberty! And the only way to fight back is to eat what the hell you want when you want in quantities you want—calories, cholesterol, and diabetes be damned!
On Thanksgiving weekend, in fact, a heart attack survivor I know—who happens to watch a lot of Fox News—complained to his Red State mother-in-law that the Obama people wanted to limit his food choice and make him exercise. "They want to take away my freedom to eat whatever I want!" he told her. The mother-in-law, quietly alarmed at how much weight her daughter and son-in-law had put on since last summer and worried about who would care for their toddler if they went through a health crisis, called a relative living in a Blue State to find out if it was true. "Can we get Obama to do that?" she asked.
It’s really not surprising that the same people who believe in death panels believe that, any day now, they’ll be dragged before skinny panels.
I’m not saying that people like this heart attack survivor are choosing to be fat to protest Big Gov entreaties to not be fat (though as a sometimes dieter, I know that when you’re craving a pint of ice cream, any excuse will do). Obesity rates—two-thirds of American adults and 15 percent of children are overweight or obese—had been climbing long before Obama hit the scene. And stuffing your mouth till you’re the size of a human in WALL-E results not from political but from psychological impulses that, to varying degrees, most of us know only too well: the need to numb out, to stuff down anger, to (in our own minds) get back at someone.
But with a right-wing battle cry that equates liberty with lipids, another false frame has been set. By positing the fight as Big Gov vs. Big Bellies, Fox News and friends are (again) obscuring the role of a much bigger, institutionalized factor: Big Food. Multinational processed food corporations and their lobbies are not about to undergo a profit bypass. The fast-food industry alone spent $4.2 billion on advertising and marketing in 2009, according to a new study by the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. As for pledges, like McDonald’s, that they’d market more responsibly to children, well, "fast food companies seem to be stepping up their efforts to target kids," says a Rudd Center spokeswoman. "Today, preschoolers see 21 percent more fast food ads on TV than they saw in 2003, and somewhat older children see 34 percent more." To put a maraschino cherry on top of these stats, consider that one in three American children born in 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime, according the CDC.
But statistics are like facts: sometimes they have to be artificially sweetened and fatted-up to be noticed at all. Something Sarah Palin knows well. Last month, she delivered cookies to some private school kids in Pennsylvania and pushed the rumor that the state board of ed wants to "ban" cookies from school (when actually the proposed nutrition guidelines would suggest, not mandate, that schools consolidate classroom birthday parties to one per month, thus limiting but hardly banning sweets). "Suddenly," as Judith Warner wrote in the Times magazine, "Pennsylvania’s suggestion that schools encourage alternatives to high-sugar sweets became an assault on the American way of life." Similarly, Rush Limbaugh calls those who urge Americans to eat more wisely "food Nazis." Sean Hannity warns that the government will soon be "fining us if we use salt."
And Glenn Beck, master of the slippery-slope argument, puts skis under the whole canard. "You’re going to have to tax, you’re going to have to make it more and more difficult" to get junk food, he says. "But when those options don’t work, how do you get people to stop eating French fries, because French fries still beat carrots? What’s left? Well, now you have to start thinking about punishments—maybe a fine, maybe even jail. But it always starts with a nudge," he adds, staring fearlessly into the coming French fry–less Dark Age. "The media’s not going to give you the truth on this nudge towards bigger government, and eventually global government, but I will."
Completely missing from Beck’s nefarious nudges are the billions and billions of dollars’ worth of nudges from Big Food that have helped make highly processed food products seem as necessary as tax cuts for millionaires. Even though the Senate passed the Glenn Beck–opposed Food Safety Modernization Act on Tuesday, we can still count on the corporate food lobby to bring those increasing diabetes and obesity rates in on schedule. Much as they tried to do last year when they shot down talk of a soda tax, with the help of Fox News and hilarious ads like this:
Hmm, she’s "trying to feed a family" with soda, but how many pennies, and empty calories, would she save by not buying it at all? (Again, no surprise, but the astroturf sponsor of this campaign, Americans Against Food Taxes, is really a front for the American Beverage Association, an industry group of major soft drink manufacturers. In fact, AAFT might be nicknamed Coke and Koch: while it bills itself as "a coalition of concerned citizens—responsible individuals, financially strapped families, small and large businesses," those businesses include the Tea Party–supporting front groups Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Reform, both of which are funded by the rightwing Koch brothers.)
Not to nudge, but if anyone still buys the anti-nanny-state notion that sugar consumption—even the 150 pounds of added sugar downed by the average American each year—is simply a personal matter between you and your insulin, see Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science. This new book by Marina Budhos and Marc Aronson (disclosure: my friends) explains how deadly the politics behind sugar have always been.