Obesity and freedom

A few years ago I became disturbed (though “freaked out” might be a more accurate description) at the common sight of unimaginably obese people in different parts of the USA. As I saw it, this was not just a matter of people being very fat, but of people being so fat and so large that they no longer seemed part of our species. I called this new species Homo SUViens.

Laura Wood, who is also very troubled by this phenomenon, has an article on “Obesity in America” at her blog, The Thinking Housewife, in which she attributes the problem primarily to the fact that people are no longer eating home-cooked meals. She sends this comment:

You don’t notice it if you’re in certain parts of the city or suburbs. In some towns, 50 percent of the adults meet the medical definition of obese and many of these people are having daily problems functioning. There is not much like it in American history in terms of the amount of chronic disability and suffering involved. Arguably even smoking was never this bad. That rarely caused health problems in children and teenagers.

Carbohydrates are the culprit. People have received bad advice from nutrition experts. They’ve given up meat and potatoes for cereals and pasta. But the reliance on a carb-heavy diet is also a reflection of economic and moral decline. Carbohydrates are easy, cheap and filling. They’re also addictive, enhance appetite and lead to a downward spiral into out-of-control weight gain.

The growth in obesity parallels family breakdown. Almost forty percent of children are now born to unwed mothers, as opposed to ten percent in 1970, when the problem was much less prevalent. Those children are not likely to have wholesome diets no matter what nutrition experts say. Good advice is crucial, but it’s hard to imagine that alone will cure the disease.

Rufus W. writes:

Much has been made about possible socioeconomic and dietary changes as an explanation of the current obesity issue. Indeed, is there any phenomenon that cannot be reduced to socioeconomic factors, genetics and shifting demography?

This is not to dismiss any medical advances that might better explain how obesity works. If it turns out that excess carbohydrates were the problem all along, then so much the better. If it turns out that it was actually trans fats, then that would also be good to know. A clearer understanding of our own bodies surely cannot be a bad thing.

But surely people understand their own bodies well enough to know in a general sense what makes them fat, and in no way is being morbidly obese a desirable thing. Indeed, as you said, it can be viscerally disturbing. Even with imperfect understanding of our own bodies, and with imperfect foods, a large number of people seem to avoid obesity quite well enough. Am I to understand that those who are obese all suffer from such terrible metabolic conditions that renders them unable to maintain a healthy weight under any circumstances?

I suggest that the cause of obesity is a lack of reverence for the human body. Too often the body is seen as a shackles for the central nervous system. The central nervous system is meant to be transported to the office, to communicate with fellow central nervous systems, and to be appropriately stimulated and renewed for more of the same later. The body the mind rides in is something of a fleshy embarrassment. Indeed, futurists openly fantasize about replacing the human body with a genetically engineered or artificial vessel which, thanks to its more durable construction, can be more completely ignored. In the meantime, crude methods for trimming excess flesh and clamping the stomach shut exist for those who can pay for them.

That is to say, eating is only for sustenance and pleasure. It sufficeth that a thing keep the body alive and gives a thrill. There is no longer gravitas associated with being alive.

There’s a similar attitude towards sex. Sex, we are told, is for a thrill and for the replication of the species (although the latter purpose is somewhat unfashionable). That’s it; a listless shuffle, infinitely dissected choreography of nerves and body parts and tricks that will make him say wow.

Food is just the alleviation of hunger by tasting, swallowing and digesting chemicals, sex is just scratching a peculiar itch by mashing people together.

I’m having some difficulty arranging my words on the matter, but doesn’t it seem like something is missing?

Kristor writes:

Rufus asks, “…doesn’t it seem like something is missing?”

If reality is nothing but matter, then nothing can mean anything. What then goes missing is the feeling that any part of life is intrinsically significant—that in the final analysis it signifies anything, to anyone. Life is then nothing more than stroking ourselves till we die, with food, sex, whatever. If reality doesn’t matter, why bother with comporting ourselves thereto? Why not be grotesque, or for that matter evil?

If on the other hand matter is the stage upon which we permanently enact—make actual—some degree of transcendent goodness, and that to immortal effect, why then every bit of life may be understood as in some degree sacramental: as holy. The body then is a temple. At its altar we may burn carbs, if that is the best we can do—and certainly they have their place at that Table—although lamb is to be preferred! But however we partake, we will in doing so participate in the enaction in the world of the Holy One.

Leave it to me to link dieting and eternity. Sometimes, Kristor, a potato is just a potato!

October 15

Philip M. writes from England:

Plenty of fat Christians. Wanting to look attractive to the opposite sex, and wanting a normal, happy life without the stigma of fatness is usually enough to stop most non-believers getting obese. I think sometimes Christians are too keen to come up with simplistic theories that blame lack of faith for problems that are unrelated. I could just as easily say that fat Christians (and there are loads, I joke about this with my Christian friend) are comfort-eating because of lack of sex or social life, or because they don’t care if they are miserably fat all their lives as they will have a super-slim fit eternity. See? Anyone can play this game.

LA replies:

You have misunderstood what the commenter was saying. The commenter was not saying that Christians are slim, and non-Christians are fat. He was not comparing nominal Christians and nominal non-Christians. He was not talking about Christianity or non Christianity at all, but about a state of mind. He said: “I suggest that the cause of obesity is a lack of reverence for the human body.” For you to take that as a Christian attack on non-Christians is off-base.

I would add that this type of response to an argument would make it impossible to criticize modern society or the way people live today, since any criticism would be seen as, “You’re saying that people like you are superior to people like me.” Once the issue is turned into your group versus my group, intellectual discussion is finished.

Let’s say you say to someone that you think a certain thing wrong, and the person tells you that you’re claiming to be morally superior to him. Once the topic is put that way, it becomes impossible to discuss what is good and bad, better and worse, because any argument is seen as the speaker’s assertion of his own superiority over others. And that is precisely today’s world of self-esteem and relativism (i.e., nihilism), in which young people have been taught not to disagree, because to disagree with someone is to put him down.

October 17

Laura Wood writes:

I agree with your commenter Rufus that obesity is partly a spiritual problem. As I noted in my article, the Amish are rarely obese. I do not believe this simply stems from their agricultural way of life. I wrote:

One also suspects they have a more spiritual view of the body and don’t see it as a vehicle that propels them from here to there. Their way of life honors the body in the same way their farming honors the soil. It is a sin to deface nature. The body is a temple. To despoil the habitat that houses our souls is in a real way a civic violation. It creates a pervasive atmosphere of contempt for one central and sacred aspect of human nature.

Contemporary Christians rarely talk of the sin of gluttony and many have never even encountered the idea that it is an offense against God to over-eat. Fasting is rarely practiced, even though it is the most effective way to draw attention to the power of the will over appetite and to contemplate the sacredness of the body.

Just because a Christian is obese, however, does not negate the other ways in which he may adhere to his faith. Also, as C.S. Lewis noted, gluttony does not just encompass over-eating but also includes fastidiousness toward food. In communities where obesity is rare, but worship of organic food and especially vegetables is common, this sort of gluttony exists in abundance even though the people tend to be thin.

Philip M. writes:

I hate to disagree with you; I already have plenty of people in my life I can disagree with. But after pondering things over, and talking it over with my friend, I reckon I have valid reasons for doing so. I think the thing that annoyed me with the obesity thread, although I didn’t express it very well, was a habit I have noticed in my father and in other Christians (and I’m sure other groups), whereby you take every issue and instantly want to find a cause that is rooted in your faith, or in other people’s lack of it. I am not saying Christians are wrong to do this, it is perfectly valid to toss ideas about and ponder them, but it can stunt your thinking and imagination if you settle for the answers you will always find if you go looking for them in a certain way. Like Oscar Wilde said about Wordsworth’s Romantic outlook, “he found in stones the sermons he had already hidden there.” I think this is part of the reason the Religious Right in America never made best use of the political power it could have had, and something you should be on your guard against.

Which is not to say you or your readers are guilty of this. But if you or any of you God-fearing folk ever do become President I recommend you keep at least one heretic in your inner circle to act as Fool to the Austerian King Lear.

Of course you may regard such musings as worthless, but then ‘tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer, you gave me nothing for it ;)

Apart from a bloody good website, that is.

LA replies:

I don’t understand why the comments by Rufus, Kristor, and Laura set you off. You say that what you noticed in the discussion and what annoyed you was

“a habit I have noticed in my father and in other Christians (and I’m sure other groups), whereby you take every issue and instantly want to find a cause that is rooted in your faith, or in other people’s lack of it.”

There may be discussions like that at VFR, but I don’t see that this was one of them. The comments were not dogmatic, theological statements. They were not saying that non-Christianity is the cause of obesity or that Christianity is the cure for it. Indeed, Rufus and Kristor did not mention Christianity at all. You were the first person in the thread who brought up Christianity! And when Laura mentioned Christianity, she was specifically dissociating it from non-obesity.

I think the commenters were addressing, in a fairly exploratory, speculative manner, the impact of different mental or spiritual states on eating and weight gain.

At the same time, when one looks at this unprecedented, horrifying phenomenon of extreme obesity (though I don’t know is if exists in Britain and Europe, maybe it’s only in the U.S.), this phenomenon that has taken place when three unprecedented factors have all come into being, (1) an unprecedented availability of low cost protein, (2) mass electronic entertainment; and (3) the liberal ideology that people can do whatever they like and that there are no external standards to which one must conform oneself, isn’t it evident that this obesity does proceed from a profound spiritual disorder in modern people?

By the way, some liberal Christians make a point saying that we should not judge people for being obese. On Christmas Eve 1998 I heard the then-Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, the ineffably evil Frank Griswold, give a homily at my church in which he said that we should accept fat people just as they are. His underlying message was the standard liberal message that everyone is fine just as he is and that there are and should be no standards.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 12, 2009 10:06 AM | Send

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