Well I had intended to keep up during my vacation, but it just didn’t happen. If you sent me an email in the past couple of weeks, I’ll try to respond within the next few days, but bear with me. I’m still washing the sand and sun out of my clothes and my synapses, so I may be on the slow side.
Anyway now I’m trying to catch up on the fat politics of the last two weeks without harshing my post-vaca mellows.
Wishful thinking. Back into the fire.
I know this stuff is old news by now, but I have to talk about two long-simmering tropes in fat politics that seem to be coming into their own in the past two weeks:
1. Fat People as scapegoats for the decline and fall of the U.S. (empire): The Sacramento News and Review published a revolting opinion piece by an occasional columnist named Jaime O’Neill. I’ve listened to a lot of hate radio and most of them can’t touch the viciousness O’Neill summons in this hate manifesto. He could give lessons in dehumanization.
I didn’t really want to reread the essay on the grounds it might cause me to punch in my computer screen, but I risked it to pull out the final paragraph:
Our heritage requires of us, as citizens, that we be more than a nation of overstuffed swine wallowing in the mud of our laziness and indifference. We must reclaim our bodies and our minds from those who’ve snatched them from us. If we can regain our bodies and our minds, maybe we can regain our country, too.
Yee-ha. He hits the age-old notes of fascism with perfect pitch. It’s time to purify the social body, cleanse our collective bodies and minds, drive out or whip into shape the unacceptables who bring with them moral decay.
In times of social and political crisis, marginalized groups become not just outsiders, but a focus of collective shame and anxiety. A threat to the national self-image or even national security.
At the PCA conference in Boston this year, Susan Hill traced this dynamic in the reformation in her wonderful (but I think unpublished) paper, Gluttony and Crisis: Excessive Eating During the Protestant Reformation and Post 9/11. If I remember her correctly, Martin Luther echoed almost exactly the same anxieties about the German people being viewed as piggish 500 years ago. So O’Neill may think he’s commenting on a new trend, but his nationalistic panic over other people’s bodies is old stuff.
And here’s the kicker: O’Neill considers himself a progressive. I wish I were still naive enough to be surprised at this. (Though O’Neill is almost refreshing in not even bothering to claim he’s hating us for our own good. He’s just hating us.)
The reality is that for many, the humanistic, tolerant principles of progressivism are tissue-thin, and more primal fascistic impulses run deeper than any sensitivity training could hope to touch. Harvey Fierstein noted, using both fat prejudice and homophobia as examples, “how choosy the anti-P.C. crowd is about which hate speech it will not tolerate:”
Our nation, historically bursting with generosity toward strangers, remains remarkably unkind toward its own. Just under our gleaming patina of inclusiveness, we harbor corroding guts. America, I tell you that it doesn’t matter how many times you brush your teeth. If your insides are rotting your breath will stink. So, how do you people choose which hate to embrace, which to forgive with a wink and a week in rehab, and which to protest? Where’s my copy of that rule book?
O’Neill’s hate-fest generated a lot of beautiful letters echoing a similar sentiment: if fat people hadn’t been the targets, such a pernicious piece would never have made it out of O’Neill’s word processor. I agree mostly, but I don’t think fat is alone in being considered fair game. I take Harvey Fierstein’s advice very seriously, and I think we all could stand to examine our own hearts to see what hatred we harbor: maybe especially if that hate seems somehow permissible or even encouraged.
2. Fat People as scapegoats for failures of the U.S. healthcare system. Why Michael Moore has to tell the world he’s trying to lose weight as Sicko comes out. And why that’s so understandable given that conservatives like Mike Huckabee have predictably responded to its arguments by attacking Moore’s weight.
(For the record I find Huckabee’s assumption of moral superiority over his weight loss especially irritating, since I’m about 80% sure he’s had weight loss surgery. Sorry, but I can’t help but be extremely skeptical when somebody rapidly loses 100+ lbs after years of “unsuccessful” dieting, and starts losing right after a vacation. The type of vacation where his spokesman wouldn’t say exactly when he’d return — which as we all know is totally normal behavior for a state governor. )
But the more important message is that fat people are irresistible scapegoats for anyone who wants to shift focus for the healthcare crisis away from corporate donors or structural failures and onto a very visible and already despised target. If you’ve been watching the presidential debates you’ve probably noticed how answers to healthcare questions often morph into lectures about personal habits. Look for more of this.