Monday, October 19, 2009

Pry My Pepsi from My Cold Dead Hand

This past Thursday, I was listening to pundits debate the merits of Congress's new sodee pop tax on The Diane Rehm Show. I found my own "populist anger" bubbling to the top as the "experts" talked of the evils of sugar and how it contributes to obesity and how a tax would curb people's thirst for the drink and curb obesity. It isn't that Congress wants to raise taxes and revenues. They are only "looking out for the health of the nation."

Now, look. I am not one who is against taxation. I actually believe that taxes provide services. I don't always agree with what my taxes go for (hello, Iraq war!), but I'm not against taxes on principle. And even though I find blue laws pretty ridiculous, I'm not really against sin taxes. If someone wants to tip the ole bubbly, why not pay a little extra? It's not necessary. Hell, maybe it'll even throw an extra textbook into my neighborhood school.

But I am against this tax. Not because I'm a fat piece of shit who needs his Pepsi. I am a fat piece of shit--but my sodas (like the sodas of many obese people) contain aspertame. I'm assuming I won't be affected by this revenue raiser. I just don't buy the premise--that Congress is looking out for our nation's health. First, as my brother pointed out to me, sugar is basically in everything--from your soda and sugary drinks to your prepared food and even your "healthy" bran cereals. If you're really going after sugar, why not go after everything? And, if you're really concerned with our health, I can think of three other much more detrimental elements in our society that would be a helluva lot more effective:

1) Guns Yeah, I know, NRA freaks, guns don't kill people. People kill people. But you know the people who purposely kill the most people (outside of the health insurance industry)? Motherfuckers with guns!!! So, if Congress were really and truly worried about our health, why don't they take on the NRA and pass effective gun control legislation? Oh, I think we know the answer to that.

2) Automobiles Car accidents sure do kill a lot of people. Also, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the US is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels. That's right. Cars, people. Our love of the auto is burning a hole through the ozone. That's gotta be pretty unhealthy. And what about respiratory illness? Forensic pathologist Michael Baden once wrote in his book, Unnatural Death, that a coroner can examine a corpse's lungs and tell whether they lived in a city or in the country. Apparently, a city-dweller's lungs--now take a deep breath--are incredibly gray from all the car emissions. Now, that's healthy!

And think about the car and obesity. I heard once that the average New Yorker walks an ungodly 12 miles a day, while your average suburbanite barely walks 1/4 mile a day. How often do we suburbanites walk to the store, the train station, to a neighbor's down the street? Nope. We hop in the car. If someone actually did a study on this, I'd bet they'd find that the car is the leading contributor to America's obesity problem.

3) Television I bet TV would also probably be in the Top 5. My wife once told me about a study of a rural Canadian town where the adult population was incredibly active with bowling leagues, hiking clubs, etc., after work. They were so active it absolutely amazed the sociologists. However, when the social scientists returned a year later, they found a lot of these clubs were dead. That rural Canadian town had gotten satellite TV. True or not, think of how many times we meant to go for a walk, a jog, or go to the gym only to settle on a nice, quiet evening in front of the boob tube. They don't call us "coach potatoes" for nuthin!

If Congress were really and truly concerned about "the health of the nation," why not go after these things as well or instead? Why are they just going after sugary drinks? What could this all be about?

Well ...

This recent debate reminds me a lot of my time working for a homeless advocacy/care provider back in Atlanta. Some 15 years ago, my then-future wife and I were administering educational evaluation tests to a bunch of homeless children. During one visit to a day shelter, we listened to a preacher excoriating the women there for their "profligate ways." He was basically calling them all whores and bad mothers who needed to get off the bottle and the crack and get their lives right.

While more self-righteous (and imbued with the authority of God--cough, cough), this preacher man was actually voicing a common refrain I constantly heard while working for/with the homeless. People inside and outside of the community constantly criticized and judged the poor and homeless. While it was OK or at least tolerated that others had sex outside of marriage, had children out of wedlock, and often drank or used drugs, it was definitely verboten for the poor.

These criticisms were nothing new, of course. With the failure of LBJ's War on Poverty and poverty's face turning from hard-scrabble white Appalachians to angry, black Welfare Queens, there had been a steady, decades-long backlash targeted at the poor. By the '90s, folks were more critical and sympathetic and blamed the poor for their own plight. Instead of sympathy, they were fed a constant diet of derision. So no sex outside of marriage, no out-of-wedlock births, no drinking, and NO DRUGS!!! We Americans felt that we had the right to tell the poor exactly how to live.

Of course, that phenomenon was nothing new. Our country has a fine tradition of telling others what to do. Black folks have been hearing it for five centuries now. There were the Indian schools of the late-19th and 20th centuries where Indian children would be taken off their reservations, have their haircut, and be force-fed the virtues of America and a Judeo-Christian God.

Many don't realize that our American anti-bacterial obsession with cleanliness started as a crusade of cleanliness waged against the supposed "filth" of recent immigrants and, of course, black folks (Booker T. Washington often preached the "gospel of the toothbrush"). These Clean Crusaders were so successful that they then moved on to the prohibition of alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine.

The '90s saw the War on the Impoverished, culminating in Welfare to Work programs. And the last two decades saw a War on Smokers as second-hand smoke--and not the car--became our nation's greatest health care crisis (I wonder if maybe the car is the reason that 10% of men and 20% of women with lung cancer never smoked). We have successfully vilified smokers. We now tax cigarettes heavily. We have eliminated cigarette smoking from most workplaces and have banned smoking in restaurants and bars.

Of course, this was all done in the name of "health." Cigarette smoking is indeed dangerous. It is one of the main contributing factors to so many people's health problems it cannot be ignored, let alone encouraged. And there's something to the argument that one person's rights end where another's begins. I highly doubt that spending a couple of hours in a smoke-filled bar is actually more dangerous than walking along a traffic-choked street. But nobody has the right to smoke (or drive, for that matter). So, why spend those hours in a smoke-filled bar if one doesn't have to. Of course, why any establishment didn't have the right to decide whether they'd be smoke-free or not was never really an important part of the debate. In fact, it went mostly ignored. Smoking is bad. Smokers are bad. We must ban it wherever possible!

And the War on Smoking has been an unqualified success. One can no longer smoke at work or at a bar. Some politicians are contemplating banning smoking on city sidewalks. Big Tobacco lost a huge lawsuit last decade. And less Americans smoke now than they ever have.

With that victory under their belt, now folks have moved on to fat people. How does that your rights end where mine begin argument apply to obesity? Why, health care costs! We all pay more in insurance premiums, etc., as health insurers pass on their expenses taking care of fat people onto everybody else. In light of this, we have decided it is all right to tell the obese how to live.

A couple years ago, municipalities all across the nation started banning trans-fats from restaurant food. Now, Congress is contemplating a prohibitive, regressive sin tax on sugary drinks. Next, they might go against sugary food (except your bran cereal or high-fructose corn syrup "juices"--since those are "healthy"). And only they know what their next ban will be on our nation's War on Fat.

The problem with this war as well as with the wars that preceded it is that it does not matter. America's dirty little secret is that, while harmful, cigarette smoking, alcohol abuse, obesity aren't what really lead us to our premature graves. It is class! Study after study have shown that the poorer you are, the shorter your life span. It is counter-intuitive and goes against the grain against the personal-responsibility narrative that courses through American history, but it's not so much your personal habits that will dictate your life expectancy--but your bank account. In fact, if you watch the PBS documentary, Unnatural Causes, you'll discover the unpleasant fact that that fat slob, alcoholic CEO will outlive his health-conscious, exercising dock worker every time. It's not so much what you ingest that will dictate how long you live, it's the stress you have to swallow every day that will kill ya.

Of course, we Americans never acknowledge how class dictates one's life. Everybody can be middle class, right? Work hard, live right, yadda yadda, and we can all be rich!

But don't expect a War on Stress any time soon. Don't hold your breath waiting for a War on the Rich where we seriously vilify and curb the way they live. Hell, Congress refuses to stop the bonuses going to the bank officials who caused the global financial crisis.

Instead, we'll have a War on the Homeless, a War on Smokers, a War on the Filthy Immigrant, and a War on Fat. We'll target the most vulnerable among us--how they live, what they eat, and now what they drink! We'll turn up our noses any time we see someone with a beer belly downing a Pepsi--and feel better about ourselves.

No, being fat is not a right. But neither is driving and that causes more harm to the common weal than any can of Coke ever has. But there would be an absolute uprising if we targeted drivers. So, we'll have this dirty little war against fat people. We've been vilifying them since Twiggy. They won't cause a fuss, they won't fight back. You'll never hear them say, "You'll have to pry my Pepsi from my cold, dead hand."


Robert said...

Great post. I couldn't agree more.


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