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Our big problem

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In this weekend's Wall Street Journal Theodore Dalrymple (the pen name for Anthony Daniels, a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist) was only the latest of an increasingly loud chorus from various political backgrounds to address the issue of obesity.

What is so striking about the discussion, the obsession, over food is how the major human achievement of transforming food from scare to plentiful over just a few of generations has been reposed as a symptom of our toxic, greedy times. While we should be celebrating and discussing how to make food plentiful around the globe so that others can too benefit from an abundant supply and development, we instead repose the discussion as being one of super sized problems by soda guzzling, burger chomping, irresponsible stupid people. (Or, Americans, as east and west coast and European elitists like to have it).

It is notable that as much of the former Left/Right debate has disintegrated what has replaced it increasingly is lifestyle politics. So, our moral worthiness comes from whether we purchase (uber expensive) organic, locally grown food as opposed to shopping at Wal Mart. Driving SUV's is a definite no-no, whereas the Prius is cool and fashionable. However, this cultural snobbery does little but to patronize and separate people and allow people to feel smug.

Dalrymple provides us with an deep insight to his disdain for ordinary people when he lets loose, admonishing poor people, initially under the pretense of being dismayed that family dinners are a dwindling phenomenon, but then getting to the crux of the matter when he tells us:

"There was not even a table to eat at: an absence that was not the consequence of raw poverty, since the flat-screen television would have been large enough, turned horizontal, to serve as a dining table."

A thorough disdain for the undesirable "Great Unwashed" seems to be acceptable these days - the masses who are so ignorant. Yet with all the debate about obesity, few mention that on average the life space in the USA has gone from 47.5 years on average in 1900 to 74.7 years today. In China it has increased from 40 years in 1955 to 73 years now (UN World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision). Of course there are those that say an absolute increase in life is not important in and of itself (though not about their own family usually). While we have a long, long way to go, we have improved the absolute quality and quantity of life across the planet, through medicine and industrial development and innovation. Large scale food production is an important development that we should applaud and want more of for more people.

Instead, we have an array of personalities chiming in with advice, such as British chef Jamie Oliver, who, not content with lecturing underpaid British dinner ladies about "decent food" now has the patronizing "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" on ABC - and earnestly lectures hushed audiences, like at TED, on how food is becoming our biggest killer. As the UK journalist Rob Lyons has noted, however, not all of Jamie's figures stack up.

From Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation to Michael Pollon's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, there is a cultural landscape that is constantly telling us that we are out of control and in need of therapeutic intervention, or food counseling, or bans.

The obsession with food means that today one is very likely to have rows over Slow Food, Real Food, Fast Food, Cheap Food and the like. It has become the area of contention. As I argued some time ago, the increasingly acceptable intervention in our personal choices and everyday life is the product of a moribund political situation. Today, the issue of freedom and liberty is one where those in favor of human liberty need do battle with the notion that we need to be lectured, like little children, to eat our greens and behave properly.

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