03/03/2008 07:42 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

We Are Not What We Eat

Why has food become such a big issue? It is not discussed in the context of why we dump sheep in the sea to maintain prices or have mountains of butter and milk while many go hungry, but rather it is presented in an accusatory manner as though humans have lost control and are all becoming obese.

So, Saturday's New York Times editorial praised the Bloomberg Administration for the banning of trans fats and smoking, as well as fawning at the news that licenses would be granted for fruit and vegetable stalls in the poorer areas of New York. However, it seems to me that the ever-increasing intervention of authorities and bureaucrats in what we eat, drink, or smoke is far unhealthier than anything we may ingest.

It is indeed a strange thing that has come to pass in a country in which only 75 years ago severe shortages of food were commonplace. The fact that we may be faced with new problems based on having a plentiful supply of food should be heralded as a remarkable achievement - and perhaps simply we should wonder why we have not managed this across other continents, too.

That would be too logical, though. For in these miserabilist times we are living in, it has become de rigeur to discuss our fellow citizens with an attitude of contempt. Thus, food snobs talk with disdain about readily available large amounts of food in Europe and America.

The recent obsession with what people eat has come to represent a troubling moment for anyone interested in what politics should be about. In the past, organizations such as the temperance movement were seen for what they were: moralistic attempts to intervene and shape the lives of certain types of people. These days we seem to be witnessing a new type of Morality Play, and this one is based on the superficial notions surrounding the consumer society. In it, some of us are 'responsible consumers' who spend our time diligently reading food and product labels while shopping, whereas others recklessly over-consume and put on the pounds. A society of 'Super Size Me's' is the impression one would get in the high pitched tones of today's debate.

And indeed, the idea of coke-guzzling, French fry-eating fat American (and increasingly often European) couch potatoes is popularly presented to us.

Some argue this is so crucial because of the 'economic cost' of knee surgery, hypertension treatment, and diabetes - yet any understanding of macroeconomic policy would suggest that if it were purely a profit and loss consideration, it makes more financial sense to allow people to eat, drink, and smoke themselves to an early grave. In fact, society's largest cost is our aging population.

Such obvious facts, however, do not stall the discussion. For, as with any Morality Play, it is not so much about the reality of the situation, but rather far more about the story being told. The story, of course, is that people are out of control. With a lack of discipline we are gorging our way through our lives, a spiritually decadent, overly consuming species that are hell bent on destroying ourselves and our planet. Which is why in the UK, Professor Philip James, chairman of the Orwellian-sounding 'International Obesity Task Force', has argued that we need a similar campaign against obesity as we have for global warming.

In our increasingly isolated lives, where the big ideas that inspired the world have disappeared and we experience things in an atomized way, it is not difficult to understand why believing the only area we can have any kind of control is in consumption. However, in the old political sense, this is an altogether diminished notion of control.

Further, the draconian measures that bureaucrats put forward - such as the outrageous bill in Mississippi to ban 'obese people' (apparently we have all become BMI experts) from restaurants, but also the continual interference in what we eat, drink, or smoke represents - in the midst of a presidential election that has used the word 'change' and 'hope' a great deal - a world where politicians have no real cogent ideas to cohere and inspire society and seek instead to increasingly legislate areas of our lives in which they have no business being in.

The obsession with obesity is not an economic or public health issue, but rather, like the old notion of the 'deserving' and 'undeserving poor', a way to point a finger at sections of society (and here the snottiness of the accusers is clear, class bias and all) and also serves as a broader metaphor for our disdain for modernity. All this quick food that is mass produced - oh how gauche! Gone are the good old days, we are told by people like Michael Pollan, who suggests there was 'good food' in the past and that nowadays we get very little 'real food'. Like all myths of the past, it says much more about us today than our past 'reality' (where, like in many less fortunate parts of the world today, the concept of 'good food' did not exist - it was simply food and one was happy to have it).

We would be far better off dispensing with the anxiety-ridden concerns of adding up how much high-fructose corn syrup, carbs, fats, and salt is in our diet and, instead, refusing to allow politicians and bureaucrats to intervene in the most private areas of our lives. The idea that adults are to be treated as naughty school children who need to be lectured to eat their greens is insulting and demonstrates the vacuous nature of our current non-ideological landscape.

It's time to turn these dinner tables around. While we all get side tracked down the what-you-should-eat road, we are slipping further away from the idea of us as autonomous citizens that can make and reshape our own world.

Until we do so, there will be fat chance of us doing much that is inspiring.