It seems as though what we eat has become one of the major political issues of our times. Hardly a day goes past without another major story on what is bad for us in the contemporary diet. This is as true in Europe as it is in the US. For instance, a casual glance at the last few weeks' reporting could lead us in to mild confusion and some heightened anxiety, just by trying to unpick what really is good for us to digest or not. Cholesterol for instance, the concern of so many in the western world, is coming under further scrutiny .
In an age where we live longer lives with a higher standard of living than ever before, without the risks that were so pervasive not so long ago in America, such as polio and infant mortality or risks of death for mothers at childbirth (see Dr Peter Stearns' Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America, we seem more preoccupied with risks to our health than perhaps at any other time).
There seems to be a panic-infused debate about how we humans are out of control, chomping on junky fast-foods Super-Size Me style and generally becoming grossly obese. This is certainly not just an American phenomenon. In the UK for instance, ever bereft of inspiring ideas, the Blair government has taken the lead of (Sir) Jamie Oliver and put a ban on 'junk food' in schools.
As some others have pointed out, the banning of food seems to go hand in hand with a very insulting view of ordinary people. Lacking many clear big ideas and a compelling vision of the world, bureaucratic-minded politicians and legislators seem to increasingly want to interfere in matters that once were considered up to the discretion of us as autonomous and rational citizens. Ah, there's the rub. For unfortunately perhaps there is increasing skepticism that ordinary people can be trusted to be discerning and make decisions for themselves.
I can't help but wonder if there is a new climate of morality that is being pursued that seeks to create new notions of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' in a modern setting. Take, for instance, the decision to ban Trans Fat from New York restaurants, with 18 months to officially get it out of their system. Quite aside from the fact there are competing scientific views on the actual argument as to what extent trans fats causes heart disease and it seems to me there is a broader concern here. Once, the debate about health was to do with how we could provide better and more resources for society, improved technology and provision for all sections and the best way to organize and implement same. Today however, the focus has shifted toward a situation where we can play out a morality tale of 'good' and 'bad' people - based on what they eat (and how they smoke, drink, shop, have sex etc.) in an age where we don't seem to agree upon very much else.
So what? Well a large part of where one stands on this debate depends on how we view people. If we think that they are all addict-prone dimwits that just want to eat rubbish then perhaps banning certain things would be a good idea. Many have made the claim for cost-benefit analysis on the health program too as well as the 'nasty corporates' preying on us and our kids. However, notwithstanding the complexities, it does seem that this debate has come to represent our low regard of the decision-making faculties of us as adults, as well as a low point in political debate. It is far easier to create a bit of a moral panic around food and encourage the already prolific label-reading while we shop than discuss the impasse we seem to be at politically in society.
As with such trends in New York, smoking is now being banned internationally in cities in public places, will it be high fructose corn syrup too? And is that really bad for us? Further consideration leaves more questions. Our anxiety-ridden times mean that we end up being somewhat predisposed to think of ourselves as 'at risk' from all quarters. But are we a Fast Food Nation with a Vegetable-Industrial Complex or just slightly overwhelmed with all this competing and somewhat banal information? Worse, it seems that we are being treated a bit like children, by 'those that would know best' as to what we should be doing in our spare time.
Indeed, children, always an area where the emotions can be heightened, are being used as an argument for banning further advertisements internationally and while we had quite a raging debate about political correctness, the food 'debate' seems to be being accepted with people that question it presumed to have some corporate interest. Even here however, perhaps the kids may lose out somewhat. In the spirit of our age, a public confesstion here: I remember a period I went through while at school, I enjoyed a lunch time diet of two chocolate bars, a bag of potato chips and a soda. Silly teenage years!
However, far more silly - and worrying - is that in an age where we find so little to agree about, about who we are as a society, where we are going, what the inspiring vision should be, a culture of clamping down, bans and legislating behavior is being promoted all in the name of making us healthier. It is enough to make you sick.