Rachel Maddow is right on in this clip, except about one major thing: The right wing mythology that takes Michelle Obama’s relatively mild healthy eating initiative and equates it with a Big Brother program where you’ll be reported for eating saturated fats isn’t going to be the next big thing. By the time something like this percolates up to Glenn Beck, it’s already taken off with the paranoid right. But other than that, she’s absolutely right that this is fixing to be a hardened right wing talking point, the next big panic button in the culture wars.
The “carrot eaters vs. Real American french fry eaters” is actually a perfect hot button for Beck and company to push repeatedly, for a number of reasons. There’s the financial support they can expect from the fast food industry that is feeding right wing PR firms cash to spread this culture war freak out. Just as importantly, workaday wingnuts are already all over this. Healthy eating is equated with femininity, and eating crap with masculinity, and wingnuts are nothing if not masculinity worshipers. But it’s not just masculinity, it’s an anxious masculinity that is always prowling around for threats to itself. Thus, anything that could be seen as nurturing, mothering, or construed as “nagging” is treated like an especially emasculating threat that has to be guarded against with an overreaction that is considered quite masculine despite being unbelievably childish. Michelle Obama running a campaign where she’s in a position of reminding people that junk food, if consumed to excess (which it mostly is), is bad for your health?
For the “above all, piss off the liberals” crowd, that’s an invitation to act like a 4-year-old who does something he didn’t even really want to do, just to defy his mother who told him not to do it. You can see this in Beck’s rant, when he goes off on the how he’ll just get fat if he wants to. What was amazing about that to me wasn’t the rights basis of his sentiment—sure, you have a right to get fat if you want to, and the notion that anyone is actually trying to stop you through force is laughable—but the general image Beck was painting. The stigma against getting fat on purpose is practically unspeakable in our culture, so I just have trouble imagining that his audience could get past that.
And yet, I’m not going to make the mistake of thinking Beck doesn’t know his audience! He gets them to fuck themselves over in many different ways, basically using “piss off the liberals” as the calling card. In this, Rachel might be right that Beck is boundary-testing, seeing if people are willing to go this far with him. And I think they will. Maybe not with the “getting fat” thing, but definitely with the idea that the culture wars should involve tribalism over food choices. And that healthy food should be disdained as liberal and junk food embraced as a sign of tribal loyalty to the wingnuts. Again, we’ve already seen a lot of this going on, even if it’s restrained by the fact that even the “piss off the wingnuts” crowd isn’t too keen on the idea of being overweight, either. I’ve definitely seen trolls show up at this blog just on posts about food politics and try, pathetically, to piss off the liberals by bragging about how much greasy, tasteless food they love to suck down. (Really, it’s sad how desperately they need to piss off the liberals. Seriously, if you start putting clothespins all over your body, the flinching I’m doing is a natural human reaction to something that looks painful, not a sign that you’re winning by pissing me off.)
To understand why this will really take off, you need to understand what is at the root of the so-called culture war. Christine O’Donnell got right to the heart of it, when she made her speech claiming there are more of “us” than there are of “them”. At the end of the day, the culture war is about creating an “us” to oppose the “them”: the masses of people condemned as “liberals” that are hated and opposed on tribal principles more than any actual policy disagreements.
Food is particularly well-suited to become a culture war issue. After all, this is a culture war, and food is arguably far more a culturally significant practice than perhaps even sex. Or at least, it’s equally significant. As far as the culture wars go, the wingnuts have lost a lot of ground when it comes to sex. Yes, it seems like they haven’t because they’re doubling down on gay rights and abortion, but in major ways the “moral majority” has given up ground. There’s a lot, when it comes to public sexual choices, that they don’t spend as much time railing against as they used to—premarital sex, cohabitation, and divorce. Oh, those are still talking points, sure, but on the whole even the culture warriors realize those fights are over. Most of them participate or at least have participated unapologetically in one or many themselves. Religion as a unifying force has a lot of promise, but even that has its limits, because there are so many different denominations that they have to be vague or they threaten the coalition. Whiteness is something that a lot of culture warriors invest a lot in, even as they deny that they’re racists, because skin color is a great way to separate “us” from “them”, for people who find this important. The problem is that a lot of “them” are also white. Geography works better, but there are “us” tribe members that, for employment reasons (and for cultural reasons they’ll never admit to the base) live in the big city.
The category “us” is inherently unstable, so they collect a lot of cultural markers to determine who is and isn’t “us”, and food is bound to come up in that. Food has, throughout human history, been used to determine us vs. them. Because of the urban associations with liberals, they’re already associated with independent restaurants and foodie culture, and the cosmopolitanism links liberals to adventurousness in eating. Because of the environmentalism and animal rights, organic food, and vegetarianism get associate with liberals. As Glenn Beck makes clear, the health care reform bill means good health is becoming associated with liberalism, and with enough care and feeding, he clearly intends to turn this association to one where good health itself becomes morally suspect, evidence of secret compliance with the “nanny state”. A little bit of PR money and it won’t be hard to get wingnuts to believe eating a lot of junk food is their patriotic duty. I doubt, however, that actually getting fatter is suddenly going to be considered cool in some parts of the country, so what is probably going to happen is yo-yo dieting itself will become a tribal marker, particularly for women.
To be clear, I’m not supporting any stigmatizing of fat people. I’m just noting the current situation as it stands in terms of how most people view the issue.