MJS’s Patrick McIlheran is presumably as fat as his head

May. 24, 2008
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When presidential hopeful Barack Obama told Oregon, “We can’t…eat as much as we want…anymore,” most rational people understood it as a consequence of energy conservation. After all, it was in the easy-to-understand context of “We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times, whether we’re living in a desert, or living in the tundra, and then just expect that every other country’s going to say okay, you guys just go ahead and keep on using 25% of the world’s energy, even though you only account for 3% of the population.”

The Journal-Sentinel’s Patrick McIlheran saw “We can’t eat as much as we want anymore” and took it as a challenge.

In a piece for the New York Sun, the Milwaukee columnist finds a ridiculous straw man in that quote to wrestle against. He has a thing or two to he’d like to say to those “people — the kind you'd meet over the arugula bin at the food co-op in Hyde Park — [who] figure it needs to be said: It's so embarrassing, what the Europeans must think of our Land of the Larded. All those NASCAR yahoos are eating too much.” Some people can eat lots of food without being fat! Food shortages only happen in other countries! Restaurants have so much food that they can serve you sherbert! No liberal is going to tell Patrick McIlheran how much food he can eat. In fact, no liberal is going to stop Patrick McIlheran from eating tremendous amounts of food at an unnamed New York eatery right now:

[T]he food came. And came and came, dish after dish. The lady running the place gave us sherbet, unbidden. She could barely find a place to set it.

Strictly speaking, it was too much food. But, I'm guessing, a veteran restaurateur could spot out-of-towners who had slumping, late-afternoon kids and figured that, on top of big portions, a little dessert would be welcome. Maybe she was cultivating repeat business. Maybe she just wanted us to think of her restaurant and her town as fondly as she did. I prefer to think the latter.

For that purpose, such oversized generosity was just right. That's an old logic understandable to any reasonable person yet opaque to any calorie-rationing regulation ever written.

As he rightly states, some people can eat whatever they like without getting fat. He’s also absolutely correct in saying some nice people have enough food that they will give you free sherbet with large purchases. McIlhearn’s plan, apparently, is for everybody to become people who can eat whatever they want without getting fat and know nice restaurant owners who give away food with large purchases. Sadly, this doesn’t really address what Obama was saying. Food and oil are inextricably linked, and reducing our dependence on oil will have profound implications for food prices and availability.

Fertilizer prices are tied to oil prices; grain prices are tied to fertilizer prices; meat prices are tied to the feed prices tied to the grain prices. Crops for biofuels eat up farmland once used for foods. The meat, lettuce and tomatoes in fast food hamburgers are so cheap because they are imported. Potatoes get driven from Idaho to Arizona. All that transportation takes gas. Even when shipping food to nice people, or the lucky few with high metabolism.

Someone – us or another nation – is going to make priorities of slowing climate change or of keeping gas prices low regardless of production. Either we will need to go along with our plan for the world, or we will need to go along with our trade partners' plans for us. Someone – us or another nation – is going to require us to rein in our disproportionate use of energy. It isn’t a portion control issue, it’s a consumption control issue. As prices rise we will need to expect less free sherbet.

Hidden in McIlhean’s woeful mix-up of Obama’s speech is an odd paranoia. Do arugula-types really see obesity as a redneck issue? Liberals love fat guys. There’s Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy (may he soon recover) and Michael Moore and noted socialist wealth-distributor Santa Claus. McIlheran’s governor here in Wisconsin continues to be a democrat, and we continue to be famously obese with our 34 types of fried cheese.

At the same time, a health-based battle of the bulge has been a major selling point for the Republican Party for quite a while. Eisenhower started the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (now called The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports). Mike Huckabee, who lost 110 pounds after being diagnosed with diabetes, featured losing weight in his health care plan as both a governor and  a presidential candidate. Pat Robertson sells diet shakes.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine, as McIlheran does, that fat is a partisan debate. If anything anti-obesity efforts would be a conservative issue. They are the trickle down economics of health care policy. Preventive measures like weight loss curb government health care spending. Should pro-lifers be correct, slimming down protects the souls lost to the substantial increase in miscarriages caused by obesity. And the diet and exercise combo stresses that personal responsibility Republicans seem so keen on.

Though it’s unintentionally so, all efforts to tighten the nation’s collective belt are bipartisan. Obama’s platform, like Huckabee’s and Eisenhower’s and pretty much everybody’s, is to give every American the chance to save themselves should they choose to - a mix of education of healthy practices and increasing access to healthy foods. Like Obama’s actual speech, this is not a controversial enough premise to argue against. There is no pro-“give people diabetes even if they don’t want it” lobby, no anti-“reduce government spending through voluntary programs” activists lining the streets of Washington. No one is trying to ration McIlheran’s food. Someone might want to ration him some logic.

Maybe they could spoon feed it to him, with sherbet.


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