Sunday, November 08, 2009

Politics and society

This is what politics does to people:
Marilyn Wann is an author and weight diversity speaker in Northern California who has a message for anyone making judgments about her health based on her large physique. “The only thing anyone can accurately diagnose by looking at a fat person is their own level of stereotype and prejudice about fat,” said Ms. Wann, a 43-year-old San Franciscan whose motto in life is also the title of her book: “Fat! So?”

Hers has been an oft-repeated message this summer and fall by members of the “fat pride” community, given that the nation is in the midst of a debate about health care. That debate has, sometimes awkwardly, focused its attention on the growing population of overweight and obese Americans with unambiguous overtones: fat people should lose weight, for the good of us all.

Heavier Americans are pushing back now with newfound vigor in the policy debate, lobbying legislators and trying to move public opinion to recognize their point of view: that thin does not necessarily equal fit, and that people can be healthy at any size.
While perhaps superficially absurd, this story illuminates an oft-overlooked truth: government and politics are divisive forces which rend and tear the fabric of society. When an item is shifted from the individual sphere to the public domain a debate must be held over how it is to be distributed and consumed. This inevitably produces winners and losers as well as divisions which otherwise wouldn't exist.

If health care becomes a public good then it logically follows we must decide how it is to be parceled out. Should those who take poor care of their health be as entitled to care as those who live healthier lifestyles? Should sanctions be placed on the overweight? Smokers? Drinkers? Those who watch too much television?

Look at public education, where debates are regularly held over any number of matters which don't lend themselves to a facile solution. Should students take part in Christmas plays featuring Jesus? Should Christopher Columbus be taught as a gallant explorer or racist rogue? Will science be taught from a traditional or creationist perspective? With higher education you can add affirmative action to the list.

It's not that private schools don't face similar contentious issues -- they certainly do -- but students and their parents can either decide to live with the decisions reached or find another school which is more accommodating to their wishes. This is not an option with public schools.

Deeply ironic to me is that it is often those on the political left which speak fondly of collective action and the need for societal unity. The very policies they advocate, however, place divisions where they would otherwise not exist. Government is in direct opposition to a harmonious society. People who otherwise might get along fine find themselves at loggerheads in the battle to shape government policy in a desired direction.

There is no better example of this than the United States Congress, where elected representatives scramble to take the largest possible piece of the collective pie in the form of federal funding back to their respective districts. We are all pitted against one another in the battle for our tax revenue. The piƱata, filled at our collective expense, has broken and we're all scrambling for the maximum amount of goodies.

Some of these divisions cannot be helped. There is no getting around debates over whether and where certain public infrastructure should be built, or whether the U.S. military should recognize Wicca as a religion. But we should also make no mistake about the costs to society of an ever greater amount of items being placed in the public realm.

No comments: