Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On the Decline of Modern Culture

Ok, so maybe that's a bit alarmist, but I am currently reading The Making of Victorian Values, a book by Ben Wilson about how the Victorians got so puritanical. It's fascinating, but rather dense, so I'm only reading about a chapter a night. Also, it's heavy, so I can't bring it on the subway. Also because I don't want to creep people out with my reading choices, which Becca, of Trybecca points out, is a definite possibility.

At any rate, after having read about five chapters, I feel qualified to remark upon the overarching themes of the book. It seems that basically, the pre-Victorians and early Victorians were worried about the decline and fall of modern culture, due predominantly to immorality. This immorality manifested itself through a) heavy drinking, b) the (over)eating of "rich" foods, and c) sexual impropriety and promiscuity. Does this sound familiar? It seems as if at every moment of modernization, we (this is the global we) face the fear that our society is becoming immoral and going straight down hill. In every age we pine for a simpler, purer time. Which, it would appear, never existed.

Now, I can understand the contribution that drinking and sex make to an immoral society. I might not agree, but I can see how those actions and the people who engage in them might seem threatening. However, the idea that eating "rich foods" is detrimental to ones' moral fiber gave me pause. For one thing, it is eerily reminiscent of the arguments that go on today, that obese people have only themselves to blame, or that the government should regulate foods so that people do not become obese. You see, the Victorian era was all about forcing people to change their habits, either because they were lazy, or didn't know better. The current movement to get rid of trans fat, and other unhealthy additives seems like it comes from the same place.

Michelle of Humble Jewish Opinion blames parents for their children's obesity, which I think is only part of the story. According to her, some people want Rabbis to deny hekshers* to candy, to keep kids from eating it. Her suggestion is that parents should instead regulate their children's candy intake. While I agree in part, I also think that conflating morality (being allowed to eat something due to its kashrut or lack thereof) with health concerns is a little too social-control-y for me. I agree that schools should only serve healthy options for lunch, and phase out sodas and juices from their vending machines, but I don't think that the Federal government (0r the Va'ad*) has any place governing what is available for "me" to feed my own children in my own home. Angry Jew agrees that it isn't the government's place to regulate our lifestyle, but just a sentence earlier he calls on the government to "Outlaw 'super size' fast food, institute mandatory after school sports... have parents take a pass on the luxury cars and vacations, and instead spend some time outdoors with their kids." He seems to think that obesity is a problem of the wealthy. Au contraire, the wealthy can afford organic, healthy foods, and gyms, and people to take their children to exercise, it is those who are barely scraping by that suffer the most.

Cheaper than buying and preparing a meal at home.

Also, for the record, John of The Toad Report states that only 1% of Jews are obese, while 27% of Southern Baptists, and 22% of some Protestant sects meet that description. I think that this trend can be traced back to a number of different factors. For instance, Jews, on average, are wealthier and better educated than the average American. A week or two ago (reported in the NY Times Magazine) an obesity researcher went into a grocery store to see where his dollar could buy the most calories, and found that the cheapest way to become full was to buy sodas, and prepackaged foods. This isn't because they are inherently cheaper, but because of our complex system of farm subsidies. What this means practically is that the average American will buy less healthy food because it is cheaper and more filling. Not because they are idiots, or unable to control their appetites. So instead of the government banning trans fat, maybe it should take a look at who gets subsidies to grow what.

Add to this the fact that the average person in the modern, industrialized nation has more claims on their time than ever before. More adults are in the workforce (men and women) doing more sedentary jobs, and more than ever, time means money. So if a parent could save money, and time, by buying a meal at McDonald's, it is a very attractive option, even if they know the health risks. How do we solve it? Well, as I appear to be more, and more of a liberal, I think that we should provide people with the option of healthy food (read: fix the farm subsidy bill), access to exercise, and better national health care and education so that people can make informed choices. No one wants to be obese. It isn't low moral fiber, or lack of control/intelligence, it is the Catch-22 of modern life: if you are rich enough to be thin, it is because you can afford healthy food and exercise, but those who need it most don't have the time or money, and therefore resort to cheap, fattening foods.

*Heksher is a symbol that signifies a product has been produced under rabbinic supervision, and is acceptable for consumption by traditionally observant Jews

*Va'ad: a governing body, usually local, that oversees the kashrut and other religious issues of a particular area.


Jack's Shack said...

There are a variety of problems. One of them is that parents are more worried about letting kids play outside or at the part without supervision.

When I was a kid I could go virtually anywhere in the neighborhood without my parents. Most of my friends and I are afraid to let our children run around without us.

Annie said...

I once had a PE teacher that said she'd rather have a "dead kid than a cowardly one." And she had children. Apropos of nothing, it just reminded me of the story.

The Angry Jew said...

Perhaps you misunderstood the what I was saying in my blog posting of April 4th. Regardless of Social or Economic group, it is the responsibility of the parents to insure their children are eating the healthiest diet possible and living an active lifestyle, not the governments.
Perhaps if parents spent more time with their children instead of pursueing material possesions, such as the big house and SUV, we would not be facing the crisis before us.
Parents first job needs to be raising their children, instead of leaving it to MTV, advertisers, and video games.
Thank you and love your forum
The Angry Jew