original here

An insightful article by the British journalist Gary Younge in the Guardian today, that touches on some of the things I was rather incoherently burbling about in my post on personal responsibility a few days ago.

It is this context that makes elements of Barack Obama’s speech to the NAACP conference problematic. Having paid homage to the heroic role of the civil rights movement and recognised the inequalities bequeathed by segregation, he started on parenting. “We’ve got to say to our children, if you’re African- American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher,” he said. “If you live in a poor neighbourhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that’s not a reason to get bad grades; that’s not a reason to cut class; that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands – you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. No excuses.”

The audience lapped it up. Such admonitions are commonplace at any aspirant black American dinner table, where parents tell children they will have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to get just as far. These are the mantras with which I was raised, and may well one day repeat. But I would not like to see them elevated to national policy.

Weight and health is an issue in the US that I still, after 4 years, feel I am only slowly managing to understand. It seemed clear early on that its an issue of class and race – poor people are fat, rich people are thin. But its taken me the rest of those 4 years to try and get my head around why, like most things to do with class and race, its conceptualised and discussed as a matter of personal responsibility.

The image that comes to mind is Oprah’s publicly fought “battle” with her weight. The guilt ridden confessions where she draws herself close to her audience, admitting her own weakness and resolution to continue, amid extortions to her public to keep up the fight themselves, to not admit defeat in the face of their own urges and failings.

Similar attitudes prevail of course in the UK, but I can’t imagine something like Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food series being screened in the US, or taken seriously, with its bizarre discussions of things like education, literacy and work being involved in healthy eating.

Its your own fault if your fat, a failing of moral character, a lack of discipline. Nothing to do with the cost of food, the availability of food stores in places that people can reach without access to cars, family size and structure, the ability to cook (either in terms of knowing what to do or in having time to do it)… none of these things. Its about personal discipline. Nothing else.

(On a personal note, its been hard to avoid absorbing some of the way weight, food, health and body image are conceptualised, after several years living there. The message imparted by the fact I can never find clothes over a (UK) size 14 in the kind of shops that cater to my demographic is depressing. Spending an afternoon trailing around the shops trying to squeeze into yet another too small “XL” is not likely to do much to anyone’s ego I guess. Getting indignant about the fact that size 12 is considered “extra large” is only satisfying if I don’t actually need to buy a new coat, or sshirt or whatever. As a result, my annual trip back to the UK has become my excuse for a new wardrobe. Picture me gleefully skipping along the high street, giddy with possibilities, beaming at all the other normal, sized 12+ women around me who are blissfully unaware of how lucky they are! (Then apologising as they back away looking freaked out). Its a yearly reminder that I’m not an total heifer who ought to be kept out of sight in sackcloth and ashes.)

Health is a moral issue. To not be healthy, to not moderate one’s eating and regularly go to a gym, is perceived as a matter of moral failing, a sign of excess and laxity. The only alternative is that its a matter of genes, which then becomes a lost-Eden story of our modern perversion from a natural order laid out for us by mythical ancestors who needed fat genes to survive in a distant “primitive” past. (Which was no doubt red in tooth and claw.)

There is no society. Only personal responsibility. Personal choices.

And so this is the thing I still don’t understand, about health and about the US in general. Or rather, I see it – I get that the concept of “personal responsibility” is the whole point – but it still makes no sense. Its the same thing that makes the idea of free health care, or free higher education, or taxes, abhorrent – not just ridiculous, but a personal affront – even to the people who need it most. Its the underlying concept that makes the US tick, and I get that. But I don’t get it. I still don’t understand why anyone with half a brain, and eyes in their head to see, would believe it.

What got me thinking about it this morning, was the articles about the nomination of Regina Benjamin to be surgeon general. As reports, Benjamin’s nomination has been criticised because she is “obese”.

By all accounts Surgeon General nominee Dr. Regina Benjamin is an extraordinary woman. She is an African-American family doctor who has spent most of her professional life serving the people of Bayou La Batre, a poor rural Alabama coastal community. She makes house calls, pays for patients’ medicines, works for free when there is no money. She’s had heaps of honors poured on her head , including a MacArthur genius award. She rebuilt her clinic twice, once following Hurricane Katrina and then a year later when it was destroyed by a fire.

But she’s not skinny, and therefore “She will have very limited credibility unless she loses weight”. (the links the Salon article provides to the discussions: 1, 2, 3, 4). All the things this woman has done with her life, but its the matter of not being a size 10 that makes her a failure.

Something else comes up here. Looking through the comments, she appears not as a person who is going to do things and who therefore needs particular qualifications, skills and knowledge. But as someone who will “represent” something. Her role is as a symbol, something that people should be able to identify with.

Why, she’s perfect! Looks like an average American, particularly for southern Alabama.

As such, her weight is indeed more important than her qualifications or ability to do a medical job, because her role is to be a representation of… all Americans? African-American women? Working class girl made good? Her skills (possibly her life history as a person) are not as important as her ability to symbolise something – to stand in for a mass. Its the same thread that ran through the angst ridden democratic nominations – do we need a African American or a Woman more? It comes up again and again in the discussions about politicians and public officials. What/who do they represent? Having an affair, getting a divorce, being gay – these are failings to be the mass as the mass want’s to see itself, failings of commitment to the moral ideal, failings of personal discipline. Public figures are not required to have skills or knowledge, but to embody morality. To demonstrate writ large their personal ability to control themselves, to personally overcome their disgusting bodily desires and urges, to be a representation of everything an American should be.

(Now both the Leviathan and the Protestant Work Ethic are echoing in my head, but I can do neither justice.)

Ultimately public figures all fail, just as Oprah will always fail to be skinny, and perhaps there is comfort in that too, because normal people all fail to live this imaginary moral life as well. But if failing is such a central part of the concept, then I don’t see a way to break out of it. To realise that that the problem is not personal failure, but the concept of personal responsibility being the cause of social problems.

Its an embarrassing time to be British right now. This “expense scandal”? Its humiliating. Particularly in Chicago, of all places. The reaction I keep getting from friends is unanimous: You British are so backward you can’t even get political corruption right.

Illinois recently earnt itself the quote: “If it isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States it’s certainly one hell of a competitor” (Robert Grant, head of the FBI’s Chicago office). Yes, from the perspective of a US state that has two governor’s in jail for corruption and one on the way, and a Mayoral oligarchy that has seen the Daley father and son team rule the city for 40+ years with virtually no opposition, quibbling about expense claims that were, after all, legal, seems a bit ridiculous.

As a dear friend so kindly (and gleefully) pointed out to me, the sheer pettiness just reinforces every annoying stereotype of quaint British eccentricity.

Headlines in Italy: Berlusconi holds debauched parties with gaggles of teenage girls and pin up models, flying them in on airforce jets and appointing the most attractive to his cabinet.

Headlines in Britain: Cameron claimed £947.29 more than he ought to, but will pay it back.

I’m not saying that I condone corruption. Chicago’s famously laid back ‘who gives a shit’ attitude to being robbed blind by its public officials stopped being amusing around the time I noticed the open wounds of poverty that are ripped into the face of the city. The dirt. The decrepit public transport. The third world standard roads. The weekly fatal shootings in public schools. The segregation. The accusations of police brutality and torture.

No, I’m not saying Britain needs to step up to “compete on the world stage” when it comes to crooked politics. My point is that that calling this farce over expenses “corruption”, dignifying it with status of a “scandal”, is to seriously misunderstand both what corruption really is, and where the real problems with British politics lie. So knowing what we are doing right (i.e. not being like Illinois), and what we are doing wrong.

The problem with the expenses is that MPs were not able to vote themselves a higher salary, and so civil servants created a way to give them some other form of compensation. There is nothing wrong with the concept of a second home allowance: on the contrary, it means that people other than millionaires can, potentially, be politicians, which I’m entirely in favour of. Anything that proactively enables more diversity in our political representatives should be encouraged.

Were the MPs “greedy”? I think its hard to say, because its difficult to condemn the impulse for personal profit when it is, after all, the underlying principle of capitalism (and in particular neoliberalism). Its also impossible to call them “greedy” when they were actually doing what they were told they should do. Besides which, if it really does seem like they were being greedy, the solution lies in taking a more nuanced look at the kind of politics we have right now, rather than voyeuristic pawing over receipts in the press to the accompaniment of some cliched class-tinged indignation.

This situation came about because it was not politically expedient for MPs to give themselves a pay rise. As long as decisions are made on the basis of whether or not it will lose or gain votes, then our politics will be superficial, shallow and hysterical. Beyond this issue of pay, why are politicians so afraid of making decisions that, while unpopular, need to be made in the name of social justice? For humane immigration laws. For gay marriage and abortion rights. For supporting the NHS and free education. Because it might cost them votes, and losing votes is more important than having a fair and free society.

But above all, what really depresses me is that this whole farce with expenses has caused more debate about the political system, and come closer to bringing down the government, than any other issue in the last decade. An illegal war couldn’t do it. The insidious undermining of the right to free education hasn’t raised the slightest whiff of a protest. Two police murders of innocent men passed without problem. Even the economy crashing down around our ears at the same time as a a global pandemic hasn’t caused as many problems as this cuffufle over legal expense claims!

But a duck house and a few dvd players? If this is what the British public really want to get angry about, then we really do have a problem.