Blow Up

by Alexander Cockburn

If Jonathan Swift traveled to the United States today, he would surely ditch the little guys, the big guys and the horses and just feature Gulliver being squashed flat by enormously fat people.

I suppose I first noticed how fat Americans were getting about a decade ago. Along supermarket aisles, you’d see the odd whale unhappily chugging along on a mini-kart, pulling fat-enhancers off the shelves.

In early October, I drove east to west across America along Interstate 40 — much of the western portion is the old Route 66, famed in song and story — which runs from Asheville to Nashville, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark.; Oklahoma City; Amarillo, Texas; Albuquerque, NM; and on through Arizona into California.

Every truck stop, every diner, every mall offered its tumid diorama of human hippos. We’re talking every age group here — starting with humpty-dumpty adolescents and ascending through the decades to 50-year olds, stertorous and gray of countenance. My friend Wilbur, who runs a trailer park in South Carolina, told me there’s a woman in one of his doublewides who’s up around 400 pounds and can’t get out the door even if she wants to. She sits and watches TV all day and when she passes, Wilbur will have to get a giant can opener to rip open the side of the trailer to winch out her corpse.

In Eureka, my local town here in northern California, a couple of years ago, they had to get new scales in the clinics and bigger MRI tubes. The Pentagon could probably make a buck or two for the taxpayer selling torpedo launchers from decommissioned submarines for MRI conversion. It’s not quite what the swordsinto-plowshares movement had in mind, but that’s America for you.

And it is America. I was just in Paris and in the course of a week, Alya and I saw precisely one person — a young woman— who could be classed by a European as very plump. In America, she’d be still dreaming of going to ballet school.

Of course, there’s a lobby that says it’s all prejudice by the slim crowd, and fat people are perfectly normal — just a bit heftier. I remember picking up a magazine in the lefty book store in Pike Place, Seattle, a few years back called Fat Dykes and the Women Who Love Them and it’s true, on my observation, that a very fat lesbian will not pine away for lack of slim young baby-dyke admirers of her inviting corpulence.

There’s the old tale of the dwarf who married the fat lady in the circus and when the acrobat and the clown took turns peering lewdly through the keyhole of the honeymoon couple’s trailer, there was the dwarf dancing up and down on his plump bride, shouting, “Acres and acres of it, and it’s all mine!” In this lobby’s tactful thesaurus, “fat” is the unusable Fword, and the last-resort term, “heavy.”

But the fat people I saw across America don’t seem happy, and aren’t accompanied by lustful dwarfs in search of spacious carnal real estate. An 18-year-old young woman waddling along, soda in one hand and a bag of Cheetos in the other, would be happier if she were downsized by 50 percent. The gray-faced diabetics on their go-karts look absolutely wretched.

How did it happen? Blame the obvious suspects: the fast-food chains and the food industry, whose chemists figure out the precise mixes of sugar and salt that will addict their customers.

Blame the decline of physical education in schools.Blame couches and TV sets. Blame restaurants for serving monsterportions. In Seligman, Ariz., I had breakfast in Westside Lilo’s Cafeand the huge elk-hunter draped in camo next to me at the counterdevoured a breakfast that completely covered a large dinner plate to aheight of about four inches. Outside was his mighty one-ton truck inwhich he would spend the next eight hours wolfing down chips andswigging diet Cokes.

Tenyears ago, you could go to a national park and encounter plenty ofpeople hiking in the more remote portions. These days, you’ll see noone off the major trails and most of the visitors having a brief amblenear the parking lots. The black bears in Yosemite recently voted —we’re talking statistical levels of bear break-ins here — the minivantheir car of the year to break into because it’s what many Americanshaul their kids around in, and the vans are full of potato chips andkindred snacks the bears have learned to enjoy.

ThePentagon is getting alarmed. The good news for the Armed Forces herehas been the surge in unemployment. Curtis Gilroy, a senior Pentagonofficial, said recently that a 10 percent increase in the nationalunemployment rate generally translates into a 4 percent to 6 percent“improvement in high-quality Army enlistments.” For the first timesince the creation of all-volunteer armed forces in 1973, according toBill Carr, deputy undersecretary for defense for military personnelpolicy, “all of the military components, active and reserve, met theirnumber as well as their quality goals.”

In other words, the lack of jobs in the civilian sector means no option for many young Americans other than enlistment.

Thebad news for the Pentagon is that many would-be enlistees are not “highquality” and have to be turned down because they are too fat.

The Army Times ranan article this week by William McMichael citing the latest governmentstats on America’s fat crisis. One third of the 31 million Americansbetween 17 and 24 are unqualified for military service because of“physical and medical issues.” Gilroy told the Army Times that “the major component of this is obesity. We have an obesity crisis in the country. There’s no question about it.”

ThePentagon gets its data from the US government’s Centers for DiseaseControl. The CDC says that 22 years ago, 6 percent of all 18-34 yearolds were obese. By 2008, that number had swelled to 23 percent — oneout of four.

“Kids are just not able to do push-ups,” says Gilroy. “And they can’t do pull-ups. And they can’t run.”

Increasingly,young Americans are getting too fat to fight, which is just as well —because the antiwar movement is in terrible shape, probably becauseyesterday’s peace marchers are all too busy jogging or going to yogaclasses.

ThePentagon now issues waivers for at least the semi-obese, no doubtreckoning that Spartan training will slim them down enough to becapable of some sort of useful military activity, though not running upand down mountains in the Hindu Kush.

Michelle and Barack Obama have been making rather sotto voce remarksabout America’s appalling diet and ensuing weight problems, albeittactfully since the Fat Vote is in the millions and the Food Industry’spolitical purse is bulky, too.

Buthow does Michelle’s organic vegetable garden weigh against Obama’s pickas Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack — a wholly owned property ofthe food corporations?

Hencewe get the tragic comic spectacle of a ferocious political battle overa health “reform” bill, which may make it easier for poor Americans tocover the costs of treatment for Type 2 diabetes and the healthconsequences of consuming prodigious amounts of high fructose cornsyrup. Meanwhile there is no effective political opposition to federalsubsidies for the farm policies that have fattened America into macabreabsurdity.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. Copyright 2009 Creators.Com