by michael on December 29, 2010

I have been following only from a distance the debate that has ensued after First Lady Michelle Obama made child obesity a political issue. The First Lady’s solution for what she sees as a crisis was multi faceted. It included, in part, increasing the availability of healthy nutritious meals for more of America’s children.

Seeing obesity as a national crisis, she advocated enhancing the government’s role in serving not only school lunches but also dinners and breakfasts, even at times which were not part of what has been historically consider the regular school year.

Another aspect was to encourage—as only a First Lady can, I suppose—food manufacturers, schools, restaurants and other food delivery enterprises to change, adapt or correct certain behaviors, promotions and philosophies. Here is the government website advancing her ideas and those of the accompanying legislation: LetsMove.gov.

Part of her solution was to educate parents on healthy eating choices. She opined that, for a variety of reasons, parents might not be as capable as they should be. The First Lady said “parents desperately want to do what’s right. … But too often, the realities of modern life make it feel like the deck is stacked against them.”

The First Lady also stated, speaking at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, that her idea was simple: “To put in place common-sense initiatives and solutions that empower families and communities to make healthy decisions for their kids.”

Let us leave for another day how one puts in place initiatives and the cost of the initiatives and who pays for those initiatives and whose version of common sense trumps another’s notion of common sense. Every decent person, parent or not, should be in favor of reducing childhood obesity and, frankly, reducing obesity in any age group, including my own.

I do not address the obesity issue as it has been squeezed into its political context. I am not interested in the politics of the issue. No matter my thoughts on any politician, if he or she can advance a noble agenda, then I shall credit that effort and I shall also try to advance the policy. The First Lady is to be congratulated for raising the issue even if I may disagree with some or several of her solutions.

I am, however, interested in the rhetoric of the issue because the rhetoric illustrates the morality of the arguments used. I am also interested in the role of parents in addressing the obesity issue.

In the blog, www.sayanythingblog.com is a quote from the blog, Politico:

“First Lady Michelle Obama plans to warn in remarks Monday that the nation is seeing “a groundswell of support” for curbing childhood obesity, and she is unveiling new ammunition from current and retired military leaders.

“[M]ilitary leaders … tell us that when more than one in four young people are unqualified for military service because of their weight,” the first lady says in prepared remarks, “childhood obesity isn’t just a public health threat, it’s not just an economic threat, it’s a national security threat as well.”

It would be most disturbing if the First Lady were using the military—or factions of it—to create the image of or the façade of a national emergency from thin air in order to advance political goals. More disturbing yet would be if the military were used to advance goals that in reality had little to do with yielding anything beneficial regarding reducing childhood obesity.

Julie Gunlock’s article, The Passion of the Obesity Deniers, http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/256004/passion-obesity-deniers-julie-gunlock raises issues relevant to the rhetoric employed by those seeking to politicize the childhood obesity issue. The rhetoric also makes moral judgments about the role of parents.

In her article, Ms. Gunlock refers to a Washington Post editorial written by Fred Hiatt. Hiatt sees the solution to childhood obesity in greater government involvement. Ms. Gunlock provides data that demonstrates that no obesity crisis exists. More compelling, Ms. Gunlock asserts that government intervention will be essentially meaningless in influencing the outcomes regarding childhood obesity.

Let us make an ethical assessment of the rhetoric Hiatt uses to advance his arguments. Gunlock quotes Hiatt as asking: “Could anyone really be against children eating healthier food and getting more exercise?”

I find Hiatt’s rhetorical question morally suspect, if not thoroughly repellant. Hiatt presents a grotesque false dilemma and employs a cheap; rhetorical trick. He creates a straw man argument and then knocks it down. No one is against healthier food, etc. Hiatt knows it.

That Hiatt accuses anyone—what he calls “the deniers”—of being against healthy food and exercise is morally contemptible. It is most regrettable that Hiatt feels such a high comfort level in the bias, the stupidity or the illogical tendencies of the audience to which he caters that he is willing to write such transparently dishonest words.

Hiatt also dodges the real issues in play: the role of government and the role of parents in their respective capacities to reduce childhood obesity.

Gunlock cites a study on childhood obesity by Ohio State University which captures the essence of what I perceive to be the core issues: the role of parents.

The Ohio State University study revealed that only three activities help reduce childhood obesity: eating dinner at home with your family, watching less television, and getting enough sleep at night. These are all basic parental responsibilities. They are not governmental responsibilities, at least not yet.

Gunlock concludes her essay by asking several questions and then suggests some answers.

Why are parents letting their kids eat unhealthy school lunches?
Why are parents allowing their children to stay up too late?
Why can’t parents seem to control their children’s consumption of television and video games?
And most tellingly, Why are parents willing to give so much power to the government?

Gunlock concludes: Strong parenting is a guaranteed way to reduce childhood obesity and it costs nothing.

Strong parenting is an overarching theme of The Good, The Bad and The Difference. I argue for making parents stronger. We need strong parents in order to raise strong children. While the First Lady is to be commended for raising the issue of childhood obesity, it seems her rhetoric is somewhat disingenuous. She uses the right words—empowering the parents, educating about food and exercise—but are these real problems? Are parents uneducated? Will schools really offer more playground time when the trial lawyer constituency which supports her husband may sue every school for the slightest injury?

Whether or not the First Lady has a viable solution, I fear that the institution of the family will be weakened. The obesity problem will remain unaffected and we can be certain that the government will get fatter.
More later

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