Ross Douthat’s latest column, doctor observing the decline of religion, store marriage, and the two-parent family among the working class, was a depressing read. So much for the Palinesque illusion that there exists a virtuous, traditional “Real America” in the heartland, besieged by liberal coastal elites — educated, cultured despisers who hate them for their homespun values. In fact, according to a forthcoming study by the National Marriage Project, cited by Douthat, strong marriages and fidelity to churchgoing are increasingly the habits not of liberals or conservatives, as such, but of the educated middle class. As Douthat avers, whatever the regional, income and class voting patterns of Americans, the statistical evidence indicates “that a culture war that’s often seen as a clash between liberal elites and a conservative middle America looks more and more like a conflict within the educated class.”
As a Southern-born conservative who has for many years lived and worked among the coastal elites, I have been struck on my visits back home over the past few years how difficult it is to talk about anything political with my friends and family there. They are as closed-minded and combative about politics as any urban coastal liberal I’ve suffered over my years in exile. I was shocked, but (on second thought) not surprised, by the new study Douthat reported, because over the past decades, I’ve seen the same social trends play out in my very Red America homeland, on return visits.
There was another report today that hit me even harder than Douthat’s column: this interactive diabetes map showing the explosive growth of diabetes rates from 2004 to 2008. The Southeast – my home region – is by far the worst place in the country for diabetes. I checked the stats on my home county, and its rate is among the most dismal in America. Surprising? Not really, at least not to me. I’ve watched over the years as people back home have become much heavier than they were when I was growing up there. The interesting thing is how food and food culture is as much a cultural marker there as it is in Alice Waters’ San Francisco – but in the opposite direction.
In a much-discussed 2009 Policy Review essay, Mary Eberstadt talked about how odd it was that liberal elites are extremely permissive about sex, but Puritan fussbudgets about food. What’s less well explored is the culture-war role food plays among conservatives, especially in the South. My experience is anecdotal, of course, but I’ve seen emerging back home a growing sense that food intake is not something that can be held up for moral analysis and judgment. Those who attempt to do so are typically seen as liberal snobs trying to impose their own preferences.
There’s no doubt that liberal foodies can be horrible snobs, and excruciatingly moralistic (to shop at the organic co-op in my uber-liberal neighborhood is to rub shoulders with people every bit as prissy and intolerant as the Church Lady). But at some point, it’s downright absurd for conservatives to ignore that food choices have moral implications. For me, going to my home county is an occasion for culinary culture shock, because middle-class people there simply do not have the same outlook on eating – especially for their children – as middle-class people do in my liberal city. Put plainly, people eat whatever they want, and lots of it, without giving it a second thought. More to my point here, they see the idea that one ought to care about such things as a sign of effete, high-handed liberalism.
It comes as news to my churchgoing conservative friends here in Coastal Liberal Land that making sure your kids limit sugary snacks and junk food is something only liberals care about. None of us are what you’d call foodies, and none of us go to the gym. It’s just understood that living responsibly, especially in a culture that celebrates the abolition of limits, requires a great deal of vigilance, especially when it comes to child-raising. That’s why though fasting is not really a part of American religious life today, there is still among my conservative friends real moral awareness of a religious duty to live a self-disciplined life, and to avoid the sin of gluttony. Why is the South – the most culturally conservative part of the country, in most respects, especially in Christian piety – so thoughtlessly permissive about eating?
The obvious answer is that they don’t see food choices as having moral weight. That stance is groundless from a Biblical point of view. Scripture aside, how can that point of view be sustainable from a common-sense conservative position when so many people are coming down with diabetes, a chronic disease closely related to overeating? New neuroscience research suggests that overeating certain foods earlier in life changes one’s brain in ways that make it harder to stop later in life. This means that parents who let their kids eat lots of sugar set them up for a lifetime of diabetes, and other obesity-related diseases. How is that not a moral failing?
The costs to society of treating diabetes is enormous, and is expected to triple to over $300 billion – if obesity plateaus, which it may not do. Who is going to pay for that indulgence? Both the taxpayer, in higher Medicare and Medicaid costs, and individual insurance ratepayers. It becomes difficult to take seriously Southern conservatives who complain about the morally lax lower orders (read: poor black people) being a drain on the taxpayer when they themselves have their mouths full of Super Sonic Cheeseburger.
It must be admitted that diabetes, like obesity, is correlated with race and poverty. You would expect to find a higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes in the South, given that the South is home to a greater concentration of poverty and African-Americans – especially poor African-Americans. Appalachia, please note, is a diabetes hotspot; it has few blacks, but many poor whites – as does the rest of the South. For all that, it is striking to see how America’s Diabetes Belt coincides so neatly with the geographical core of Republican voters.
I remain puzzled by how normal, everyday discussions about diet and nutrition among my people either don’t happen, or occur in an emotionally charged, culture-war context. Like most folks, I don’t appreciate being preached at or lectured to about food or anything else, but as a conservative, self-reliance, self-discipline and personal responsibility are principles I seek to live by. What’s wrong with that? The careless, self-indulgent, self-righteous attitude towards eating that I see among many of my fellow right-wingers back home in the South can be called many things, but conservative is not one of them.
I was going to say that however gluttonous our side can be, unlike the Coastal Left, at least we get it right on God and sex. But the forthcoming National Marriage Project study indicates that outside of the educated middle class, we increasingly can’t claim the high ground there either. What, then, constitutes proof of our supposed conservatism as a superior way to live?
Richmond Ramsey is a pseudonym for a conservative who would rather not be reproached for eating a Super Sonic and drinking a Route 44 cherry limeade when he goes home to visit his Mama.