Tag Archives: britain

The Obesity Epidemic and Teen Moms

Reading this little tiff in my hometown newspaper about fat acceptance, it struck me that it may be new in political history that we’re facing problems that we deliberately want to discourage at the societal level, but refrain from stigmatizing on the personal level.

With regard to the obesity epidemic, pretty much everyone agrees that at the societal level, having fewer overweight people is better for our economy, health, productivity and gross happiness. At the personal level, though, your weight is really none of my business, and the stigma against fat people is vastly disproportionate, cruel and counterproductive.

The UK is all debatey these days about social benefits, and the ‘culture of dependency’ that welfare for young, single mothers has created. Cash payouts to teen moms, the Coalition argues, only encourages behavior that, at the societal level, makes everyone worse off.

It seems to me that both obesity and teen pregnancy are things that, society-wide, we should be doing everything in our power to prevent. From bike lanes and subsidized veggies (obesity) to sex ed and community support (teen moms), governments are completely correct to advocate that reduction of these phenomena is a societal good.

That said, the minute a teenager gets pregnant, they deserve all the resources of the state to help them raise their child. Not only for their own basic dignity, but to break the cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity that drive rates of teen pregnancy in the first place. Those kids weren’t born to teen moms from any fault of their own, and they should have every opportunity for education, health and security.

The same paradigm should govern obesity: Try really hard at the societal level to prevent obesity, but accept that being overweight is significantly easier than not being overweight, and it doesn’t make economic sense to discriminate fat people out of the workplace, healthcare or beneficial social relationships.

The problem is that this strikes most people as a complete contradiction, and is really difficult to express in the precocious-fifth-grader vocabulary our politicians speak in. We can promote and we can stigmatize, but we have no way of saying as a culture ‘you shouldn’t be here, but you are. So let’s get to work.’

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Volunteers Are Not Employees

Here’s a cool speech by Philip Pullman trying to save the public library system in Britain:

Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. What patronising nonsense. Does [Keith Mitchell, leader of the county council] think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves?

And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort, and yet are so wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? Who are these volunteers? Do you know anyone who could volunteer their time in this way?

If there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are probably already working for one of the voluntary sector day centres or running a local football team or helping out with the league of friends in a hospital. What’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?

I spent six months last year volunteering at an asylum center, and I can say with certainty that volunteers are not a remotely adequate replacement for full-time, paid staff. Promoting altruism is a nice thing for governments to do, but suggesting that volunteers be given responsibilities over people and property is a recipe for some janky-ass libraries.

It’s also unrealistic and exploitative, and seems rather drastically unsound, economically speaking. I mean, isn’t the way out of an unemployment crisis to have more people getting paid to do stuff, rather than just the latter?


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I found ‘The Heat of the Day’, by Elizabeth Bowen, in a secondhand bookstore in Berlin a month ago, and have been utterly devouring it since. It’s a love story-cum-spy novel set in World War II London, and was written in 1949.

They don’t make ’em like this anymore, no Lawd. Look at this passage, about an outdoor concert:

Pairs of lovers, fatigued by their day alone with each other, were glad to enter this element not themselves: When their looks once more met it was with refreshed love. Mothers tired by being mothers forgot their children as their children forgot them – one held her baby as though it had been a doll. Married couples who had sat down in apathetic closeness to one another could be seen to begin to draw a little apart, each recapturing some virginal inner dream. Such elderly people as had not been driven home by the disappearance of sun from the last chair fearlessly exposed their years to the dusk, in a lassitude they could have shown at no other time.

These were the English.

Again, this is a passage about people sitting and listening to music. It gets even more foliaged when the characters emerge.

I had never heard of the book or the author before I saw it in the 3 euro bin. It’s not a forgotten classic or anything, but there’s something to be said for being a literary postcard.

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