Back in March, The Baffler posted an excerpt from a now-recently published book entitled “Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer” © 2018 by Barbara Ehrenreich. Without even reading the book, the title hints at the absurdities lying within. “An Epidemic of Wellness?” This book can’t possibly be talking about the US. Alas, it is. The excerpt though focuses on none of the suggestions in the title, instead flitting from the writer’s experiences, to the public health reasons for promoting exercise, while jamming in the handwaving of individual effort along with the economic implications:
It was the existence of widespread health insurance that turned fitness into a moral imperative. Insurance involves risk sharing, with those in need of care being indirectly subsidized by those who are healthier, so that if you are sick, or overweight, or just guilty of insufficient attention to personal wellness, you are a drag on your company, if not your nation. As the famed physician and Rockefeller Foundation president John H. Knowles put it in 1977:
[The] cost of sloth, gluttony, alcoholic intemperance, reckless driving, sexual frenzy, and smoking is now a national, and not an individual, responsibility. . . . One man’s freedom [in health] is another man’s shackle in taxes and insurance premiums.
Or, in the words of former secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano, “We have met the enemy and they are us.” Never mind that poverty, race, and occupation play a huge role in determining one’s health status, the doctrine of individual responsibility means that the less-than-fit person is a suitable source not only of revulsion but resentment. The objection raised over and over to any proposed expansion of health insurance was, in so many words: Why should I contribute to the care of those degenerates who choose to smoke and eat cheeseburgers?
Not merely “why should we”, but is it even feasible?
Of course none of this appears to concern the author, but(!) we are certainly informed that exercise somehow paradoxically ruined her health:
Then, in the last few years, I began to hit a wall. I developed temporarily disabling knee problems, which X-rays showed were attributable to overexertion rather than, as was to be expected at my age, arthritis. My lower back easily clenched into knots. I had to try to develop a less adversarial stance toward my body, or at least learn how to “listen” to it. The ideology of fitness, which had so far encouraged me to treat my body as a recalcitrant mass I was carrying around with me everywhere, showed a softer side, emphasizing the “wisdom of the body” and the need to develop some sort of détente with it. For a moment I even toyed with the idea of a yoga class, possibly including meditation, before deciding I’m not quite old enough for that.
Le eyeroll. Add this to another long list of books and other written fare that amount to little more than exercises in alternating self-congratulation, making excuses for personal behavior/choices, and promoting individually and/or societally damaging behavior on the basis of the authors’ emotions about the thing. Oh, and another in which even the title fails to be substantiated. Par for the course.