Thursday, October 27, 2005

Burgers, gin, meth: It's our toxic drive
>by Heather Mallick
October 23, 2005

So many people are fat now that they're getting close to a majority. It seems odd that they need defending. But I recoil at the venom shot their way. Here's an antidote they may or may not want to take up for themselves.

If the recent public tarring and feathering of Kate Moss for her personal Bolivian Marching Powder festival is cruel and hypocritical — and it is — then surely we should defend the fat. For them, food is just another drug.

I had been puzzling for years about people in the Western nations who cannot refuse the dubious pleasures and benefits of the heavily processed, over-fertilized and pesticided fat-thick food products sold to us in TV ads and surrounding us in fast-food joints. Wendy's, McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Subway, Pizza Pizza, Taco Bell — they line the streets.

As I watch TV ads in which fake steam rises from what is intended to look like huge chunks of lobster in white sauce but is more likely Elmer's Glue over Styrofoam with a vapour machine working overtime, my stomach heaves. I block my eyes. Wouldn't eat that if you paid me, I say, but I would if I were exhausted from my minimum-wage job, facing a hungry family and longing for something quick and tasty. Cheap salt and grease is ideal if you don't have time for sanity and nutrition and lack the drive to boil and mash a huge waxy turnip and sprinkle it with nuts and seeds. Who among us does?

Fat people haul around their Kummerspeck, the German word for “grief bacon,” or weight gained from emotion-linked overeating. Kummerspeck is a byproduct of addiction, no different from the megalomania of the cokehead or the violence of the drunk.

Obesity is one of the reasons for the wave of diabetes hitting Canadians now. That disease is another reason not to be fat. But fat people aren't ashamed because they think passersby are secretly blaming them for increasing health-care costs with their lighthearted approach to insulin. Rather, they are haunted by self-blame for having violated our aesthetic norms. We don't like the look of fat people. Neither do they.

But they have the misfortune to be hooked on a drug whose side effect comes fast and isn't aesthetically pleasing. Other drugs' side effects are less obvious.

Many fine minds, from Nietzsche to theorist Terence McKenna, have studied the use of intoxicants to take the human into another state, ideally of pleasure but often just another state for the sake of it. Taking drugs, legal or otherwise, drinking alcohol and coffee, or using other means like sex or extreme sports is part of the “toxic drive.” I have written about this before, as it seems to explain an increasing number of things in our lives. American literary theorist Avital Ronell was the first to use it, although she bows to Heidegger, and who doesn't, I ask.

The human animal is conscious and is conscious of its consciousness. Out of sheer mischief, we want to play with it, or take a vacation from ourselves. I have yet to meet a person who doesn't twang a chord somewhere on the toxic drive.

Americans deplore the toxic drive even as they press on its pedal and speed away. They are the world's biggest consumers of everything. They swallow medicaments like booze and Rolaids, drugs for diseases that don't exist (like social anxiety disorder), drugs for real diseases while abhorring preventive medicine, drugs for fleeting pleasure like cigarettes, heroin, cocaine, crystal meth, crack, Ecstasy and caffeine. Then they take quieting drugs to sleep it off. “Give us long rest or death, dark death or dreamful ease,” wrote Tennyson, the patron poet of downers.

Rush Limbaugh takes OxyContin in Elvis-like proportions and balloons accordingly while excoriating drug users. He adores Ashley Smith, the Atlanta widow taken hostage by a mass murderer who read to him from The Purpose-Driven Life. But it turns out that she and Rush have much in common. She gave crystal meth to her hostage-taker (she was trying to kick her own addiction) and then she read to him. He mellowed and really got into it, as meth users do about everything.

Tony Blair is addicted to coffee to the extent that it is affecting his heart. Bill Clinton likes to think in retrospect that he would have shunned Monica Lewinsky, but he wouldn't. Sex is an almost irresistible drug. Rumour has it that a scared President George W. Bush is drinking again. Frankly, I would too if I had failed as badly as he.

Food is Americans' favourite intoxicant. Not only do they eat extreme food (deep-fried turkey, anybody?), but they eat it in massive portions. In eating contests, people regularly ingest 40 pounds of something horrible like hot dogs and cream pie. Eerily, they are proud to win. I call that addiction. Mr. Bush, a former alcoholic, mocked Karla Faye Tucker as he signed off on her execution. She had murdered while in a horrific drugged state. But Mr. Bush's drug is legal and hers wasn't. Then he heads off to a barbecue where he and his friends consume a whole cow. Beef and booze are okay.

But we cannot ignore the fact of human pleasure. Distinguished social scientist Charlie Brooker concedes that diets save lives. But are they lives worth saving? “Would you rather live to be a wizened 500-year-old [praying] mantis? Or die fat, young and merry with caramel smeared round your mouth?” It's a fair question.

Wealth has brought the Western world to a fantastic level of intoxication. Yet we are unhappy. All in toxicology makes us soar; afterward, we feel wretched. But let's not claim that addiction to bad food is worse than any other form of enslavement. Love the drug you're with.

Heather Mallick's column is in The Globe and Mail each
Saturday. It appears on Sunday in