Ed Driscoll

'The Abdominals are the Windows to the Soul'

For the last half century at least, it’s been a cliché of self-described liberals that they profess to be “nonjudgmental.” The reality is precisely the opposite, as any reader, no matter how casually, of the New York Times understands intuitively. The paper’s myriad lifestyle articles are constantly hectoring the reader with subtle clues as to how to lead his life, as illustrated by a repeated feature in the newspaper, the environmental zealot.

Note that being judgmental isn’t a bad thing, quite the contrary.  But it helps to have a moral framework in which to make your judgments. In contrast, much of the morality that defines the liberalism of the Boomer era to the present day comes down to raising aesthetics to a substitute religion, perhaps to replace the traditional religion the majority of the Times’ readers abandoned at some point in their lives.

In “The Ripped and the Righteous,” Frank Bruni celebrates the late Jack LaLanne as sort of messianic preacher hoping not save your soul, but more importantly to the average Times reader, the body it’s encased within:

That sense of failure you feel when you haven’t exercised in days? That conviction that if you could pull off better push-ups, you’d be a better person through and through? These, too, are his doing, at least in part. What he left behind when he died last week, at the toned old age of 96, was not only a sweaty culture of relentless crunching and spinning but also the notion that fitness equals character, and that self-actualization begins with the self-discipline to get and stay in shape. In the post-LaLanne landscape, it’s not the eyes but the abdominals that are windows to the soul.

“There seems to be a whole substitute morality, where your obligation is to go to the gym and not ask why,” says Mark Greif, a founding editor of the literary journal n+1 and the author of a widely discussed 2004 essay, “Against Exercise.” “If you don’t, you become a sort of villain of the culture.”

Needless to say, there are certain…limitations when it comes to judging a man by his physique. After all, who would you want balancing your state’s books? Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chris Christie? If you had millions of dollars riding on a motion picture, who would you want to direct it, Michael Bay or Alfred Hitchcock? Who would make the better wartime leader, Barack Obama or Winston Churchill?

Oh and speaking of leaders, note this passage:

And the pectoral is political. [But what isn’t political to the left? Ed] The current president and his predecessor have made ostentatious points of their commitments to fitness routines. Whatever the differences in their ideologies, intellects and work habits, George W. Bush and Barack Obama both let voters know that they carve out time almost daily for cardio or weights or both. And while that devotion could be seen as evidence of distraction (Bush) or vanity (Bush and Obama), each politician safely counted on a sunnier takeaway. In this country, at this time, steadiness of exercise signals sturdiness of temperament, and physical leanness connotes mental toughness.

Yes, having raised the issue, hopefully the Times will continue to press Obama to release his student grades so we can better judge the differences in intellect between the current president and his predecessor.

But just to wrap up the main point of the article, note that this is far from the first time that the Gray Lady has mixed the topic of personal appearance and puritanism. As I wrote back in 2007, “In an Age Of Abundance, the aesthetics of the New Puritanism are drafted.”

Related: “This is called growing up, but in our youth oriented society, where the self-indulgent rule and the self-sufficient are suckers, it’s no wonder these college freshman are so miserable.”

More: “It’s all about aesthetics and f—k all to do with morality.”