The Corner

Gupta for Surgeon General

The apparent selection of a health reporter for the post of Surgeon General is an acknowledgement of the fact that the office now serves a purely educational function, and not a terribly serious one at that. It would be nice if that meant that the surgeon general and his staff (and the Public Health Service in general, which of course does serve other functions too) stopped wearing those weird pseudo-military uniforms, and even nicer if this surgeon general did not become just a publicist for the nanny state or a mouthpiece for the cultural agenda of the radical left, though that of course seems terribly unlikely in the Obama administration.

At the very least, if Gupta says he worries about moving his family from Atlanta to Washington, the post might be folded into the (Atlanta-based) CDC, where it rightly belongs anyway, and made far less prominent and troublesome. But of course, by choosing a well known figure, the Obama team is signalling the opposite intention: they want him to be prominent and visible.

Last summer I wrote an article for NR (available only to subscribers, I gather) about the Surgeon General’s office, its long and storied history, and its future. A snippet:

The surgeon general today is little more than a finger-wagging preacher calling on the public to give up unhealthy habits. Earlier this year, the surgeon general’s office released a report on teen drinking, and last year Carmona released one on second-hand smoke — the latest in a long line of reports on tobacco use, which has been the favorite subject of assorted surgeons general since the 1960s. In recent years, the office has published a report on the role of culture, race, and ethnicity in mental health, and another on youth violence — neither of them a public-health issue under any but the broadest definition.

These reports — which are generally just compilations of government statistics produced not by the surgeon general or his staff, but by bureaucrats in other agencies — routinely fall into exaggeration and excess. In 2006, Carmona described obesity in America as “a terror within” comparable to Islamic fundamentalism, and claimed it takes the lives of almost half a million Americans a year — a figure the Centers for Disease Control later had to acknowledge was unfounded.

The tone of surgeon-general reports makes for a telling case study in the way health has usurped the place of virtue in America’s public vocabulary. Public health is the only remaining language in which to speak of vice — an old-fashioned word that once would have been the obvious way to refer to, say, smoking and drinking. The self-righteousness that colors the crusade against obesity, smoking, and other modern sins is as near as the Left gets to religion, and the surgeon general fills the role of oracle or prophet.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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