March 14, 2004 - Newsday (NY)

Moralizers, All Of Them

The Battles Over Obscenity, Sexuality and Obesity Are Back Just in Time for the Election, and Both Parties Are Loving It

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By David Wagner, professor of social work and sociology at the University of Southern Maine, and the author of "The New Temperance: The American Obsession with Sin and Vice."

It's a typical month in America: Conservatives want to ban gay marriages with a constitutional amendment; the Federal Communications Commission is all worked up about sexual displays and bad behavior over the airwaves; Howard Stern is banned from the air by some radio stations; and in my state and others, vending machines serving soda and snacks are being pulled out of the schools so young people will not be tempted to get fat.

Some may argue that other issues matter far more - the war in Iraq or the economy, for example - but with an election year upon us, the country's obsessions over personal behavior are coming to the fore yet again.

Friends from Europe find this one of the most amusing things about America. When I lecture in Sweden, for instance, mention of our preoccupations with fat, caffeine, teen sexuality, cigarettes and gay sex all are easy laugh lines.

From this side of the Atlantic, it seems inescapable. The battle over behavior within our diverse culture can be traced to the Puritans, who managed to find sin practically everywhere, though much of American history for the first two centuries after that period was marked by intemperance and frontier morality.

In national politics, America is now and has been at war with itself over issues of behavior and character off and on for at least a century and a half. In some ways, this war was more virulent 100 years ago, when the "demon rum" was a major issue in every national election. The "drys," who favored prohibition of alcohol, warred against the "wets," who favored keeping booze legal. This great debate led to the short-lived enactment of Prohibition.

Other, more forgotten wars of the 19th and 20th centuries spanned almost all the issues being discussed today. For decades temperance proponents sought to outlaw cigarette smoking, and they succeeded for a while in passing prohibitory laws in 14 states.

Led by Anthony Comstock and the Vice and Vigilance Societies, a national movement of activists strongest in the East Coast got lewd books outlawed, covered up naked statues, policed music halls, got ballets banned ( those pink tights ), had contraceptives outlawed and effectively pushed for censorship of films. In fact, books and films were censored routinely, including by the Supreme Court, until the 1960s.

The sex wars began long before either the existence of gay rights or the coining of the "sexual revolution." Led by the Social Purity Movement of the 19th century, millions of men took chastity pledges, including vows against masturbation and bad language, echoing more than 100 years ago today's Promise Keepers, the men's Christian organization.

The failure of the Prohibition amendment and its repeal in 1933 led to a decline in the politicization of issues related to personal behavior. The impact of the crises of the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War caused these issues generally to take a political back seat.

This began to change in the 1960s when, in response to the perceived radical changes in politics and social mores, a backlash ( remember the Moral Majority? ) set in. Since the 1970s, liberals and conservatives have sought alternatively to woo different sides of the culture wars or to join in a consensus against "deviant" behavior ( let's all take drug tests! ).

These battles are driven by complex sociological issues, particularly the association of upward mobility and higher social status with "proper" behavior. Those of the middle class aspire to follow the correct trends, so that they can smoke pot and then herald its banning, or praise new sexual openness and later call it pornography.

Plus, there is general agreement in our political and media climate that it is right to be against sin and vice, however it is defined.

It is no surprise, with an apparently close election coming in November, that the debate about moral character is getting louder. A president besieged by what is becoming a long war in Iraq and a faltering economy is going to want to change the subject.

George W. Bush sees his endorsement of a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage as a way of stoking the cultural troops, presumably those most loyal to the Grand Old Party. Expect to hear more from the president about sex and drugs and young people needing discipline as the campaign goes on.

The Republicans will attack Democrats' morality in any way possible. But, it is a sticky fact that the Democrats are not only not libertarians, they have taken, albeit with some different twists, a similar path of moral righteousness. Many issues are mutual bugaboos.

The Democrats jumped at supporting the drug war in the 1980s. President Bill Clinton may have had easy morals for his own behavior, but he did preside over the arrest and imprisoning of a record number of Americans, 70 percent of them for federal drug law violations.

The Democrats joined the highly moralistic Republican assault on welfare mothers, attacking "dependency" and "non-work" of supposed lazy relief recipients. It was Clinton, who actually "ended welfare as we know it." Tipper Gore, of course, spearheaded the 1980s movements to censor rock and rap lyrics.

Other moral stances send the Democrats into their own paroxysms of righteousness. On issues from tobacco to fat, count on the Democrats to blame the Republicans for cavorting with big corporations and letting a nation become unhealthy and flabby.

Violence, as American as apple pie, is blamed alternatively by both parties on kids, guns and the media.

Why this moral convergence? It was a brief moment, as brief as saying "George McGovern," but some Democrats or activists on the fringe of the Democratic Party became associated with anti-war protesters, pot smokers and free-love advocates - the radical side of the '60s and '70s culture wars.

It has been a prime objective of the Democrats for 30 years now to run away from this image, to the point that it is difficult any longer to distinguish the moral compasses of the parties on many issues.

But, at a time when both major parties converge on defining issues such as free trade and the decision to go to war in Iraq, the remaining divides in the culture wars, among the middle-class anyway, are left to play a big political role, at least in solidifying each party's base support.

Democrats count on Republican attacks on gays or on a woman's right to abortion to mobilize their voters. The Republicans look for any faint sign of anti-war views, pro-gay statements or anti-religious implications among Democrats to mobilize their troops.

If there was no conservative morality, the Democrats would have to create it, and without the so-called "libertine" or "secular humanist" enemy, as the Christian Right would call them, where would the Republicans be?

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