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Puritans on patrol in the land of the free
Stop enjoying yourself: the prohibitionist urge is back
Bron: Sunday Times, 13-5-2001
It is one of the oldest observations about America, but also one of the
truest. The land of the free is also the land of the terminally bossy.
Puritanism helped to found the colonies and it has never disappeared.
This is a country that pioneered sexual liberation but impeached a president for
lying about sex. It is a country that consumes more illegal drugs than any other
but imprisons half a million people for it. It is a country with liberal gun
laws and the death penalty. It is a country with constitutionally guaranteed
freedom of speech that was the first to initiate "hate crime" laws.
This whiplashing puritanism knows no party or ideology. It's everywhere you
look. Last Thursday George W Bush announced his new drug czar, a man whose
response to the catastrophic failure of the war on drugs is to ratchet it up
further. He is known for believing that medical marijuana should be denied to
dying patients and that the only effective response to drug use is criminal
sanctions. He backs a Bush plan to bar any government aid for higher education
if a person has used drugs in the past - even in rehabilitation programmes.
John Walters was introduced by a former alcoholic president who refuses to say
whether he has used illegal drugs in his own past. That president beat an
opponent, Al Gore, an all-round goody-goody, who readily admits that he was a
heavy cannabis smoker in college.
Bush now apparently believes that young Gore should have been imprisoned for his
habit so as to prevent him from being a menace to society.
But in some ways puritanism is strongest these days on the left. That is what
"political correctness" really is: a new form of American puritanism.
The crime these days is not sexual - it's ideological.
Anyone suspected of holding any views that might involve even the mildest
generalisations about race, gender or sexual orientation gets the modern
equivalent of the scarlet letter. He or she is publicly humiliated, pummelled,
ostracised and punished. Indeed, there is no social stigma in America these days
worse than bigotry.
Take the recent inflammation pioneered by former leftist turned rightist David
Horowitz. A recovering socialist, Horowitz decided to test the waters of
tolerance on American campuses by writing an advertisement that opposed the
notion that blacks should be financially compensated for slavery. The advert was
provocative, but by no means could it be viewed as racist. He sent it to several
leading college papers. Most refused to run it. It was deemed "racist"
even if a single minority member might feel offended by it. When Horowitz turned
up on campuses, he needed armed guards.
The sheer power of this intolerance came as a surprise to those of us who
thought that PC terror had waned on America's campuses. But the thought police
are thriving in places built to house free thinking. In some ways some Ivy
League colleges have reverted in part to their original religious and sectarian
roots. Except the religion is no longer Protestantism but anti-racism.
Such ideology has even permeated schoolrooms. For to-day's American children and
adolescents, life is just as strict as it was in the 1950s - it's just that the
details have changed. In Palm Beach County, Florida, backpacks have been banned.
Who knows what could be hidden in them? California's Berkeley high school banned
an army show-and-tell recruitment drive because, in the words of one school
board member: "I felt it wasn't appropriate to have weapons simulators on
the campus given all the violence at schools recently."
An Arizona headmaster recently pulped an entire batch of class yearbooks because
of inappropriate content. What was inappropriate? A set of initials that stood
for "Friends Forever", allegedly because gangs use initials as their
monikers. The headmaster also ordered out references to God and religion, and
any that could be deemed sexually suggestive, such as: "I love you,
In many American schools you can no longer talk about God, have a penknife, make
a pass at a girl, use a water pistol or, heaven forfend, say a prayer. Sexual
harassment suits have been brought against little boys grabbing little girls;
some schools have tried to stop typical boyish rough-housing and even some
aggressive contact sports in order to counter cultural stereotypes.
Last week a private school in New York banned any celebration of Mother's Day or
Father's Day. It would, apparently, be insensitive to kids with one parent, or
two mummies or two daddies.
The notion that people can actually think for themselves, that offence and
even hurt are natural parts of human life, that difference of opinion is not a
threat to anything but a sign of cultural health - these notions are now
verboten. This is a culture slowly being sedated into nothingness. Remember the
war against tobacco companies? In California, the leading edge of liberal
authoritarianism, you can't smoke in a bar or restaurant. In San Francisco they
are even contemplating a ban on shops that sell tobacco products.
The prohibitionist impulse extends beyond illegal drugs. Half the allergy
medicines you can buy over the counter in Britain are fiercely regulated so that
snifflers and sneezers have to go grovelling to their doctors.
In all this there are always enemies. In the colonies there were heretics and
witches. In the 1920s and 1930s there were drunks and bootleggers and mafia
criminals largely created by prohibition. In the 1950s there were communists and
homosexuals. Now there are drug lords and pharmaceutical and tobacco companies,
"racists" and "sexists" and "homophobes". The
cycle goes on and on. And it barely matters what the empirical data are.
The fact that the "war on drugs" has led only to increasing demand
and supply in America will never deter the generals from planning a new front.
The possibility that little boys will always be little boys doesn't daunt the
new feminists from their cultural revolution. The fact that there's no solid
evidence that second-hand smoke really harms anyone doesn't mean that smokers
are not regarded as only slightly less horrifying than child molesters.
What matters is the satisfaction of those who can pontificate about the
immorality of others, and the drive of so many to tell their fellow citizens how
to live their own lives.
It was ever thus. The land of the free has always had panics about what freedom
really means - and a lack of confidence in the ability of people to handle it.