Puritans on patrol
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Forces Comitť van Aanbeveling



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, Mark."

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.


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