Saturday, July 19, 2008

ABC 20/20: Stossel on the possible resurgence of "moral puritanism"


Last night, Friday, ABC July 18, 20/20 aired a special hosted by libertarian-oriented John Stossel on government intrusion into Americans’ intimate lives. This time there are five reports at this link associated with the report, and the individual stories will rotate out with each week's show. Probably the most interesting is Stossel’s own essay “corrupting young minds?” but visitors may want to check them all.

I’ve mainly been concerned about the law and private behaviors especially of gay people, where the two best known Supreme Court cases are Lawrence v. Texas (2003) and Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) which I discuss on my GLBT blog in May 2008 here. The Texas case substantially limits the ability of law enforcement to intrude in the private affairs of consenting adults.

Instead, the situations in Stossel’s 20/20 report were a mixture of various situations that still raise some legitimate objection: behavior in public parks, polygamy, perhaps explicitness in movies on the Internet, and “toys”. All of these raise some legitimate questions about privacy, however.

The “toys” case was in Alabama, where customers had to fill out “medical” forms to justify purchase, seemed silly; there has been a similar fight in Georgia. Stossel showed some polygamous families of evangelical and Jewish, rather than “fundamentalist Mormon” persuasion. The argument was made that in African American culture, it was possible that some women could benefit from polygamy because there are not enough men. But we know that in the “fundamentalist Mormon” cults in Texas and Arizona, a large number of young men are expelled if they don’t “make the cut” for having wives. In some Arabic cultures, polygamy is accepted, and that may contribute to the disenchantment of some Arab young men.

Stossel gave some good examples of how far entertainment and the movies have come, citing “Pillow Talk” in the 1950s and “Hairspray” last year. Stossel gave an account of the (straight) "Chippendale" male dancers who perform for women, but who were arrested in Lubbock, TX after warnings and spent a night in jail, with the charges dropped the next day. Stossel points out that teenage pregnancy is down, as is a lot of other negative behavior. Therefore, the case that movies and now the free expressions on the Internet and social networking sites has harmed teenagers seems unconvincing and perhaps totally wrong.

There is also a short section on “cheating.” Generally, males are hardwired to want to propagate their genes with as many mates as possible, to maximize the probability that their progeny carries on. Women have an incentive to encourage one male to stay with them to raise the children and provide the stable family unit. This is the old "women tame men" argument from George Gilder ("Men and Marriage", 1986) and George Will. Marriage and family are somewhat a social invention.

That’s where “public morality” comes in, a concept that undergird the old sniggering treatment of gays. A couple of “conservative”, probably evangelical legislators and prosecutors from Texas seemed to weigh in on the idea that the law can make a moral statement for its own sake. (That idea is challenged by the Lawrence opinion, which at least one Texas legislator sounded like he would challenge if given the chance. It’s worthy of note that Texas tried to strengthen its sodomy laws in the 1980s (the Ceverha 2138 bill) after the AIDS epidemic broke out, a fact the show did not mention.) What this old-fashioned kind of thinking means is that “average Joe” people need legal carrots and sticks to form monogamous heterosexual marriages to have and raise children in stable environments, and (now) to take care of the elderly and disabled in extended families. That latter part may now become as important as the former. A culture of Me-ism and of extreme individual “Darwinian” (or perhaps “Spencerian”) competition (“extreme capitalism”) runs the risk of creating a world in which “average men” simply can’t form and keep families from those who are “stronger”. Sometimes the values and “ultimate purpose” behind things people want are as important as the actual behaviors that they engage in. The older moral codes did express the idea that every individual owed a moral and emotional debt to take part of the risk and responsibility of raising the next generation and taking care of the past ones, even if that individual does not “choose” to have children by his or her personal behavior. I can look at my own life and map the story of it out to some of these ideas – given that these precepts, beyond just “being here now” really matter. But, if these ideas really matter, we need to sort them out, and figure out new 21st Century moral codes for how people share common responsibility. We don’t need to have the police watching the Internet, wiretapping phones, “accidentally” appearing in bedrooms (as in Hardwick) or even in peep holes in restrooms everywhere. Stossel is on target there.

Picture: Libertarian Party of Maryland Booth at gay and lesbian pride north of Annapolis, MD

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