In this excerpt from his new book, Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America, Stranger editor Dan Savage takes on conservative virtuecrats and moral scolds and comes to the defense of the American sinner.
The truly revolutionarypromise of our nation's founding document is the freedom to pursue happiness-with-a-capital-H. Unfortunately, this promise is considered problematic by some Americans. The very pursuits that make some Americans happy (some very happy indeed) are considered downright sinful by social conservatives. By itself, this attitude wouldn't be a problem if these other Americans were content to avoid activities they regard as sinful, live their lives according to their convictions, and recognize the right of their fellow Americans to do the same. While some Americans might choose to lead a less than virtuous existence, at least in William J. Bennett's estimation, what skin is it off Bennett's ass?
Sadly, America's professional virtuecrats aren't content to mind their own business, to let their virtues be their own reward on earth, and to content themselves with thoughts of whatever reward they have coming to them in their peculiar heaven. Instead, Dr. Laura Schlessinger lectures us on the radio daily, Bill O'Reilly gripes at us on cable nightly, and William J. Bennett seems to produce a book a month. Fine, they have a right to their opinions, and they have a right to express themselves. However, the virtuous in America aren't satisfied with merely lecturing us. They want to give us orders, and to that end they've banded together in what appears to be a never-ending effort to shove their own virtues down all of our throats. They've convinced themselves that the pursuit of happiness by less virtuous Americans is both a personal and a political attack. Not content to persuade their fellow Americans to be virtuous--which, again, is their right--they want to amend constitutions and pass laws and coerce.
While the efforts of the virtuous to make their virtues compulsory haven't been successful--have you given up any of your vices?--the virtuecrats go largely unchallenged in the public arena. The virtuecrats haven't succeeded in halting the sale of rap CDs, the giving of blowjobs, or the getting of high; they have succeeded in convincing us that no one has a right to challenge them. They're virtuous, after all. They're good people trying to do good. Who can argue with good? By successfully framing the debate as virtue versus sin, and not their laws versus your freedoms, the virtuecrats have silenced their political foes and the sinners who enjoy the happy pursuits virtuecrats seek to ban.
Some social conservatives, like Robert Bork, the author of the bible of social conservatives, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, go so far as to argue that our founding fathers were just kidding around about the pursuit of happiness. It was, at best, a rhetorical flourish on Thomas Jefferson's part, not anything we should take seriously, much less act on. Bork, ironically, is a leading proponent of the "original intent" movement in legal theory, which argues that judges should base their rulings solely on the intent of our founding fathers, which can be divined through a close reading of our nation's founding documents. Except, of course, for the first lines of our nation's first document. That "pursuit of happiness" stuff? That's just poetry. Americans shouldn't be free "to choose which virtues to practice or not practice," Bork argues, as that would entail "the privatization of morality, or, if you will, the 'pursuit of happiness,' as each of us defines happiness." (Morality is apparently the only thing social conservatives don't want to privatize.)
Bork isn't the only social conservative who wants to rewrite our nation's founding document. In his best-seller The Death of the West, Patrick J. Buchanan simply deletes the pursuit of happiness from the Declaration of Independence: "Jefferson meant that we are all endowed by our creator with the same right to life, liberty, and property," Buchanan writes. If our founding fathers were as thoughtful and wise as original intenters and social conservatives are always telling us, we can only assume that our founding fathers selected "pursuit of happiness" over "property" for a good reason. Out of respect for our founding fathers' original intent, shouldn't we assume that they knew what they were doing? Shouldn't we assume that they meant it?
"According to the Declaration of Independence, our freedom comes from a transcendent authority," writes Alan Keyes in his book Our Character, Our Future. Keyes is an African-American conservative who ran for president in 1996 and 2000, and is the host of a talk show launched on MSNBC in early 2000. (Gosh darn that liberal media elite!) Keyes is obsessed with abortion and homosexuality, and he believes America wouldn't be in such "a dismal state" if only Americans would recognize that the Christian Bible trumps the United States Constitution in matters of law and public policy. Why is that? "The Declaration tells us clearly where rights come from: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed,' not by the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights, or the Supreme Court, or anybody else, they are endowed by their Creator." Since our rights flow from the Creator, we don't have the right to engage in anything specifically forbidden by Keyes's Creator. It's a willfully perverse reading of the Declaration of Independence. By invoking the Creator, Keyes argues, the authors of the Declaration of Independence meant to negate every other word they wrote.
Our founding fathers had ample chance to distance themselves from or completely disavow the pursuit of happiness when they gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft the United States Constitution. They didn't seem to slouch into Philadelphia heavy with regret about the happiness line in the Declaration of Independence. In fact, they seemed pretty pleased with themselves, gathering in Philadelphia, as they wrote, "in order to form a more perfect union." (More perfect?) I'm no Constitutional scholar, I admit, nor have I had the honor of being nominated to the Supreme Court; I didn't serve my country as the first in a long line of wildly ineffective drug czars; and I've also never hosted a do-as-I-say call-in radio advice program that obsessed about sexual morality while at the same time nude pictures of me taken by a premarital sex partner were circulated on the Web. Nevertheless, it seems to me that if "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" were such a big, fat, fucking mistake, then our wise founding fathers would have realized it in the eleven years that passed between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the first meeting of the Constitutional Congress. If they felt "the pursuit of Happiness" was a mistake, they surely would have done something to correct it when they gathered to make our union just a little more perfect.
Many of my fellow Americans are deeply annoyed at the self-appointed virtuecrats and preening moralists who clog our airwaves and best-seller lists, and have warped our political conversation to a point that simple honesty and truth-telling about sex or drugs disqualifies someone from public office. (Dr. Joycelyn Elders, RIP.) I, for one, am sick of being told that I live in an immoral wasteland. Robert Bork--best-selling author, former federal judge, and failed Supreme Court nominee--looks at the United States and sees Gomorrah, the biblical city-state destroyed by God (along with Sodom, a neighboring bedroom community). Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah was published in 1996, and in it Bork made the case for censorship (of rap albums, video games, and violent films), the rollback of reproductive rights, and the enforcement of sodomy laws, among other things. It's a thrilling read, and it set a new standard for conservative commentary. In books, magazines, speeches, and on television, Bork and other right-wing "scolds," as Andrew Sullivan has dubbed them, argue that the United States of America is in a state of moral collapse--William J. Bennett says as much in the title of his latest book, The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family. For his part, Pat Buchanan paints a picture of the United States in The Death of the West that reads like a translation of an Osama bin Laden video. The United States is "a moral sewer and a cultural wasteland that is not worth living in and not worth fighting for," according to Buchanan. (Imagine the outcry if, say, Susan Sontag had written that line.) "Bill O'Reilly is even madder today than when he wrote his last book, The O'Reilly Factor," reads the dust jacket to FOX News personality Bill O'Reilly's latest book, The No Spin Zone. "He's mad because things have gone from bad to worse, in politics, in Hollywood, in every social stratum of the nation."
In this seemingly endless flow of America-the-moral-sewer books and op-eds, scolds argue that our nation is shot through with moral rot, weakened by the demands of the ACLU, feminists, immigrants, secular humanists, and gays and lesbians. The moral-rotters, according to conservatives, are aided and abetted at every step by the liberal media elite. (The same media elite that can't turn over a rock without offering a book deal and a show on FOX News to whatever is crawling underneath.) As we learned on September 11, 2001, our moral rot can have deadly consequences with supernatural causes. According to Rev. Jerry Falwell, it was the presence of feminists, ACLU members, homos, and federal judges that prompted God to "lift the curtain" of protection from the United States, "and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve [on September 11]." In the wake of the September 11 attacks, some people predicted that social conservatives would have to shut the fuck up. Writing in The New Republic after the attacks, Andrew Sullivan pointed out that the reaction of the American people to the attacks on our country by Islamo-fascists proved that the scolds--the Borks, Buchanans, Bennetts, Falwells, Robertsons, et alia--had been wrong about America all along:
Not long ago, leading paleoconservatives were denouncing America as a country, in Robert Bork's words, "slouching towards Gomorrah." Moral decline was almost irreparable; civil responsibility was a distant memory; pop culture was sapping any social fiber we had; and the evils of feminism, homosexuality, and Hollywood were corroding the country's ability to believe in itself or defend its shores. None of this was ever true.... The response of the American people to the events of September 11 surely disproved these scolds once and for all.
Shortly after Sullivan wrote those words, Pat Buchanan's Death of the West--"... [the United States is] a moral sewer and a cultural wasteland that is not worth living in and not worth fighting for...."--shot up the New York Times best-selling list.
Curiously, after spending three hundred pages making the United States sound like Calcutta, Buchanan wraps up his book with a one-sentence paragraph about what a beautiful country this is. Speakers at the Republican National Convention do the same thing: Once they've finished telling us that the United States is a shithole, they wrap up their speeches with claims that the United States of America is unique in the world, a shining example to other nations, and the greatest country on earth. Oh, and God bless America.
It's difficult to square this circle: America speeds towards hell in a handbasket, year in, year out, through both Democratic and Republican administrations; things get progressively worse, never better; and yet the United States remains the greatest country on earth, year in, year out. How is this possible? How can we be the stinking moral sewer and the shining city on the hill at the same time? Gomorrah and God's country? Are all the other countries on earth so irredeemably awful, so squalid, so beyond hope that no matter how fast America falls we can't pass a single one on the way down? This explanation might cut it if the rest of the world were Syria, Sudan, and Serbia. But how do the Buchanans, Bennetts, and O'Reillys account for perfectly pleasant little countries like Sweden? Or the Netherlands? Or Canada? (By the way, someone needs to alert Pat Buchanan that Canada is not in Europe. On page 200 of The Death of the West, he writes, "Europe has begun to resemble the United States. Between 1960 and 2000, out-of-wedlock births soared in Canada from 4 percent to 31 percent, in the U.K. from 5 percent to 38 percent, in France from... ")
The carping goes on year after year, book deal after book deal, with the Republican National Convention serving as a sort of quadrennial national checkup, during which we're invariably told that we're headed downhill fast. Watching the Republican National Convention is like going to the doctor every four years and being told your body is riddled with some horrible, disfiguring, fast-spreading, terminal cancer. We've been getting that same diagnosis from the same doctors every four years for--what? Twenty years? Longer? Am I the only one who sits through our national chemotherapy sessions with former drug czars and radio talk-show hosts and is not convinced we're so ill that we require such an annoying and toxic course of treatment? Can't we get a second opinion?
Sometimes we do, but it's not all that helpful either. Americans are sinning, wimpy liberals meekly respond, but we're not sinning quite so much as Bill Bennett would lead us to believe. Americans may cheat on their spouses and smoke a lot of pot, but we don't cheat or smoke pot at the rate one might expect. If only a few more Americans would have Just Said No, liberals and conservatives agree, we could reverse our moral collapse and avoid the ignominious prospect of being a slightly less glorious nation than Canada, the sick man of Europe. For anyone interested in genuine political arguments, the second opinion offered by liberals is deeply frustrating: It buys into the same values espoused by the people who gave us that faulty first opinion--namely, that "sin" is always bad. Terrified of being the pro-pot party or the pro-adultery party or the pro-sodomy party, the Democrats opt for virtue-lite politics and send junior varsity scolds like Sen. Joe Lieberman out to lecture Hollywood. Where is the politician who will look Bennett in the eye on television and say, "Some of the nicest, most virtuous, morally uncollapsed people I know smoke pot and commit adultery (with their spouses' permission)--it's how they pursue happiness, and so long as they're not hurting anyone else, why should they be made to feel guilty? Or any less virtuous than you, Bill Bennett?"
Bennett, like every moral scold who has ever compiled a big book on virtue, goes on and on about the deep sense of happiness and fulfillment he has derived from marriage and traditional family life. There's something deeply problematic about praising Bill Bennett--an activity that eats up an awful lot of Bill Bennett's time--for pursuing those things that make Bill Bennett happy (heterosexuality, sobriety, monogamy) while condemning someone else for pursuing the things that make him happy (say, homosexuality, pot, and the occasional three-way). Refraining from having sex with men and with women who aren't his wife makes Bill Bennett happy. And I'm all for Bill Bennett being just as happy a Bill Bennett as Bill Bennett can possibly be. But everyone should have the same right to happiness. Should the law coerce all of us into pursuing Bill Bennett's brand of happiness? Bill Bennett thinks so, and so do Bork and Buchanan.
To be fair, for some of the high-profile virtuous, living an upright life may not make them all that happy. In fact, it may make some of them miserable. There may be conservative pundits out there who desire to smoke dope or sleep around, but deny themselves these pleasures, and their public calls for virtue are simply an externalization of their own inner struggle to be good. "Our virtues are most frequently but vices disguised," wrote La Rochefoucauld in his Maxims (1665), a point driven home by former television evangelist Rev. Jimmy Swaggart. Swaggart, you'll recall, condemned pornography and prostitution for years, and then was caught visiting prostitutes and "consuming" pornography. Swaggart had deeply conflicted feelings about pornography and prostitution, and he called for the more restrictive laws against both in hopes that the state might help keep him right with God. But those of us who enjoy pornography and prostitutes without conflict shouldn't have to go without to protect Swaggart from himself.
Whether virtue comes easy or the virtuecrat has to do battle with his desires, the virtuous all conspire to force their virtues on us sinners, which is not something sinners do. The existence of the virtuous is not regarded by sinners as a personal threat, nor do sinners attempt to stamp out virtue wherever we find it. No urban music lover has ever, to give one example, placed a gun to Robert Bork's head and forced him to buy a rap CD. Nevertheless, in Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Bork argues that no one should be allowed to buy rap CDs. "Is censorship really as unthinkable as we all seem to assume?" Bork asks in a chapter titled "The Case for Censorship." "I [suggest] that censorship be considered for the most violent and sexually explicit material now on offer [including] the more degenerate lyrics of rap music."
Personally, I never wanted to buy a rap CD until I read Bork's book, which is the strange--and strangely predictable--thing about censorship: It creates a demand for the very things the censors want to stamp out. Even if it were possible to scuttle the First Amendment--so much for original intent!--and ban rap music, the effort would fail. The Soviet Union, a police state with unlimited powers and spies in every workplace and apartment building, attempted to ban rock and roll music. It failed. It's hard to imagine how our government could enforce a ban on rap music in a country whose citizens own almost as many CD burners as they do guns. Not that I would put it past John Ashcroft. Social conservatives will sometimes argue that rap music or violent movies or drugs need to be banned to protect the weak and vulnerable from taking up a life of sinful indulgence. It would be easier to take these arguments more seriously if the same social conservatives weren't opposed to laws that protect the weak and vulnerable from unsafe workplaces, flammable children's pajamas, and arsenic in our drinking water.
Rap versus show tunes; monogamy versus variety; pot versus Bud Light--different things make different people happy. It's such a simple concept, so--what's the phrase? Oh, yeah. It's so self-evident. Why, then, do so many conservatives have such a hard time wrapping their heads around it?
Like a room full of Victorian spinsters with the vapors, virtuecrats would have us believe that the mere knowledge that sinners are out there having fun keeps them up nights; indeed, knowing that someone, somewhere, might be pursuing happiness in ways they disapprove of is a profound psychological torment to them. Therefore, they argue, it's in the best interest of society--and by society they mean, "me and everyone who agrees with me"--for the law to come between sinners and their vices. Not only will it save the sinners from themselves, but it will also make it easier for the virtuous to get their nine hours every night. Need it be said? Bork doesn't have to listen to rap music if he doesn't care for it; Dr. Laura doesn't have to engage in premarital sex (anymore) if she's opposed to it (now); Jerry Falwell doesn't have to join the ACLU; Bill Bennett doesn't have to have a same-sex marriage if he disapproves. Law-abiding Americans who listen to rap music, indulge in premarital sex and feminism, and agitate for gay marriage do no harm to those who don't enjoy these activities or share these goals. Bennett's marriage, for instance, doesn't appear to have been harmed by legal gay marriages in the Netherlands.
What these scolds--and the moaners and groaners at the Republican National Convention, FOX News, and on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal--refuse to accept is that freedom isn't a one-way street. It's not even a two-way street. Freedom is space, weightlessness, room to maneuver, to go your own way. It's people blasting off in all directions. We should agree to disagree about certain things like, say, drug use or premarital sex, and, when necessary, establish reasonable rules to prevent people from slamming into each other--such as laws against assault, rape, and murder, laws that set an age of consent for sexual activity, laws against drinking and driving. Beyond these simple rules, however, the freedom to pursue happiness must be regarded just as Thomas Jefferson described it--an inalienable right, God-given--or all our rhetoric about freedom is meaningless.
Do some people get harmed in the pursuit of happiness? Aren't people--and neighborhoods and whole cities--harmed by, say, the drug trade? Aren't prostitutes frequently harmed by violent clients? Doesn't adultery destroy homes? Yes, yes, and yes. But much of the harm done by drugs, prostitution, and adultery should be laid at the feet of the virtuous. It's their meddling that often creates the harm, not the sins in and of themselves. There would be no money, and therefore no gangs or violence, in the drug trade if drugs were legalized and their sale taxed and regulated. When was the last time beer distributors killed each other? Oh, yeah: Prohibition. If prostitution were legalized, an American prostitute with a violent client or an abusive pimp could turn to the police for protection, just as prostitutes do in the Netherlands. If every couple were encouraged to have a realistic, rational conversation about the near-inevitability of infidelity in long-term relationships, fewer homes would be destroyed by adultery. But the political right wing doesn't allow for realistic, rational conversation about anything--tune in to FOX News anytime to see irrational, unrealistic nonconversation twenty-four hours a day. Furthermore, the law shouldn't be concerned with preventing people from harming themselves. Our bodies and minds and souls are our own, and we should be free to use and abuse and dispose of them as we see fit.
And people need to be reminded that not all sinners lack virtue, and not everyone who's technically virtuous is ethical. A woman who commits adultery with her husband's permission--or in her husband's presence--has to be viewed as more virtuous than a faithful man who's married to a woman he emotionally abuses. Yet adulterers are universally condemned by the virtuecrats, without any regard for their particular circumstances. Similarly, all users of illegal drugs are condemned. Yet a man who smokes a small amount of pot every day in his own home is doing himself and society less harm than a man who drinks himself drunk every night in public. The man who goes to a prostitute doesn't seek to harm the man who doesn't go to a prostitute; the man who goes to a gay pride parade in a lime-green thong doesn't seek to harm the man who goes to church fully clothed.
Indeed, it has long been my belief that the "bad" are frequently more virtuous in their private pursuit of vice than the good are in the public pursuit of compulsory virtue. Sinners, unlike the virtuous, do not attempt to impose their definition of happiness on others. I've never met an adult dope smoker who wanted to force a non-dope-smoking adult to smoke dope against his will. Yet our nation crawls with non-dope-smoking adults who want to force dope-smoking adults to stop smoking dope. Likewise, I've never met a homosexual who wanted to make a straight person into a gay person, but straight church groups take out full-page ads in newspapers trying to convince gay people to become straight people. Prostitutes don't force anyone to patronize them; the virtuous, however, seek to throw prostitutes in jail for tending to the needs of their clients.
There are millions of ethical, fully moral sinners in America, and I've grown sick of listening to the right wing bitch and moan about them while the left wing refuses to defend them. No one sticks up for the sinners--not even the sinners themselves. Some of the best Americans I know are sinners, but they lack the necessary conviction to defend themselves, their sins, and their right to be sinners. Meanwhile, the worst--the Bennetts, Borks, and Buchanans--are filled with a passionate intensity. Some sinners are no doubt scared. They worry that speaking up for themselves will prompt Bill Bennett to call them names in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. Sinners are bullied and coerced into remaining silent, and as a result, only the self-proclaimed "virtuous" are heard from in public. How much longer can American sinners sit by and say nothing while the vices we enjoy and know to be perfectly harmless are maligned?