"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, January 2, 2014

America’s Stubborn Puritanism

To say that Americans are Puritans is a cliché but that does not make it less true. Despite our excesses, we find every excuse to condemn moral weakness, indiscipline, and lack of resolve. We drink as much as anyone else, cheat on our wives, and take  drugs, but pretend it never happened.  All of our great leaders were pussy hounds – MLK, Kennedy, LBJ, Roosevelt – and not a year goes by without some tearful apology from a politician for having strayed.  The difference between us and the rest of the world is that we don’t admit our very human nature. Any rent in our moral fabric is quickly stitched up, cracks in our resolve puttied, blemishes varnished over,

Europe is quite different. President Hollande of France lives with his mistress, and his predecessor Mitterrand was often seen in public with his mistress and their daughter.  The French are proud of their cinq à sept tradition of sexual dalliance.

There is an art to sex. The prostitutes of the Bois de Boulogne satisfy fantasy as well desire.

All of Europe howled at Bill Clinton because he never had real sex with Monica Lewinsky, but diddled her under the Presidential desk, and dropped his pants in the Oval Office without a thought of taking Mademoiselle to bed.

The Dutch have long had a tolerant attitude towards both prostitution and drugs.  Tolerance and moderation have been the rules, and policy based on the assumption that a little nooky or toke was far better than creating a smarmy underworld of dependence.

The word ‘promiscuous’ is a very American one. Fleets of American aid workers sailed to Africa to discourage promiscuity. While the overt goal of these missionaries was to stop AIDS, their real motivation was to get Africans to act more like middle-class white Midwestern families and be faithful, monogamous, and respectful, the continent would be a better place.

America today is a very censorious and abstemious place.  Anyone who dares to have a glass of wine with lunch is immediately thrown into the ‘drinking problem’ bin – suspect, frayed moral fiber, can’t trust him anymore. Smoking is an even worse sign of spinelessness.  Given the overwhelming evidence, anyone who would choose to smoke is stupid, ignorant, or at best negligent.  Smokers huddled in the rain belong there. They are social outcastes.  If we could spit at them we would.  They are a blight, a danger to our children. 

Moderation in America is out.  Opprobrium is in. You either are faithful to your spouse or you are not.  You either smoke or you do not.

A number of years ago my wife and I had large Christmas parties, and we always kept the guest and food lists for ready reference.  Looking back over them recently, I saw how alcohol preferences had changed. In the early 80s we were sure to stock plenty of Scotch, Bourbon, and Rye.  By the end of the 90s, however, there was only wine – white wine in fact, somehow considered more genteel, less alcoholic, and more acceptable.

There is no doubt that over these years American wines came into their own, and even if you were out to get drunk, better to down a bottle or two of Caymus or Opus One than pound Smirnoff.  Nevertheless, drinking hard liquor became déclassé and a symbol of alcoholism.  It is not surprising that women then and even more now get drunker than skunks on wine because of its social acceptability.  It’s one thing to have three or four chardonnays in the evening while preparing dinner, another thing to toss back shots of Jack Daniels.

Everything in America has become subject to Puritanical scrutiny. The French have always believed that children should be seen and not heard, and it is perfectly fine to not see them at all.  Vacations without them, dinners without them (children eat first), whole days without them is expected. In France adults come first – adult demands, adult pleasures, and adult obligations.

In the United States we have become fanatical about childrearing. We must arrange our schedules to provide maximum quality time for our children, not the other way around.  We teach, coddle, encourage, and spur them on.  We are careful to nurture their self-esteem, to protect them from all risk.  They become the center of our lives.  Adult experience is put on hold for 18 years. 

Gabrielle Glaser, writing in the New York Times (1.2.14) has addressed drinking in America; and has suggested that we have for far too long been obsessed by the cold turkey, all-or-nothing approach to alcoholism and drug addiction.  AA has been the severe, Old Testament model for problem drinkers.

Yet, recent research (Fern, Amato, Davoli) has shown that this hardcore approach doesn’t work.

[Other] research shows that many problem drinkers — those who repeatedly drink more than they intend, sometimes have physical or psychological consequences from overdrinking, and may have difficulty controlling themselves — could benefit from brief interventions and practical advice about how to set better limits and change their drinking by cutting back.

Elsewhere in the developed world, doctors treat drinking problems with evidence-based tools that best match the client’s needs. Many are prescribed drugs such as naltrexone, an opioid antagonist approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1994 to treat alcohol use disorders. It blocks the signals released when consuming alcohol.

Methadone to treat heroine addiction has had its detractors, many of whom felt that it simply replaced one addiction with another.  In other words, it was too easy.  It allowed addicts to get high on their way to independence.  Cold turkey was the only way.  Success should be achieved only the right way – through pain, suffering, and paying for your sins.

The reason why the compelling arguments to legalize marijuana fell on deaf ears until recently was not because of health or social reasons, but moral ones.  Encouraging pleasure, escape from reality, and hedonism was simply wrong.  Every possible false or misleading argument against marijuana was used by moralists ever since Reefer Madness.  Marijuana was even worse than masturbation.  Not only would it lead to warts and blindness, but genetic damage, irreversible psychological trauma, and brain loss.

Americans continue to follow a double standard – wicked off the books, and morally upright at tax time.  Most of us will at some time get drunk, binge drink, screw other people’s wives, snort a line, smoke cigarettes, and leave our children with the nanny while we head off to St. Bart’s. Consistency or purity is not the issue.  The perception of probity, abstinence, and self-discipline is. 

The hypocrisy kicks in when we go public with our criticism of other, less disciplined fellow Americans while we go off in the bushes with Joanie from HR. We laugh at politicians who preach one thing and do another; but we are all the same. “Do what I say, not what I do’ has always been parents’ line when caught by their kids; and it is no different for the rest of us.  If it weren’t for our loud, insistent cries for reform, toeing the line, shaping up, and doing the right thing, where would the country be?

My advice, however, is live and let live. Lighten up. Be happy. Be more like the French.

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