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Being Good Or Being Free

July 20, 1986|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) recounts an experience he had in 1969, when he was assistant to the President for urban affairs. He and other U.S. officials met in Paris with the director general of the French Surete (Criminal Investigations Department), to discuss the growing problem of drug addiction. At that time, heroin use had appeared in France. Several young people had died, the police had begun to investigate and the National Assembly had debated the subject.

Moynihan proceeded to describe the situation in the United States--the plague ravaging cities, the addiction rate among youth, the number of drug-related deaths in Manhattan alone. "In the hallway," Moynihan recalls, "I helped the head of the Surete with his coat. He did not thank me." Instead, the man turned, looked straight at Moynihan and in perfect English asked in a tone of incredulity tinged with disdain, "What kind of people are you?"

The same question would occur to anyone undertaking even casual inspection of the 1,960-page final report of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, released earlier this month. The report catalogues an astonishing variety of erotic materials--books, magazines, tabloids, films, video cassettes, photographic services, audio tapes, cable television services, peep shows, sexual devices, dial-a-porn services, home computer services and live sex shows--all commercially available on the open market. Titles range from "Sweet Surrender" to "Teen Sex Slaves of Saigon," from "Lesbian Foot Lovers" to "Grandma's Erotic Visit," and worse. Much worse. There is even a film called "S&M New England Style"--erotic witch burnings? What kind of people are we?

We are a free people. We celebrated that freedom earlier this month, at the centennial for the Statue of Liberty. The freedom we celebrated, and the reason millions of Americans came to this country, was the freedom to work where we want, live where we want, worship where we want, travel where we want and vote for whomever we want, so long as we do not encroach on the rights of others or endanger the public welfare. That same freedom has a darker side, however. We are also free to indulge our appetites and seek material for sensual gratification in any way we see fit--so long as we do not encroach on the rights of others or endanger the public welfare. After all, we are the only society founded on the principle that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right. This cult of freedom, which came close to idol-worship on July 4, explains much of what is great about American society as well as a good deal that is disturbing. The same freedom that gives our society its economic vitality also produces rampant drug addiction and shocking pornography. It appears that many people find it difficult to distinguish between two aspirations: "Be all that you can be" and "whatever turns you on."

Thus, to many Americans, sexual freedom has come to mean sexual promiscuity. The result is an alarming increase in the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. Psychoanalysis, which began in Europe with the treatment of hysterical Viennese women, has acquired a different agenda in the United States. As psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer has written, "Hysteria, the classic illness of repression, has almost disappeared from clinical practice, to be replaced by the newly fashionable narcissistic neuroses--diseases of ex pression--in which one's troubles stem from quite the opposite problem, enslavement to one's desires."

More than a few observers have noticed that crime and violence are far more prevalent in the United States than in other societies of comparable development. Nothing seems to explain these differences except the competitive and success-oriented nature of American culture.

The cult of freedom also explains why transportation planners find it so difficult to get Americans out of their cars. The automobile offers more than convenience; it offers freedom, to go anywhere you want, anytime you want--the fullest realization of the American dream. That is why the gasoline crisis of the 1970s was so deeply threatening to Americans. It endangered our freedom. This reasoning also explains why nothing is more important to a teen-ager than having a car. A car is a private declaration of independence.

Americans' radical individualism often comes into conflict with a second, equally powerful and deeply rooted strain in our culture--namely, moralism. Just as radical individualism derives from our politics, moralism derives from our religion. The dominant religious values in the United States are those of sectarian Protestantism. In other Protestant countries like England and Sweden, there are established churches. The Protestants who came to the United States were mostly minority sects opposed to the status and privileges of established churches. Their religion was pietistic, demanding moral fervor and personal salvation through faith.

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