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'The Pleasure Police' Are Coming to Take You Away : NONFICTION : THE PLEASURE POLICE: How Bluenose Busybodies and Lily-Livered Alarmists Are Taking All the Fun Out of Life, By David Shaw (Doubleday: $23; 307 pp.

June 16, 1996|Andrew Ferguson | Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard in Washington, D.C. His book of essays, "Fools' Names, Fools' Faces," will be published this summer by Atlantic Monthly Press

You want to know how bad things have gotten? David Shaw probably thinks his new book will be considered scandalous, an outrage. And he's right. It will. That's how bad things have gotten.

By "things" I mean the intellectual climate, the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Professionally, Shaw specializes in the zeitgeist: as media reporter for the Los Angeles Times, with a reputation for omnivorous reporting and occasional iconoclasm, he takes on the Big Issues. Personally, he specializes in fun. And the one specialty is beginning to interfere with the other.

"Over the last 33 years that span both my adulthood and my journalistic career," he writes, "a growing number of people have become determined to make us all think that life is worse--less pleasurable, more dangerous--than it really is. In the process, they have made life a less joyous journey for us all."

These are the pleasure police of the book's title--a group that includes, by his expansive definition, conservative Protestants who hate sex, food purists who disdain meat and fear fat, feminists who hate sex, environmental extremists who hate reasonable risks, Catholics who hate sex, anti-smokers who hate cigars, politically correct academics who hate the First Amendment, anybody else who hates sex, and so on.

In a word: buttinskis. In another word: party poopers.

Their numbers are not only growing but already legion, and their success in altering the rhythm and flow of everyday American life over the last several years has been startling. Shaw demonstrates--carefully and, it seems to me, irrefutably--that we as a people have become needlessly jumpy. He quotes the late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky: "The richest, longest-lived, best-protected, most resourceful civilization, with the highest degree of insight into its own technology, is on its way to becoming the most frightened." We worry about meat and our neighbor's cigarettes, about chemicals in the vegetables and that second glass of wine with dinner, about incorrect sex and the butter on our toast.

Some of these worries are well-founded, others are founded in nothing more than superstition. Shaw's point is that we fail to distinguish the real worries from the imaginary: We are always ready to believe the worst. Among its other virtues, his book breezily debunks many of the bogus scares we've succumbed to. Remember how Alar on apples was killing our kids? "Sixty Minutes" said as much. We now know "Sixty Minutes" was wrong, and Shaw shows how and why they botched the story. The evidence on secondhand smoke is also incomplete. "The Pleasure Police" is one of the few books published recently that acknowledges this.

But Shaw hopes to do more than debunk. He wants to revive the pleasure we should take in the wonders of the world: a delicious meal, a good cigar, a vigorous roll in the hay. In this purpose, he is less successful. "The Pleasure Police" is, as he says, "a very personal, very subjective book." By definition, the appeal of very personal books rests on the appeal of the author's personality, and the personality that roars through "The Pleasure Police" isn't terribly appealing.

Released from the clipped conventions of newspaper writing, Shaw has adopted what he must think is a breezy, fun-loving prose style, but on the page it is merely coarse. He has a weakness for gratuitous potty-mouthing; most of his jokes can't be repeated here, not merely because they aren't very funny. His more serious weakness is for self-aggrandizement. He lards his otherwise interesting arguments with superfluous testimonies to his own exquisite taste in food, smokes, women and wine.

He boasts of his independence, his iconoclasm, his willingness to offend authority: "I've never worried much about getting other people mad at me or having them think ill of me." If this were true, he would not waste page after page assuring us of his impeccably correct left-wing political credentials. Apparently he's scared to death someone will think him a right-winger.

Not to worry. "I don't mean to set myself up as some kind of sexual superman," he writes. Oh? The book opens with the story of his sexual deflowering, and from time to time up pops a sexual reminiscence whose only point can be to prove that David Shaw is a hunka-hunka burnin' love.

No reader will soon forget, though many will want to, his account of a menage a trois during which he performed into "the rest of the night and the early morning hours." As David Letterman once shouted when Howard Stern began describing some masturbatory experience: "Too much information!"

In an earlier age, these lapses in taste would have been enough to make Shaw's book "controversial." No longer. The controversy will come over what--again, not so long ago--would have been considered unexceptionable: well-reasoned arguments, supported by clearly marshaled evidence, against the excesses of environmentalists, radical feminists, consumer advocates and politicized academics.

One simply doesn't make such arguments in polite company nowadays. That's how bad things have gotten. But we needn't worry about David Shaw. To judge by his book, he's got the self-confidence, and then some, to withstand a little controversy.

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