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Prudes and Puritans

The Right's preoccupation with sexuality signifies a worrisome American tendency

By Peter P.M. Buttigieg

The American Right Wing is not comfortable with the female form. So we were reminded last week, when Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell voiced his horror at the half-second exposure of Janet Jackson’s famous right breast during the Super Bowl. While Americans everywhere combed the internet for a closer look and set a new record for “most-Tivo-ed moment ever,” Powell expressed his outrage at a press conference. In language at least as harsh as that used by his father to describe Saddam Hussein, Powell described the incident as “deplorable” and vowed a “thorough and swift” federal investigation into… into what exactly? Justin Timberlake’s intentions? If only the administration were this eager to investigate 9/11, that commission they keep stonewalling would be releasing its report by now instead of begging for more time and cooperation.

It’s hardly the first time this administration has suffered from unease at the drop of a nipple. It was almost exactly two years ago when John Ashcroft ordered the Justice Department to cover the exposed breast of a statue in the lobby of the Department’s Washington office building, at a cost of $8,000. At the time, some remarked on how this reminded them of other religious zealots who took offense to nudity and to statues—the Taliban came to mind, though in all fairness they preferred blowing up statues to covering them—while others, such as Al Franken, pointed out that another possible use of the money might be more urgent: fighting terrorism.

It seems odd that an infant is supposed to feed on them, and a grown man is expected at some point to behold them, but for a period in between we feel the need to see to it that no child ever sees a breast. This prudishness seems quintessentially American; Europeans, who have long been more comfortable with the human form than we, are generally amused by the Puritan standards of American entertainment when it comes to nudity. The French, for example, have no trouble with the appearance of topless women, shown routinely in newspapers and advertisements.

Come to think of it, maybe this is why “protecting” children from breasts is so important to the Right; recent events could point to a correlation between viewing semi-nude female bodies and opposing American invasions in the Middle East.

If we are honest with ourselves, we can’t help but admit that sex is a good thing. Chances are you want to have kids, and chances are you want your kids, eventually, to have sex too. Violence, on the other hand, is something none of us want our kids to be involved in. Sex, intrinsically, is a good thing. The human body, intrinsically, is at least a neutral thing. Violence, we can all agree, is a bad thing. So why is the refrain of the cultural conservative always a complaint about “sex and violence” as if they’re the same thing? Indeed, not only are the two often conflated, but many on the Right seem more scandalized by sex than by violence. I can’t find Powell on the record being nearly as harsh about violence on TV as he is about Janet Jackson’s curious article of jewelry, or Ashcroft denouncing the countless paintings of violent battle in our government buildings. In fact, one of the objections to the FCC’s unprecedented deregulation of the airwaves, championed by Powell, is that it contributes to the televisual monopoly of violent trash. Never mind sex and violence in real life.

Speaking of boobs, remember those Republican House impeachment managers, who feigned outrage at Bill Clinton’s escapades, yet were on the record defending Oliver North’s lies to Congress in the Iran-Contra affair? Indeed, the asymmetry between the Right’s panicked attitude about sex and its causal stance on violence is reflected in the basic partisan dichotomy of scandal in this country: in our lifetimes, Democratic scandals tend to be sexual, while Republican ones are often violent. It was in 1984, the year most college sophomores were born, that Gary Hart’s presidential candidacy imploded because it was discovered that he had had an affair. And, in a formative moment for us all, the nation’s political life ground to a halt while President Clinton was impeached for having obfuscated about his sexual activities to a lawyer in a frivolous sexual harassment suit instigated by his opponents.

The most memorable Republican scandals of our lifetimes, meanwhile, are devoid of sexual excitement, but packed with violence—first in the Reagan administration’s use of Iranian gun money to finance terrorists in Latin America, and now in the emerging scandal over whether we invaded another country on false pretenses furnished by the Bush administration in an apocalyptic effort to sell a pre-fabricated policy.

The scorecard on these scandals is incomplete, but so far it looks like sex is more damaging in the public eye. Clinton got impeached over his almost-criminal prevarications; Reagan faced nothing of the sort for his administration’s highly illegal operations. Gary Hart was finished as a candidate almost as soon as scandal broke. The jury’s still out on what Mr. Bush knew and didn’t know, how he used it, why he was wrong and whether he will regret his mistakes.

It’s the priorities, stupid. It’s all well and good to poke fun at Republicans for being prudes and Democrats for being licentious. But the disconnect present in the ruling Right’s (and it seems, American culture’s) fixation on sex as a horrid scourge, while less attention is paid to more important matters, is deadly serious when people start getting killed over this stuff.

The Left needs to hope for—and, if possible, help—Americans to acknowledge that what happens in the war room (and, for that matter, the board room) is more important than what happens in the bedroom. Meanwhile, if George W. Bush thinks that just because he isn’t having affairs, he can get away with a presidency full of colossal intelligence failures, disgraceful misdeeds of finance and influence and apparent manipulation of facts in the pursuit of war, then…well, America may just prove him right.

Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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