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Immodest Proposals 

Exposing the naked truth behind America's wars on indecency

Published August 30, 2006 at 1:36 p.m.

It's an odd American history lesson that begins with Janet Jackson's breast and ends with a 19th-century nude statue being yanked off the desk of Governor Jim Douglas. But this country's tradition of legislating morality has been an odd affair conducted by colorful characters, including naked hypocrites, voyeuristic busybodies and strange political bedfellows.

That's what Burlington author Frederick Lane discovered while researching his new book, The Decency Wars: The Campaign to Cleanse American Culture. In it, Lane tries to decipher the country's perverse political landscape, where "decency" is defined less by humane, fair and compassionate behavior than by prurient and censorious obsessions with what people read, write, watch, say and do.

For Lane, 43, a lawyer, writer, Burlington School Board member and First Amendment expert witness in obscenity trials, this book was inspired by the national hysteria that resulted from what Lane calls "the most costly second in network television history." Janet Jackson's now infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show resulted in not only record fines from the FCC, but also made Washington, D.C., reverberate with self-righteous cries for regulatory reform. How, Lane wondered, did a mere half-second glimpse of bare bosom cause such conniptions?

To answer that question, he traces the history of America's so-called "decency wars," from Henry VIII to Jesse Helms, Guglielmo Marconi to the Moral Majority, Oscar Wilde to Howard Stern. Exhaustively researched and detailed, The Decency Wars chronicles the rise of evangelical Christianity and the Religious Right and their incursions into the highest halls of U.S. political power.

The Decency Wars was a natural outgrowth of Lane's first book, Obscene Profits, which explores the highly lucrative world of online pornography. His second book, The Naked Employee, revealed the creeping invasions of privacy perpetrated against people in the workplace. In his latest book - which enjoyed a healthy bump in exposure thanks to his appearance last week on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" - Lane traces the efforts to legislate morality and their long-term impacts on governmental policies as a whole. By turns sad, humorous, entertaining and infuriating, The Decency Wars is essential reading for anyone fed up with the self-appointed moralists who think gay marriage trumps Abu Ghraib as a national security threat.

Lane spoke with Seven Days at one of his favorite writing haunts - Muddy Waters coffeehouse in downtown Burlington.

SEVEN DAYS: You write that religious conservatives command more media attention than their numbers justify. Why is that?

FREDERICK LANE: Number one, they raise issues which lend themselves well to sound bites. It's really simple to get on a soapbox and talk about porn on the Internet or the indecency of the MTV crowd. Those are very simple issues. They may not be as important as others, but it's easier to talk about them than it is to talk about tax structure or health-care reform.

Number two, it's not illegitimate for people to want to live in a decent society, so it's an easy argument to make. The real question is, what is the fundamental "decency" we're going after?

The third reason, frankly, is that sex sells. If people are jumping up and down about decency, it gives the media a chance to talk about sex when it's often difficult for them to do so otherwise.

SD: Are you suggesting the "decency wars" are just a convenient distraction?

FL: That's exactly how this issue has been used. You can break conservatism down into three spheres. You've got the economic conservatives, who are all about trickle down and getting rid of taxes on the wealthy. You've got the neoconservatives, who basically cling to a dominant view of American foreign policy. Then you've got the social conservatives, who are largely the Religious Right. I think it's crystal clear that, to one degree or another, the economic conservatives, and to some degree the neocons, have fueled these decency wars as a way of distracting attention from more important public-policy issues, like: Where does money go in our society? How is the tax structure set up? Do we have health care? Instead, we're worried about Janet Jackson's breast and rock lyrics. It's just crazy.

SD: Is there something uniquely American about this attitude?

FL: I don't know if it's uniquely American - there are other cultures that have wrestled with this - but we have a ton of trouble. For a variety of very amusing reasons, we have this innate hypocrisy about sex that we've never gotten over. To some degree, you can ascribe it to Puritanism, which is woven into our laws and moral fiber. But the irony and hypocrisy really lies in the fact that we are, above all else, a capitalistic society. And that old adage of "sex sells" is legitimate. When you're selling things in a capitalist society, you're selling to appetites. People need to eat, they want to fall in love and have sex.

SD: Most cultures that have cracked down on indecency tend to be dictatorships or religiously fundamentalist.

FL: And the flip side is, you look at cultures that are very easygoing about sexual matters and, at some level, they're much healthier than we are. The Scandinavian countries are a perfect example. They have much lower incidence of many of the problems we're concerned about: teen pregnancy, sexual assault, average age of sexual contact, molestation by teachers . . . In 1969, there was a presidential commission on obscenity and pornography that was impaneled by Lyndon Johnson, and they actually concluded that all obscenity laws in the United States should be stricken and the country would be better off. Unfortunately, the report wasn't turned in until Richard Nixon became president, and he refused to accept it. It just disappeared.

SD: Is victory possible in the decency wars?

FL: The politicians really do understand that, for instance, who wants a government that would take "Desperate House- wives" off the air? Ninety-five percent of the country doesn't want that to happen. But it's a wholly different thing when you're trying to motivate the base to stump against "Desperate Housewives" and say that it's a sign of what's wrong with the moral fiber of this country. That's an easy speech to give . . .

Do I think the decency wars will go away? No. As long as you have such a fervent strain in our society that believes that they have an obligation to impose moral values on the rest of the country, we're still going to argue about this stuff. But what ends up happening is that the landscape where we argue and what we argue about shifts. Eighty years ago we were arguing about whether or not movies - the very technology - were indecent. Well, that one's sailed.

SD: I would have expected you to devote more space in the book to the hypo- crisy of the Religious Right.

FL: I guess I wanted that message to come through more subtly. I think it was enough to make the point with asides, like the fact that, on a per capita basis, adult movie rentals are pretty consistent across the country. I didn't really want this book to be a total diatribe against the Religious Right. Also, it would be irresponsible not to respect faith and religious belief. I completely respect where they're coming from. What I totally disagree with is their effects on American politics.

SD: Such as?

FL: How can you talk about a "culture of life" when you're not willing to support policies that result in better health care, earlier education and housing for the poor? That's a culture of life you can embrace. Instead, we've got a government that's interested in getting rid of the estate tax, to a ruinous effect on our government. None of this is consistent. The only thing they're defending is a culture of conception.

SD: Why does the Left have such a hard time talking about morality?

FL: In terms of countering the message, the Religious Right has been very, very good in creating a situation in which if you oppose them, you're anti-decency. How do you run against that one? . . . I think Democrats should be able to make the case that it's possible to be decent. But the case they should be making is, it's all about individual choice and personal responsibility . . . The inability of people on the Left to talk to the Religious Right stems, at some level, from a problem of honoring faith and conceding the moral validity of what they're saying . . . There's a difference between saying "Your policies are damaging to the country for the following reasons," and "You're an idiot for thinking that way."

SD: Have you come to any conclusions about where all this is headed?

FL: If you want to give the Religious Right some credit, there's no question that we have a more conservative Congress than we would have had without their activism . . . You can argue that they've experienced some success, that the policies we've been wrestling with as a nation over the last 12 years are more conservatively tilted than they would have been otherwise.

In terms, though, of the specific kinds of things that they wanted to see happen - the reversal of Roe v. Wade, much more stringent restrictions on the Internet, tougher FCC enforcement - a lot of those "social decency" things haven't come to pass because they don't square with our cultural values.

SD: After 9/11, the mantra was "Everything has changed." We were done talking about Michael Jackson grabbing his crotch. Six months later, the media were back at it. Are the decency wars our country's default mode?

FL: Frankly, if you've got a choice of arguing about Janet Jackson's breast or the World Trade Center, which do you really want to talk about? Obviously, that's a flip response, and you can't ignore what 9/11 meant to our country and how it reflects on our world. But people have to take things in small bites, and a good distraction is not to be sneezed at. There's no question that the 2004 Super Bowl was a great distraction . . . As frustrating as the decency wars are to a liberal person and free-speech advocate, I'd rather they do that than the Iraq War. Because at least in the decency wars, very few people die.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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