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Archive for March 19th, 2012

Time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.
 – David Byrne, “Once In a Lifetime

Metaphors are at best imperfect; no matter how alike two things are, there are bound to be some differences.  The same thing goes for historical cycles; no two eras can be exactly the same.  That having been said, there are so many parallels between our era and the Victorian that it’s positively eerie; as I said in my New Year’s Day column,

…a coalition of conservative Christians and small-minded, narcissistic, middle-class white “feminists” has succeeded in selling its ideas of social engineering to the society at large, resulting in an ever-increasing mountain of restrictions on private “vices” such as sex and drug use.  Once again we are being told that sex is “harmful”, especially to “children” (meaning anyone under 21), that prostitutes are the mentally defective “victims” of evil men, that there is a secret international conspiracy to sell millions of women and children into sexual slavery to satisfy “sinful” male lusts, and that women are eternal, sexless Trilbys who require paternal protection from mustachioed male Svengalis.  Once again white Westerners are being urged to take up the “White Man’s Burden” and work to shepherd the degraded, childlike brown races from their inferior state by forcing them to accept our vastly superior culture  (for their own good, of course).  And once again plain, honest language is avoided in favor of vague, polysyllabic euphemisms designed to hide meaning rather than convey it, as discussed in my column from last New Year’s Day.

Given all this it’s no surprise that anti-sex worker fanatics refer to themselves as “abolitionists” and like to fantasize that there are “more slaves now than at the height of the Atlantic slave trade”, or that they write in an overblown, lurid style drawn straight from the penny dreadfuls.  Health fascists employ rhetoric one might expect from the likes of Sylvester Graham or John Harvey Kellogg, and then there’s snobbish, racist social engineering like the latest from New York:

…[Proposed]…legislation…would ban eating in the New York City subway system…[on the grounds] that [it] breeds rats.  It’s far from clear that the proposed ban would be enforceable…[and] the claim that noshing leads to litter and filth harks back to racial and class stereotypes from the Victorian era…[when] social reformers tried to crack down on working-class public eaters and food vendors — many of whom were immigrants — by linking them to squalor, disease and shame.  To 19th-century guardians of public morality, the newfangled habit of eating outside the home was a menace to body and soul.  The oyster stalls of downtown Manhattan were an assault on the family values of the dinner table.  The “hot-corn girls” who sold their wares on the streets were no better than prostitutes.  Public eating was a gateway sin that led to drinking and debauchery.

As I pointed out in my column of one year ago today, the “gateway” argument is employed by lawheads to argue in favor of logically-unsupportable bans on consensual activity by claiming (without proof, of course) that the activity in question “leads” inevitably to serious consequences:

“Eating in public may beget a certain freedom of manner and nonchalance in little ladies and gentlemen,” Putnam’s magazine warned in 1853, “but we fear the practice is not calculated to promote the health either of the mind or the body.” For children, the magazine hinted darkly, eating in public was worse than unhealthy — it was bad for their morals.  All this sermonizing about public morals was a euphemism for a more concrete threat:  the growing populations of Irish, German, Italian and Jewish immigrants…for the families flooding into Ellis Island every day, street peddling was often the first step up the ladder of capitalism. Street food cost less than restaurant fare, because vendors didn’t have to pass on the already skyrocketing cost of rent to their customers…Well into the 20th century, social reformers lobbied the city to crack down on immigrant pushcart vendors…[arguing] that eating in public was “unhygienic” and led to diseases like cholera.

You can hear an echo of Victorian finger-wagging nowadays from lawmakers who pit public eating against cleanliness, godliness and that elusive quality we refer to as being “civilized”… but…in many of the great cities of the world, public eating and all of its glorious manifestations…are occasions for celebration and communion, not shame and punishment…To be sure, some foods…travel well [and] others…not so much.  And some subway passengers do throw their leftovers on the…tracks.  But instead of criminalizing a biological necessity like eating, we should enforce the already existing laws against littering…we don’t want to end up like Washington, where transit police officers, during an undercover crackdown in November 2000, infamously arrested and handcuffed a 12-year-old girl for eating French fries. (The officers who searched her book bag, according to the girl, asked if she had any drugs or alcohol in addition to her fries)…

Because, you know, French fries are a “gateway drug” which inevitably lead to shooting up heroin.  Yes, that’s an absurd exaggeration, but to whores and our clients it sounds no more ridiculous than the common assertion that having sex with someone for practical reasons (rather than “love”) and being honest about one’s expectations up front, somehow inevitably leads to violent crime.

The idea that denying oneself physical pleasures, from sex to tasty food to chemical stimulants, is a good in and of itself arrived in North America with the Puritans and grew dramatically during the 19th century (as described in Warner’s All or Nothing).  But the notion that it is somehow justifiable to impose one’s own personal beliefs or preferences on society as a whole is the deformed spawn of the Social Purity Era, and its reappearance is yet another symptom of Neo-Victorianism.

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