my living room in New Zealand, half-way through last week's episode of the
banal, overhyped The Osbournes, it dawned on me what was so weird: you could
hear every word. Watch the same show in the US and you need to lip-read your
way round the almost continuous beeping-out of bad words.
The same day I read yet another attack on Janet Jackson. Across America her
supposedly sexually explicit breast baring has unleashed a torrent of moral
effluvia. Book-ended with the "outrage, anger, embarrassment and serious
injury" Super Bowl viewers were said to have suffered was the so-called
scandal being fanned round John Kerry, the Democratic presidential hopeful
with the allegedly sleazy past.
It seems America just can't get enough of moral outrage. It's as if a new
spirit of moral conservatism is sweeping the country that goes far beyond a
few outraged citizens complaining away the rights of others to listen to the
Osbournes swear and curse.
Take the furore over the morning-after pill, for instance. In America you
need a prescription to get the medication that is 95 per cent effective in
preventing pregnancy and is available over the counter in most Western
countries, including New Zealand.
Opponents of the drug, including some members of Congress, objected to last
week's application to end selling restrictions, arguing such freedoms would
encourage promiscuity and risky sex among younger people.
Meanwhile abortion is also under attack. The US Justice Department is
demanding that at least six hospitals turn over hundreds of patient medical
records on certain abortion procedures. Aside from the remarkable intrusion
into doctor-patient confidentiality, the request reignites the fears
expressed at the time of the passing of the emotively misnamed "partial
birth abortion law". At the time, opponents of the law argued that banning
the procedure, used in fewer than 1 per cent of abortions and exclusively
because of medical complications, would be exploited by lawmakers to broaden
restrictions on abortion, with the ultimate goal of dismantling a woman's
right to chose.
The conservative religious influence in the United States is gradually
extending to all spheres of sexual life. Even condoms are under scrutiny. In
Maryland, it is illegal to sell condoms from vending machines (except in
bars), while all vending machine sales are banned in Hawaii, Kentucky,
Massachusetts, Arkansas, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas, Idaho and Wisconsin.
On the marriage front, with gay couples rushing to legalize their unions
before laws change, it is expected that President Bush will soon formally
announce support for a constitutional amendment to deny marriage rights to
same-sex and unmarried couples. While ACLU reports the pro-marriage
amendment supported by the White House is much broader than advertised, with
hidden clauses that will not only ban civil unions but completely deny all
government benefits to unmarried couples, gay or straight.
Backing all these fundamental alterations to the fabric of American society
is a change in the way scientific information surrounding sexual activity is
Valuable information in areas related to condoms, HIV and abortion is being
deleted from Government websites. Last year a group of 22 scientific
societies publicly stated that, despite claims by the Department of Health
and Human Services that the sites were simply being updated, the revised
information did not reflect up-to-date scientific findings. Their letter
detailed practices they describe as dangerous, such as the removal of
information on the proper use of condoms and the efficacy of various types
More recently in Florida the Department of Health has gone further,
endorsing and distributing "A Christian Response to Aids".
Rather than focusing on preventive measures to help to stem the spread of
HIV/Aids, the booklet consists primarily of Bible verses and Jesus Christ
healing the sick and poses the rhetorical question: "Why should I learn
about Aids?" And the official, state-sponsored answer? "Because Jesus calls
on us to respond with love to everyone, especially those who are suffering."
Perhaps the true heart of the Bush Administration can be summed up by the
comments of Senator Rick Santorum, the third-ranking Republican in the
Senate, last year, when he compared homosexuality to bigamy, polygamy,
incest and adultery.
Too much freedom - allowing gays and lesbians to live openly and without
fear of arrest, for example - is, he said, "antithetical to strong, healthy
families". He could just as easily have said all sex outside of marriage is
antithetical to the holy grail of the family.
So if you think Janet Jackson's breast reveal was no big deal, think again.
Not about the breast itself or her silly, self-serving performance, but
about the wider implications of the nationwide outrage and the Government's
clearly successful efforts to shape that outrage to meet its own
conservative "abstinence only" agenda.
But the fallout goes further. MTV executives said last week the stunt was
forcing the television industry to change its live programming procedures.
The Academy Awards, to be televised later this month will have a new,
five-second delay built into its screening. Certainly enough time to remove
any show of flesh. But also enough time to censor those unscripted, pesky,
political outbursts too.
Perhaps in the future historians will look back on Janet Jackson's breast as
the moment America shed its pretensions of openness, of equality for women,
of being the land of the free and revealed itself for what it is becoming
under the Bush regime: narrow, moralistic, censorial, prurient and
increasingly sex hating.
Barbara Sumner Burstyn
is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes
Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz),
and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at:
email@example.com. Visit her website to read more of her work:
© 2004 Barbara Sumner Burstyn
Other Articles by Barbara Sumner Burstyn
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I Blame God
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Starve the Beast
Smoke and Mirrors: Fatal Weapons in US War Against Reality
A GM Question or Two
Hooker Look in Fashion as Porn Becomes de
The Twisted Logic of Mothers Who Abandon
Only in America
We Really are Living on the Dark Side of the
Viagra for Girls: Medical Light Bulbs Can't
Switch off Relationship Woes
No Room on the Balance Sheet for Truth or
Working to Live has Been Overtaken by Living to Work