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Jewish World Review Nov. 16, 1999 /7 Kislev, 5760

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Good reason for chaotic state of American values --
IF YOU DON'T THINK America is currently confused about sex, consider the conflicting messages in a spate of news stories, over the last few months.

An influential court denies the connection between morality and sexuality, while Congress encourages public posting of the Ten Commandments-which include emphatic prohibitions on adultery. The legal system reinstates a gay scoutmaster, while another scoutmaster is expelled for engaging in embarrassing (but not illegal) heterosexual behavior. Governor Jesse Ventura speaks without shame f his frequent past visits to prostitutes, while a high school teacher gets suspended - and then partially reinstated-for taking his wife to a sex club. The former Speaker of the House provokes universal condemnation for his extramarital affair, while press and public manage to defend other office holders for even more irresponsible behavior.

The twisty, squiggly line of logic that connects these various cases only serves to illustrate the collapse of all consensus in society's prevailing view of sex. We can no longer agree on how to strike an appropriate balance between private behavior and public judgment, between intimate choices and immutable standards.

Consider one of the more radical voices in the ongoing debate--- the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court of the State of New Jersey in the case of gay activist scoutmaster James Dale. The most revolutionary aspect of their judgment involved their bald assertion that the organization had no legal right to define morality in terms of sexual norms.

The Boy Scout Oath obliges demands that all scouts should be "morally straight," but the court declared that "the words 'morally straight'… do not, on their face, express anything about sexuality," (italics added). In a concurring opinion, Justice Alan B. Handler found that "Boy Scouts' adherence to 'traditional moral values'…. remain undisturbed by Dale's open avowal of his homosexuality."

The same week that the New Jersey decision attracted national headlines, another scoutmaster faced expulsion from his Orlando, Florida troop for questionable, off-duty self-expression of another sort. Local authorities found Clark Getz, 42, buck naked and hanging by his ankles from a tree in an incident of "a sexual nature."

The executive for the regional Scout council declared: "We don't condone the type of behavior he has done. It is not proper for a role model." Since the case has so far failed to draw law suits or protests we are left to assume that the Scouts have a right to demand that their leaders keep away from kinky heterosexual sex, but have no right to demand that those role models avoid public commitment to homosexuality.

We also, apparently, expect teachers to serve as role models --- an expectation that produced a lavishly controversial case in another part of Florida. Kenneth Springer, former "teacher of the month" at South Broward High School, took his wife of 20 years to a local "swingers" club to enjoy the party atmosphere.

Though police arrested him during a raid, they eventually dropped charges of lewd conduct. Nevertheless, his school board initially voted to suspend Springer without pay-then reconsidered to continue paying him for non-classroom responsibilities while authorities agonized over his fate. For the moment, at least, they seem utterly unable to decide whether public involvement with unconventional sexual activity (even with his own wife) disqualifies him from working with high school students.

In an indignant letter concerning this controversy, Nicole Nielsen of Salt Lake City, Utah told USA TODAY: "What does morality have to do with sexual behavior?…I frequently hear people denounce certain sexual behaviors as immoral. I don't get it." Instead of defining morality in terms of sexual restraint, Nielsen emphasizes political correctness and public activism. "Morality is about justice," she writes, "about being fair and about granting civic equality to everyone. It is about tolerance and respect for all people and animals with which we share the world."

Many members of the Hollywood elite seem to endorse these sentiments-including acclaimed director Sydney Pollack. Concerning the female lead in his current movie "Random Hearts" (a box-office disappointment), Pollack observed that the character "is right when she says adultery doesn't mean anything to anybody except the people it's happening to. Our society is pretty blasé about it."

If this is true, then why have all the major Presidential candidates, Democratic as well as Republican, listed support for the institution of marriage as a top national priority? If adultery represents a serious threat to marriage, and marriage remains essential to the health of this society, then isn't adultery a potent social threat - significant far beyond "the people it's happening to?"

America once knew clear answers to such questions, but the old certainties washed away with the high tide of sexual revolution in the 1960's and '70's. For a time, a new orthodoxy seemed to dominate "enlightened" opinion, drawing on the widespread assumption that we lived on the verge of a post-marital era of unfettered erotic expression.

More recently, we've witnessed a vigorous counter-revolution from the traditionalist perspective. Even Playboy magazine reported last year that virginity has become a sudden craze on college campuses, while Dr. Laura enjoys considerably more contemporary clout than Dr. Ruth.

The result of these changes is the currently chaotic state of American values --- a perplexity painfully displayed during the impeachment crisis and innumerable other disputes. The nation at the moments seems simultaneously puritanical and priapic, retro and revolutionary, judgmental and juvenile. We cannot consistently answer some of the most fundamental questions for any civilization: to what extent should private erotic expression be expected to conform to public and perpetual standards? Does morality require any restrictions -- or impose any patterns -- on sexuality?

Looking to the future, the only sure bet for the next millenium is that for a while, at least, the controversy and the contradictions will continue.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 110 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.


11/03/99: Religion is unfairly blamed for the world's wars
10/06/99: Hollywood again makes drug use seem hip
08/25/99: NAACP attacks the wrong TV target
08/16/99: Government declares we're in a post-marriage age?

©1999, Michael Medved