Hell in a Handbasket
The most common battle cry of conservatives these days is
that America has lost its moral compass. We're no longer a
nation of moral people, they tell us time and time again.
Wrapped in this rhetoric, conservatives have launched an all-out
assault on our personal liberties on grounds that their moral
guidance is the answer to all our woes.
But in all the fury caused by this movement, no one has stopped
to ask even the most basic questions. Just when exactly was
the United States a "moral" country? When in our history were
we "moral" people? And what makes us any less "moral" today?
The mere fact that conservatives can get away with such intellectually
lazy arguments seems proof positive that very few people have
any knowledge about our nation's history beyond a cursory
understanding of the most prominent historical events.
As a result, conservatives have hijacked history and created
a perception of a nation that has never existed anywhere except
in their minds. Because slavery was legal in many states until
the conclusion of the Civil War, it's safe to strike that
entire era from competition. How can anyone possibly defend
the morality of people who thought it was perfectly acceptable
to own other human beings? Then for many subsequent decades,
we continued to persecute African Americans, a practice that
did not become illegal until quite recently.
Typically, conservatives allude to the 1950s as the model
for a moral lifestyle. Never mind that Jim Crow laws were
widespread throughout the south, that communists were hunted
down like medieval witch hunts, and that ethnic and religious
minorities throughout the country were discriminated against
with casual indifference. To conservatives, the 1950s were
nothing but one big episode of Leave it to Beaver. Were people
more moral in the '60s? The '70s? The '80s? The '90s? I say
no, absolutely not.
If I had the opportunity to choose the time period in which
I could live, I would choose today without any question. As
a whole, Americans today enjoy greater peace, prosperity,
and comfort than any previous generation. And we have more
rights as well. That's not to say that we're at the top of
the mountain, but we've certainly made a lot of progress lately.
So why are conservatives constantly running around warning
us that the sky is falling?
The answer, I think, is quite clear. Conservatives rely primarily
on fear to persuade people to support their agenda. Want prayer
in school? Scare parents into thinking that praying is the
only thing that will prevent their children from being shot.
Hate laws that protect the environment? Scare people into
thinking we'll sink into a depression if we spend any money
on conservation efforts. Want a more powerful military? Scare
people into thinking our armed forces are in shambles and
that we couldn't even win a war against Mexico.
And so it goes with the morality argument. Social conservatives
didn't just recently dream up the idea of using the government
to regulate personal behavior. They've been doing it since
the dawn of civilization. If they're not trying to force children
to pray at school, they're trying to regulate what married
couples can do in their own bedrooms. And the way they justify
these policies is by frightening people into thinking our
country will go to hell in a handbasket if we don't crack
down on "immorality."