Bluenose Blues


The Pleasure Police: How Bluenose Busybodies and Lily-Livered Alarmists Are Taking the Fun Out of Life, by David Shaw, New York: Doubleday, 286 pages, $23.00

Most demographers will agree that life is growing less risky every year. But if you pick up a magazine or newspaper or turn on the nightly news, chances are you'll see at least one report warning of some previously unknown terror. Three drinks will make you an alcoholic. Most men are date rapists. Eating causes cancer.

Read or watch enough of these scary reports, and you'll want to spend the rest of your life in bed, living on bean sprouts, distilled water, and the occasional carrot. Today, you're a bold and daring iconoclast if you order a steak, a smoke, and a sherry when you go out for a night on the town.

Why do we live in such a repressive age? Why has the three-martini lunch become as retrograde as the smoking jacket or the hoop skirt? Those questions are addressed by David Shaw, the Los Angeles Times's media critic since 1974. In his first book, Shaw examines why the Stairmaster has become more fashionable than the seven-course dinner.

Much of what Shaw discusses will be familiar to readers of REASON, such as the foolishness of the war on drugs, the truth about cancer risks, or the real dangers of secondhand smoke. Regular readers will already know much of what Shaw has to say about public policy.

But The Pleasure Police isn't at its heart a book on public policy; it's the autobiography of David Shaw interlaced with analysis. Shaw never fails to present himself as a good liberal who just wants to be able to smoke a nice cigar or enjoy an issue of Playboy without being denounced by some prude. Despite his departures from '90s P.C. orthodoxy, Shaw is a '90s guy in his desire to reveal personal secrets many readers would rather not know: He tells us his 27 favorite foods, including his five favorite kinds of chicken. As a callow lad at a repressive Christian college, Shaw tells us, he referred to women's breasts as "oaklands." (To this longtime resident of the East Coast, his desire to use his book as a confessional seems very Californian.)

Still, whenever Shaw stops talking about himself, he has interesting things to say. He's at his best in The Pleasure Police when he criticizes the press. He argues that journalists primarily worry about people like themselves. As newsrooms restrict smoking, for example, journalists are prompted to write misleading stories about the alleged dangers of secondhand smoke. As journalists age and worry about preserving the remnants of their lost youth, they are more prone to write exaggerated stories about purported cancer-causing compounds. Shaw theorizes that many journalists have a hard time writing about sex because most editors seem "both suspicious and envious of those who eagerly indulge in pleasures of a sensual nature." As a result, Shaw says that "every time the media cover a story involving sex–be it about AIDS, child molestation, the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, or the sex lives of Bill Clinton or Gary Hart–they fuck it up."

Most of the time, Shaw shows, the press fails because journalists censor crucial details. In 1976, for example, when Ford administration Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz resigned after making loathsome comments about African Americans, only the Toledo Blade and the Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times told their readers what Butz said. When the Federal Communications Commission in 1978 barred radio stations from broadcasting seven obscene words, only the San Francisco Chronicle reported what the words were. A recent New York Times story on why New York City is "the most foul-mouthed city in the nation" did not quote any foul mouths. And when the Los Angeles Times told the story of Frasier, a beast at Lion Country Safari who sired 30 cubs in six months despite being as old (in lion years) as a 75-year-old man, the newspaper's photography department airbrushed away Frasier's lionhood.

Shaw also amusingly skewers journalistic health scolds such as Jane Brody, the New York Times health columnist whose dour advice has frightened generations of Manhattanites. According to Brody, every season of the year is cause for alarm. Instead of plum pudding and goose for Christmas, she thinks it more appropriate to serve beans and whole-grain crackers. "If you obeyed all the strictures in Brody's weekly column," Shaw writes, "you'd never leave the house. Hell, you'd never get out of bed."

Shaw is not always as interesting as he could be. Many of his comments are banal. (A prudent editor would have cut his lengthy remarks on baseball or why California is a better place to live than New York.) And his liberalism leads him to misinterpret the nature of American puritanism.

Shaw would like to divide the United States into two classes: freedom-loving hedonists and dour Puritans. But, for Shaw, America is actually home to two types of Puritans: conservatives who don't like unmarried people having sex or consuming pornography, and liberals who don't like smokers, drinkers, or meat eaters.

According to Shaw, the two groups of Puritans are allied: "Now, however, we have the alarmists of the left joining forces with the Puritans of the right for the suppression of fun in American." Shaw has little evidence for his claim, though. Occasionally liberal and conservative Puritans form alliances, most notably in the 1980s, when radical feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon united with some Christian conservatives in a failed grand coalition against pornography. Most of the time, however, the two groups of Puritans don't have much to do with each other. The Christian Coalition does not champion the efforts of Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest does not worry about who buys Playboy.

This confusion about Puritanism across political divisions leads Shaw into some errors. For example, Shaw discusses how the idea of "heterosexual AIDS" was largely promulgated by gay activists who "learned the hard way that the only way to get government funding, scientific research, and media attention was to make AIDS seem a serious threat to heterosexuals as well." But he then argues that these AIDS activists were supported by "a most unlikely alliance," including "the nation's homophobes, Christian Fundamentalists, right-wing conservatives, and puritans of various stripes." Shaw offers no evidence that right-wingers support homosexual efforts to convince the public that AIDS would kill thousands of heterosexuals. Indeed, it's more plausible that the homophobic right would oppose the notion of heterosexual AIDS, since they believe AIDS to be a "gay disease."

Shaw displays similar confusion about the debate over funding the National Endowment for the Arts, contending that the agency's budget was slashed because prim censors wanted to block artists from creating sexually explicit work. Shaw doesn't address the serious challenges to the NEA, such as, why should government use tax dollars to support activities many Americans find offensive? Shaw also ignores the large class of people (like me) who enjoy Playboy and moderately smutty films but believe that the NEA is just another government welfare program, as ethically indefensible as subsidizing single mothers or giant corporations.

What can be done about American Puritans? David Shaw gives no answers; he is content to diagnose the problem, not proffer a solution. Part of the remedy is to reduce the budgets of federal agencies, such as the FDA, EPA, and OSHA, which feel compelled to frighten the public to convince Congress that they deserve a larger budget to fight off terrors which are much less scary than bureaucrats would like to admit.

The best way to counter bad information, though, is with better information. Despite its flaws, The Pleasure Police does a good job making the case that people who enjoy cigar smoking, drinking, making love, and fine foods are likely to lead happier lives than are people who believe government mandarins and their allies in the press who constantly portray life as dangerous, vicious, and terrifying.

Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is an associate editor of The American Enterprise. He enjoys beer and the occasional whiskey, and doesn't mind other people's smoke.