Happy New Year? It says here in USA Today that 41 percent of Americans are planning to ring in 2003 tonight by watching TV, and that very few of us are planning a night out. No doubt Veuve Clicquot will be having a big bottom-line night, but that's only in relative terms: The really big numbers will be put up by businesses like Blockbuster and Domino's Pizza. Hey, let the good times roll!
Makes you wonder if there's any sense of restraint remaining in the American character. After all, excited viewers could choke on a pepperoni while watching Dick Clark do his suspenseful Times Square countdown. Under the circumstances, I'm not sure any of us can feel safe.
USA Today's reporter, Craig Wilson, rounds up a lot of reasons why Americans have supposedly put away their dancing shoes and champagne goblets, and have instead "put a cork in New Year's Eve." Some of those reasons make at least some sense. The economy's shaky (though Americans did spend more dollars on Christmas than ever before); there's a disquieting sense of threat (though the conventional wisdom has always been that impending danger increases dissipation); there are too many dumb drunks on the road (true).
Omitted entirely in the piece is one possible factor that may be helping the new year arrive draped in a soaking wet blanket: the army of self-righteous moral crusaders that has spent years expelling spontaneity and pleasure from American life by equating pleasure with sickness, guilt, and shame. We're a buckled-in people now, ever more heavily sin-taxed, with breathalyzers jammed between our teeth. Meanwhile, our moral betters are air-brushing sin from our postage stamps and attempting to remove it from our movies. If we've traded in our party hats for safety helmets—or if we're staying home to avoid the whole issue—nobody should feign surprise.
As of January 1, our safety helmets will be jammed down more tightly. For example, it's really smart to restrain small children when driving them around, but some jurisdictions will be mandating safety seats for children who are eight years old. It's really good to get drunk drivers off the road, but an increasing number of jurisdictions have lowered the legal blood-alcohol limit to the point where people of slight build can't risk having a glass of wine with their friends (and moderate amounts of wine can be good for your health). It's obviously good to inform smokers of the risks they face; it's good to let people who hate smoke get away from it. But an increasing number of places are not only engaged in anti-smoker tax extortion, not only forcing smokers outside, they're starting to make smokers pace off minimum distances from doorways.
The sanitizers who are multiplying such rules still pose as advocates of prudence. But the moral crusaders who have swamped American life long ago ceased to address mere risk. The result of their efforts has been to transform risk into immorality. The helmetless motorcyclist (and now the helmetless skateboarder, too) or the smoker are not merely imprudent; they are being transformed into immoralists who have no right to judge the trade-offs of their own behavior. Of course, you can never create a society that is free of risk, but in the effort you can create a pretty dour world. For some crusaders, that apparently will do.
So happy new year. People have been staging blow-outs at this season for millennia, since the Roman Saturnalia and doubtless long before. Join in that history of extravagant joy and excess: Choose wisely at Blockbuster, and with every bite of pizza, remember your cholesterol.