Across the pond —

Andrew Gumbel reflects on American moral hypocrisy in an essay that is, by turns, funny, embarrassing, and spot on:

It has been impossible to ponder the issue of public morality in America these past few months without wondering whether we aren’t living in weird parallel universes. In the first, 2004 has been the year in which the United States was caught torturing prisoners in Iraq, was accused of lying about weapons of mass destruction, and was deemed to be violating the US constitution and international law by holding so-called “enemy combatants” indefinitely without trial.

In the second universe, none of these matters one jot: not as moral issues, anyway. In this universe – the province of cable television, talk radio and the strangely hermetic corridors of power in Washington – there has been only one noteworthy moral outrage in 2004, one thing to offend the consciences of decent citizens and make them despair of the nation’s moral fibre.

We are talking, of course, of Janet Jackson’s prime-time breast exposure during the Super Bowl…


Is it really plausible that America has been washed by a spontaneous wave of puritan righteousness, or is something trickier going on? Jackson’s real misfortune may not have been what she called a “wardrobe malfunction” so much as the fact that it occurred at the start of the most contentious election year in memory.

From the start, she suspected that the outrage vented against her was deliberately manufactured – by the Republican Party and its more overt supporters in the media – as a distraction from the very damaging news then coming in about Iraq’s clear lack of weapons of mass destruction. That week, President George Bush’s own weapons inspector, David Kay, had reported back that the Iraqi cupboard of chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities was entirely bare. While the Janet débâcle was in full swing, the President took advantage of the breast chatter to announce a politically uncomfortable Congressional investigation into the uses and possible misuses of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Since then, Janet and all she implies have continued to be a convenient distraction from weightier issues. On the one hand, the Republicans can play into the cultural and moral divide their supporters denote by the shorthand word “values”. On the eve of last month’s Democratic National Convention in Boston, pro-Bush protesters held up a sign at a John Kerry campaign stop in Ohio reading: “Who shares your values?” – alongside pictures of Monica Lewinsky, Howard Stern, Whoopi Goldberg (who made genitalia jokes about the President at a fundraiser) and the outspokenly anti-Bush comedian and writer Al Franken.

The implication couldn’t be more clear: America is battling to save its moral soul against a Sodom and Gomorrah of godless Hollywood garishness. In this world, Bill Clinton is an irredeemable sinner and John Kerry is – worse still – French. As long as the political debate is consumed by such nonsense, the chances of Iraq, or the budget deficit, or the lack of affordable healthcare, becoming the topic of the moment are considerably diminished.


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