PPresident Obama has spoken firmly against Guantánamo and the use of torture on military captives from the war on terror. Yet, he and the Democratic Congress seem to be fumbling their way forward with regard to a grand economic recovery plan. Sadly, they remain tongue-tied over Israeli slaughter in Gaza. Nevertheless, a series of recent developments involving aspects of the culture wars point to a significant change in domestic policy.
These developments occurred, quite coincidentally, during the week of Obama’s Inauguration and may foretell the struggle over cultural life during his first term. First, he issued a critical executive order shortly after taking office that lifts the abortion “gag rule” on international family planning, signaling a sea change in “soft” diplomacy. Second, the Food and Drug Administration signed off on Geron Corp’s plan to commence the first U.S. clinical trial of implanted human stem cells in human patients.
Third, the Supreme Court rejected a (lets hope final) U.S. Justice Department effort to enforce the Child Online Protection Act, originally enacted by the liberal Clinton administration in 1998. Finally, the Texas Board of Education, one of the most conservative and powerful in the country, voted to drop a 20-year mandate requiring science teachers to teach alternative “theories” of evolution.
While important, these developments are but nails in the coffin of the Christian right; they are not stakes in its heart. Like a vampire of legend, the moralistic right has repeatedly risen from the dead of American history to come back to pray on the living. For example, the Christian right ceaselessly moralized against all forms of vice in the half-century following the Civil War, a period of unprecedented national modernization and urbanization. In victory, it secured the passage of the 18th Amendment outlawing the production, distribution, sale and consumption of alcohol. By attacking one of the effects or consequences of industrialization, it never addressed what caused the need to drink excessively, capitalism itself.
Prohibition’s utter failure, accompanied by the Great Depression and World War II, discredited the Christian right during the next quarter century. However, like a vampire, it was resurrected in the late-‘70s. After a quarter-century of mean-spirited, sanctimonious and often vicious efforts to discipline public life and private sexuality, the Christian right is once again in retreat. But, like a ghost with teeth, it can come back to terrorize cultural life.
These recent developments may be but coincidental and isolated events, with no greater significance. However, they may be the first round of a widespread and resounding repudiation of the Christian right’s moral agenda and the policies it implemented while in control of many of the Bush administration’s domestic programs.
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January 22nd marked the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s momentous Roe v. Wade decision. The newly Inaugurated president issued the following statement:
On the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we are reminded that this decision not only protects women’s health and reproductive freedom, but stands for a broader principle: that government should not intrude on our most private family matters. I remain committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose.
Obama’s statement is a repudiation of the policies of the Bush administration.
However, in an apparently symbolic gesture to placate his friends within the evangelical right, Obama held off from tying his words to deeds. On the following day, January 23rd, he issued an executive order overturning Bush restrictions, a “gag rule,” on the use of federal support to international organization that informed about, advocated for or provided abortion information or services.
Obama’s order is one more twist in the ongoing political tug-of-war between recent Democratic and Republican administrations over abortion rights. It is a war that has been going on for a quarter century. Reagan first adopted the gag rule in 1984; Clinton ended it in 1993, on the anniversary of Roe; and Bush reinstated it as his first official act after taking office in 2001. “For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us,” Obama said. “I have no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate.”
The order was directed at reinstating US AID support to nongovernmental organizations that provide abortion services; indirectly, it will likely end the anti-abortion mantra of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Bush-administration’s principal initiative to end HIV and AIDS in Africa.
While Obama issued his order repealing the gag rule covering international support for abortion, he failed to simultaneously address another Bush policy, its restrictions on federal financing of embryonic stem cell research. As candidates, both Obama and John McCain strongly supported stem cell research. A few days after his electoral victory, John Podesta, who was handling the transition, stated: “As a candidate, Senator Obama said that he wanted all the Bush executive orders reviewed, and decide which ones should be kept, and which ones should be repealed, and which ones should be amended.” It remains uncertain when this policy will be overturned.
On the day that Obama issued his executive order overturning the gag rule, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (without apparent approval from the Obama White House) gave clearance to Geron Corp., a Menlo Park, CA, biopharmaceuticals firm, to undertake the first U.S. embryonic stem cell trial on human beings. Geron is a pioneer developer of treatments for cancer and chronic degenerative diseases and the trials will be with patients suffering spinal cord injuries. (A week earlier, a Scottish firm, ReNeuron Group Plc, was given the go-ahead to undertake the first clinical stem cell trial in the UK with patients disabled by stroke.)
In October 1998, just two months before the Congress voted to impeach him, Bill Clinton signed the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) into law. COPA set stiff criminal penalties for Internet distribution of material deemed harmful to minors. The late-90s witnessed a growing fear of child predators and the role of the Internet as a leading facilitator of child abuse. This fear, while all-too-real appears in retrospect more apocryphal than actual, was artfully exploited by the Christian right to initiate an assault on what was they deemed pornography or indecent materials.
The ACLU was the lead plaintiff opposing COPA. “It is not the role of the government to decide what people can see and do on the Internet,” ACLU staff attorney Chris Hansen stated. “Those are personal decisions that should be made by individuals and their families.” In its January 21st rejection of Justice Department’s effort to implement COPA, the Supreme Court sided with the ACLU.
COPA grew out of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), originally part of Telecommunications Act of 1996, one of the most reactionary laws passed by Clinton. CDA was championed as a means to protect young people from “indecent” materials distributed via the Internet. Challenged by the ACLU, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in 1997 that CDA violated First Amendment provisions.
Ever resourceful, federal moralists responded with COPA. However, the Court ruled, first in 2002 and then again in 2004, against the Act. The Court’s recent action refusing to hear the case speak directly to the profound changes reshaping the Internet and the resulting Constitutional issues involved in determining freedom of speech.
The transformation of the Internet to Web 2.0 represents a sea change in networked connectivity, most of which does not fit under the COPA provisions. In essence, it is a shift from a web defined by one-to-one connectivity to a web based on social networking and mashups, a connectivity that will increasingly define 21st century Net experience. This change involves the wide-scale adoption of MySpace and FaceBook, viewing YouTube user generated content, using peer-to-peer file sharing, participating in virtual worlds like Second Life, playing videogames like Virtual Hottie and Cherry Dolls, and much more.
In December ’08, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com released a revealing report, “Sex and Tech.” It found that 20 percent of the 1,280 teens (13-19 years) and young adults (20-26 years) surveyed reported that they’ve electronically sent or posted online nude or semi-nude images of themselves. They also reported using a variety of media, including text messages, email, photographs and video, to send and receive provocative messages.
The survey found that about 22 percent of teen girls (including 11 percent of those between the ages of 13 and 16) and 18 percent of teen boys say they’ve shared sexual images of themselves with other teens. It also found that one-third (33%) of teen boys and one-quarter (25%) of teen girls say they have had nude/semi-nude images (originally intended as a private communication) shared with others. And 38 percent of respondents said they exchanged sexy content to facilitate dates and other hook-ups. Most surprising, it found that 15 percent of teens who sent messages with sexual content did so with strangers they only knew online. While not discussed, the teens and young adults surveyed seem very savvy dealing with someone inappropriate, maybe even a sexual “predators.” [see www.thenationalcampaign.org/sextech]
As teens and young people are increasing involved in “sexting,” the exchange of sexually explicit or suggestive materials, kids around the country are being arrested in growing numbers for violating obscenity laws. For example, six high-school students in Greensburgh, PA, were arrested on child pornography charges; a 19-year-old Goshen, OH, a cheerleading coach was convicted for taking a topless photo of herself and a 15-year-old girl; and in Texas, a 13-year-old boy was arrested on child pornography charges after receiving a nude photo of a fellow student on his mobile phone. [Times Online, January 14, 2009; NY Daily News, January 15, 2009]
The “Sex and Tech” study adds more weight to an earlier ’08 report from the Guttmacher Institute that found that more that half of the teens surveyed said they had engaged in oral sex and that they began vaginal and oral sex at roughly the same time. The survey was of 2,200 boys and girls age 15- to 19-years. It found that 82 percent of respondents had engaged in oral sex, that oral sex was more common than vaginal sex and that although only one in four teenage virgins had engaged in oral sex, within six months after their first intercourse more than four out of five adolescents reported having oral sex. [see Journal of Adolescent Health, July 2008]
Obviously, American teens know something that many lawmakers, but perhaps not the Supreme Court, do not.
Finally, during Obama’s first week in office, the Texas State Board of Education ended a 20-year policy of smuggling creationism into the science curriculum. For two decades the Christian right exploited what was known as the “strengths and weaknesses” standard to promote an anti-evolution campaign. The chairman of the Board, Don McLeroy, a dentist, argues that “he does not believe in Darwin’s theory and thinks that Earth’s appearance is a recent geologic event, thousands of years old, not 4.5 billion as scientists contend.” In Austin, two Republicans joined the sex Democrats to win a key preliminary vote; however, a final decision as to the science curriculum will not be made until March. The decision marks another defeat for the Christian right. Darwin vs God, how long will this false battle drag on? [New York Times, January 24, 2007]
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Are these isolated developments or part of a sea change in the battle over values? Are these recent actions in international family planning, stem cell research, Internet regulation, teen sexuality and evolution in Texas schools discreet incidents or indicators of a fundamental change in America’s “cultural” sensibility?
The meaning of these recent developments will be evident only when assessed against overall policy changes in the emerging 21st century sexual culture. This value system will, hopefully, be marked by less hostility toward a woman’s right to an abortion and in more states adopting same-sex civil unions, even some might legalizing same-sex marriages.
Perhaps most critical, the Christian right’s failed abstinence-only policy will finally be scrapped and teens will receive more informed and sex-positive sex education as well as medical care, condoms and other assistance essential for them to develop a better sense of themselves. The military might drop its ineffective policy of “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,” thus finally freely accepting homosexual citizens into the armed services. The FCC may well embrace a two-pronged strategy with regard to what is deemed obscene: (i) permitting more explicit materials for adults; and (ii) educating parents and children in cyber-literacy so as to be able to better recognize inappropriate (if not worse) contacts from a child predator or sexual exploiter. We are also likely to see the decriminalization and/or regulation of prostitution, like that already is operation in Nevada and Rhode Island, in other, select sites around the country. Finally, we will likely see a greater commitment to the internationally fight against HIV and AIDS through an extension and better funding of the PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] initiative.
The first official act signed by George W. Bush when he became president was to reinstate the gag rule regarding international abortion services. Eight years later, during the first few days of taking office, Barack Obama rescinded the gag rule. A new phase of the culture wars may be underway.
DAVID ROSEN is the author of the forthcoming, “Sex Scandals America: Politics, Morality & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009); he can be reached at email@example.com.