A wicked sense of freedom
February 6, 2007
The Wailers, Bob Marley's old band, played Falls Church in Virginia a couple of weeks ago, and these were the rules, codified by different colored ink stamps applied to the backs of the spectators' hands:
Anyone under 18 needed a chaperone and was restricted to soft drinks. Patrons between 18 and 21 didn't need chaperoning, but drinking laws being what they are in the U.S., they were forbidden alcoholic beverages, too. Anyone over 21 could listen to sublime roots reggae and enjoy it all with a beer.
The late Bob Marley: None but ourselves can free our mind (Associated Press)
Here, though, is another way of considering the situation: In the U.S. today, a 17-year-old from, say, Falls Church, Va., is not just permitted, but actually encouraged by his government to enlist, whereupon he can easily find himself in Fallujah or Ramadi, participating in some of the worst brain-addling mayhem imaginable.
But here at home, he still needs his mother to take him to a Wailers concert.
People who specialize in formulating public policy argue there are good, sensible reasons for that kind of dichotomy. When governments here started raising the legal drinking age back in the 1980s, it was a decision rooted in concern for public health. Particularly the health of young people.
"The data are pretty clear," says Michael Klintzner, a public health consultant with the CDM Group in Virginia. "I start with dead and injured kids."
In fact, allowing 18-year-olds to drink was an experiment of the Vietnam era. If young men can fight and die, went the argument back then, they at least deserve a beer first.
So what changed?
"All I can say is that the sixties were different," says Klintzer. "Good Lord, as a Canadian observer of the U.S., it should be clear to you."
By this, Klintzer means, the country is clearer-eyed now about many things, including the consequences of certain excessive behaviour. That things like smoking and drinking and drugs are no longer as sexy as they once were.
The fact that teenagers fight wars is beside the point.
It does feel like there's a certain satisfaction here in tightening what used to be called the morality laws. Police all over the U.S. are now, to general applause, going into private homes and arresting 20-year-olds drinking beer in their own basements. Three homes on the next street over from mine have been targeted, apparently following complaints from some unnamed neighbor.
In bars, everyone is now "carded," from teens to seniors. It doesn't matter if you're bald and pouchy and clearly middle aged. No government-issued ID means the fellow at the door will turn you away.
To a Canadian observer of the U.S., one who's been working here off and on for thirty or so years, the times seem to carry a rectitude that wasn't there before. Or at least wasn't as evident.
In the 1970s, stepping out of a cab in New York or Washington imparted an almost wicked sense of freedom for a Canadian lad. In America, you could assume anything was legal unless the law said otherwise.
In stuffy Canada, it was the other way around.
Back then you could walk around a big American city in the summer with an open can of beer, bought at a corner store. Attitudes toward recreational drugs also seemed more relaxed. Americans had their sexual revolution and were enjoying it.
But somewhere along the way, that permissive atmosphere evaporated.
These days, the highest levels of government here will put aside debating the consequences of a foreign war to consider the threat posed by a loose breast. After Janet Jackson inadvertently revealed one of hers, capped with a pasty, during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was summoned before a congressional subcommittee.
"We know that many millions of Americans view NFL football … as representing traditional and important values of teamwork, achievement, sportsmanship and fair play," he testified contritely, never directly explaining how a flash of mammary compromised those values.
Today, this is a nation that threatens to close the border (and disrupt billions in commercial traffic) when it looks as though Canada might relax its marijuana laws. The Canadian decision to allow gay marriage is seen as an external threat.
The irony of America
U.S. laws now dispense harsher treatment in many cases to child molesters than to murderers.
It is also a nation in which, not so long ago, the federal attorney general ordered that the statue of Justice in his headquarters be covered up to hide her semi-naked shame.
This is the same nation that has advanced rationalism so dramatically and relentlessly over the years — casting aside Old World class and privilege, limiting the power of the church and enshrining the rights of the individual.
In America, you have the right to offend your government, you have the right to be a vagrant without fear of imprisonment, and here, of all places, the law stays government's naturally heavy hand. Except perhaps when it comes to a 20-year-old with a can of beer.
"That's the irony of America," says Jonathan Haidt, a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia. "America in some ways pioneered modern liberal democracy. But many Americans are not comfortable with the freedom and the thinness of moral communities that that produces."
Haidt says Americans, more than most developed societies, place great emphasis on patriotism, purity and sanctity. He attributes that to the fact that America has spent so much of its existence at war somewhere else.
Nothing, he says, coalesces concerns about morality like external conflict.
And, of course, the United States remains, by some reckonings, among the most religious countries in the world.
Haidt also says there is evidence that piousness is an inherited trait: "Identical twins that are separated at birth and who never meet will in general be similar in their level of religiosity later in life."
It may be, then, says Haidt, that many Americans maintain a genetic link to their fundamentalist ancestors, like the Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock.
"It is at least possible," he says, "That because the founders of the American colonies were much more religious than average, that their descendants inherited some of their heavy religiosity."
Whatever the case, America is still a pretty good place to live, if a bit more judgmental than it once was. At the same time, stepping out of a cab in Montreal or Toronto nowadays carries an almost wicked sense of freedom for a Canadian lad.
I found Mr. MacDonald's take on the state of youth in the US having a brew or two to be so true to a live long day, though to serve in the military at such a young age and still have these restrictions placed on them says a lot about Canada and Americans to this day.
It is one of convienience for the Government to do one thing and say another.
—Johnny MacEldew | Burnaby, B.C.
Neil McDonald's story was right-on-the-money. A few days earlier I was listening to a radio show somewhere in the States. The two topics generating a great deal of controversy were Prince and of course the war in Iraq.
The interesting thing about the conversations on the radio was that both stories were of equal importance. Prince's phallic guitar silhouette garnered shock and complete abhorrence from the listeners who phoned in, but Iraq was just another story.
There seems to be a separation of reality in America today. On one hand there is a neo-Calvinistic morality, but if 165 Iraqis are blown up in a market...its just another day. This dichotomy is really strange.
—John Kerr | Brampton Ontario
Neil MacDonald's piece on the American 'dichotomy' was a very fine work of journalism. This kind of work sets the high standard we Canadians hold the CBC to. And this is why we love the CBC.
—Grant McConnell, Saskatoon
I agree wholeheartdely with everything said in the article.
As an American living in the US (currently) I have been to Europe and Canada many times and I find that when I go elsewhere I feel more free than in my home country where freedom is a cornerstone to society.
Every chance I get to leave my country to go away for a while is quite liberating, to say the least. I love driving to the Canadian Border and crossing and I hate having to go back for every reason described in the article at hand.
I do plan on going to school in St. Catherine's, ON because I also find the school's outside the US much more "liberal" and of much better quality than schools in the US.
—James D Whalen | New Britain, CT USA
Neil Macdonald is the best foreign correspondent CBC has ever had. I always thought of him as a fair reporter in the middle east and I wish he would go back.
I loved his article about the eroding American freedom. Only a brother of Norm Macdonald-my favourite Canadian comedian- can have that keen of an eye for contradiction.
But seriously, any chance Neil Macdonald might go back to the middle east?
—Mahmoud Badreddine |London, Ontario
The differences in views in the U.S. have been brought about by the Dominionist religion which the neocons all belong to.
The scrapping of social programs and pensions are also a part of their plan. This frees money to fight for taking over the world. Thankyou Neil Macdonald for this excellent article.
—Willa McIlwain | Barra de Navidad Jalisco, Mexico