Posted: June 13, 2003
f Thomas Jefferson were alive today, would he be a Democrat? A Republican? Or would he eschew statesmanship and diplomacy, and simply devote himself to downloading interracial-themed internet porn? After all, as sex-advice columnist Dan Savage means to remind us, when the author of the Declaration of Independence penned the phrase "the pursuit of happiness," what he really meant was the avid quest for orgasm. Yes, our Founding Fathers mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, for the inalienable right to "get some."
Actually, Savage only invokes "the pursuit of happiness" as a convenient club with which to beat back the forces of the dreaded "professional virtuecrats." These "preening moralists" and "paranoid scolds" include former education secretary William J. Bennett, radio-host Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, and all such best-seller list conservatives who want to legislate all the (below-the-belt) fun out of our lives.
To show just how un-American these virtuecrats are, Savage sets out across this gloriously smut-filled land of ours to give his readers an eye-opening travelogue of sinning, American-style. Each chapter of the book is a vignette of real, everyday Americans reveling in one of the traditional seven deadly sins: greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, pride, and anger. Not every chapter, admittedly, is a profile in carnality, but the ones that aren't find the author at his most judgmental and disapproving.
Greed, anger, and envy, for instance, are just so icky and...well...Republican. These grand old hypocrites plot against women but are "pro-choice" when it comes to Indian casinos, dog races, and lotteries. (Savage's book came out before Bill Bennett's gambling habits did, so Bennett only gets personally charged with hypocrisy in the gluttony chapter for being, shall we say, robust.) As governor, George W. Bush allowed private citizens to carry guns into every hospital, church, and retirement home in Texas, but as president, he doesn't have the same policy for the White House (gun-owners "always seemed like an angry bunch of yahoos to me," says Savage). And who doesn't remember this hoary favorite: "a class war has been raging in the United States since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980," because Republicans promote tax-cuts for the wealthy over universal health care. Egad!
Of course, Savage's own rigorous scholarship is too principled for the base alloy of hypocrisy. Except that marijuana should be legalized because drug use is a victimless crime, but handguns must be banned immediately because these phallic symbols are an alluring menace that can never be used responsibly. And yes, obesity advocates fighting the "sizeism" that restricts their choice of a half-ton lifestyle should consider sweatin' to the oldies to avoid incapacitation and early death, while queer-rights advocates may keep pressing the government to spend its way out of an already completely preventable disease, AIDS, in order to ensure that their brand of indulgent behavior is consequence-free.
The author also suffers from his own kind of gluttony (or is it pride?). Instead of a bloated, rambling book, he might have written a tighter, amusing magazine piece. Some of his phrasing has real wit, e.g., he wonders when movie theater drinks became big enough to "drown a dog" in.
Some genuine patriotism even comes through regarding the attacks of September 11. Savage believes "[w]e had to act, and the ensuing war was just and remains just." He chastises "lefties who hate Attorney General John Ashcroft with more passion than they hate Osama bin Laden.... Ashcroft is basically Barbara Walters—bad, yes, but endurable."
And yet, underneath the pretension of sunny, daring, nothing-can-stop-me happiness, chapter after chapter betrays the dank nihilism always driving these sinful Americans, driving them further and further in hopes that they might feel something—anything—in their drifting lives. Whether it's hopeful gamblers (greed); after-work stoners (sloth); 500 lbs.+ women who can no longer walk or wash themselves (gluttony); suburban parents who've traded affection for orgies (lust); or shirtless homosexuals who just want to dance, dance, dance, while their friends die around them (gay pride)—they all need to silence society's judgmental voices before any harsh truths can penetrate the stimulations and distractions with which they've anesthetized themselves.
Even in the final chapter, when Savage himself tries to commit in a single weekend all seven deadly sins, he does so with all the gusto of a contractual obligation to his publisher. And his odyssey culminates not in heady abandon or self-actualization, but in a wince-inducing scene of his own subjection to insult and humiliation from a bullying gigolo.
Savage's feeble caricature of the American founding might be easier to shrug off if it weren't so familiar. As he rightly points out, many conservatives—particularly traditionalists and those who see the American regime as low but solid—have bought into the myth that the founders infected America with the freedom "to go your own way," that "[o]ur bodies and minds and souls are our own, and we should be free to use and abuse and dispose of them as we see fit." Conservatives just don't celebrate this sentiment the way liberals and libertarians do.
But the same Thomas Jefferson who articulated the right to pursue happiness also said that we are "free from all but the moral law." He counseled that "[h]ealth, learning and virtue will insure your happiness," and in his Notes on the State of Virginia endorsed strict penalties for, among other things, the crime of sodomy. This connection between virtue and happiness is the real expression of the American mind, and of a liberty distinct from license.
Despite Dan Savage's wishful thinking, if the author of the Declaration were to return today, upon seeing this supposed "love letter to Thomas Jefferson" he would surely file for a restraining order, or at least a change of address.