The Drunkard's Progress

When Lady Gaga spoke at a rally in support of repealing the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy towards gays in the military, she said: "Our new law is called 'If you don't like it, go home!'" That kind of speech is described as a defense of tolerance. Today the New York Times narrates the case of a University of Nebraska astronomer who was denied a position at the University of Kentucky because he was "potentially evangelical." The department voted to deny him the position because it would look bad for the university if it hired a religious nut. Both incidents highlight the new normal, whatever that is.

... the smoking gun is an e-mail dated Sept. 21, 2007, from a department staff member, Sally A. Shafer, to Dr. Cavagnero and another colleague. Ms. Shafer wrote that she did an Internet search on Dr. Gaskell and found links to his notes for a lecture that explores, among other topics, how the Bible could relate to contemporary astronomy.

“Clearly this man is complex and likely fascinating to talk with,” Ms. Shafer wrote, “but potentially evangelical. If we hire him, we should expect similar content to be posted on or directly linked from the department Web site.”

Just what is inappropriate in modern society is a matter of intense debate. Some people say that anything goes. Recently, Ann Althouse quoted Justice Scalia in connection with a case involving incest between a Columbia professor and Huffington Post blogger. She argued that morals legislation may effectively be dead. Scalia said where once there was a belief  "that certain forms of sexual behavior are 'immoral and unacceptable'... the same interest furthered by criminal laws against fornication, bigamy, adultery, adult incest, bestiality, and obscenity," those views were in his view increasingly untenable in view of recent jurisprudence. Scalia wrote:

The Court today reaches the opposite conclusion. The Texas statute, it says, “furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual” ... The Court embraces instead Justice Stevens’ declaration in his Bowers dissent, that “the fact that the governing majority in a State has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice.” This effectively decrees the end of all morals legislation. If, as the Court asserts, the promotion of majoritarian sexual morality is not even a legitimate state interest, none of the above-mentioned laws can survive rational-basis review.

But a cursory glance around shows that moral judgments in some form refuse to go away. In fact, they are more pervasive than ever. Lady Gaga felt herself perfectly justified in asking those who objected to the repeal of DADT to "go home," where they could presumably languish in their bigotry. And a university department believes that it may be unacceptable to hire someone who believes in the Bible as an astronomer. They were making moral judgments and felt perfectly entitled to do so.

Hate speech laws have been enacted by Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Council of Europe, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, India, Ireland, Jordan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Serbia, , Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. What you say and what you do, far from being your own business, is everywhere the public's business. Recently, the head of the soccer federation FIFA warned homosexuals against engaging in sexual behavior in Qatr because they stood a good chance of running afoul of Islamic law. The FIFA head later apologized for offending gays. But whether that will help gays in Qatr is a different matter, because one may not criticize Islamic law either. So in all likelihood then, while Qatr may beat up the gays anyhow and not have any explaining to do, any European who simply mentions that Qatr might do it is engaging in offensive behavior.

Morals legislation appears to be as pervasive as ever. Nothing in the current environment suggests there exist opinions on which you may not be lectured. The extent of what is out of bounds is growing all the time. What has changed is the contents of that proscribed area. It may now be a crime to quote the Bible. For example, in May of 2010 a British preacher was arrested for handing out leaflets saying that homosexuality was a sin. A policeman appoached "to warn him they had received complaints and that if he made any racist or homophobic comments he would be arrested."

I told him homosexuality is a sin, and he told me "I am a homosexual, I find that offensive, and I'm also the liaison officer for the bisexual-lesbian-gay-transsexual community",' he said yesterday. 'I told him it was still a sin.'

Mr Adams last year represented Cumbria Police at the Gay Pride march in Manchester. On the social networking site MySpace, he describes his orientation as gay and his religion as atheist.

After the warning, Mr Mcalpine took over preaching for 20 minutes, although he claims he did not cover homosexuality. But while he talked to a passer-by the PCSO radioed for assistance and he was arrested by uniformed officers.

He was taken to a police station, had his pockets emptied and his mobile phone taken along with his belt and shoes, and was kept in the cells for seven hours where he sang hymns to keep his spirits up.

It is exactly the same process that might have occurred fifty years ago but with a policeman warning a homosexual he could not distribute leaflets advocating sodomy. What has changed isn't that people are being warned off for their beliefs. What is different is which beliefs they are being warned against. The Ins and the Outs have changed places, but he door remains the same. Wikipedia writes that "views on public morality do change over time," but whether public morality itself can ever be abolished is an open question.

One of the drivers of the new public morality is who can fight back. British policemen do not go around telling Muslim imams not to preach against homosexuality because such preachers may take strenuous exception to their warnings.  But the rules of the new morality are often capricious, unstated or simply arcane.