David A. Bell is the dean of faculty and Mellon Professor in the Humanities at John Hopkins University's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
I have long ceased to be surprised by how easily unsubstantiated generalization, dressed up as easily-digested social theory, can gain traction among the chattering classes. But the attention and applause lavished by conservatives on Mary Eberstadt's provocatively-titled Policy Review essay--most recently by George Will in Thursday's Washington Post--is still remarkable, given the sheer silliness of the argument being advanced.
In the essay, Eberstadt claims that in the 1950s, the American middle classes applied a strict moral code to matters sexual, while treating food as a matter of personal choice. But today, she continues, the situation is reversed, to our collective detriment. She illustrates the point by drawing a contrast between two straw women: a 1958 housewife ("Betty") who condemns sex outside of marriage but cooks little besides canned food and red meat, and her single 30-year-old granddaughter today ("Jennifer"), who wouldn't be caught dead eating a cheeseburger but thinks most forms of consensual sex are just fine. "The moral poles of sex and food have been reversed," Eberstadt pronounces, while trying to hide the blatant reductionism under erudite references to Nietzsche and Kant. The argument indeed has a superficial plausibility. Just think of how often you have heard some fatty food referred to as "sinful." But on closer inspection, it quickly collapses.
Start with food. As any social historian can tell you, the notion that the American middle-classes in the 1950s considered food purely a matter of personal choice is simply wrong. Yes, Americans ate many things that we now consider unhealthy and harmful to the environment. But a glance through any middle-class magazine of the period immediately reveals a not-so-unfamiliar emphasis on healthy diets, and a strong differentiation between beneficial foods and bad. What has changed is not that people have become judgmental where they previously were not, so much as the content of their judgments. In the 1950's, red meat was considered healthy, as were high-fat dairy products. Even cigarettes were routinely advertised as promoting vitality ("nothing soothes the throat better!").
Certainly, middle-class Americans today are more judgmental about food, but not in the way that Eberstadt suggests. She sometimes seems to forget that for almost everyone, calling a chocolate milkshake "sinful" is, well, a joke. I live in a community full of Whole Foods-shopping, Prius- and Volvo-driving, MoveOn.org-donating liberals, and I have never heard anyone describe a cheeseburger, even a McDonald's cheeseburger, with anywhere near the fierce moral condemnation routinely unleashed on homosexuality 50 years ago. For all but a small minority of fervent environmentalists and vegans, current food obsessions are less a matter of moralism than of narcissism. This narcissism can be decried, but it has also had some demonstrably beneficial social effects--for instance, declining rates of heart disease.
When it comes to sex, Eberstadt and her fans are just as confused. Obviously, the 1960s marked a great shift in American sexual mores. But Eberstadt undercuts her own argument by conceding that even sexual liberals today generally draw a clear moral line around behavior that harms other individuals, especially children and adolescents. So not everything sexual is, in fact, a matter of personal choice. And oddly, for someone so concerned with morality, Eberstadt largely eschews passing moral judgment on the shift, or recognizing the crucial distinction between the content of moral codes, and their social effects. Arguably, the changes in moral codes have had some very detrimental social effects, as measured by rates of divorce, sexually-transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and so on. But are the changes intrinsically, morally wrong? That is a very different question, and interestingly, most contemporary conservatives whose thought is not grounded in fundamentalist religion tend to avoid it. They prefer talking about divorce rates and STDs to preaching about right and wrong. And when pressed to say what is intrinsically wrong about, say, teen sex, these conservatives tend to cite things like the emotional harm it can cause to fragile young psyches, which is not so different from the way most liberals think about the issue (although the two sides may well differ greatly on the practical application of their judgments). Not surprisingly, in the way they raise their children, to say nothing of the way they eat, these conservatives resemble my liberal neighbors far more than they resemble their Eisenhower-era grandparents.
Eberstadt herself wisely steers well away from endorsing the moral code of the Eisenhower era, with the vast harm and misery it caused to homosexuals, especially. She decries "the costs of laissez-faire sex to American society." But she mostly does not ask whether a greater tolerance, and emphasis on personal liberty might not be good things, at least in abstract moral terms. And she refuses to confront the obvious fact that if the shift in sexual mores has had detrimental effects, it has also had hugely positive ones, making America a more tolerant, humane place for millions in a way that the raw social indicators she cites simply do not measure.
So let's not draw ready equivalences between food habits and sexual habits. On the other hand, let's give at least one-and-a-half cheers for the changes that have taken place in sexual morality. Not to mention a rousing three cheers for getting past the age of burned steak, canned peas and Cheese Whiz, even if a little Whole Foods-style judgmentalism is the price we must pay for it.