This was first published in the print edition of Weekly Trust on December 30, 2005.
By Farooq A. Kperogi
One of the biggest surprises that greet any first-time settler in the United States is the radical disjuncture between the image of America, filtered through pop culture, as a self-indulgent, decadent, anything-goes moral climate and the strict, austere religious puritanism of the laws that regulate personal conduct in this society.
Beneath America’s exterior as a country of chartered libertines, as a country where immoderate indulgence of bodily appetites is tolerated and encouraged, is a deeply morally conservative and religious society, the kind that has no parallel in the advanced societies of the West, and one that will certainly inspire the envy of many a Sharia advocate.
In spite of appearances to the contrary, America is a highly regulated society. A lot of my European and Canadian friends here snicker at what they regard as the excessive intrusiveness of the state in the personal conduct of people who live here.
In the United States, nobody who is below 21, for instance, can consume alcohol by law. And this is not just some elegant piece of legislation; it is permanently monitored by law enforcement agents and infractions are punished severely.
All liquor bars are required by law to demand to see government-issued photo ID cards (like driver’s licenses and state ID cards; student and work ID cards are not accepted) before they can sell alcoholic beverages to anybody. People caught drunk who are below 21 have committed the offense of underage drinking and can be sent to prison for that. Both the consumer and seller of the liquor are guilty under the law. And drinking and driving, even for those who are of age, attract severe penalties.
Again, even in huge cities like New York, alcohol is sold only in designated places such as the downtown—and with police presence. It cannot be sold or consumed, for example, on university campuses or residential areas. This is equally true of gambling.
Similarly, alcohol, tobacco and gambling are heavily taxed by governments here, especially in the more conservative south. The taxes are called “sin tax.” Strange, eh?
However while the law forbids and penalizes underage smoking, it is less strictly enforced by law enforcement agents. The point of purchase of cigarettes is often the unit of enforcement. Buyers of cigarettes must produce government-issued picture IDs to show that they’re above 21. But adults usually buy for teenagers who want to smoke. Nonetheless, like almost all countries in the West, there is a ban on cigarette smoking in public buildings, restaurants, etc.
The most curious for me are the laws banning prostitution and “indecent exposure”. For a country that has the unflattering reputation outside its shores as the haven of licentiousness and indecency, the prudishness of America’s sexual laws is intriguing.
Unlike in Europe, there are no brothels in America, and prostitution is not only forbidden; it is sternly punished.
The laws about indecent exposure in public places, that is, nudity or scanty, sexually suggestive dressing, keep one wondering why America is not called a theocratic nation. The way our girls dress on Nigerian university campuses these days will not pass the requirement of decency here.
It is supremely ironic that even though Nigerians mimic the dress codes of American pop stars and imagine that these people symbolize the demotic dressing pattern here, in most American university campuses I have visited, from North to South, very few people run foul of the laws of “indecent exposure.”
Similarly, making sexual advances to an unwilling person is called “solicitation” and can earn offenders a prison sentence. The laws about rape and sexual harassment are also so fluid and elastic that they have ensnared many a non-American resident here.
There was the case of a Senegalese Ph.D. student at the University of Florida who is presently serving a 21-year jail term for having a carnal relationship with an American girl who said she yielded to the guy’s advances only because she was drunk. The man was found guilty of rape.
A Nigerian at the University of Illinois was luckier. His girlfriend of two years reported that he raped her, but the boy said the encounter was consensual. In any case, they had been dating for two years.
But the boy’s admission that he indeed had sex with the girl was prima facie evidence of his culpability, and he was deported back to Nigeria, never to return forever, even though he was a green card holder, which ordinarily entitles him to work and live here for as long as he wants.
Contrast this to Europe, and America’s moral “tepidity” comes out in an even bolder relief. In most countries in Europe, prostitution is not only allowed by law; it is also encouraged. And, of course, people can walk naked on the streets without as much as an eyebrow raised by law enforcement agents.
In Germany, for example, prostitution is a legitimate job that enjoys the same legal protection from government as civil service work, law practice, manufacturing, etc. Positions for prostitutes are advertised in the mass media, and prostitutes, like all wage earners, pay taxes to government.
Sometime in the beginning of 2005 or thereabouts, Americans were outraged by the news that the German government berated women for complaining about unemployment when there are many “vacancies” in brothels across Germany! My friend from Portugal who calls America a “huge social prison” was bemused (not amused, mind you!) by the prudish indignation Americans expressed about the discovery that prostitution is not only legal in Europe but enjoys governmental endorsement in some countries like Germany and the Netherlands.
Does the foregoing imply that America is some perfect, pristine and inerrant moral Eldorado? Absolutely no. People daily flout the laws of the land here, like everywhere else on Earth. There is prostitution, drug dealing and other social vices in the underground in much the same way as you find in any “normal” society. In fact, in such cities as Las Vegas in the state of Nevada and New Orleans in the state of Louisiana, some of the strict moral laws of the country are not enforced for historical (maybe commercial) reasons. These cities have become tourist attractions for Americans because of their moral exceptionalism. When in these cities, it is usual to hear Americans say, “What happens here stays here.”
However, no one whose knowledge of America is gleaned through Hollywood and American pop music can cease to be taken aback by the continence and abnegation in the laws of this country.
America’s cultural conservatism has deep roots in the religious beliefs and practices of its founding fathers. Most of modern America’s founding fathers were Puritans—former English Protestants who wished to “purify” the Church of England.
To this day, America is a strangely religious society amidst post-religious Western societies. A recent poll showed that about 90 percent of Americans believe in God. About 85 percent of them, according to census figures, also identify themselves as church-going Christians. The other 15 percent identified themselves either as Jews, Muslims, other religions, agnostics or atheists.
By contrast, about 65 percent of people in Europe identify themselves as non-religious. A recent poll in Britain, in fact, showed that more people there believe in ghosts than they believe in God.
My Iranian friend who is studying petroleum engineering here once told me that after living here for over two years, he feels “duped” by the American culture industry. He said America exports depravity and decadence to other countries while it secretly preserves the moral fiber of its own society. But Americas would say they don’t force “nobody” to buy their “exports.”