How and why the tolerances for debauchery have changed over the course of time.
Screenwriter, playwright, and author Stein (American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why, 2014, etc.) formulates an astute, fascinating, occasionally overwrought treatise on why vices became such hot-button issues in past eras yet tend to normalize and often empower today. The author reaches back as far as the beginnings of the British settlements when Native Americans shared their tobacco and thus provoked a perennial “tail-chasing war on vice.” Smoking soon became frowned upon, even outlawed, as did bowling, shuffleboard, and juggling, all activities considered gateways to gambling, brawls, and witchcraft. Stein moves from puritanical Massachusetts, with laws against adultery, virginal sex, and homosexual acts, to the post-Revolution vices of pornography and prostitution. The author also spotlights America’s nationwide war on drugs, the beginning of which occurred with the Opium Exclusion Act in 1909. Whether it was 19th-century housewives addicted to laudanum, Mormon polygamists, Nevada prostitution, or interracial sex, vices, writes Stein, remain a constant source of pleasure for indulgers and aggravation for detractors. Much progress has been made, he notes, in overhauling industries such as the movie business, which has historically promoted violence through action films while glamorizing drug use and cigarettes. Stein takes particular aim at public moral reformers throughout history—e.g., moralist Anthony Comstock and the Catholic Church, both entities who made their marks on society by staunchly advocating vice repression. The author regrettably devotes less attention to our modern, politically challenged, easily offended society, where freedom still reigns and creative arts, even excessively controversial expressions, remain unpunishable under the First Amendment. Stein believes that in examining what was considered a vice a century ago, juxtaposed with what is considered immoral by today’s standards, we are offered a glimpse into how morals and behaviors shape-shift and how we all change and adapt within an ever evolving society.
Witty and opinionated insight on how “bad” behavior can morph into, out of, and back into favor over the course of time.