The right to party

When the new Puritanism rears its ugly head, it’s high time for hedonists and libertines to push back

A few years ago, when I was a reporter in Chicago, I did a story on a phenomenon I called “The New Prohibition.” The city, for various reasons, was shutting down neighborhood bars. In poor, black neighborhoods, taverns were the targets of moralistic church crusaders. In gentrifying neighborhoods, they were the bête noire of noise-averse yuppies. What was wrong with Mayor Daley? I asked. Didn’t he want Chicago to be fun anymore?

The article garnered a bit of local attention. I appeared on an episode of a nightly public-affairs show. For once, a piece of mine actually got a few letters to the editor. And I decided to take it further. I did a local National Public Radio commentary in which I called, tongue-in-cheekly, for a new political party, “The Party Party,” that would campaign to make Chicago the freewheeling town I imagined it once had been.

Oh, how naive I was then, and how foolish I feel now! Those little tavern raids and precinct vote-dry initiatives were nothing, a little internecine tap dance, compared with the assault on fun currently being waged by the federal government. Our right to party is being attacked by forces far more powerful, more sinister and more organized than Mayor Daley’s liquor-law-enforcement bureaucracy. Everything fun about America is under serious threat.

Let’s review the evidence of the last few months.

In late February, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Department of Justice officials arrested 55 people and seized thousands of dollars of drug paraphernalia during “Operation Pipe Dreams.” The arrests mainly targeted online bong dealers, who Attorney General John Ashcroft claimed had “invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge.” But also included in the arrests were employees of several head shops in Pittsburgh, where the investigation was centered. The feds even raided the California home of Tommy Chong, who pleaded guilty in mid-May to conspiring to sell drug paraphernalia. The most stunning quote from the whole affair came from acting DEA chief John Brown, who said, “People selling drug paraphernalia are in essence no different than drug dealers. They are as much a part of drug trafficking as silencers are a part of criminal homicide.”

The government is equating Tommy Chong with murderous criminals. Perhaps next they’ll haul in Rodney Dangerfield and the inflatable pilot from Airplane!. Something is wrong. Very wrong.

In March, Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware managed to sneak the RAVE Act through as an attachment to a bill establishing a national warning system about child abductions. RAVE stands for, amazingly, Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy. But its main targets are concert promoters and club owners, whom the act holds to an absurd standard.

According to the law, it is illegal to “manage or control any place, whether permanently or temporarily, either as an owner, lessee, agent, employee, occupant or mortgagee, and knowingly and intentionally rent, lease, profit from or make available for use, with or without compensation, the place for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance.”

This definition was derived from a 20-year-old federal law that permitted raids on “crackhouses.” The law is so broad that you could have 10 people over for dinner and put on some loud music, and you’d have yourself a rave. If someone lit a joint at your “rave,” and the neighbors complained about the music, and the police were in a bad mood that night, you’d face decades in prison. Suddenly, everyone is a potential drug criminal—and it’s doubly dangerous if there’s dancing involved. And this just in: In late May, a DEA agent in Montana threatened a venue owner with a $250,000 fine, under the RAVE Act, if she hosted a joint benefit for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. The event was canceled. The RAVE Act has officially arrived.

Keep in mind that these are Democrats pushing these laws. This War On Fun is not single-party. That said, the Republicans seem to have a serious problem with sex. The federal government’s financial commitment to “abstinence education” reached a new high this year. When I say a new high, I mean $120 million. This is not the sex education we received in high school. According to federal guidelines for applying for abstinence-education grants, a federally funded program must, among other things, teach “abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children” and teach that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.”

From personal experience, I will agree with certain tenets, such as the statement that “drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances,” and I cannot argue with the idea that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects,” but is this really something that needs to be legislated? Can you imagine being a teenager today in this context? Teen pregnancy and STDs are a problem, for certain. But is the answer really organizations like Pennsylvania’s Silver Ring Thing, which, in exchange for $12 and a pledge of abstinence until marriage, offers high-school students a silver ring and a Bible? It sounds like a bad trade to me. Couldn’t they at least throw a couple of condoms into the gift pack, just to make sure?

Lest we think that these phenomena, which seem to be loosely linked, are just the usual mix of anti-drug nonsense and hypocritical fundamentalism, we should think again. Journalist Eric Schlosser, in his excellent new book Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, drops the stunning statistic that more than 20,000 Americans are in prison for marijuana-related “crimes.” But the current trend in policy goes far beyond that. Under the RAVE Act, you’re guilty by association with marijuana smokers.

Abstinence education had a foothold during Bill Clinton’s America, too, but now there’s an extra moral force, and lots more money, behind the preaching. When Senator Rick Santorum, R-Penn., made his controversial remarks in April about not approving of homosexual “acts,” he also said: “The idea is that the state doesn’t have rights to limit individuals’ wants and passions. I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire. And we’re seeing it in our society.”

What is he talking about? What consequences? As far as I’m concerned, that phrase, from a leading Republican senator, is an official government declaration of a War On Fun. What exactly would be Santorum’s idea of a good party? One where nobody got drunk or high, where nobody hooked up and where nobody danced with abandon? Why, that doesn’t sound like a party. It sounds like church.

I’ve had enough.

This time, for real, I’m calling for the establishment of a Party Party, or, at the very least, for a Party Party attitude. I’m issuing a call to arms for those of us always in need of, as the great Jeff Spicoli once said, tasty waves and a cool buzz. Of course, there are many issues in the world that are more pressing, and we should continue to press them. But Saturday night eventually comes even for the most politically committed. These are tense times. People want to loosen the steam valve a little bit. They want to participate in culture outside of the jurisdiction of federal “morality” educators. We don’t want the government telling us how to spend our free time, sussing out and prosecuting casual drug users and harassing nightclub owners. And for heaven’s sake, give the kids some condoms.

Sex and drugs and live music make life great. These are the kinds of things that were outlawed in Taliban-run Afghanistan. If they can’t be legal and easy in America, then I don’t want to live here anymore. I want to live in a place where drugs and sex are tolerated, where the government provides a sane level of social services, where religion isn’t always threatening to take over the state. Amsterdam. It always comes back to Amsterdam.

Americans, we have to party. It is our right. And we have to fight for that right. Yes, you heard me. We have to show the moralizers that they cannot win.

We have to fight for our right to party.

Neal Pollack is the author of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature and Beneath the Axis of Evil. HarperCollins will publish his first novel, Never Mind the Pollacks, in September. He lives in Austin, Texas.