Comstock Revival


February 17, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON. — Washington.--WHEN OUR PRESIDENT assured us this was not going to be another Vietnam, he apparently knew something the rest of us didn't. The difference between the '60s and the '90s is great and getting greater, at home as well as at the front.

This decade, if the authorities have their way, is going to be more like the '50.

I hasten to say the '50s have taken a bad rap from those who came after, as a time when young people were politically apathetic, chemically incurious and sexually repressed. As one who was there, I think it is more accurate to say that those times were not so apathetic, incurious and repressed as they were discreet.

True, discretion was enforced by both law and public opinion. But a lot was going on beneath the surface of that crew-cut, bobby-sox era. And now, to conform to the Bush decade, officialdom is doing its best to chase the more flamboyant freedoms of the '60s back under the covers.

In Palm Springs, Calif., for example, where students do the desert version of Fort Lauderdale at spring vacation, the mayor has endorsed new ordinances that ban the teensiest-weensiest bikinis from public view, whether they have yellow polka dots or not.

No more, says city council, shall motorists be endangered by the sight of string bikinis on the sidewalks. No more, it has decreed, shall bare female breasts or male buttocks be permitted to distract those who notice such things.

At least twice since West Coast collegians started converging on Palm Springs in the spring, things have gotten out of hand. Back during Vietnam, a rock concert turned into a riot, and even during the Reagan years, hundreds of celebrators once went on a destructive rampage through downtown.

As a result, the council has tightened laws controlling liquor consumption, motorcycles and cruising automobiles. Together with the new restrictions on how much skin can be displayed in public, that should convert the California playground to an overdeveloped facsimile of what it was in 1950, when its population was a mere 7,660, mostly retired actors snoozing by the pool.

What gives this revival of Comstockery its special zip is that the mayor who cheers and calls the council "courageous" is a retired entertainer named Sonny Bono. Mr. Bono, you may recall, used to be married to Cher Bono, who dropped both last name and husband as she proceeded with her career.

Current news from Palm Springs helps explain what happened to the Sonny & Cher partnership: Cher's belly button is one of the most freely visible and admired attractions of late 20th century America. A string bikini to her is working clothes, like tan camouflage on a Persian Gulf soldier. If Mr. Bono has always been offended by exhibitionism, it is obvious why that marriage was doomed.

But what, you may ask, is Comstockery? The word, but not the bTC ailment, originated with Anthony Comstock, who a century ago inspired the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and Boston's Watch and Ward Society. He presided over the burning of hundreds of tons of art and literature that he and his fellow crusaders deemed corruptive to public morals. His most famous campaign was against the painting "September Morn," which featured a demure nude and adorned many a parlor in those days. Comstock was a sincere version of Jesse Helms.

Comstockery faded from fashion in the 1960s, but it is flourishing again, and not just in the U.S. Senate. Apparently reaction

against perceived excesses is most vigorous in full sunshine, where habits and clothing traditionally have been looser. In Florida, a 52-year-old lady clerk was recently arrested, strip-searched and jailed for selling a copy of Playboy to two 16-year-old boys.

This was in Broward County, which spearheaded the legal offensive against the foul-mouthed rap group 2 Live Crew last year. The county is still trying to fine-tune its morals campaign: out on bail, the lady said it was wonderful that she could sell minors condoms, but not girlie magazines.

The night after she was nabbed by undercover officers who had staked out the store for that purpose, her husband was robbed at gunpoint there. The police, their important work done, were nowhere to be found. With the Sun Belt showing the way, the no-more-Vietnam '90s may be when we finally get our priorities ++ straight.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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