Uncle Sam, help me

January 20, 1995|By Russell Baker

SCHOOL PRAYER and the baseball strike remind me of daytime television. In all three departments Americans are confessing something they ought to be ashamed of.

This is, that they are incapable of self-control.

Worse, that they want government to step in and control their behavior for them. "Pass a law," is the plea being heard even from Republicans whose usual complaint is that there are too many laws already.

Yet now they are saying, "Pass a law that will make us stop our rotten behavior."

In short, call in the government. Republicans who keep telling us Old Devil Government is not the answer are as hot as Democrats for strong government action on the self-control front.

To illustrate:

Hordes of Americans apparently ashamed of their failure to pray sufficiently want the Constitution amended so they will be compelled to pray out in the open, at least as schoolchildren.

This yearning for the authorities to step in and put steel in the American spine infects many aspects of the national life. The baseball strike illustrates how widespread it is.

The baseball owners' proposed salary cap would establish a new law limiting the amount of each owner's payroll. This would force them to stop their self-destructive bidding competitions that have enriched so many excellent players as well as many not so excellent.

Not surprisingly, the players invited themselves out of that arrangement. Hence, the strike. Here was a club of millionaires -- strong-minded men and women, we might suppose if we accept the popular notion that possession of millions is a symptom of powerful mental apparatus -- yet they wanted a new law to stop from spending themselves to death.

Remember the serial murderer in Chicago whose lipsticked message on one victim's wall was, "For heavens sake catch me before I kill more I cannot control myself"? This is an idea whose time seems to have come. The handwriting on the wall says we are a people unable to control ourselves, a people craving police custody, a people who want government firmly on our backs.

Baseball owners and people who don't pray enough in private are just a few of those classes yearning to have government up there on their backs where it rode in the good old days before movies, television and books had to be dirtied up before you could get millions of people to shell out money for them.

Calls are constantly heard for some authority that will stamp out entertainment that nice people shouldn't be exposed to. Sexual squalor is particularly blamed as a corruptor of people entertained by its literary, cinematic or telegenic representation.

"Stop us before we watch simulated sexual intercourse again," is the essential plea.

Even the more disgusting representations of physical violence now rouse calls for an entertainment police. Here is dramatic change. In the past even the most resolute censors have worked on the assumption that murder is cleaner than sex.

The good old moral middle class is said to be fed up with filth and violence on television. It has good reason to be. Mass-market television's afternoon is a bazaar of human freaks titillating the whole darn country about those really weird . . .

Well, never mind. Suffice it to say that I have heard middle-class moms on afternoon talk shows say things that Marine veterans of Guadalcanal would have been too delicate to mention in mixed company, much less to a nationwide audience.

Who watches all these freak shows? The same people who buy %% the grocery tabloids at the checkout counter; namely, the good old moral middle class who want to be stopped before they bathe in the gutter again.

Then there is the balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. If enacted, this will force all members of Congress to stop before they spend again. These pathetic wretches are sunk so deep in their vice that they now seek relief by mutilating the Constitution.

They propose putting government on the back of government itself so their inability to control themselves will be restrained, presumably by the threat of a long sentence to Congressional Prison. I envision a cell with dining room and wood-burning fireplace.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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