Grow Up, America

By Sean Carroll | February 22, 2009 12:48 pm

Various things that have been piling up in the “Bloggable” folder. But together they tell their own story.

Part of the stimulus package includes money for high-speed rail. That’s good — if the government is going to be spending piles of money in an attempt to kick-start the economy, it would be nice to get something of lasting value in return, and mass transportation connecting distant cities is certainly of lasting value. Of course opponents are playing politics with it, which is to be expected. And here is their fun strategy: to highlight on such proposed high-speed rail line, between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and label it the “Sin Express.” Get it? Real Americans don’t travel between those two dens of iniquity, only shady reprobates who want to divert stimulus dollars from hard-working blue-collar Midwesterners who would never step foot inside a shiny Vegas casino.

Unfortunately, it’s not even true — there is no money set aside for high-speed rail between LA and Vegas, and it’s not listed as a high priority on the Federal Railroad Administration’s list of officially designated high-speed rail corridors. Which is too bad, as I’ve driven along several of those hypothetical routes, and the one between LA and Vegas is certainly one of the more useful places to plunk down some high-speed rail.

Read Jessica Valenti on “hook-up culture.” In case you don’t know what that is, it’s a catchphrase invented by cultural conservatives who would like you to believe that kids today are disrespecting America’s Puritan heritage by having sex with each other. And they may be right! I suspect that some kids are having sex with each other. Sex is fun. But it is also something to be careful about, with possible unintended consequences ranging from emotional pain to disease to unplanned pregnancies. So we might hope that responsible cultural conservatives would want to equip young men and women with the knowledge necessary to avoid those pitfalls while enjoying the fun parts of sex. But that agenda seems to be well-hidden under a campaign to shame people, under the theory that other people having sex is a dirty and disgusting thing.

You may have heard that Michael Phelps, former paragon of American purity and might and speediness in water, has been uncovered as a shocking moral degenerate. Apparently he intentionally inhaled the fumes from a slowly-burning psychoactive herb, funneled through some sort of device designed expressly for that purpose, while “chilling” with his “buds.” Now all of his recent success at the Beijing Olympics must be called into question — how do we know that his fantastic performances in competitive swimming weren’t artificially aided by “toking” on a “doobie” before hopping in the pool? Naturally, Phelps has been suspended from competition, stripped of lucrative sponsorship deals, and forced to wear a sackcloth and ashes while parading around the town square with a giant scarlet “M” hanging around his neck.

Here is the letter Michael Phelps should have written. If only.

Annette Obrestad This is Annette Obrestad from Norway, one of the best poker players in the world. She is also a young woman, and a great role model for girls in what has traditionally been a boy’s game. She burst on the scene when she was only 15 years old, winning online tournaments in Europe. At the age of 18 she proved that her prowess extended to live play, winning $2 million by taking first place at the World Series of Poker Europe Main Event.

But Obrestad can’t legally play poker for money in the United States. She’s too young, and will have to wait another year until she turns 21. You can join the army, or vote, or sign multi-million-dollar basketball contracts if you are 20 years old, but you can’t play poker for money. (Michael Phelps participated in the 2000 Olympics at the age of 15.) America is afraid of poker. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, smuggled through Congress in 2006, led many online poker sites to stop accepting money from U.S. players, no matter how old they are.

I’m not sure what it is that makes America so puritanical, compared to Western Europe. (It’s also substantially more religious, but the direction of the causal arrows is not clear.) Hopefully we can scold the country into taking a more grown-up attitude toward sex, drugs, gambling — maybe even, someday, rock and roll. A few more blog posts like this one should do it.

  • BrieCS

    Technically, you can do all of those things (join the army, vote, or sign contracts) at age 18. You can also smoke, marry, buy a house, a car, and many other things. You can’t drink alcohol, or gamble, both of which tend to be less dangerous than traveling to the other side of the world to get shot at and blown up. Hell, with parental consent, you can join the army before you turn 18 if you’re in your last year of high school, and take Basic Training the summer before you graduate. AWESOME, America!

    In some states, you can legally drink alcohol with your parent’s consent if they are with you at the time, but not Pennsylvania – one of the few states so strict that you can’t enter places that serve alcohol (even bar/restaurant places) without a guardian in many parts of the state – even if you’re married, it can’t be your spouse, but has to be a parent or legal guardian such as an adoptive parent or grandparent.

    And god, marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol – the only difference between the two is that the government makes money off of one. So long as there are still restrictions regarding driving under the influence, who the hell cares?

  • lee

    Hah – If Michael Phelps gave his gold-medal-winning performances while using pot, they should revoke the silver and bronze medals of his competitors!

  • Tony

    when you consider that America was basically founded by people Europe didnt want (Religious fanatics, Criminals, Kooks, and Aggressive Business men eager to exploit its resources) it makes perfect sense.

  • BuelahMan


    Keep telling truth!

  • The Ridger

    Yeah – all the Puritans left Europe and came here.

  • No. 9

    The list could be extended indefinitely–the scorn heaped on a young woman who turned out 8 babies at once while getting food stamps; the rants generated when the government makes an attempt to stimulate the economy (vs the utter lack of such rants when the government enters wars of opportunity, buys prisoners to torture, and torches the rule of law, including the constitution); the rationalizations used to insist that there should be no legal action taken for crimes committed by the last administration; the fascination of Lacy Peterson and Jon Benet; reality TV; manned space flights; the irrationality of spending billions to discover the Higgs boson–for which there is no practical uses; the inerrancy of the Bible; my paycheck. So, get out there and DO SOMETHING about it!

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls

    Grow up? Here’s what the grown-up Americans are doing. From Glen Greenwald, at Salon:

    The Los Angeles Times — February 20, 2009:

    The Pentagon has concluded that the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay meets the standards for humane treatment of detainees established in the Geneva Convention accords. . . .

    The administration official said the report’s primary conclusions supported the Department of Defense’s long-standing contention that Guantanamo was in compliance with the global convention, including Article 3, which requires the humane treatment of prisoners taken in unconventional armed conflicts, such as the war on terrorism.

    “The bottom line is that the report found that Guantanamo is in compliance with the Geneva conventions, which we have maintained for several years. So the report essentially validated our procedures and processes,” the official said.

    The Guardian, today:

    Revealed: full horror of Gitmo inmate’s beatings

    Binyam Mohamed will return to Britain suffering from a huge range of injuries after being beaten by US guards right up to the point of his departure from Guantánamo Bay [on Saturday], according to the first detailed accounts of his treatment inside the camp.

    Mohamed will arrive back tomorrow in the UK, where he was a British resident between 1984 and 2002. During medical examinations last week, doctors discovered injuries and ailments resulting from apparently brutal treatment in detention.

    Mohamed was found to be suffering from bruising, organ damage, stomach complaints, malnutrition, sores to feet and hands, severe damage to ligaments as well as profound emotional and psychological problems which have been exacerbated by the refusal of Guantánamo’s guards to give him counselling.

    Mohamed’s British lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, said his client had been beaten “dozens” of times inside the notorious US camp in Cuba with the most recent abuse occurring during recent weeks. He said: “He has a list of physical ailments that cover two sheets of A4 paper. What Binyam has been through should have been left behind in the middle ages.”

    [U.S. Army] Lieutenant colonel Yvonne Bradley, Mohamed’s US military attorney, added: “He has been severely beaten. Sometimes I don’t like to think about it because my country is behind all this.” . . .

    For reasons that human rights groups and detainees’ lawyers immediately pointed out, this self-exonerating Pentagon report, from the start, was suspect in the extreme. But a sign of how broken our discourse is and how in love with ourselves we continue to be is that, on the question of current Guantanamo conditions, the conclusions of the United States Pentagon released this week were treated not only as credible, but authoritative. If the DOD — which has long overseen Guantanamo and continues to do so — says that everything is great there, well, that’s the end of that. What else is there to know?

    Of all the defining practices and policies of the Bush administration which the Obama administration has already enthusiastically embraced — and they’re piling up so quickly, it’s becoming difficult to keep track — one of the most disturbing is the Obama administration’s press management approach. The administration is singling out particularly supportive journalists to whom they anonymously leak purely favorable pro-administration spin; giving access to others who are have a history of such sycophantic behavior that they predictably produce profiles so one-sided and glowing that even People Magazine would be embarrassed to publish it; and — worst of all — they are systematically hiding behind anonymity to disseminate their claims in order to evade accountability, the exact opposite of the “transparency” Obama continuously promised (read David Cay Johnston’s superb account of dealing with the Obama White House Press Office to see what a real journalist — as opposed to one desperately jockeying to serve the White House in exchange for favored access status — does when faced with baseless demands from administration officials for anonymity and off-the-record chatter).

    These allegations that Binyam Mohamed was brutalized at Guantanamo in the last several weeks — while the Obama DOD was “concluding” that conditions there comported with the Geneva Conventions — are coming from highly credible sources. The Obama administration has the obligation to make available an official in a position of real authority to speak on the record and attempt to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable stories. The pledge to end the brutality and secrecy of the Bush detention regime was one of the centerpieces of Obama’s campaign. One would think, on their own, they’d be eager to address these allegations in a forthright and candid way.

  • Ted

    Problem with high-speed rail is it’s almost always been a fiscal disaster with minimal environmental benefits (read Randall O’Toole’s study). That’s why private business won’t sink cash into it the way they once did with railroads. Moreover, federal high speed rail tends to be slow-speed rail because it tends to meander to get into as many counties and congressional districts as possible rather than follow a straight line.

    All your other points are great though! Nice to see someone else read’s Balko’s wonderful blog.

  • Abdul Naseer

    On one side are people who push the ‘extremism’ envelope in terms of religion and on the other side are people who push so-called ‘freedom’ i.e. in terms of sex, gambling etc.

    Well, the reality is that both attitudes are incorrect. Even though there might different ways of understanding God, let us atleast understand that God exists and that there is goodness in controlling our passions.

  • Lab Lemming

    So are you arguing that because Phelps is rich, white, and famous, he should be treated differently than all the poor black drug users who go to jail without making the front page?

  • Paul Murray

    Shriveled old conservatives don’t withold sex education from teens out of fear, but out of spite. They resent the young their youth, and so mean to punish them for it – that bunishment being having to bear and raise the children that result from sex. “You made yer bed, now lie in it!”

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I’m not sure we’re really less mature than other places.

    To wit (just off the top of my head):

    That said, the fact that the rest of world can be just as idiotic, in their fashion, is no excuse for us to be.

  • Jason Creighton

    Nitpick: The minimum gambling age is not the same everywhere in the US, it varies state by state:

    It’s 21 or 18 most places, though.

  • Anonymous

    Of course you can’t have kids have sex until they’re old enough to attend conferences! If students could have sex at any age, scientific conferences would completely lose their purpose, and all of them would have to be cancelled considering the current science budget.

  • Mark S

    >So are you arguing that because Phelps is rich, white, and famous, he should be treated differently than all the poor black drug users who go to jail without making the front page?

    No, all marijuana users should all be treated the same, black or white – they should be let off.

  • spyder

    I think Stewart/Colbert said it best: USSwimming thought they were punishing Phelps by giving him three months off? Sure, tell a dope smoker he has three months to stop smoking, right?! The cynicism in this is made more intense knowing the training and competition schedule of swimming at that level. This three months means absolutely nothing whatsoever to Phelps or his coach.

    Citizens of the US tend to have no conscious awareness regarding the substantive difference between the extremely-thin line dividing intellectual levels of competency regardless of age. I know 40 year olds that should never gamble or drink. I know 14 year olds with substantively greater maturity. Arbitrary designations of age are as fake as CGI f/x

  • Jimbo

    Kudos to CV for Holding the Flag of American Hypocrisy high !

    Hyperbole fails me. This is the quintessential ICEBERG issue of which 80% is sub-surface, yet with political warming in DC, more of the iceberg becomes visible, and will hopefully all melt one day.
    The Phelps Phiasco is particularly, painfully poignant ! He did indeed have it all in the palm of his hand, but did not possess the testicular fabric to thrust it into the air, in a gesture which would’ve ranked with the John Carlos/Tommie Smith black power salute in the 1968 Olympic games.

    Pot is a recreational drug, not one that enhances performance, and is completely irrelevant to Phelps prior Olympiad achievements. But the `image thing’ is what they have crucified Phelps over: young Americans should hold their Olympians `high’ as moral role-models, or so the hypocrites demand. Burning the scepter, burned those bridges, and the powers that be threatened to burn Phelps if he did not recant.

    It was a sad day when he missed the opportunity of a lifetime, as the linked letter made clear, but perhaps this is the first shot across the bow of puritanical America, that a new Boston Tea Party is waiting in the wings to happen, and cast off the 40-year hamperings of an utterly failed 10-Billion$$ per year drug war against otherwise law-abiding Americans, a multi-billion dollar prison industry, and a S.of the border horror-story which will only continue to get worse.

  • Haelfix

    You would think some of that stimulus package could have gone directly into funding a better rail system instead of so many of those wasteful programs. Otoh i’ve read a lot of that sort of thing is difficult to plan and construct in a quick timeframe.

    I think they should plan out business cycles in a more effective way next time. The government should literally have ready to go big project plans already setup for stimulating recesionary phases in case monetary policy fails as opposed to wasting billions of dollars on less effecient spur of the moment shovel ready projects that don’t really have big multiplier effects.

    Hopefully you don’t have to use them, but its never a bad idea to actually have the groundwork in place.

  • Pingback: Chaz’s Lifestream » Blog Archive » Daily Digest for 2009-02-22()

  • wds

    I’m not so sure I agree with you on your stance on gambling. Annette Obrestad has managed to make a great living for herself playing poker, sure, but do we really want to encourage children to take this up as a profession? Is that not what a role model does? I think there’s a whole bunch of other professions that 1) have a much better risk/reward ratio and 2) serve a more useful purpose.

  • Gordon Wilson

    “It’s(US) also substantially more religious, but the direction of the causal arrows is not clear.”

    Really? I think the direction is crystal clear. As Christopher Hitchens says, “Religion poisons

  • Harbles

    And what about Metrication?

    It will help business be more efficient in a global market and simplify education etc, etc … but there seems to be a right wing taboo against it be cause ‘it ain’t ‘mericun!’

  • roger

    “slowly-burning psychoactive herb”: what does slowly-burning have to do with it? Are people claiming its a danger because it burns dangerously fast?? Anyways if he’s gonna take millions upon millions in cash, those who pay him can impose any conditions they want. If they are in the business of selling cereal, and don’t much feel like getting involved in a public debate about the merits of marijuana, then they should kick him to the curb. Likewise with the Olympics organizers: they created the conditions for him to compete, and they establish the rules.

    So smug and condescending. So ready to ascribe motives to others, so sure you understand their objections to what you approve of – arrogance. Is “puritanism” really such a big deal in this country, Sean? Porn is a national pastime and is widely available, half the Internet is streaming porn videos, 26% of adult New Yorkers have genital herpes (look it up). So even these detestable Americans haven’t reached the creamy sexual ideal you judge them by, but is it really “puritanism”? I know many hispanic Catholics families who are much more “sexually uptight” than loose WASP girls I went to school with (more directly related to the Puritans, but even so the analogy is asinine from a historical perspective). Modern America has shifted so far from the early Puritan settlers who formed but a part of its early history. So unpoint your finger.

  • coolstar

    Have to say it (even though I am a card carrying liberal): Michael Phelps failed the Darwin test. He’s lucky, the punishment is quite often fatal……..

  • Count Iblis

    Americans have a different attitude toward the law than we have in Europe. Unlike in Euprope, in the US, the law is absolute.

  • Lab Lemming

    “Pot is a recreational drug, not one that enhances performance, and is completely irrelevant to Phelps prior Olympiad achievements.”

    didn’t some snowboarder get disqualified for failing a pot test? If it is listed as performance enhancing, then it doesn’t matter what the actual effect is- fail a test and you can’t compete.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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