The New Temperance: The American Obsession with Sin and Vice / Bad Habits: Drinking, Smoking, Taking Drugs, Gambling, Sexual Misbehavior; and Swearing in American History

By Appleton, Lynn | Contemporary Drug Problems, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The New Temperance: The American Obsession with Sin and Vice / Bad Habits: Drinking, Smoking, Taking Drugs, Gambling, Sexual Misbehavior; and Swearing in American History


Appleton, Lynn, Contemporary Drug Problems


The New Temperance: The American Obsession with Sin and Vice, by David Wagner (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997), $16 paper, $60 cloth.

Bad Habits: Drinking, Smoking, Taking Drugs, Gambling, Sexual Misbehavior, and Swearing in American History, by John Burnham (New York: New York University Press, 1993), $19.50 paper.

The study of drug use was preoccupied with deviance until the realization that deviance was a moving target shifted our attention to "the normal." In 20-century America, normalcy is the cultural property of the metynomic middle class (DeMott, 1990). Like true north on the compass, this class locates the others. Disproportionately powerful in the normative and political realms, it shapes the iconic American Society.

Two recent books-sociologist David Wagner's The New Temperance and historian John Burnham's Bad Habitsexamine the middle class and its attitudes toward the pleasures of the flesh. Both books consider the use of psychoactive drugs as well as a set of related practices: sexual behavior (in both books) and the "minor vices" of gambling and swearing (in Burnham's book). They offer analyses of the tension between pleasure and repression-or, if you prefer, self-indulgence and self-control-in the American middle class. Burnham covers the period from the mid-19th century to the late 1960s; Wagner's chronology begins where Burnham's ends. In these two books, Gusfield's dictum "[t]he sociologist picks up where the historian closes" (Gusfield, 1969:2) is literally true.

These equally compelling books are incompatible with each other. Burnham argues that the middle class has sunk ever deeper into intemperance and hedonistic amorality, while Wagner argues that the same group has become increasingly judgmental and abstemious. Wagner believes the United States has become more repressive and intolerant, while Burnham argues that it has embraced tolerance at the cost of civility.

Maybe both arguments are valid and some huge change occurred around 1970. Maybe each argument reflects the disciplinary limits of its author. Maybe each analysis is skewed by the politics of its author. Maybe both authors are undone by the same methodological error: the search for confirmatory evidence and dismissal of disconfirmatory data. Maybe all of the above are true-in any event, both books are worth reading.

Each author's endpoint is shaped by his opening assumptions about whether this country is "going to hell in a handbasket" (as my grandmother would have put it) or "run by a bunch of damned bluenoses" (as my grandfather would have put it). Neither author provides particularly convincing evidence of the ubiquity of the values and practices around which his work is organized,* but each author's contentions have some ring of truth. Read in tandem, these books force closer inquiry about trends in middle-class values and personal behavior as well as their connection to public policy.

Wagner begins with a conviction that a "new temperance" exists in the United States. He argues that it is characterized by repression of and intolerance for the pleasures of the body: certain kinds of food (high in fat, high in sugar), forms of sexual relationships (multiple partners, "unsafe" sex), some patterns of alcohol use (frequent, high dose), and the use of other drugs (tobacco, marijuana). He assumes that the past decades have been a period of "high claimsmaking" in this multistage arena (p. 42) and that a global impulse to temperance underlies changes in each area.

Burnham begins with a different set of certainties, particularly that the American middle class is increasingly tolerant of what used to be called "the minor vices" (sexual promiscuity, cursing, gambling, drug taking). His history traces a century of decline in an American consensus about "respectability" that repudiated the deviant "lower orders" and included "decent" working-class people as well as the middle class. He assumes that temperance values currently are on the defensive and "do your own thing" is in ascendancy.

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