This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 5, 2008 - As a youth, I was dragged to see "The Music Man." This traumatic event occurred during a vulnerable phase of early adolescence when I had a carefully cultivated reputation to protect. It's tough to come across as the sixth grade's answer to James Dean if you're seen going to some dorky musical with your mother and your aunt. Alas, child abuse enforcement was lax in those days, so off I went. It was meager solace that it would be dark inside the theater.
The film recounts the tale of a charming con-man, Prof. Harold Hill, and his efforts to fleece the rubes in some Iowa berg by collecting money to start a boy's band. Once he had the down payments for uniforms and equipment in hand, Hill planned to split, leaving the locals to whistle Dixie while awaiting his return. For his scheme to work, however, he had to generate interest in the project.
Hill seized upon the installation of a pool table in the town's previously sedate billiards parlor as his catalyst. This ominous development, he solemnly intoned, imperiled the morals of impressionable youth, turning previously bright-eyed youngsters into sullen, cynical, wise-cracking idlers -- pretty much exactly the image I was trying to project. The antidote to this sinister malaise was, of course, a marching band.
As you probably know or have already figured out, Hill is saved by the love of a good woman. Marian the librarian causes him to repent his larcenous ways, and he presumably spends the remainder of his days living happily ever after within the stultifying confines of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Saccharine sentimentality and lame show tunes notwithstanding, the film provides an excellent example of a phenomenon sociologist Stanley Cohen terms moral panic -- a publicized peril to the normal way of life.
Moral panics are characterized by an exaggerated fear of a perceived threat. The threat may be fabricated or, more often, real but so remote that the hysteria engendered is ridiculously out of proportion to its likelihood to occur. If an asteroid were to crash into your house, for instance, it would undoubtedly alter your lifestyle. However, if you're planning to erect a lead umbrella over your residence to protect against such an eventuality, you're suffering moral panic.
The other signature feature of these panics is that they're usually promoted by a con-man with a hidden agenda. Joseph McCarthy exploited the Red Scare to elevate an otherwise mediocre political career to one of national prominence. While Soviet espionage was undeniably real and dangerous, the suggestion that Harry Truman and George C. Marshall were in on the plot was a risible amplification of the actual threat.
Ironically, once these fraudulent panics are exposed, the underlying hazard that prompted them originally tends to become discounted in the public imagination. Like the boy who cried wolf, the doomsayers lose all credibility and their causes become yesterday's news -- which is not to say that the wolf doesn't still exist. Sound public policy, then, is based on threat assessment conducted within a reasonable context. That requires critical thought.
Former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, has now written a book ("What Happened") in which he alleges that the Bush administration knowingly duped the nation into the invasion of Iraq. Photo-shopping intelligence to highlight threats posed by the regime of Saddam Hussein and discounting or ignoring altogether evidence to the contrary, he says the president and his cohorts used "propaganda" to seduce a gullible citizenry into an unnecessary war. Those who dared to question the rationale for the conflict were dismissed as idiots, traitors or, worse yet, liberals.
Viewed as a moral panic, the question arises as to what motivated this particular con. Though various theories have been advanced, one that has been largely downplayed is the Bushes' cozy relationship with the House of Saud.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Osama bin Laden wanted to raise an all-Arab army to expel him. Saudi royals rejected that romantic notion and elected to allow their American friends to handle the details. At the war's conclusion, the Prince Sultan air base in northern Saudi Arabia was staffed by American forces to patrol the southern no-fly zone in Iraq.
It was the continuing presence of our "infidel" troops in the sacred home of Mecca that was bin Laden's stated reason for the 9/11 attacks. Removing Saddam eliminated the need for keeping these forces in Saudi Arabia, thus placating domestic radicals within the Saudi kingdom for the benefit of the ruling elite.
Indeed, on April 28, 2003, the NY Times reported, "American and Saudi officials have ... said a visible American troop presence weakens the Saudi royal family rather than strengthens it because it only fuels the militant elements inside the country." U.S. forces were, in fact, withdrawn from the Prince Sultan base shortly after the fall of Baghdad. We thus removed the major external threat to the royal family by eliminating Saddam, which in turn allowed us to leave, thereby enhancing its internal security. A tidy solution for royal problems. Unfortunately, more than 4,000 of our troops have so far given their lives in the resultant occupation of Iraq.
In the movie, the professor's librarian, Marian, saves him from himself before he can do any real harm. Too bad the president's librarian, Laura, couldn't have done the same ...