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Pundits and commentators, who normally consider themselves more open-minded than the plodding masses, have been rocked by a discovery in the last six months: When it comes to a President's indiscretions, most people just don't care. "But you're supposed to be outraged," you can almost hear them pleading. "That's your job." Sorry, Jimmy Olsen; middle-class morality ain't what it used to be.

What it used to be, middle-aged readers may remember, was "hypocritical." At least, that was the charge, that conventional morality was a false front: seemingly upright citizens would deplore sexual hanky-panky and publicly condemn anyone who strayed, but their private lives were not so pristine. The sad suburban couples in John Updike's stories illustrate this thesis: on the surface, big happy families; underneath, sneaking and adultery and broken hearts.

One goal of the sexual revolution was to eliminate the false front. Fooling around was to be freely admitted, even celebrated—the more "love," the merrier. No one's indiscretions would be condemned. You'll still find people waving this antihypocrisy banner, as if it were a new idea that they alone are brave enough to champion.

No, hypocrisy is not our besetting national sin. If anything, the reverse is true. Americans no longer do naughty things secretly while condemning the same conduct in others; instead, while we are increasingly reluctant to condemn anything or anybody, we actually live more circumspectly than we did a couple of decades ago. Since the mideighties, generalized promiscuity has been on the decline. First herpes, then aids sobered up the party. The tragic mess of abortion added accumulating grief, hardly an aphrodisiac.

Sex moved from the bedroom to the living-room ...

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Whatever Happened to Middle-Class Hypocrisy?
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In the Magazine

July 13, 1998

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