Two states have legalized marijuana, with more to come. Yet social taboos against tobacco smoking make it nearly impossible to light up a cigarette in public places. Marijuana, like alcohol, causes far greater short-term impairment than does nicotine. But legal cigarette smoking is now seen as a corporate-sponsored, uncool and dirty habit that leads to long-term health costs for society at large -- in a way homegrown, hip and mostly illegal pot smoking apparently does not.
Graphic language, nudity and sex are now commonplace in movies and on cable television. At the same time, there is now almost no tolerance for casual and slang banter in the media or the workplace. A boss who calls an employee "honey" might face accusations of fostering a hostile work environment, yet a television producer whose program shows an 18-year-old having sex does not. Many colleges offer courses on lurid themes from masturbation to prostitution, even as campus sexual-harassment suits over hurtful language are at an all-time high.
A federal judge in New York recently ruled that the so-called morning-after birth control pill must be made available to all "women" regardless of age or parental consent, and without a prescription. The judge determined that it was unfair for those under 16 to be denied access to such emergency contraceptives. But if vast numbers of girls younger than 16 need after-sex options to prevent unwanted pregnancies, will there be a flood of statutory rape charges lodged against older teenagers who had such consensual relations with younger girls?
Our schizophrenic morality also affects the military. When America was a far more traditional society, few seemed to care that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower carried on an unusual relationship at the front in Normandy with his young female chauffeur, Kay Summersby. As the Third Army chased the Germans across France, Gen. George S. Patton was not discreet about his female liaisons. Contrast that live-and-let-live attitude of a supposedly uptight society with our own hip culture's tabloid interest in Gen. David Petraeus' career-ending affair with Paula Broadwell, or in the private emails of Gen. John Allen.
What explains these contradictions in our wide-open but prudish society?
Decades after the rise of feminism, popular culture still seems confused by it. If women should be able to approach sexuality like men, does it follow that commentary about sex should follow the same gender-neutral rules? Yet wearing provocative or inappropriate clothing is often considered less offensive than remarking upon it. Calling a near-nude Madonna onstage a "hussy" or "tart" would be considered crudity in a way that her mock crucifixion and simulated sex acts are not.
Criminal sexual activity is sometimes not as professionally injurious as politically incorrect thoughts about sex and gender. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer -- found to have hired prostitutes on a number of occasions during his time in office -- was given a CNN news show despite the scandal. But when former Miss California Carrie Prejean was asked in the Miss USA Pageant whether she endorsed gay marriage, she said no -- and thereby earned nearly as much popular condemnation for her candid defense of traditional marriage as Spitzer had for his purchased affairs.
Critics were outraged that talk-show host Rush Limbaugh grossly insulted birth-control activist Sandra Fluke. Amid the attention, Fluke was canonized for her position that federal health-care plans should pay for the contraceptive costs of all women.
Yet in comparison to Fluke's well-publicized victimhood, there has been a veritable news blackout for the trial of the macabre Dr. Kermit Gosnell, charged with killing and mutilating in gruesome fashion seven babies during a long career of conducting sometimes illegal late-term abortions. Had Gosnell's aborted victims been canines instead of humans -- compare the minimal coverage of the Gosnell trial with the widespread media condemnation of dog-killing quarterback Michael Vick -- perhaps the doctor's mayhem likewise would have been front-page news outside of Philadelphia.
Modern society also resorts to empty, symbolic moral action when it cannot deal with real problems. So-called assault weapons account for less than 1 percent of gun deaths in America. But the country whips itself into a frenzy to ban them, apparently to prove that at least it can do something -- without wading into the polarized racial and class controversies of going after illegal urban handguns, the real source of the nation's high gun-related body count.
Not since the late-19th-century juxtaposition of the Wild West with the Victorian East has popular morality been so unbridled and yet so uptight.
In short, we have become a nation of promiscuous prudes.