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Moral standards falling fast and inexorably to barbarity

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Our moral standards are in steep decline. What's worse is that as older generations of Americans pass away, fewer and fewer Americans are even aware of the decline. Younger Americans probably think today's standards have always been so, but I know differently because I'm old-fashioned beyond redemption.

Channel-surfing sometimes brings me to shows like "Jerry Springer," "Jenny Jones," "Ricki Lake" and "Montel Williams." These programs feature guests telling detailed stories of behavioral rot, such as mothers sleeping with their daughter's boyfriend, kids who curse and threaten their parents, parents who teach their kids how to shoplift and proud welfare recipients. It seems as though acceptance or rejection of their deviant behavior is measured by the applause of a voyeuristic audience.Deviancy and immorality are not new in human history. What's new is the willingness of people to put bizarre lifestyles on display to millions of strangers. Even worse is the relative absence of social sanction. Years ago, people would have been personally ashamed if others knew about their corrupt lifestyles. They'd try to hide it rather than go on national television or radio to broadcast it.

That says a lot about today's America. People show little hesitance to condemn smokers - behavior acceptable yesteryear - and are nonjudgmental about behavior long considered disgraceful and immoral.

Then there are television advertisements featuring female personal-hygiene products, with pictures and descriptions that leave little room for the imagination. Discretion is a thing of the past. Years ago, for example, sanitary napkins were discretely sold and wrapped in plain brown paper. Condoms were sold with similar discretion. You say, "Williams, you're a prude!"

I confess - kind of. Selling sanitary napkins in plain brown wrappers and condoms from under the counter might be prudish, but it seems to me that to openly advertise certain personal-hygiene products is a bit much. If you disagree with me about all this, let me ask: If female personal-hygiene items are socially appropriate for TV advertisement, is it also appropriate for a man to discuss the pros and cons of these items with his female co-workers? I suspect he'd risk charges of sexual harassment.

What about personal character? We have a president who has dodged the draft and openly cheated on his wife and has lawyers seeking an out-of-court settlement on charges of indecent exposure, not to mention presiding over a scandal-a-day administration. Yet Clinton receives high approval ratings from the general population.

Clinton's moral lapses say little about the man himself. He's just one among thousands of men who've dodged the draft, cheated on their wives or have been charged with indecent exposure. The fact that he became president, was re-elected and retains a high approval rating does say something about the new standards Americans have for what's acceptable conduct. This is the first time in our history that a draft-dodger and open womanizer could have been elected and re-elected president, and, in the face of one scandal after another, get high public-approval ratings.

Most of human behavior cannot and should not be regulated by law. Informal codes of conduct and moral standards provide the glue that holds society together. When these codes and standards, sometimes called traditional values, are ignored, trivialized or forgotten, we take another step toward barbarism and incivility.