"The proper role of vice is to keep virtue in reasonable check." ~ Benjamin Disraeli
It seems that every day that politicians wake up in the morning they want to make some new prohibition on our personal adult choices. They make war on cars; prohibit English even where the law allows it; make controls on soft drinks and fast food; restrict outdoor smoking; demand politically correct language; outlaw fireplaces and totally ignore privacy, property and commerce rights. We say enough. It's time to put the new prohibitionists on the run.
What sparked our ire this week was the controversy over the opening of the Jersey's Saloon bar on Sherbrooke St. in NDG. It is patterned after the Coyote Ugly bar of the hit movie where cowgirl-styled waitresses sometimes danced on the bar. Jersey's is on a main commercial street. It took over from another bar. Its owner Peter Sergakis is one of the few businessmen investing in this city's nightlife from the Manoir in Pointe Claire to some half-dozen throughout the island. He has faith in this city, creates wealth and jobs and takes chances where others won't. He is also President of the Quebec Union of Bar Owners.
It was one thing for CDN/NDG Mayor Russell Copeman to say he would not frequent such an establishment - that's his choice - but that Mr. Sergakis had met every legal requirement and the bar was not violating any regulation. It was quite another for Councilor Peter McQueen to characterize Jersey's as "a bar that's selling sex" because that's what McQueen felt Jersey's promotional video was implying. Mr. Sergakis has demanded an apology failing which he will take legal action.
There are two problems with McQueen's statement. First, he raises his subjective interpretation of a video into a public judgment. As Mr. Sergakis said, "I am not a pimp" and the bar is not selling sex. But the second problem is more systemic. Politicians have got to learn to stop denouncing choices of adults and engaging in blue-haired temperance-league censorship. What if it was selling sex? It is not a politician's business to denounce legal businesses. There are plenty of strip clubs in the city and they are all legal.
By selling sex we obviously don't mean prostitution, although even the Supreme Court has ruled that Criminal Code prohibitions against prostitution are unconstitutional. We're talking about selling sex in the everyday commercial sense. Calvin Klein and Victoria's Secret underwear ads of men and women. The suggestive ads of buffed men and beautiful women in publicity pitching everything from alcohol to clothes to music albums. The cheerleaders at sporting events. And we could go on. Sex is leveraged by commerce to appeal to men and women and it is, and should remain, legal.
The point is that most of the world has learned from the failed experiments of prohibition in the 1920s, that personal adult choices can't be legislated. People will find a way to do what they want to do. Prohibition only strengthened the criminal underworld. And as constitutional expert Julius Grey has noted, "Legislating niceness is not very nice, nor is it legal in most instances."
But it is the hypocrisy of politicians that is most damaging to both our public culture and the public purse. Respect for the right of commerce is almost totally ignored by our politicians. But they have made sexual rights a leading issue to champion. The fight to eliminate discrimination against a person's sexual identity and choice is right and proper. On the other hand, if elected officials denounce exploiting sex in legal manners, should not the question be raised as to why so much public money is going for events such as the Gay Pride parade? Is that not "leveraging sex" by using public monies to pander for votes of special interest groups all the while raising sexual proclivities to the status of state subvented rights? The double standard is obvious. And the public should understand the hypocrisy.
Our bars and restos and boites are not just collections of tables and chairs and lights and leathers. They are the personalities that have made our city a beacon for free-thinking and free-living. They made Montreal a great international city as much as anything, and strengthened our economy. Montrealers can’t be pigeon-holed or tamed to bureaucratic conformity and political correctness and no free people should be.
Hemingway once wrote, “Paris was always worth it, and you received in return whatever you brought to it. And this is how it was in the early days, when we were very happy. If you were lucky enough to have lived there, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris was a moveable feast.”
That’s pretty much how we Montréalais feel about our “Big Easy North”. We Montrealers want our streets teeming with sensual echoes framed in smoky blue-grey hazes fueled by intoxicating spirits. We crave to hear the sweet murmurs of pleasure. We yearn for those breathless encounters on the precipice of peril and menace. That is our moveable feast.
We will not yield our lives to dry and brittle souls who enforce, what President Kennedy called "the slow undoing of our most precious individual liberties." And in a free society the most foundational liberty is the freedom to choose, even to choose badly.
As George Jonas wrote, "Without a healthy degree of licentious resistance, what is life? Life in the only way it was truly meant to be lived. Life in all its glorious, chaotic and passionate uncertainty and unpredictability. Without all this, life would be nothing but a vast treadmill from birth to grave." This city doesn’t succumb to warning labels on life issued by politicians preying on fear. And that is a very good thing.