Paul McMorrow

Our new Blue Laws

Four Loko’s disappearance from shelves is just a recent incarnation of “Banned in Boston.’’ Four Loko’s disappearance from shelves is just a recent incarnation of “Banned in Boston.’’ (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
By Paul McMorrow
December 10, 2010

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LAST MONTH, voters in Massachusetts derived a good deal of satisfaction in turning back an otherwise-unstoppable national Republican wave. Out here, on our little liberal island, we refused to get swept up in a reactionary mob. We stood alone against Richard Nixon in 1972, and we knew enough to say no thanks to John Boehner in 2010; there’s not just satisfaction in that, but a good degree of self-satisfaction, because we’re different, and everybody else knows it.

Or are we? In the weeks since election day, local forces have made moves against foie gras, veal, booze, and banking. In each case, well-intentioned liberals weighed a set of facts, pitted pros against cons, and came down on the side of prohibition. And taken together, they show the reactionary impulses of the state’s forefathers haven’t been buried nearly as deeply as any of us would like to believe.

It’s a testament to Massachusetts’s evolution that the old Blue Laws are a fading memory. It wasn’t all that long ago that state law guarded against the befouling of Sundays by evils like commerce and alcohol distribution. The Blue Laws were rooted in the Puritan morality codes that predated both the state and American constitutions; to many observers, their creeping obsolescence signaled a break with the state’s buttoned-down past. Think about it: It really is a liberal notion to insist that a person has the right to buy a dozen eggs whenever a dozen eggs are needed, and the Sabbath and John Winthrop’s ghost be damned.

Things aren’t quite that neat, though. As the state has been stripping away the most obvious vestiges of its Puritan past, its residents have been swapping out the old Blue Laws for a new prohibition regime. Sure, now it’s perfectly legal to grab a six-pack minutes before kickoff on Sunday, but devotees of other vices haven’t fared quite so well. Smoking and dog racing come to mind. One’s a vile habit that’s on the run both indoors and out, and the other a miserable pastime that was extinguished by voters before it could be undone by the free market. And don’t even try getting a tasty doughnut anymore; trans fat bans in Boston, Brookline and Cambridge took care of that.

The recent bids to clamp down on foie gras, veal, booze, and banking all stand in nicely against this backdrop.

Last month’s Four Loko ban generated the most attention, as cities like Boston and Somerville raced the state, and then the FDA, to be the first ones to codify in law what should be common sense — that it’s not advisable to consume large quantities of a disgusting malt beverage that marries the alcohol content of a bottle of wine with an obscene amount of caffeine.

The area’s entrance into the food wars didn’t generate nearly enough excitement, presumably because it’s been some time since a Northeastern student blacked out on a Michelin-quality meal. Nevertheless, the Brookline Town Meeting passed a near-unanimous resolution designed to shame restaurants and retailers into shunning veal, and an animal rights group insisted, successfully, that foie gras be banned from a goose-themed fund-raiser in Cambridge.

Then there’s the ongoing quest by the Cambridge City Council to pass a law barring banks from setting up shop in the city’s high-rent districts. The council believes the Citibanks of the world, and not their landlords, are the ones driving local retailers out of Harvard Square, so therefore, they should be forcibly excluded from opening their doors from here on out.

It doesn’t seem overly remarkable that lawmakers should want to clear one can of booze off crowded liquor store shelves, or that animal lovers might object to what’s on carnivores’ plates, or that the good people of Cambridge should have a frosty and somewhat confused outlook on capitalism.

But what is noteworthy is the immediate and irresistible impulse at work in each case — to stake out the high ground, banish that which is objectionable, and be done with it forever.

After all, that’s the way we’ve done it around here since 1630. There’s a straight line of thought from the reaction to Anne Hutchinson’s Bible lectures, which got her booted from the colony, to the Brahmin-led “Banned in Boston’’ censorship spree that held sway well into the 20th century, to the current environment, where municipal budgets are in crisis, but governing bodies busy themselves with matters like inhumane animal slaughter (really, is there any other kind?). It’s all reactionary — the most enlightened kind.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.