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I just read in the St. Louis Beacon that the Missouri Senate has just about “fixed” the sections of Jane Cunningham’s Amy Hestir Davis Student Protection Act that would have restricted or even banned student-teacher contact via the Internet. I am relatively comfortable that there is much in the bill that will assist school districts to deal with teachers who have been proven to be sexual predators, something that most of us can support. However, when it came to the supposed menace posed by evil social networking sites, the framers went totally off the wall. The legislation was so poorly written that lots of people were concerned that they couldn’t figure out what behaviors the bill actually prohibited.  

I was amused but not surprised that the sponsor of the bill, Senator Jane Cunningham, is one of our current Tea Party darlings. Tea Partiers, as you no doubt know, are folks who like to rant about freedom, the primacy of personal responsibility, and, over and over again, the encroachment of the “nanny state.” Yet, when it comes to anything to do with, among other things, sexual behavior, they never fail to come out with a great big stick of the sort usually hefted only by the meanest of nannies – the sort of stick that can do lots of collateral damage.

Of course, the Amy Hestir bill’s Internet prohibitions offered Tea Partiers a threefer.  The bill not only raised the specter of sexual misbehavior – and in a form involving predatory exploitation of children, something that few would defend -but it took on teachers, currently a favorite bête noire, since teachers are, for the most part, happily unionized. The bill certainly suggests that they are all always under suspicion of improper motives and must be monitored in all communications with minors.  Finally, the bill went after social networking with a bazooka.

In my experience the typical middle-aged or elderly Tea Party type is often a little disturbed by the chaotic world of the Internet, whether or not they admit it. The Internet isn’t – yet – easily controlled by centralized authority. Additionally, the concerns that many right-wingers express about the World Wide Web often seem to center on, once again, sex, specifically the somewhat sensationalized belief that the Internet is mainly used to promulgate pornography and lure women and children into unregulated sexual behaviors.

The fact that neither of these possibilities are exclusive to the Internet goes unremarked as conservative religious leaders rant and rave about its dangers. Oddly the same people are often the first to proclaim, when it comes to gun control, that guns don’t kill people, people do. Yet they have real problems with the parallel proposition that Facebook doesn’t lure young girls into illicit activity, … well, you get the idea.

I remember listening to a call-in radio program on NPR when a self-identified Tea partier was asked by the host what she meant by nanny state.  Her examples?  Michelle Obama’s suggestions that folks eat greens, and congressional efforts to set energy standards that could affect one’s choice of a light bulb. And she was ready to go to war about it all. Her comments do, however, suggest to me the difference between the type of social control – which is what conservatives mean when they talk about a nanny state – that liberals might advocate and that proposed by many on the right.

For the most part, the liberal nanny state is motivated by actual knowledge – greens are verifiably good for you after all. Liberals recognize that we have a collective social life and they want to make it better, or at least keep it from degenerating. Energy standards that affect light bulbs help to reduce energy consumption and contribute to a more stable environment, ergo, a better collective life. Encouraging people to eat in a healthier way not only improves the individual’s life, it makes our collective life better by helping cut overall health care costs.

The conservative nanny state, though, seems to be motivated by over-weaning fear. It is true that we need to make sure that we keep teachers who abuse children out of classrooms, but we don’t have to strike out blindly to do so. Often it seems that the real fear behind so many conservative prohibitions borders on the irrational. Many have argued very effectively that behind the general social hysteria about child abusers, is the fear of loss of control. It is even more obvious that behind the hysteria about abortion is the fear of sexually empowered females; behind the frothing about Muslims lies the never-ending fear of the other. These folks are scared silly.

It is important to understand this fact: We all want some kind of control over our social lives and everybody has their ideal “nanny” to achieve that end. Don’t believe conservatives when they tell you they are against government interference in personal life. Most right-wingers are desperate to maintain an orderly and static social environment. But beware – the nanny that the conservatives want to hire to keep under control all the chaotic impulses that so frighten them is a bully who will have no compunction about slapping your hands with a ruler and sending you to bed with no dinner if you so much as make a peep.