Legislating Morality in the Land of the Free
U.S. on its way to becoming ‘nanny state’
Post, February 12, 2005
By Sheldon Alberts
WASHINGTON—In his inaugural
address last month, George W. Bush did what U.S. presidents often do on
occasions of high ceremony—he held the United States up as an example for
people around the world desperate for freedom and the expansion of personal
“America, in this young century, proclaims liberty
throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof,” Bush said,
with soaring idealism. “In a world moving toward liberty, we are determined
to show the meaning and promise of liberty.”
It was a stirring call for oppressive governments
everywhere to loosen the reins on their people. One imagined Afghan women
ripping off their burkas on hearing Bush’s Jeffersonian rhetoric.
But as far as showing the rest of the world the
“meaning and promise” of personal liberty, U.S. lawmakers have lately
struggled to clear up their confusion about just what that should entail in
their own backyard.
Take the legislature of Virginia.
This week, legislators in Richmond briefly lost their
senses and voted 64 to 30 for legislation banning people from wearing baggy
pants that hang too low.
In a bid to protect Virginia’s gentle citizenry from
seeing someone’s Calvin Klein skivvies, House Bill 1981 ordered that “any
person who exposes his below-waist undergarments in a lewd or indecent manner
shall be assessed a $50 penalty.”
As stupid ideas go, it ranked right up there with North
Carolina’s anti-hippie law of 1972, which attempted to legislate how long
students could wear their hair at school.
Not surprisingly, the underpants measure led to much
international ridicule and the following day sheepish Virginia senators
quietly killed the bill.
Now, it is easy to dismiss this law for what it
was—absurd, even comical.
But the prurient sentiment that prompted the bill’s
passage reflects a much broader tension within American culture.
No nation on Earth embraces the ethos of liberty and
limited government with more zeal than the United States, and yet few
countries seem as obsessed about the consequences of unfettered personal
For decades, Americans have gently mocked Canadians for
living in a “nanny state” where meddlesome government too often dictates
the actions of individuals.
But more often than non-Americans would think, U.S.
legislators are concluding it is the government’s place to legislate, or
promote, acceptable behaviour.
Not to pick on Virginia, but until last month the state
had a “fornication” law banning sexual relations between unmarried couples
in private places. The state’s Supreme Court struck down the 200-year-old
law after legislators refused to act.
State legislators this winter have also been debating
same-sex marriage and school prayer, deciding to pass laws banning the former
and allowing the latter.
Just in case folks didn’t get the message about
Virginia’s preferred form of sexual relations, the legislature approved new
state licence plates to include the words “traditional marriage” and two
interlocking gold wedding bands superimposed over a red heart.
“Virginia does want to set an example of what character
should be,” said Representative Algie Howell, the Democrat who sponsored the
short-lived underpants law. “It has to do with character building.”
While Americans are driven by an impulse toward
unrestrained liberty, they are increasingly beset by fears too much liberty is
leading to the moral degeneration of the nation.
“Part of individual liberty is permitting individuals
to make stupid choices and yet we increasingly try to legislate morality,”
says Larry Sabato, director of the Centre for Politics at the University of
“There is a sense that American culture has taken a
detour into the gutter ... The natural counter-argument is that legislation is
not the way to deal with it.”
Certain American liberties, of course, are considered
inviolate, like the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
While Virginia’s lawmakers fret over the societal
threats posed by low-riding jeans, no one bats an eye at legislation allowing
anyone over 21 years of age to carry concealed handguns in public places.
The furor that erupted over Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe
malfunction” at last year’s Super Bowl embodies the conflict in the heart
of Americans and their lawmakers.
One flash of a nipple at half time produced a national
outrage that landed CBS with a US$550,000 indecency fine from the Federal
Communications Commission. Yet on any given night TV viewers can watch gay
relationships, unbridled sexual innuendo and lesbian kisses on prime time, as
networks continue to push the envelope.
Similarly, producers of this month’s Academy Awards
hired potty-mouthed comedian Chris Rock to host this year’s program in a bid
to attract a younger audience. But they are so worried about Washington’s
decency police the telecast will be put on a several-second delay just in case
he utters a profanity.
Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil
Liberties Union in Virginia, struggled with whether to treat the underpants
law as fodder for humour or outrage.
“This is just not a place for legislators to go,”
said Willis, adding that morality legislation “creates a precedent for
government extending its reach into places where it has not gone before.”
In 1791, Virginia native Thomas Jefferson wrote to a
friend, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much
liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”
What would Jefferson think about today’s controversies?
Sabato ponders the question and cites a famous quote
attributed to the former U.S. president: “He would say that ‘government is
best which governs least.’ “
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