Last edited: February 12, 2005

Legislating Morality in the Land of the Free

U.S. on its way to becoming ‘nanny state’

National 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 liberty.

“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 freedom.

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 Virginia.

“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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