What not to wear… drink, eat or say

August 7, 2008

In the Michigan city of Flint, police chief David Dicks has outlawed wearing pants too low down – a practice that has colloquially come to be known as ‘sagging’. Dicks has ordered his officers to arrest anyone wearing trousers that sag below the butt, self-righteously declaring that fines and jail time are justified for this ‘immoral self-expression’.

Flint is a city that has severe social and economic problems; it features heavily in Michael Moore’s films, including Roger and Me and Fahrenheit 9/11. Yet the police chief seems to be suggesting that tackling crime is best done in a What Not to Wear series of Stalinesque mandates.

Dicks is not alone. Lawmakers in Atlanta last year attempted to implement a similar ban, while two cities in Louisiana, Delcambre and Opelousas, have similar laws providing for fines up to $500 and up to six months in jail (no one has yet been charged under the laws). Atlanta city councilman, CT Martin, told NBC’s Today programme: ‘I’m a firm believer in the First Amendment… it’s not about putting anyone in jail. It’s about trying to get some educational discussion about the future for young people.’

Arresting people for showing their underwear may seem like the quirky obsession of some small-town American bureaucrats. But the very fact that it is deemed possible for a public official to put this line of argument forward demonstrates how far we have come already in accepting legislation in areas where officials once feared to tread. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is challenging Dicks on his ‘sagging’ ban, but there are plenty of other examples of this moralistic interference in our lives to reveal a wider trend.

Nobody does it better than Mike Bloomberg. New York’s ‘mayor of morality’ has banned trans-fats in the city’s restaurants, attempted to introduce a toll on drivers entering Manhattan and aimed his sights at strip clubs. Now, Bloomberg is joining forces with Microsoft magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates to launch a $500million campaign to persuade smokers in Asia, Africa and the rest of the globe to stop their nasty habit.

The presidential candidates, of course, won’t be left behind. Not wanting to be eclipsed by Barack Obama’s European pop-style tour, Republican nominee John McCain held a meeting with cycling superstar Lance Armstrong in Ohio where he also promised he would push to help smokers quit. Never mind the much more important but difficult debate about what it would take to provide a truly comprehensive universal healthcare system; instead, we are offered advice on how to behave.

What we say is also increasingly controlled. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has created a list of colleges where ‘speech codes’ are enforced. The FIRE list includes the University of Connecticut, which has outlawed ‘inconsiderate jokes’, ‘stereotyping’ and even ‘inappropriately directed laughter’, while West Virginia University has instructed incoming students and staff that they must ‘use language that is not gender specific…. Instead of referring to anyone’s romantic partner as "girlfriend" or "boyfriend", use positive generic terms such as "friend", "lover", or "partner".’

Strikingly, many of the people who see themselves as being politically ‘liberal’ and progressive often form the vanguard of the assault on our private choices and public freedoms these days. Thus, a recent New York Times editorial mocked David Gantt, the New York Democratic assemblyman from Rochester, for opposing an increase in CCTV cameras on New York City roads. The editorial lambasted him and mocked his reasoning for being opposed to the increase – that cameras in public places are ‘too big brother’. The editorial argued that after Gantt was finally forced to allow 100 such cameras, there were still 11,900 intersections without cameras. Presumably, the bastions of liberalism at the NYT will not be satisfied until New York is like London, where CCTV cameras are almost ubiquitous.

Much has been at written on spiked about censorious speech bans and pernicious behaviour codes. Increasingly, there is a climate in which lines are being drawn around acceptable pursuits and consumption – that are somehow ‘ethically minded’ – and other conduct, which is considered unacceptable. Often, what underpins this new regulation is a snobbish, class bias.

It is about time that the new elitist behaviour police were exposed for what they are: small-minded meddlers who seek to get into our hearts and minds by way of dubious fairytales of ‘good versus evil’ lifestyle choices. No longer capable of motivating a discussion and appeal to the Good Life, they crouch behind a depressing outlook that seeks to divide society into the ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’. In the nineteenth century, such moral distinctions were made between the well-off and the poor; today, it is all about behaviour.

We would do well to expose these self-appointed lifestyle guardians. The real nub of political debate today is around these issues, while the debates around the presidential election and the economic downturn have been vacuous and empty of content. If we are going to have a debate about public health, crime and its causes, education or the environment, then we should engage with these issues honestly. In order to do so today, we must expose fully how these issues have become hijacked by the new high priests of austere living.

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