Innocent Bystander November 2005

Fatwa City

Behavior modification gets down to business
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"Underwear is called underwear for a reason—because it is normally worn under your clothes." This explanation was offered to fellow legislators earlier this year by a member of Virginia's House of Delegates. It came amid a searing floor debate over a measure introduced by Algie T. Howell, a Democrat from Norfolk, that would levy a $50 fine for the wearing of pants that droop, hip-hop style, allowing underwear to show. Supporters of the bill hoped that it would begin to stem the "coarsening of society." Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that the fine amounted to racial profiling, because the fashion statement at issue is associated with African-American males. The House of Delegates passed the bill by a wide margin, but then, in the face of nationwide ridicule, a committee of Virginia's senate convened a special meeting and killed it.

During most of my lifetime America has been a land where governments took little regulatory interest in the nanobehavior of everyday life. To be sure, there were plenty of so-called blue laws back in Colonial times, some of which remain on the books. (Even now local lore holds that it is technically illegal to kiss in front of a church in the city of Boston.) There was also the failed experiment of Prohibition. And to this day that tag on mattresses cannot be torn off without risk of peine forte et dure. But in recent decades we have not had to live according to fatwas like those of Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has decreed, for instance, in Fatwa 2648: "It is unworthy to drink too much water, to drink water after eating fatty food, and to drink water while standing during the night." (Or this, Fatwa 2479: "A man cannot marry a girl who has been suckled fully by his mother or paternal grandmother.") We have not been forced to adhere to fastidious strictures like those of Singapore, where the offense of spitting on the sidewalk carries a $600 fine. The ongoing "Let us trim our hair in accordance with Socialist lifestyle" campaign in North Korea has posed no imminent threat of infiltration here. If anything, the tendency in late-twentieth-century America was in exactly the opposite direction—toward moral laissez-faire.

That said, and despite the failure of the "droopy drawers" bill, the tide now appears to be turning, and turning fast. My files are far from exhaustive, but they overflow with examples. In Texas a Republican lawmaker has proposed a bill that would require teenagers under eighteen to have a grade-point average of 2.0 or above in order to be issued a driver's license. Arguing that "parents with young children should not have to explain to them what a four-hour erection is," a Virginia congressman, Jim Moran, introduced an amendment (to H.R. 310) that would outlaw TV ads for erectile-dysfunction drugs between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. The state of Arkansas has now mandated that all schoolchildren be evaluated for their body-mass index, and that they receive an annual BMI "report card." In Alabama proponents of a law forbidding the sale of sex toys are breathing easier (and opponents less heavily) after the collapse in February of a legal challenge mounted by the ACLU, which argued that the ban violated the right to privacy; the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the matter. In Sutter, California, students this year were issued radio identification tags in order to automate the monitoring of attendance (and, parents wondered, who knew what else?). In Hawaii legislators are considering a prohibition on smoking at public beaches and parks—the first extension by any state of smoking bans to the outdoors. Meanwhile, the same Virginia legislator who was troubled by exposed underwear has introduced legislation that would penalize drivers for playing music too loudly in their cars or for slouching too far back in their seats.

Language, of course, has long been a target of those who would legislate morality, and the Federal Communications Commission under Michael Powell was an increasingly stern watchdog. Earlier this year PBS distributed to its affiliates only the expurgated version of A Company of Soldiers, a Frontline documentary about American forces in Iraq, because of concerns that obscenities shouted by military personnel during an ambush might bring censure from the FCC; it released the unbleeped version only to those local stations willing to sign waivers absolving PBS of liability for any fines. In Congress, Representative Douglas Ose, a Republican from California, is pushing legislation (H.R. 3687) that would explicitly forbid certain words from being broadcast in America under any circumstances. Thirty years ago the comedian George Carlin built a routine around the seven forbidden words, the words that "curve your spine and grow hair on your hands." Congressman Ose's list is nearly the same as Carlin's, except that Ose would for some reason permit the use of "tits" but proscribe the use of "asshole." The fine-tuning of linguistic etiquette is not confined to the United States. Our British cousins, through the auspices of the British Medical Journal, have proposed the eradication of a dozen terms, including "911" (the easy shorthand conceals the enormity of thousands of deaths) and "kiddie porn" (it sounds too chirpy for something so terrible). The journal's editor, Richard Smith, observes, "The proposal to ban a word focuses attention on the many wrong assumptions, prejudices, and even evil thoughts that might be contained within a word."

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Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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