"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.