Virginia skirts major embarrassment on underwear legislation

February 15, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - That was close. Virginia's Senate has accomplished what an upper legislative chamber is supposed to do. It has saved its state from being further embarrassed by its lower chamber.

Virginia's House of Delegates last week voted by a commanding 60-34 to impose a $50 fine on anyone whose boxers, briefs or thongs peek above their pants or skirts.

But it's just as well that the Old Dominion backed down. I hear that a nationwide backlash was welling up, led by the likes of a defiant 15-year-old hip-hop fanatic who also happens to be my son.

"We should have a Million Man Sagging Pants March," Grady J. Page fumed, so outraged that he almost dropped his portable video game player. Look out, world, lest a sleeping giant awake in low-hung jeans. Like a sartorial Voltaire, Page the Younger disagrees with droopy drawers, but defends to the last iPod his generation's right to wear them. Or almost wear them.

Of course, as the parent of a teenager, I understand that the bill's author, Del. Algie T. Howell Jr., a Democrat from Norfolk, meant no harm. Like many proper upstanding old-school folks, the 67-year-old Air Force veteran was simply fed up with the affront that exposed thongs, panty tops and boxer shorts inflicted upon his sensibilities.

"That's why they're called undergarments," he told The Virginian-Pilot. "They're supposed to be worn under something else."

Still, one wonders, even in the state of evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, should it be the government's job to tell people how to dress? This is America, after all, not Iran.

Louisiana's lawmakers decided as much in June when they rejected a similar ban. The negative impact of such a statute on Mardi Gras tourism alone could have been, as they say in the Big Easy, tres gros, monsieur.

But why do we not see a groundswell of outrage about, for example, women who expose their bra straps? That fashion statement has been with us since Madonna launched it in the early 1980s.

The real issue is not underwear, it's despair.

One of my readers had the right idea in a response to one of my recent tirades against certain toxic aspects of hip-hop culture: "When you see an individual who is experiencing multigenerational poverty and you see that they are involved in hip-hop culture, it's easy to say, `It's the hip-hop that's keeping him down.' But scapegoating hip-hop only obscures the real problem: poverty."

Similarly, we see legislators today, frustrated at youth violence, making scapegoats of the trappings of youth culture, such as baggy pants and video games, if only because it is easier than pursuing real solutions.

A similar rationale has led crime-fighting lawmakers across the country to consider bans on the sale of violent video games such as "Grand Theft Auto," "Mortal Kombat" and others rated "M" for mature audiences.

Honorable as the intent of such legislation may be, it is not likely to have much impact on real-world violence. Video stores and distributors already enforce their own bans to minors without parental consent, just as theater owners do regarding R-rated movies.

Hint to legislators: You've got more important things to do than play fashion police or video game censors. Get your heads together and find ways to help build stronger families and better parents. They'll take care of the rest.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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