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Creeping nannyism

February 9, 2003

The anti-bullying campaign is a good example of how creeping nannyism works. First you propose a program that seems limited and reasonable (in this case, stopping tough kids from preying on weaker ones). Then you gradually extend the program until a truly demented level of government intrusion is reached.

What counts as bullying? Violence and intimidation, of course. But also name-calling, dirty looks, teasing, rumors, and avoiding students you don’t like (“shunning” or “exclusion”). So with 99 percent of students defined as bullies, we obviously need lots of programs. Cafeteria seating may have to be rearranged. One workbook calls for anti-clique meals (no sitting with friends).

The agendas of various activists show up in anti-bullying manuals. In Charleston, W.Va., a school manual called for eliminating the word “marriage” in class discussions (it should be “permanent relationship”) and suggested that students show support for gays by wearing T-shirts with pink triangles.

This is how nannyism expands, moving from intimidation to rumors and jokes, then to political guidance from your friendly government school. The next thing you know, a violation will cost you money, and that’s no joke. The legal department of Edmonton, Alberta, wants cops to be able to write $250 tickets for repeated bullying of anyone under age 18.

Notice, too, the creeping nannyism on cell phones in cars. Now that the campaign to ban handheld phones by drivers is catching on, many of the campaigners have upped the ante: They want to prohibit drivers’ use of hands-free phones, too. The centerpiece of this effort is a new study by University of Utah psychologists. It finds that drivers suffer just as much “inattention blindness” with hands-free phones as they do with handheld ones.

So let’s ban all phones, and car radios too. The California Highway Patrol found that 768 of some 9,000 crashes were caused by drivers fiddling with radios or CD players. Next to be rendered illegal will be spouse-passengers, whose commentary is famous for inducing inattention blindness, even when the car is parked. And of course, attention-deflecting dogs and children should logically be banned, too.

In Australia, the Democrats, a small political party, announced that if drivers’ mobile phones are illegal, then smoking should be too, because fishing around for cigarettes, lighters and ashtrays is just as distracting as phoning. Presumably this would also be true of hands-free smoking, as when drivers use a hookah on the highway. Perhaps we will get a psychological study, followed by a new law.

The Australian Democrats deserve a medal for identifying the only remaining place where nobody had thought to ban smoking — one’s own car. A New York court case prohibited smoking in one’s own home. Various jurisdictions made smoking a no-no in restaurants, bars, offices, stadiums, dorms, government buildings, public transport, sidewalks and other public spaces. Smoking has even been banned on old Beatles albums: The cigarette has been removed from Paul McCartney’s hand on the reissued cover of “Abbey Road,” probably for his own good.

The frontier for anti-smoking nannyism is the attempt to make all outdoor smoking impossible. Smoking on outdoor public property is banned in some jurisdictions. Activists have targeted Manhattan’s Central Park, presumably because a gust of deadly secondhand smoke might waft from the park’s 840 acres into the window of a distant apartment building and kill somebody. New York City’s health department has just issued a severe nanny warning: It announced that doctors could face malpractice suits if they don’t push patients hard to stop smoking.

Maybe doctors also will be sued if patients don’t lose weight. In Britain, Weight Watchers is being sued by a feminist author on grounds that many women in the program failed to slim down. Public health officials in England want the government to control the size of chocolate bars, making large ones illegal. Some American schools have removed Coke and Pepsi machines, and California restricts soda sales in some schools and is looking at a bill to ban them in all schools. No Cokes. The nannies disapprove.

One of the great triumphs of nannyism has been programs around the country that conscript hairdressers to become domestic violence inspectors. The city of San Francisco and the state of Nevada have them. The hairdressers surreptitiously check scalps for bumps and faces for scratches. The hairdresser-surveiller is supposed to study what a customer says and how she says it. Then the hairdresser may glide into counseling, though one Nevada salon owner “wonders whether 20-year-old hairdressers are qualified to counsel their clients,” according to a news report. Not to worry. Of course they are qualified. They’re nannies.

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