The antibullying 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 anticlique meals (no sitting with friends). The agendas of various activists show up in antibullying 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. And that's no joke. The legal department of the city of Edmonton, Canada, wants cops to be able to write $250 tickets for repeated bullying of anyone under age 18. ("I didn't mean to tease him again, officer.")
Notice, too, the creeping nannyism on cellphones in cars. Now that the campaign to ban hand-held phones by drivers is catching on, some 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 with hand-held ones.
Fiddledeedee. 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 antismoking nannyism is the attempt to make all outdoor smoking impossible. One activist has suggested that Manhattan's Central Park be marked as a no-smoking zone, presumably because a gust of deadly secondhand smoke might waft from the park's 840 acres into the window of a distant apartment and kill somebody. And 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 will also be sued if patients don't lose weight. In Britain, a feminist author is planning to sue Weight Watchers on grounds that many women and men 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 soda machines, and California restricts soda sales in some schools and is due to consider 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.
This story appears in the February 17, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.