Friday, September 21, 2007

The Real Solution to Baggy Pants

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A few months ago, as my wife and I were bustling through a local Wal-Mart on our weekly shopping "date," we came across a trio of young men slouching their way down a main aisle. They were walking three abreast at turtle-time, attempting to look hip and tough, bored with the world but too cool to care. Beyond their attitude, what was attracting attention was that all three of them—in order to walk at all—had to have a firm grip with one or both hands on their pants! They were sporting oversized jeans-shorts, but they might as well have been long pants for as low as these three were wearing them. Yes, it was a baggy-pants sighting. We were lucky—if that is the word—that we were not witnesses to any indecent exposure.

Similar baggy-pants sightings have been happening for some time throughout America. It is primarily an "urban" fashion statement, supposedly an exaggeration of belt-less prison pants endorsed by hip-hop and rap artists, a rebellious sneer at societal conventions. Baggy pants are the latest in a long line of avant-garde clothing styles among young people breaking from the mores and standards of their parents and trying to carve out their own identity. They are modern versions of grunge, punk, mod, hippie, beat, and other youth clothing trends over the past fifty years, as it seems that every new crop of teens feels it must test the culture's boundaries. Remember bell-bottoms and halter-tops?

Let me go on record as saying that the baggy-pants phenomenon is ridiculous. It not only looks stupid, but it may also pose a safety hazard should any baggy-pants wearing youth need to move faster than a slow crawl. One slip from the grip, and a face-plant on the sidewalk is a real possibility. Of course, there is also the problem of indecent exposure.

To combat this trend, several communities—from Atlanta to Charlotte to Dallas to Trenton—have enacted or proposed bans on baggy or saggy pants. These saggy-baggy laws usually mandate a modest fine, but on the extreme end, the Delcambre, Louisiana, "bare-your-britches" law comes with a fine of $500 or six months in jail for the public exposure of underwear. The American Civil Liberties Union is fighting these local ordinances, saying that they are racially discriminatory, targeting only young black males. CNN reports one hip-hop clothing shop owner asking, "Are they going to go after construction workers and plumbers, because their pants sag too? They're stereotyping us."

One problem with this argument is that these laws are primarily proposed and endorsed by black lawmakers, preachers, and community groups concerned about both the public image of African-Americans and the trajectory of a generation of black men. The Trenton, New Jersey, law still being drafted not only assesses a fine, but the offender must also undergo evaluation and counseling regarding the direction of his life. Turning the racial bias argument on its head, some proponents argue that the wearing of baggy pants automatically stereotypes a young man as a shiftless rebel, causing employers not to hire him, and thus aggravating the problem. In addition, the fad has crossed over into general youth culture, so it is not a single-race issue.

Even so, the baggy-pants problem is most critical in the black community. Obviously, politicians and community leaders want to provide a solution to the dilemma—or at least to be seen trying to do something. What is frustrating—and oh-so-typical these days—is that their first spasmodic reaction is to propose, draft, and enact a law to cover the specific infraction that they do not like. Every community in America, however, has at least two ordinances on their books to deal with baggy-pants offenders: indecent exposure and disorderly conduct. These laws are usually vague enough to be used to deal with most situations of nudity or partial nudity and the public reaction to it. They just need to be enforced.

When problems like this arise, we are often quick to cry, "Where are the parents?" Truly, parents are a society's first line of defense in shaping a productive and moral next generation of citizens. It is unfortunate that, in this case, too many urban black families are single-parent households, and the only parent is almost always the mother. By the time her young son reaches his mid-teens, unless she has made extraordinary efforts, he is more likely to conform to his peers than to his mom's advice and desires for his success. It is a terribly sad state of affairs. (See Kay S. Hymowitz, "The Black Family: 40 Years of Lies," City Journal, Summer 2005.)

In this parental near-vacuum, other members of the black community have tried to pick up the slack. Mostly, it has been left-leaning black activist groups that have led the charge, advocating well-known socialist policies like Affirmative Action. Yet, after two generations of political agitation to level the playing field for minorities, family conditions, the root of the problem, have worsened. Churches and their pastors have entered the fray as well, but overall, their impact has been limited. It is a tragic, seemingly hopeless situation.

The solution is not more laws, not more activism, not more money for social programs. The answer is a commitment to marriage. Noted economists Walter E. Williams and Thomas Sowell and others regularly preach that the secret to staying out of poverty in America is three-fold: 1) Graduate from high school; 2) get a job and keep it; and 3) get married and stay married. The last point not only provides personal stability, but it also ensures that the next generation grows up in a stable and hopefully loving environment. Statistics consistently show that the two-parent family makes the best platform for continued and increasing success of children of all ethnicities (see "The Mysterious Marriage Advantage," The Family in America, March 2007). The solution really is that simple, though it does take time and effort.

It is for reasons like this that the first institution that God created for humanity was marriage, even before creating the Sabbath (He ordained marriage on the sixth day, the Sabbath on the seventh; compare Genesis 1:27; 2:2-3, 18-24). As God said in the Garden of Eden, "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him" (Genesis 2:18). Human beings were made to live in committed, divinely joined pairs, not just for reproductive reasons, but also for deep relational and social reasons. When the institution of marriage breaks down, the whole society begins to crack and crumble.

Baggy pants are just a sign of this breakdown. So, the secret to hitching up our youths' pants is—pardon the pun—getting hitched.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Lost Perspective

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We are just days away from the sixth anniversary of the attacks on Manhattan's World Trade Center Towers by Muslim extremists. As everyone recalls, the dual 737 crashes into the buildings caused massive damage, and within just a few hours, both towers and a few of the surrounding buildings lay in rubble on the plaza below. Nearly 3,000 lives were lost that day, in the related disasters in New York City, Washington, and rural Pennsylvania. The finger of blame quickly pointed at Islamic terrorists, specifically Osama bin Laden and his organization, al Qaeda.

The U.S. response was swift. President George W. Bush and his administration concocted the War on Terror, and American Army and Marine troops, supported by the Air Force and Navy, made quick work of the Taliban in Afghanistan, forcing what has become known as al Qaeda Prime deep into the rugged mountain fastnesses of the northern border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Along with his chief lieutenants, bin Laden went to ground, and though al Qaeda has released several tapes of his pep talks to his jihadist followers, we have seen little more than a few digital images of him since.

In the spring of 2003, U.S. troops, along with those of its staunchest allies, invaded Iraq, and in a wink, Saddam Hussein, his sons, and the Baathist regime were on the run. Saddam's statue fell in Baghdad, and Saddam himself was soon pulled from a rat hole to stand trial and ultimately to die justly for his many atrocities. The Iraqis, when they were not killing each other, tried and only partially succeeded in forming a new government.

And there coalition forces have remained, mostly Americans but complemented by small contingents from other nations. It soon became known as an occupying force, accused of imperialism, torture, sexual assault, murder, and a host of other crimes and misdemeanors. The press began to use such ridiculous terms as "bogged down" and "quagmire" (can an army be bogged down or mired in a desert?), "insurgency" (can international terrorists be called "insurgents"?), and "exit strategy" (like the exit strategies from the Philippines, Cuba, Korea, Germany, and Japan, where American troops are still stationed after similar invasions?). In the eyes of many Americans—and frankly, many around the world, too—"mission accomplished" morphed into "more Middle East mess."

Almost before the dust had settled in Manhattan, the ugly head of political self-interest took over the country's perception of the War on Terror. Hawks debated doves. Patriots battled with globalists. Pragmatists fought idealists. Spenders disputed budgeters. The religious sparred with the secular. Of course, Republicans wrangled with Democrats, conservatives with liberals, and strict constructionists with revisionists. Everyone took sides for or against the government's actions. By the time the 2006 mid-term elections rolled around, the War on Terror and the Iraq War in particular had become the determining issue in many contested races.

Now we are in the midst of the Iraq "surge," an infusion of thousands of extra troops to quell hot spots and to give the fledgling Iraqi government a chance to get its footing. A successful surge would also set the stage for a draw-down of troops to more acceptable levels. Every pundit's breath is bated, it seems, awaiting the report on the surge by Commanding General David Patraeus on Monday, September 10, 2007. Will he give the surge a "thumbs up" and recommend troop withdrawals? More people are asking, "Will his report help the Commander-in-Chief or his detractors?"

In many ways, however, we have lost our perspective since those moments of clarity in the weeks following September 11, 2001. America, whether it wants it or not, is at war. Its enemies are clearly radical Muslims who have chosen to use terrorism against Western interests in the United States and around the world. These jihadists, most of whom claim some sort of connection to al Qaeda, are willing to sacrifice their lives in the cause of their religious fanaticism, to conquer the world for Islam. They will take any means necessary—including using nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, should they get their hands on some and figure out how to deliver them—to crush the Crusaders, as they call Westerners, and enforce the worship of Allah upon all humanity.

Under these terms, the squabbling over the War on Terror and the Iraq War seem trite and childish. In addition, these arguments often ignore what has been accomplished. Al Qaeda Prime, trapped like a mouse in a corner, can only screech out feeble threats and warnings from its wilderness cave. Mainland America has not suffered another terrorist incident since the World Trade Center disaster, while several plots have been foiled. Citizens may scream about lax border security, lax port security, and pointless, politically correct airport screening, but the fact remains that Americans have not suffered terrorism at home since September 2001. Finally, in terms of the Axis of Evil, Saddam Hussein and his bloodthirsty regime no longer exist; Iran, despite all its bluster, has turned down the wick on its nuclear program and is "negotiating" with the U.S.; and North Korea, though still ruled by the certifiable Kim Jong Il, is for now meekly knuckling under the demands made of it in the Six-Party Talks.

Sure, not all is peaches and cream in America. This nation has its problems, problems that it desperately needs to face and fix. Nevertheless, these concerns should not make us so jaundiced that we cannot appreciate the few glimpses of silver lining that appear every now and again. These little bits of hope for ultimate success should encourage and motivate Americans to press on with the fight in the can-do spirit our forefathers showed as they carved out a nation for themselves on this continent.

And for Christians, let it be a lesson that we can apply in our own spiritual battles. Though things seem to be spiraling downward around us, we can use our little victories as motivation to put more effort into overcoming and growing, turning seeming defeat into victory (I Corinthians 15:57-58).