Thursday, November 11, 2010

Culture Shock 11.11.10: Alabamians react to bad laws in their own way

Say what you will about Alabama, but the state does take a pragmatic approach to enforcing stupid laws. In general, it doesn't.

So, in that regard, you could say Alabama is more progressive — in the true sense of the term — than San Francisco, which currently is in the process of enacting a really, really silly law that officials there will definitely enforce.

This week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors formally adopted what has become known as the "Happy Meal ban." The ban forbids restaurants from giving out toys with children's meals that contain "too much" fat, sugar or sodium.

Like a lot of dubious laws, the ban is intended to protect children, or so its supporters claim.

"It's time for fast-food companies to stop exploiting children in order to sell more junk food, and this measure would at least set basic nutrition standards for meals sold with toys," said Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a misnamed group of Washington, D.C., busybodies bent on regulating just about all human behavior.

I guess it's just too much to expect parents to ever tell their children "no." So, San Francisco will just have to save them from themselves.

If the ban survives likely legal challenges — I don't expect Ronald McDonald to take this outrage lying down — and becomes law next year as planned, you can bet San Francisco's food police will enforce it with the ruthless inefficiency one expects of California government. But it will be enforced.

California, you used to be cool. But you've changed, man. You've changed.

In Alabama, we take a different approach.

Contrary to popular opinion, and despite all appearances, the people of Alabama are pretty sensible, at least some of the time. We just do a good job of pretending otherwise. So, when state and local lawmakers pass obviously bad laws, we do what all sensible people do. We just ignore them. That's why every dry county — an endangered species now that the city of Cullman has approved legal liquor sales and sent temperatures in hell plunging — has bootleggers.

For example, in 1998, the Alabama Legislature made the state a national laughingstock by passing a ban on sex toys. Legal challenges to the law failed, and the effort to overturn the statute finally ended when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

So, to this day, the law is still on the books, and no one in the Legislature seems eager to repeal it.

And why bother? Sure, the ban is an embarrassment, but this is Alabama. We've long since become immune to the "black eyes" we continually inflict upon ourselves.

More importantly, there's no pressing need to repeal the sex-toy ban because, at present, it's not being enforced.

Sherri Williams, the business owner who took her fight against the ban all the way to Washington, is still in business. Her Pleasures stores in Decatur and Huntsville are still open and still selling sex toys. Williams is taking advantage of a loophole that allows the sale of sex toys for medical purposes. So, all of her customers fill out the equivalent of a doctor's excuse.

Thus far, local prosecutors and law enforcement officials have shown no desire to press the issue, and Williams is moving her Huntsville store to a more prominent location, complete with drive-thru service.

Some historians think there is something distinctive about the South's attitude toward authority. The theory holds that the South was settled by Scots-Irish immigrants who had rebellion in their blood, and that anti-authoritarian instinct is still part of Southern culture today.

Maybe so. But there is little doubt that we tell authority to take a hike as often as not. And in many cases, that's a good thing.

It's a trait they could use in San Francisco.

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