Monday, November 9, 2015

Watch Your Step!

Perhaps you've seen it: the video of a man being roughly subdued by a posse of Austin, Texas policemen numerous enough to corral the Dalton gang.* The victim's crime in the capital of the Lone Star State? Jaywalking.

I counted about eight police originally involved, with at least two patrol cars racing up later—all Sturm und Drang (or should it be son et lumière?)sirens blaring and light bars blazing. That such a contingent of cops would be deployed to haul in a total of one (alleged) jaywalker and one inquisitive bystander got me to thinking; here are the (admittedly contradictory) results of my ratiocination:

1—Austin, Texas is the safest city in the country. If so much police presence can handily be deployed to nail a single jaywalker, that must mean that there is no other crime around for the cops to deal with.

2--Austin, Texas is the unsafest city in the country. If so much police presence congregates in one place to nail a jaywalker, then the rest of the burg must be open city to murderers, rapists, muggers, and other miscreants.

3—Austin, Texas has too many cops. At a ratio of ten cops (counting the later-arriving prowl car guys) to one offender, the police force is surely over-stuffed. At least half the force would seem to be surplus to requirements (I love that British locution).

4—Austin, Texas has too few cops. If it's really going to take ten police to nail one offender, then Austin better start hiring in case a major crime wave (something like multiple jaywalking) breaks out.

5--Austin, Texas police are a bunch of weaklings. Really, it takes ten officers to haul in one unresisting male and a female bystander?

6--Austin, Texas police deserve credit. At least they didn't shoot anybody. And though jaywalking is obviously a major criminal activity in Texas, the police recognized that it isn't a capital offence (yet).

*If you haven't, it's here:

Thursday, November 5, 2015

My Vote, Your Vote

LICKCHEESE. Theres no doubt that the Vestries has legal powers to play old Harry with slum properties, and spoil the houseknacking game if they please. That didnt matter in the good old times, because the Vestries used to be us ourselves. Nobody ever knew a word about the election ; and we used to get ten of us into a room and elect one another, and do what we liked.                                                                                            George Bernard Shaw, Widowers' Houses (1892)
Two days ago, it being a nice sunshiny day and me needing some exercise, I walked the few blocks over to the Middle School. Had it been an inclement day, I would have driven to the school. One way or another, I was going to the school, because it was Election Day, and the school was the polling place for my ward. Not that there were any grand offices being contested--nothing national or gubernatorial—just a pair of legislative seats and local posts. I pressed the button to re-elect the mayor, and was happy to learn later that he had won by about a five-to-one landslide.

The lady who had entered the voting booth before me, however, had some trouble figuring out what to do to register her vote. “Press the red button,” exclaimed the poll booth attendant, and eventually she did, whether to be part of the mayor's majority or not will never be known.

I felt no irritation at having to wait a few extra moments while the woman got all straightened out. That I would walk into the booth already determined how to vote, press the buttons zip, zip, zip and stride out only about a minute later did not mean my electoral contribution to democracy was superior to her fumbling one. Did she also enter the booth determined how she would vote? Or did she go “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo”? Or did she put a hand over her eyes and stab blindly for buttons to press? To me it mattered not, for in a democratic state a person should not only be free to vote for the candidate of her choice, but also to free to choose how she arrives at that choice.
One hundred years ago, she wouldn't have had the problem of deciding how to vote, for women were excluded from the ballot box. Women, slaves, the propertyless were—and still are in too many places in the world —unable to engage in the process of determining how they are to be governed. And even when they are granted the vote, there are powerful forces attempting to snatch their voting rights away (just look around the country)--whether because of a fierce desire to protect their own economic interests or through a neo-Platonic contempt for those they consider inferior in wisdom, education, intellect, or knowledge. In the latter case, we have the “guided democracy” ploys—as in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Singapore)--in which there are elections which determine nothing because the ruling powers keep the elections substance-free (and dissenters in jail), or the technocratic Walter Lippmann argument—that the general public is unequipped to deal with the modern world and needs “knowledgeable administrators whose access to reliable information immunize[s] them against the emotional 'symbols' and 'stereotypes' that dominate[_] public debate.”*

Assuming such emotion-immunized administrators exist and can be identified, is there any guarantee that they would not eventually begin to act in their own self-interest? This question is a modern updating of Juvenal's “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“Who will watch the watchmen themselves?”). But besides that, who would have more right to have a say on such a substantive issue as whose son should go off to war—a robotic administrator or an emotional mother?

*That is Christopher Lasch (The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy) explaining Lippmann.