Sunday, August 27, 2006

Q: What is a benefit of totalitarianism?

A: Better driving

My friend Carl Franklin sent me a interesting book last week in a Thinking Man’s Care Package. The title of the book is Freakonomics. One of the things that I learned from the book is that since the 14th century the homicide rate in England has gone from 23 per 100,000 people to 0.9 per 100,000 between the years of 1950-1954. Seems that England is doing something right! Maybe it has something to do with the all of the video surveillance technology they use.

I attended Traffic School on Saturday. Traffic School is a State of California institution by which traffic violators such as myself can attend a 400 minute class and upon successful completion of the curriculum, have any trace of the 1 point that would have been put on my driving record expunged, thus assuring me that my auto insurance will not increase because I was deemed an unsafe driver.

My driving infraction was that I ran a red light on the corner of 17th Street and Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica.

I attended Traffic School in Beverly Hills. The particular Traffic School class that I attended was offered by Comedy School out of Northridge, CA. Comedy School is an authorized provider of Traffic School classes licensed by the State of California. Comedy School puts actors and comedians to work in the service of the public good teaching the specifics and benefits of safe driving.

The guy the ran my class was Brian McLaughlin. He was very good. He was funny enough to keep all 23 violators in my class interested. He was experienced enough to keep us in line, despite the fact that one of the guys in the class whose violation was a DUI, kept going on and on about how his wife has left him that day, that she had taken $25,000 with her and that his life was coming to ruins despite the fact that he kept on trying to start a brand new relationship with the woman two seats down from him. Me? I sat in the last end seat of the back row paying attention and not trying to get too involved. I had a breakfast of bagel and coffee, so my life was just all right.

One of the facts that Brian McLaughlin taught me was that when a municipality puts one of those automatic policing cameras at a traffic intersection, after a while the number of people running red lights decreases dramatically. And, that most traffic accidents occur at an intersection and that one in ten traffic accidents result in a fatality, over time the death rate due to traffic accidents goes down. Using automatic policing cameras save lives.

And so I say, totalitarianism is a good thing.

Most people mistake totalitarianism with authoritarianism. Totalitarianism is about the state having total knowledge of the governed. Authoritarianism is about complete subservience of the rights of the individual to the rights of the state. Sometimes you get authoritarian states that are totalitarian too, for example the Soviet Union during the 50s and Germany during the mid 30s and early 40s. But sometimes totalitarian states are not authoritarian, for example England and the good ole USA today.

Let’s get real. Our government knows a whole bunch of stuff about us in particular and everybody else in general. We have a ton of listening and watching going on. Do I know this for a fact? No. Is it feasible? Yes. Does it matter in the scheme of things? Probably not.

Privacy is the great middle class myth. In the old days, when we were all huddled into two bedroom apartments and farm houses, before the advent of McMansions and the notion that every adolescent should have his or he own room, we all knew a whole lot about each other, probably more than any one party thought was public. All you had to do was put your ear to the wall and keep an eye on your neighbor’s clothesline. Your kids learned about sex from listening to you from the room next door, or in some cases watching you if you couldn’t afford a 2 bedroom flat. And, well….. seeing Mrs. Jones sheer lace nightgown and undies drying in the sun told you a whole bunch about Mrs. Jones.

But that was then and this is now.

So the government has been listening to us since the first party line was run from switching station to household and has been watching us since we put the first satellite in space. Maybe it’s a good thing. I mean, intersection cameras do save lives and maybe if the government eavesdropped on me more often it might learn a thing or two.

But tell me please, what happens when my violations go beyond absentmindedly running red lights? What happens when my violations are more about who I am, what I think and what I say rather then where and how I drive my car?

I learned in Traffic School that just about any police officer can cite me any time he or she desires. There are that many laws in play. It’s not the law. It’s the execution of the law that prevents crime.

You know what keeps me awake at night? It’s not the totalitarian state. It’s the emergence of the authoritarian state. I am a lot more worried about the Unitary Executive than video surveillance cameras in subway stations.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Q: What’s the fastest way to bring peace to the Middle East?

A: Build more shopping malls.

I was in Mississippi last week on business. It was my first time to that area. Before my trip I imagined the state to be pretty much as depicted in the film, Mississippi Burning—lots of twangy voiced, inbred rednecks of marginal intelligence and education, doing twangy voiced, inbred, redneck things that involved the desire to do bodily harm to "colored people" and Yankees like me.

I was wrong, very wrong. In fact, I was so wrong that my preconceptions could be considered chauvinistic, almost bigoted, definitely prejudiced. Funny in a way. That which I feared I had become. It's embarassing.

What I discovered in Mississippi was that the state was more like New Jersey than not. I found Starbucks in competition with Seattle’s Best, MTV on the tube, classic rock stations on the radio, multiple channels of HBO just like I have in LA and more than a few Mercedes on the roads, some driven by African Americans. There were independent restaurants going up against Applebee’s, KFC, McDonald’s and Wendy’s. And, there was so much highway building going on that you could feel decades of growth on the horizon.

I did not see one "whites only" washroom or lynching. I did see African American policemen and TSA workers in the Jackson-Evers Airport. (The Evers part named after Medgar Evers, the slain civil rights activist.) The only people that said ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ to me were white and they did so out of respect, not deference.

I expected to find a lot of violence. Instead I found a lot of commercepeople from all walks of life just trying to get over and grab a bite of the American Dream. That the dream has become a homogenized, credit driven experience based on the continual consumption of Asian produced goods and the overreaching acquisition of questionably constructed McMansions leads me to say this: “So what?!

The fact is that in the wake of chain stores, shopping malls and credit cards comes pacification and integration. It was blindingly apparent to me as I walked the aisles of a CVS in Ridgeland, Mississippi looking for shampoo; the store had black and white employees, black and white customers and the automatic debit/credit card processor at the checkout counter didn’t really care too much about the nationality or race of the person using it. All that mattered was that the customer’s card was good.

My personal sentiments aside, it seems that consumerism really is the way to peace among men. It’s hard to want to blow things up when you have to worry about paying down your credit card balance and keeping your cable service on.

I have seen the future. Just as the post Civil Rights South went through a period of violence and adjustment, so too will the Middle East. Then slowly, very slowly transnational corporations will infiltrate at the retail level. Wal-Mart, Toyota, Borders, Home Depot, TGIF and the Gap will come spreading consumerism based on easy credit. KB Homes will start to rebuild Iraq, Lebanon, and all the other countries decimated by the horrors of war.

We will run out of fossil fuel. We will all want more money. We will never have enough.

ExxonMobil, BP and General Electric will devise new energy sources based on magnetism and atomic energy. The private automobile will be a luxury of the rich. The rest of us will use mass transit aircraft and trains for long distances, and for short distances, light rail vehicles, subways and cabs just like they do in Manhattan and Athens. We will rent cars when we really need one.

All of us will have unlimited access to easy credit. Credit will be expensive for poor people, affordable for the middle class, free for the rich.

Everything will be made in China, except movies and credit. Movies will be made in Hollywood and Mumbai; credit in New York, Hong Kong and London.

The best cheese will still come from France.

It’s sort of weird. Martin Luther King had an amazing dream. Deutsch Bank, Sony, Intel, Microsoft and PepsiCo will be the ones to fulfill it.

And, that’s what I learned from my trip to Mississippi.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Q: How many drunks does it take to turn rumor to fact?

A: Two

The recent rumor out of Malibu is that Mel Gibson was not alone in his car on Friday, July 28 when he was pulled over for suspicion of drunk driving.

Witnesses report that George W. Bush was in the car with Gibson just before Gibson's Lexus was stopped on the PCH.

According to unidentified sources, Gibson and Bush were out that night cruising up and down Sunset Blvd in West Hollywood enjoying themselves as fun loving tourists. After some stops at a few undisclosed locations, the pair decided to call it a night. Bush was scheduled to rendezvous somewhere in the Pacific Palisades with the clandestine Secret Service agents who had made it possible for the President to enjoy an anonymous "boys night out on the town" prior to commencing his August vacation. Bush and Gibson were driving to a secret drop zone where Bush was to be transported back to Washington to resume his role as Leader of the Free World.

Both Gibson and Bush had been drinking.

While driving north on the Pacific Coast Highway, Gibson noticed that he was being followed by a law enforcement vehicle in the distance. Knowing he was about to be pulled over and wanting to avoid embarrassment for Bush, Gibson somehow managed to make it possible for the President to exit the car before being stopped by the police.

As later stories confirm, Gibson was pulled over and eventually arrested.

Once in custody Gibson was initially reported to have said, "F'ing Jews. The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world."

Law enforcement officials have admitted that Gibson was misquoted. The noise level in the holding cell was so loud that arresting officers could not accurately report what Gibson was saying.

Audio tapes of the incident reveal that Gibson was saying, "F'ing George. George is responsible for all the wars in the world."