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.


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