Sunday, June 28, 2009

Law and Mass Action

We are surrounded, it sometimes seems, by the mechanisms of control. Warning labels on our products, little instructional comic strips on how to wash our hands, billboards, no [insert activity] signs, price tags, billboards, newspapers, and magazines telling us how to think, what to do, where to do it and when. Police and 'bylaw enforcement officers', inspectors, the disapproving looks of the good citizenry and, let us not forget, the ubiquitous cameras are everywhere, watching. Don't step out of line; do as you're told or (more generally) as is expected of you. Obey the law. And everything will be fine.

Expect, everything isn't fine, is it? And it seems to get rather less fine with every passing day. The slow slide into fascism which has marked the past few decades has broken out into a gallop, it seems. All those 'laws' that we're expected to obey? The legislation is passed without any of the 'representatives' actually reading it, in effect rubber-stamping the dictats of ... who, exactly? Not the president, surely. As fantastically talented as Obamassiah no doubt is, even he couldn't write 1500 pages of dense legalese all by his lonesome, complete with 300 page rider tacked on at 3 a.m. the morning before the vote.

Who writes these bills, anyway? The PATRIOT Acts, Military Commission Acts, Food Safety Modernization Bills, and all the rest of it? Who drafts it, and in whose interests?

The people's?


And yet, the people continue to go along with it, with all of it. Oh, sure, they break some of the rules, now and again. They speed on the highway, they smoke dope, they download copyrighted movies and saunter down the street with iPods full of songs everyone knows they didn't pay for, because no one does. All of them lawbreakers to some degree, and thus all liable to a shakedown by the cops or the regulators or the corporate lawyers, like sheep there to be sheared. And while no one likes becoming a revenue-stream for the government, the corporations or the banks, everyone goes along with it.

With all of it. With the driver's licenses, the passports, the income taxes and the eminent domain. You might try to slip the bonds of one or the other, here and there, but you must do so furtively, like a thief in the night, aware always that you're being watched, and if you're careless for even an instant, seen even once, well....

And all the while the glove tightens, here and everywhere. Protections we thought were built into our laws, we're finding can be just as easily taken out of them, once we've lost control of who makes the law. Now we're reading that anyone, anywhere can be snatched off the street and held in prison for any length of time, all of it on no evidence whatsoever. 'Preventative detention' it's called, an Orwellian term right up there with 'collateral damage', 'enhanced interrogation' and (closest of all, perhaps) 'pre-emptive strike' in its terrifying blandness. Whispers that a mandatory vaccination program is in the pike are being heard here and there ... and whether they'll just try and hurt us, or try and kill a great number of us, either way we know that it won't be good for us.

But it will be the law. And we're all good, law-abiding citizens, aren't we? We are, after all, a society under the rule of law, yes? It's what keeps our streets safe at night.

Do you feel safe?

Ah, but what is this 'law' thing, after all? Strip away all the ceremonies and symbols which surround it and what do you have? In the end, is it not most simply the code of behaviour by which people conduct their relations with others? A legislative body can pass all the laws it wants, but their effectiveness ultimately comes down to the readiness with which individual people comply. This is why laws prohibiting murder are generally more effective than those prohibiting recreational drug use (for instance): the former is obviously bad and so generally avoided, whilst the latter is not so obviously bad and in some cases in fact very obviously all to the good.

Let me share a little dream with you. You might call it more an aspiration, really. A small, symbolic act I've wanted to see now for quite some time, and can't figure out why it hasn't been done already. I'm sure you've flown somewhere in the past few years, and no doubt you were confronted with the rank idiocy of removing your shoes in case they might be bombs and having your personal belongings ransacked in case you might be carrying anything pointy or in a liquid state, say a bottle of water, which might also be a bomb. It's very possible you've thought to yourself how silly it all was, and maybe you've had some notion (as I eventually did) that it's all there to train us like Skinnerian cage-rats into accepting ever greater and more substantive impositions. Either way, I have no doubt at all that you did as I: you took off your shoes and handed your bag to the minimum wage gestapo. Not to comply was to be prohibited entry to the airplane, and that privelege outwayed any respect for one's principles.

So it goes. So it has been going, and so it will get so very, very much worse. If we let it.

Will we? I don't know. But just imagine what would happen at that airport if an entire planeload of passengers firmly and politely refused to remove their shoes. Certainly security couldn't simply taze everyone in line. Would the airline strand all of them at the airport? Perhaps, but somehow I doubt it. It's one thing to leave behind one or two passengers; quite another to anger an entire load of people (for you can be sure that, if it was such a crowd as to have already kept their shoes on, there would be no small concern about angering such folk.) In my dream, the shoe revolt jumps from one boarding lounge to another and before long, within the hour, every passenger in the airport is keeping their shoes on while they walk, unhindered, onto an airplane.

Such a thing would make the news, even as controlled as it is. Once it did, that would be the end of the line for shoe-removal, for every group of air passengers at every airport throughout the world would then know how to behave when asked to remove their shoes, with a giant choral 'No!', and so the ridiculous regulation would pass into history, unenforceable.

I think something like that might give people ideas. The principle of mass action thus learned could be abstracted and applied to an ever-widening sphere of refusal. We are for instance required to carry 'driver's licenses' on us at all times, not so much to prove we can drive but to prove who we are. What if we simply refused to carry them? Not one or two of us, here and there, but everyone? What fine-bearing infractions would then be enforceable.

"You there! No spitting on the sidewalk. That'll be $100."

"Yeah? I don't have it on me...."

"That's why I'm writing you a ticket. Shoe me your ID."

"Sorry, I don't have any."

"What? Well what's your name?"

"Donald Duck."

Do that alone and you'll probably get dragged to the station and booked. "All right, smartass...." But if no one has ID? Can they arrest you all? "Just try it, officer." "Now, now, uh, we don't want any trouble here...."

And income taxes? Or any taxes for that matter. Again, the same principle: if everyone refuses to pay, collection would become impossible. They might try to terrorize a few, pour encourager les autres, but that could only go on for so long before those doing the terrorizing realized they weren't getting paid and then ... they'd find something else to do.

And drug laws? Agricultural regulations? Copyright? Mass vaccinations? One by one, each would succumb to mass non-compliance faster than most can imagine. They'd be gone overnight ... in fact, the very moment the people whom the law is intended to govern stop believing in the law, the law disappears from existence, for it exists only so long as we permit it.

But for now, we permit it and so, we continue to need permits. The control system seems impregnable; few can even imagine challenging its forboding edifice but the tragicomic truth of the matter is that all that's really required is the imagination to see that the system can be challenged. Imagine it gone and it is. Even for a single person, simply to say, 'the law no longer applies to me', means it is so (at least in terms of governing one's behaviour) and while one person alone must do so quietly lest there be consequences many together can do so as openly as they please.

Escaping from this nightmare is so easy and yet, perhaps because it's so easy, few can see the short, clear path out.