May 05, 2007


Sam Smith

We managed to get through the first two hundred years of America with less than half as many laws as we now seem to feel necessary. There is, however, little evidence that the contemporary prohibitionary glut has done us much good. Instead, during our most recent period, American culture, empire and communities began disintegrating and our economy increasingly shifted from actually making things to merely marketing and betting on them.

Although many long for a saner America of yesteryear, with the exception of the absurdly masochistic war on terror, few associate our numerous crises with the manic efforts to prevent them. We have come to accept the false notion that one can improve life by prevention rather than by creation, by banning people rather than joining with them, and by building sterile walls rather than functioning communities.

There are many reasons for this change, with one of the least apparent being the tendency of federal, state and local legislatures to meet a far great proportion of the year than was once the case. But there is also the problem that eventually one just runs out of useful things to ban.

I have suggested, for example, that Washington adopt as its motto, "DC: Where Life Is A Moving Violation" because hardly anything can go astray here without some publicity-addicted councilmember suggesting a new law to prevent or require something.

One of the ways to get us back into the habit of passing only such laws as really work would be to adopt the principle that whenever you find a significant number of normally law abiding citizens violating a law, you not only change the law, you adopt some form of their misbehavior as public policy.

This principle is widely adaptable, covering such matters as pot smoking, prostitution, double parking, illegal apartments and bored students misbehaving in the classroom.

In each case the violators are on to something. For example, despite the best efforts of the prohibitionists, it is becoming increasingly apparent that marijuana can help the medical profession and its patients in a number of important ways. Legalized prostitution is clearly healthier for all concerned than the prohibited version. Bored students are largely the result of boring teachers keeping them in boring positions for too long.

Double parking is one of the best indicators of a well working urban business community and also provides encouragement for other drivers to use public transportation. For example, we have a commercial street in our neighborhood that is regularly double-parked, mostly with impunity. In fact, a thriving Korean buffet that offers uniformed officials a discount regularly has police cars, ambulances and even fire engines double parked outside its doors. No one other than the parking enforcers seem to think this is a bad thing.

Similarly, illegal apartments mainly define the need for a change in zoning codes. Los Angeles has some 40,000 of them; they are one of the cheapest and most effective forms of smart growth, not to mention the fact that they add diversity to a neighborhood and help the elderly and non-rich pay their mortgages.

Mind you, I'm not making a libertarian - or any sort of political - argument here. Rather I'm suggesting that viewing one's laws through the lens of culture and behavior will lead to much better results than blind faith in the law. In other words, we need more anthropologists and psychologists in our legislatures and fewer lawyers.

Of course, we are far from an such enlightenment as recent events in my fair city have illustrated. For example, when one youngster became the accidental victim of a club shooting in which she was not the target, a priggish city councilmember immediately called for prohibitions that would have severely damaged Washington's unique and wonderful tradition of providing places where pre-drinking teens can go for live music.

Of course, as with other things, not everyone gets prohibited the same way. For example, in the case of the DC Madam, a power hungry US Attorney is pressing charges against a woman accused of providing through her business sexual services to thousands of local men, some of them holding prominent positions in government and elsewhere. None of these men are being prosecuted, however.

Not a single major women's group has commented on this discrimination and, in fact, the city's elite is quite upset with the idea that the male perps in their midst should be exposed. It is perfectly all right for a non-elite madam go to jail but not, god forbid, for responsible members of the establishment. It is even okay to arrest lower class johns who tackily hit the streets to pick up a partner. But we're talking about gentile relationships by the men in key leadership positions. That's a whole other matter.

An example of this hypocrisy is a blog comment by journalism professor Jeff Jarvis:

"Is it really the proper duty of ABC News to look up the phone numbers of the alleged Washington madam's clients to expose them? Is that journalism? Is that news? Is that their proper role? Oh, it's certainly gossip. It's entertainment. . . But news that affects our lives? Oh, come now. . . . Where will this escalation end? Will CBS be forced to hunt down foot-fetishistic cross-dressing boy-loving porn-downloading judges or football players or anchors and get a CSI out of it? Seriously, I wonder about the propriety of ABC News taking this active role in helping the reputed Madam out her clients to save her skin."

Jarvis is engaging in the long-standing tradition of the press covering up the misbehavior of its sources. As I put it once, "Part of the mythology of Washington is what might be called the Jim Lehrer Illusion, which is to say that all people in the capital do is sit around and rationally debate policy alternatives. In fact, Washington politics is also heavily driven by cowardice, blackmail, deceit, fear, loyalty to old buddies and even older bodies, cooptation, corruption, sex, and just plain crime. Journalists who pretend otherwise either don't understand what is going on or are covering for someone."

In the best of all worlds, neither the DC Madam nor her clients would be indicted, but it is corrupt, sexist and hypocritical to demand that she bear all the burden while her thousands of clients not only go free but have their names kept secret.

And that, Congressmember or Councilmember, does not mean passing yet another law to make sure that everyone goes to jail. It means having the humility not to consider oneself the first in human history capable of effectively banning purchased sex. It means learning how to work with, around and in behalf of human nature rather than as its sworn enemy based on some presumed but unverified personal superiority.

Besides, I think the DC Madam may have your telephone number.