September 28, 2007


Washington's subway system is considering removing some if not most of the seats from its cars, thus converting its rolling stock into high capacity freight cars for those it used to consider its valued customers. In one concept there would be just 16 seats in a car for 225 passengers.

While we have become accustomed to the disrespect of citizens by the police, airport screeners and so forth, we are less aware of the many ways in which government and large corporations increasingly demonstrate contempt for those they are supposed to be serving.

For example, corporations regularly add conditions to what was once a simple transaction. We no longer buy things from a pleased firm; we have to "accept" or "agree" to a lengthy list of stipulations in order to do so. I received an electronic device for Christmas and came within seconds of throwing away a small yellow piece of paper full of small print that in fact contained a code needed to make the thing work. This is a long way from the time when the worst corporate cop-out was that batteries were not included.

Politics also overflows with contempt for the citizen, largely in the form of covert bribes known as campaign contributions that have made a handful of individuals infinitely more important than the average voter.

Respect is essential in a functioning society, yet not only are we losing the concept, we don't even hear much about it - with a few exceptions such as Richard Sennett's interesting book on the topic. In a society where citizens exhibit mutual respect, class and ethnic conflict is mediated, people feel better about themselves and children are sent in good directions. In a society lacking respect, we start to behave like too many rats in a cage, we lose the sense of both the needs of others and of their value to us, and adult and children alike become lonely warriors in false empires of one.

In recent years, thanks in large part to the post-9/11 panic but also to a general disintegration of local culture, respect has been markedly disappearing from my home town of Washington. The cops have gotten meaner and more brutal, the processes more pointlessly complex, the interactions between strangers more sullen, the local politicians less interested in what people say, the bureaucracy more burdensome, and the weakest - including the poor, the homeless and our children - more mistreated or ignored.

It may seem trivial to add to such a list the proposed removal of seats on the Metro. But it is precisely in such small ways that respect or disrespect is demonstrated and announces its priority. I, for example, make a point of saying "sir" or "ma'am" to cabbies and clerks. I suspect I am in a tiny minority, but like Blanche Dubois, I have always relied on the kindness of strangers and have tried to return the favor, not for reasons of ettiquette but because it makes life far more pleasant and interesting.

Our officials - certainly those in my town - have become remarkably indifferent to such concerns. One Metro board member actually said, "Part of the goal is not just squeezing more people on the train, but making the overall experience better." That makes no sense; it convinces no one; but as long as you can get away with it, so what?

The transit system originally meant to serve us has now become our responsibility to save. Our role has shifted from passenger and valued customer to mere input into the ongoing budgetary process.

If you watch for it, you'll come up with your own examples of the increasing disrespect of the powerful towards the ordinary. You don't even have to be poor. You just have to be one of those not in charge.