Encounter with the State

Being new to a city, you have got to grasp certain things quickly to get along. A good example are city by-laws. Every city has them – some seem to have them in endless number – and they can be a source of great annoyance.

Here is a case of what I mean. Already I have had a run-in with the authorities. About a week ago I was leaving the Baseline bus at Lincoln Fields. To get where I was going it was necessary to cross the Parkway, which is a rather busy road running east-west along the Ottawa river. It happened that a police officer (who, on further inspection, turned out to be an OC Transpo officer) was nearby. And so I was abruptly cut off by a car, out of which leapt a constipated-looking woman, as I reached the curb. She was small and wiry and had a pinched, solemn face, almost of the sort you have come to expect from a Victorian family portrait. Without wasting any time, she launched into her set routine: Could I read signs? she said, pointing to the sign in question, which announced a $55 fine for crossing the road.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to deal with the police, and who hasn’t?, knows the situation well. There you stand, a grown-up, being lectured at and abused with idiotic barbs: Do you like getting tickets? Can you read? Do you think you’re going to get away with breaking the law, sir? They always call you Sir, always to ironic effect — for you are being talked down to. These questions are all rhetorical (Yes, I love to pay fines!) and are designed only to make you feel appropriately stupid and infantile. That is the essence of authority, to put you in your humble place and never let you forget you are there. A 34 year-old must be helped by the State to cross the street, and so she pointed out the overpass where I was commanded to cross, and let me off with a lecture and a warning things would be different next time (yet another cliché). Perhaps this was because I explained I was new to the city and had truly never seen the sign, which indeed were the case. She repeated her lecture, twice I think, and I was dismissed. This turned out to be a great stroke of luck, for I was a week from my pay and had only enough money for bus tickets. A fine would have been inconvenient.

Here is what I have taken from this encounter. First, it’s useless to say the scene I’ve just described is silly. Perhaps it seems so on the face of it, but the facts of the modern state make the fore-mentioned affair almost inevitable. The character of authority is probably obvious and not in need of further attention. Suffice it to say that in a city, where people are unknown to one another, you must have a paternalistic approach to law and order. Maybe you are a dunce; who knows? The efficient approach is to assume you are, and so treat you accordingly. Anonymous social relations are by necessity not only paternalistic, as concerns the state, but also bureaucratic, from which certain results follow. If the government does not tell us ‘Do not cross the street,’ or ‘Put on your seatbelt,’ eventually a fool will get hurt and will launch a lawsuit, claiming he ought to have been protected from his own lack of judgment. ‘How was I supposed to know the salt they put in shoeboxes is bad for you?’ That is the sort of claim from which the corporate entities and the state must today shield themselves. And so life in the modern world is subject to forever deepening regulation (this process never operates in reverse), mostly for the protection of government, and not of persons.

Another observation is that one can hardly have these experiences without a cynical and even reactionary attitude creeping behind. It is rather disappointing to contemplate the fact that we are all complicit in the arrangements I have described. Not only that, but I have paid the officer to harass me. The Nanny State! Here is what I get for my hard-earned money — to be treated like a petty criminal. One’s political views are a sort of Coles Notes organisation of such events into a manageable narrative. The whole, complex affair in its uncondensed condition however appears to suggest that modern life tends toward such absurdities. It is hard to imagine a practical alternative. [- November 1999]

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