Thursday, March 08, 2007


Sam Smith

If I just found out that one of my friends had left 17 parking tickets in Somerville, Massachusetts unpaid nearly two decades it would not lessen my affection towards that friend. As has been said, a friend is one who knows your faults and doesn't give a damn.

Besides, I didn't return the copy of "The Care and Feeding of Hamsters," which I borrowed from the Cleveland Park Library in 1973 until I found it in my basement in 1991. The maximum fine was $7; I paid $25 out of guilt which may have been more than necessary since I seem to have been made a life member of the Friend of the Cleveland Park Library as a result.

If I found that someone had accumulated the parking tickets shortly before becoming president of the Harvard Law Review I would have been smugly amused by the confirmatory evidence for my assumptions about that institution.

If the offender had run for State Senate of Illinois from a Chicago district, I would have probably supported him since the violations were in the lower range of offenses generally associated with that post.

But what if the offender had an repetitive tendency to write things in books and speeches like the following?

"Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical, though. Our fear of getting 'preachy' may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in addressing some of our most urgent social problems."

Or, as the violator put it down in Selma just the other day:

"One of the signature aspects of the civil rights movement was the degree of discipline and fortitude that was instilled in all the people who participated. Imagine young people, 16, 17, 20, 21, backs straight, eyes clear, suit and tie, sitting down at a lunch counter knowing somebody is going to spill milk on you but you have the discipline to understand that you are not going to retaliate because in showing the world how disciplined we were as a people, we were able to win over the conscience of the nation. I can't say for certain that we have instilled that same sense of moral clarity and purpose in this generation."

I tend not to follow the moral reiterations of people with 17 unpaid parking tickets, especially one who seems to have abruptly stopped accumulating them once the Harvard Law Review presidency was in sight and didn't bother paying them until a still higher presidency was in sight.

There is a bit of arrogance, contempt and self indulgence lurking behind such behavior. One unpaid ticket is a messy desk, two is a messy schedule, three a messy life, but 17 suggests a certain philosophical indifference to the law or other psychological flaw.

Not that all fines should be paid. For example, just 14 miles down the road from Somerville is Concord, Massachusetts, where in July of 1846 Henry David Thoreau was arrested by Constable Samuel Staples for failure to pay the poll tax, a dramatic, albeit admittedly unpreachy, statement in opposition to slavery. A veiled woman, perhaps his aunt, arrived to pay his fine but Thoreau refused to leave. Then, according to Wendy McEloy:

"According to some accounts, Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, 'Henry, what are you doing in there?' Thoreau replied, 'Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?' Emerson was 'out there' because he believed it was shortsighted to protest an isolated evil; society required an entire rebirth of spirituality."

In the present instance, the 17 unpaid Somerville parking tickets have resulted in neither jail nor are they likely - despite the offender's best desires - to result in an entire rebirth of spirituality. Instead, they stand as a reminder of the sometimes subtle, sometimes simple, accord we strike with each other in order to live in the same town. And how some observe this accord and others think they are too clever or too important to bother.

It is a small matter that becomes somewhat more significant when one thinks about the past six years under a president who has routinely ignored the laws of the United States in order to satisfy his egoistic and psychotic needs. Many of these violations have their roots in behavior and attitudes learned as a young man, including at college.

It's not an insurmountable problem but it doesn't help much when your media representative declares the issue not relevant. After all, as they say: deceive me once, shame on thee. . . Deceive me, the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department, the Democratic Party, the media and the voters 17 times until your consultants tell you better pay up, shame on all of us.