Smile Politely

Barbarism begins at home

In my closing remarks to the March 31 League of Women Voters debate, I promised that I would represent all the people of Urbana. In the hallway afterward, the mayor picked a fight with me about this statement. I don’t know why, really; she wasn’t going to win me over. There was no one else there. I guess she just likes to argue.

But I’m glad she did, because I was enlightened. She interpreted my remark as referring to black people. She talked of all the yard signs she had on Romine street. Weird, I thought. I was referring to Republicans, Greens and people not normally associated with the cabal running city hall right now. Outsiders, basically.

The mindset of an erstwhile civil rights warrior (the wealthy northeastern private school version, not the kind from the streets of Watts) appeals to ancient voters still fighting battles of the mid-twentieth century. The reason there’s no nuisance enforcement in Urbana, I learned, is that rich white people think it would be “racist” to enforce the law. They assume, when I refer to perpetrators of nuisance — or any illegal behavior for that matter — that I’m talking about black people.

This is the pitying attitude of the late 19th century eugenicists. The purest racism doesn’t demand that the racist hate anybody. You only have to feel sorry for them, and determine for yourself that they’re beyond hope.

This was confirmed for me by an ex-city employee, an attorney who prosecuted nuisance offenses. She said the current political mood at city hall reckons that prosecuting nuisance in east Urbana is “racist.” That’s why they don’t do it.

Guess who suffers the most from lack of nuisance enforcement? Guess whose neighborhood never gets any better?


There’s a reason we have a polis. There’s a reason we have policy. And in the worst cases, there’s a reason we have police.

Society decided, some time ago, that rules guiding daily life would not be made by the strongest brutes in each village. We use thinking, rather than force, to determine policy. Whereas in the past, the village tough guy would say what the law is because he says so; we say what the law is because we approved it within our duly constituted legislative assembly. Then we enforce it.

This is known as the rule of law. But laws only work when they’re enforced equitably, among all and in favor of none.

In Urbana — if history is a guide — for at least four more years, laws won’t be enforced equitably. The boisterous will hold sway over the meek. That’s the result of the April 7 election. (Oh, and there will probably be a few more bike lanes on I-74.)

This outcome was presaged for me on the last weekend of the campaign. I consider this foreshadowing the most depressing experience of my mayoral campaign. One day, I handed a pamphlet to the parents of an old schoolmate. The next day they erected a Prussing sign in their yard. Because it was the last weekend of the race, it felt like a direct insult. I still can’t fathom why they did it.

The schoolmate is an artist. His main medium is pencil drawings. He’s very good at it. But the point, as far as I’m concerned, is that he’s an artist. The parents have a lovely home in a working-class neighborhood. The dad worked in classical music sales. These people have, by all accounts and observable evidence, a sensitivity to aesthetics.

Here’s where it gets depressing.

I encountered them as they were being attacked by a dog. The artist’s parents had theirs on a leash, and were walking it through the neighborhood. A neighbor’s dog lunged at them, barking.

“FUCK YOU!” yelled the dog. “I WILL BITE YOU!” it continued. They froze.

I could tell what the attacking dog was saying. I speak dog. Less threatening and equally annoying repartee comes from the herders on the next block. “Hey come here! Come here! Over here!” they erupt whenever I step into my back yard. “You, come here!” they cry excitedly, “over here!”

But this was not a herder. It was an attack dog. The artist’s parents stayed still for a while.

After a bit, the neighbor came out of the house to collect the attacking dog. She explained that the dog was kept at bay by an electric fence — a device that inflicts some minor torture on the animal every time it leaps past an invisible boundary.

“He only barks when people walk by,” she added.

“People walk by all the time” is one rejoinder no one made. “Do people deserve to be attacked for walking by?” is another.

“He’s just doing his job” murmured the artist’s mother. She repeated the line a few times. As she murmured, I handed the artist’s father a pamphlet. He had signed my ballot petition months before, so my campaign was not news to him.

Sadly, the artist’s mother was right. The dog was doing its job. Its job is to menace anyone who walks by the house.

Activist Scott Kozel puts it succinctly:

If a person routinely ran up to the edge of the street and yelled and shouted at people walking on the street, he would either face assault charges or be put in a psychiatric ward. When a dog owner allows his dog to behave that way, the dog owner is indirectly manifesting the same behavior.

(An even more elaborate, alarming yet elegant treatment of this theme appears here.)

It’s sad, but this is the message many people wish to communicate to the outside world, including their immediate neighbors: “I will bite you. I hate you. Go away.”

Fighting words have been explicitly not protected by the First Amendment since 1942. In the age of Political Correctness, we’re expected to further suppress our thoughts and words for fear of offending someone, anyone. But for whatever reason, even some educated people still think nothing of foisting a non-socialized animal — or even an anti-socialized animal — at the rest of us.

And when people like me complain, we are often accused of hating animals. As if it were the dog’s fault.

Pseudo-libertarians think it’s wrong to impinge on the right of nuisance perpetrators to create nuisances. And yes, it’s illegal to menace someone with an animal. But that’s really the least of the nuisances that won’t be enforced in Urbana over the next four years. Yesterday, I heard The Race Car fire up for the first time this spring. It lives about 6 blocks from where I live. It’s audible indoors, with all the doors and windows closed. I don’t know where they race it. It’s a professional dragster, so it’s probably Indiana, or Danville (our own Indiana).

The illegal automotive shops are worse. Pouring used motor oil into the storm sewers is an environmental disaster. Five derelict cars on your lawn makes it hard for the neighbor to sell his house and get the hell away from you.

Whatever the nuisance, the pseudo-libertarians are wrong. Their freedom ends where mine is diminished. i.e., they can pollute their environment as much as they want, and they can make as much noise as they want as long as it’s all confined to their own property. But when it crosses the fence — as sound and smell tend to do, and as all environmental toxins seem to do — it’s no longer their freedom, it’s mine.

Maybe I should feel lucky that my own little corner of the world doesn’t have the drag-racing, the boom cars, the garbage-infested yards. The only thing I have to deal with is being attacked every time I walk, bike or jog down the street. “FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! I HATE YOU! I”M GOING TO BITE YOU!” is the greeting I invariably receive from my neighbor. (The reason many people don’t know about these nuisances: they drive cars, and are usually on the phone while they drive, so they hardly notice anything else. The mayor drives a Lincoln. It’s probably soundproofed.)

I consider myself warned. The neighbors hate me, and anyone else who deigns to pass by.

The herders are doing their job too. They’ve been bred to herd, and they don’t care that I’m not a sheep. Something ancient in their marrow compels them to bring everyone together in a group, no matter how annoying it is.

No, it’s not the dog’s fault for doing his job. It’s the boss, the owner who should be boiled, drawn and quartered, and then beheaded.

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