Allegan County News & Union Enterprise Commercial Record Courier-Leader & Flashes

Life as Performance Art

“Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me. And may there be no moan-ing of the bar when I put out to sea,” wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson. His poem, often used at funerals, came to mind after reading publisher Mike Wilcox’s editorial last week.
For those of us who took a driver’s training course, part of the time was spent on the street behind the steering wheel, part in the classroom. We learned how to parallel park and studied rules of the road in preparation for the written exam.
Somewhere amid our stud-ies an instructor solemnly told us, “Remember, igno-rance of the law is no ex-cuse.” In other words, telling an officer, “Gee, I didn’t know that was against the law. That was not going to get us far.
If we were lucky the officer would let us off with a warn-ing, but we couldn’t bank on it. That applies to all of life.
The challenge is there are tens of thousands of pages, divided into almost 50,000 federal sections, each listing at least one felony. To that we can add misdemeanors, and then move on to all the state legal codes and finally municipal ordinances.
Just to add to the fun, the list of criminal offenses in-creases each year by some-where between 3 and 7 per-cent.
Attempts to clean up this mess rarely get far because it is a complex process. In some states, if a municipality wants to delete an outdated law (eg. filling one’s water tank for a steam-powered tractor from a municipal horse trough), it has to be filtered through a city or vil-lage council committee
A hearing may have to be held so the public can have their three minutes to speak. Only then can an official finally tell any surviving owners of steam-powered tractors it is safe to use a horse trough that was re-placed by a parking meter back when Ike was in the White House.
Little wonder old laws re-main on the books and are never enforced. It’s easier and less expensive that way.
Then there are laws that don’t make any sense. For example, if you visit a na-tional park and accidently clog a public toilet, you are looking at upwards of six months as a guest of the government plus a hefty fine.
It’s a 3-year stretch for an-yone caught drinking a beer while riding a bicycle in a national forest. Time in the pokey for hoarding too many nickels and trying to get them out of the country.
And don’t even think about smuggling a pregnant polar bear into the U.S. of A.You can even get sent up river for trying to sell Swiss cheese with an insufficient ration of cheese to holes.
No officer this side of Bar-ney Fife or “Dragnet”’s Sgt. Friday is going to pull out the cuffs and haul you off to the clink for accidently over-loading the plumbing system at a national park as he or she recites your Miranda rights. But let’s go back to that unhole-y Swiss cheese law.
If the DA or a police officer wants scoop up some bribe money from a grocer or cheese seller, the threat of being arrested for a lack of holes may persuade them to pass over the cash.
Or suppose the authorities think the merchant knows something, but doesn’t want to talk, much less rat out a real criminal. The officer can cite the cheese as a probable felony and threaten to take them downtown. They don’t really want to do it so they make an offer no one wants to refuse: “Help us out here and tell us what you know about Spidey Peterson, be-cause we’d hate to have to tear the place apart looking for where you’re hiding the evidence.”
We end up holding onto all these old laws like hoarders keeping empty pizza boxes. “You never know when you might need it sometime,” they tell us.
More likely, just to liven things up midwinter during our second year of Covid, someone will look up the laws, then go count Swiss cheese holes at the local market all in hopes of mak-ing a formal complaint.
As for the felony of taking too many nickels out of the country, the upper fine limit is $5. As Casey Stengel said, “You can look it up; it’s in the books.”
Suppose you are going on a cruise that takes you out of the country and thinking about playing the one-armed bandit on the ship. Rather than risk getting carried away and blowing through your money, you decide to play the nickel machines and when you go through your $5, you’re stopping.
It’s unlikely the feds will lock you up if you have three $2 rolls with you, but it’s their perfect opportunity take you aside to see what else you have with you. It’s a gateway to snooping, all based on the premise of sus-picion.
“If you haven’t done something wrong you have nothing to hide,” our parents taught us. But if you don’t know you have done some-thing wrong, such as “suspi-cious-looking-with-intent,” the whole concept breaks down.
Laws are important for a civil society to function but work best only when they are good laws, not merely a re-sponse to a one-time event. The ordinance against farm-ers filling their steam tractors from a municipal horse trough likely came about after the one time a farmer drained the trough and someone had to refill it.
Other laws, usually bad ones, are enacted to repress or intentionally harm oth-ers. They have a political agendas behind them, often to repress or oppress some-one who doesn’t look like the face in the mirror.
A classic example are the Jim Crow laws prevalent in the South for nearly a centu-ry. So were laws which went out of their way to prevent minorities from voting.
That’s why it was neces-sary to create the federal equal opportunities laws. Too many people were get-ting hurt because others did like the color of their skin, their religion, political or philosophical beliefs, thought they were the wrong age or fell in love with the “wrong” person. Good laws protect equal opportunity for all of us.
I agree with Mr. Wildox: we have too many sometimes-ridiculous laws. About once a decade every municipality would be wise to delegate a committee to look at all their ordinances and propose purging ones that are outdat-ed.
Moving to state and feder-al levels, a sunset article would set a specific future date when the law will be automatically voided unless it is intentionally renewed.

Leave a Reply