I was thinking as I wrote the below of comfort zones and how far my daily round tests mine, and I don’t think it’s to my credit that the writer on my feeds most likely to make me roll my eyes is Radley Balko. —For all that I fiercely agree with the work he’s done and the fight he fights, there’s still that fundamental assumption clash, and when he starts to talk about say health care I find I’m biting my tongue.
The point that’s missed in the Bob Dylan story, as a less inflammatory for-instance. —Dylan goes for a walk before a concert in Long Branch, New Jersey; somebody sees an old man in a jacket wandering around in the rain, looking at houses, and calls the police; the young whippersnappers don’t realize they’re dealing with, y’know, Bob Dylan, and take this old man who has no ID back to where he says he came from, where he’s vouched for, and exeunt. —I saw it as a charming little anecdote about how celebrity somehow still doesn’t always guarantee special treatment, with a grace note re: the ineffable charms of Long Branch’s run-down, once-glorious Shore-side neighborhoods; Balko, well—
I don’t know. I find it pretty depressing. There was a time when we condescendingly used the term “your papers, please” to distinguish ourselves from Eastern Block countries and other authoritarian states. Post-Hibbel, America has become a place where a harmless, 68-year-old man out on a stroll can be stopped, interrogated, detained, and forced to produce proof of identification to state authorities, despite having committed no crime.
I guess I just don’t see the punchline.
Joe Strummer in the comments makes the obvious point:
How is it that it’s suddenly the “end of America” when a 68 year old white guy gets stopped by cops and asked where he is? Hasn’t this been a feature of the African-American experience since… whenever? Welcome to the party, folks.
And I don’t know about you, but I’m instead thinking of “The Pedestrian.”
“Your name?” said the police car in a metallic whisper. He couldn’t see the men in it for the bright light in his eyes.
“Leonard Mead,” he said.
“Business or profession?”
“I guess you’d call me a writer.”
“No profession,” said the police car, as if talking to itself. The light held him fixed, like a museum specimen, needle thrust through chest.
“You might say that,” said Mr Mead.
He hadn’t written in years. Magazines and books didn’t sell anymore. Everything went on in the tomb-like houses at night now, he thought, continuing his fancy. The tombs, ill-lit by television light, where the people sat like the dead, the gray or multi-colored lights touching their faces, but never really touching them.
“No profession,” said the phonograph voice, hissing. “What are you doing out?”
“Walking,” said Leonard Mead.
“Just walking,” he said simply, but his face felt cold.
“Walking, just walking, walking?”
“Walking where? For what?”
“Walking for air. Walking to see.”
Balko dates our fall from grace to the Supreme Court’s decision in Hibbel, from 2004. Bradbury wrote “The Pedestrian” in 1951, after getting stopped by the police while walking with a friend down Wilshire Boulevard—
Bradbury answered “Well, we’re putting one foot in front of the other.” The policeman didn’t appreciate Ray’s humor and he became suspicious of Bradbury and his friend for walking in an area where there were no pedestrians. After some arguing the policeman told them to go home and to not walk any more. Bradbury said “Yes, sir, I’ll never walk again.”
The Dylan story, and the Bradbury story, are measures of how we still aren’t living up to an ideal, not how far we’ve fallen from some idyllic past. To pretend otherwise is to mistake one’s rhetoric for the real—the same error in kind if not degree as fighting off a homosexual lobby comprised mostly of happily married heterosexual couples. It may well fit the narrative of one’s current fierce fight—Hibbel is a nasty little watermark in the constant erosion of the Fourth Amendment—but it seems as if you’re seriously arguing that there was ever an America where the cops wouldn’t stop a 68-year-old man out on a stroll, or any of the rest of us who looked to someone like we didn’t belong. And that makes you seem (charmingly, frustratingly, dangerously) out of touch.
One way of course to avoid or at least curtail these assumptions, these privileges, these rhetorical irrealities, is to read outside one’s comfort zone, and I’m in no way trying to imply Balko doesn’t. Nothing’s a guarantee some asshole on the internet won’t find some nit to pick. I’m just trying to bring it back home, you know? Here is this boat in which we all find ourselves. —Anyway, with the addition of johncwright as noted below, I think it’s safe to say Balko’s no longer anywhere near the person I read most likely to make me roll my eyes, a distinction anyway of dubious merit for all concerned.