Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

I Just Heard the Bell

As a thoughtful person, I have come to recognize the times in which I live as rife with evil and injustice. As an educated person, one who strives to not be provincial in time, I can see past the present hysteria and recognize that there is no time in history was not rife with evil and injustice. Show me a golden age, and I will show you a dark underbelly.

As a person interested in living a rich, full life, I try not to focus on the madness of world when I can do nothing about it. This has profoundly affected my understanding of the job of a novelist and storyteller. I have come to believe that the writer’s job is to distract, divert and entertain. Life is hard. Even the most insulated citizen of the First World has problems, and to give people a break from their troubles is a noble thing.

So, I have though to avoid “social issues” and discussing topical subjects. But when I became aware of Eric Garner, a man who was killed for selling cigarettes one at a time, I was shocked to discover that I have been writing about social issues all along.

Eric Garner, the economic crime hidden in plain sight.

So why was Eric Garner killed? Because he was black? Well, race is a factor. Always is. But for me there is something far simpler and far worse going on here.

He was arrested under suspicion of selling cigarettes one at a time. In the course of that arrest he was killed. For selling unlicensed cigarettes. Killed. When you lay it out like that, the stupidity, madness and tragedy of it becomes very clear.

The murder of Eric Garner (and whatever legal term of art you would like to use, it was murder — a group of men killed another man) is different than the murder of Michael Brown, the man who was killed in Ferguson. Both of them were African-American. Neither of them should have been killed. But Michael Brown had just robbed a store. Not only is that against the law, but it’s quite obviously wrong by every moral code from Hammurabi on. Eric Garner was providing a service to people who wanted and needed it. It was voluntary exchange.

As Nick Gillespie put it:

clearly something has gone horribly wrong when a man lies dead after being confronted for selling cigarettes to willing buyers.

The “crime” for which the cops were shaking him down for was nothing more than committing an act of retail. He took cartons and packs of cigarettes and broke them into their smallest unit and sold them. This is a poor man selling to poorer people. The least economically advantaged people in our society. So poor that they struggle to accumulate enough cash to buy an entire package of cigarettes. That’s &@!#ing poor.

Stopping that exchange is just beating up on the poorest, most defenseless members of society for no reason.

Why loosies? Because cigarettes in NYC start at $12 a pack. This creates a huge incentive for the additional “crime” of cigarette smuggling. Right or wrong people want to smoke. So they will get cigarettes. Literally, people are being assaulted, and in this instance, killed for an invisible line on the ground known as a tax jurisdiction.

The invisible line, the expansion and misuse of government power, is the functional cause of this evil. Saying that racism caused Eric Garner’s murder is like saying gravity causes planes to crash. Just like gravity, racism sucks and there’s no escaping it. In fact, the point can be made more general. There have always been and always will be mean, stupid and vicious people. The question is what can we do about it?

How to Make the World a Better Place

At the center of my most recent book, The Merchant Adventurer, is a powerful idea. Simple acts of commerce make the world a better place. I believe this to be true to the core of my bones. Causes and crusaders usually make the world a worse place, and most of the time the more passionate the crusader, the more destructive the crusade. Moral certainty (to say nothing of moral blinders) is what gives people the courage to fly planes into a buildings.

Compared to the fanatic, I’ll take a plumber any day. Mundane and damp though his trade may be, you know, beyond the shadow of a doubt that the plumber is helping people. Pipes are fixed, money changes hands, both the plumber and the plumbee are better off.

This is directly at odds with how stories work. Especially the genre of our time, the Thriller. A hero, taking desperate, violent action saves his or her world from destruction. Here’s Editor Shawn Coyne in a recent post. (If you are at all interested in stories and their making, you have to follow this guy)

The thriller is all about one individual negotiating a complex world, living it to the limits of human existence, and usually triumphing over seemingly overwhelming forces of antagonism. Isn’t this a description of what we often feel we are up against every day of our lives? We love thrillers because they reassure us that there is an order to the world and one person can make a difference, have an impact. When we leave a great movie thriller or finish a great thriller novel, we have a catharsis. The experience purges our gloom and gives us reinforcement to stay the course.

Catharsis is, of course, more profound result of a story than entertainment. It’s a noble thing we all need to keep our sanity. But a side effect is that we come to see progress as created by brave individuals through conflict (often destructive).

To put it another way, the officer who choked Eric Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, most certainly saw himself as a hero when he got up that morning. That’s why there are words and uniforms and badges and ceremonies — to make cops feel like they are doing a good job, even when they are not.

Someone gave him a badge and told him it was okay to go out and harass someone for selling loose cigarettes. This is not a natural state of affairs. Basic human morality is offended by what Panteleo did. Because Garner wasn’t hurting anyone.

Once the powers of a government are expanded to interfere with voluntary transactions between individuals, evil is unleashed. People will get what they want, be it booze, cocaine or nicotine. For the entire range of behavior that doesn’t harm anyone else, criminalizing it just makes it worse. And the worst kind of people will use that power for whatever awful thing they want to do.

I’ve known some cops. Most of them have been have great people in a tough job. One or two have been a little sadistic. And the sadism isn’t all bad. It depends on how it is channeled. One of the cops I know once told me, “I just like to bash heads. This is a way for me to do it that helps people.” You can be skeptical (as was I) but amid that moral and psychological quagmire lurks a noble impulse. But the fact remains, if you want to hurt people and get away with it, being a cop is a good career choice for you. If you like to feel people up and get away with it, why wouldn’t you get a job with the TSA?

Despite our most noble and worthy aspirations, diminishing the rights of the individual opens the door for all manner of wrongs. Racism might be the particular evil that jumps out at you — and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be, but there’s a nest of swarming villainies here.

And they all hide behind the sad fact that if the police rob you, there is simply no one you can call. Civil asset forfeiture anyone?

Stepping into the Ring

If you’ve followed me and my work for any time, you’ll know that I’ve never written a post like this before. It’s because I have believed that the primary job of a writer is to entertain. But I’ve change my mind. I think the job of a writer is to provide cathartic relief — first and most importantly for him or herself, then for any readers who happen along.

Of course, it’s no good to get preachy while doing any of this — that’s just bad writing — but there is some wisdom from my favorite Ray Bradbury quote that applies:

I can claim no victory, but there was blood on my gloves when I hung them up.

To extend his analogy. I have just heard the bell and realize that it’s okay to come out swinging.

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