The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Monday, August 01, 2005

VIDEO CAMERAS: The debate over video surveillance cameras in public places seems particularly rancorous these days, so I hope you will permit my dropping the usual strained levity for a moment to discuss a serious topic here. It is certainly not the norm for me, but I feel in this case an exception to the rule is in order, given the exceptional seriousness of the topic.

First, for the sake of those who have not kept up with the debate, let’s define who stands for what and why. Opponents of public video surveillance claim that these cameras violate our collective right to privacy. The people of this country, the opponents say, have a right to go about their business without having the government spy on them without their knowledge. Such surveillance, in their opinion, is nothing short of Orwellian, a harbinger of 1984 and the coming of Big Brother, thereby showing the illiterate dolts who support video surveillance that they have really read 1984. This is a bit unusual, as the only Orwell most people read in our happy little burg is Animal Farm, a book teachers assign to fifth and sixth graders. Most people don’t read 1984 and don’t really want to either, not just because it’s longer than Animal Farm, which you can read over the weekend if you skip going to the mall and going out with your friends, but because, when you come right down to it, the book is only slightly less depressing than a suicide note. I mean, who really needs to read that sort of thing when you can read the funny papers or watch TV, and if you absolutely have to come up with a six page paper on it, there’s always the Cliff’s Notes.

The proponents of public video surveillance cameras contend that the concerns of their opponents are little more than the usual overreaction by the usual left-wing dopes who want to make it harder for the police to do their jobs and to hamstring the federal government in its continuing efforts to protect the nation from the threat of terrorism. Proponents point out that there is no expectation of privacy in a public place and so such surveillance violates nobody’s rights. Proponents further contend that they share their opponents’ horror of an Orwellian government spying on the private lives of its citizens and have no wish to see such a thing occur, although this worry seems a bit overblown, in my opinion, since most government activity is more properly described as Proustian rather than Orwellian, in that nothing much actually happens and that the government spends an inordinate amount of time, money, and paper describing the manner in which whatever it is that is not actually happening is not actually happening.

Furthermore, proponents claim, the very presence of the cameras will deter criminal activity, as criminals not wishing to avail themselves of the free government sponsored housing for those in their line of work will seek other employment, or at least pursue an activity out of camera range like cattle rustling or selling advertising space on grain elevators. And public video surveillance will, at long last, enable the police to rid the airports and the train stations of the Hare Krishnas, the panhandlers, and the mimes once and for all.

I think we come here to the nub of the problem, the worm in the Apple, the charitable deduction you took for donating your old ties to the Salvation Army that causes the Internal Revenue Service’s main computer in Washington, D.C. to spit your return out with the word “let’s audit this guy back to childhood” written all over it, and if you have any more metaphors for this set of circumstances by all means feel free to use them. Let me make my position clear: video surveillance cameras are not the panacea their proponents say they are; far from making matters better they will only make things worse than they are already.

Proponents of this monstrous proposal ask the public to believe that the cameras will deter the mimes and the street entertainers from congregating in public places. I mean, seriously now, does anyone really believe that? The presence of cameras will draw these people out of the woodwork and into the subway stations the same way the smell of liquor draws my relatives to my house on St. Patrick’s Day. There’ll be no getting rid of them once they know they can get on television without having to audition. The subways will fill with would be prima donnas like the one I had to listen to the other day, a generous-sized woman, to put it politely, who spent the better part of five minutes vigorously emitting a series of high pitched squeaks, squawks, squeals, and screeches that the suffering public could hear distinctly over the cacophony of the passing trains, only to have the diva announce grandly at the end of her death rattle that she was not publicly announcing the results of her research into the linguistic variations between the cetacean dialects of bottle-nosed dolphins and killer whales, but was, in theory at least, performing her rendition of ‘O mio babbino caro.’

Rush hour will metamorphose into an oxymoron, if it hasn’t already, as commuters cannot get near their trains for all the tap dancing ten year olds and their stage mothers, would be Houdinis, talentless rappers, which is definitely not an oxymoron, klezmer bands that cannot klezm properly, and people who think their ability to drive a number two lead pencil up their nose and out their right eye as they eat a light bulb and recite the to be or not to be speech from Hamlet is somehow entertaining, and why is it that these people always say William Shakespeare’s Hamlet when they introduce this silly spectacle, as if anyone would confuse the Bard’s Prince of Denmark with Marvin Saperstein’s Hamlet, who is neither a Danish prince nor an English drama, but rather a perpetually flatulent hamster who dislikes running on that stupid wheel. Frustrated commuters backed up into the streets around Grand Central Terminal and Pennsylvania Station will come to blows with the passersby and each other as squadrons of truncheon wielding policemen in full riot gear batter a path through the massed ranks of the untalented performing for the cameras so that stockbrokers wearied by a hard day of speculation on Wall Street can catch the 5:25 local train to Ardsley.

Is this the protection that the proponents of this misbegotten idea want for us? I think we see far too many of these people as it is—television reality shows are already awash in them and frankly I see no point in spending my tax dollars to encourage their need to make fools of themselves. If we are serious about safety in mass transit then let us stop playing games and arm the critics and give them carte blanche so that they can deliver their negative reviews with a 9mm pistol or a shotgun, thereby saving the public from a repeat performance of the late miscreant’s offense against the public order and good taste.


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