Life in these United States
I read recently in our regional newspaper that a local man has been accused of a crime and isn't quite sure why. He took several cans of food from near the door of a local civic organization, from a bin intended for collecting donations of canned food for the poor. The surprised man explained to the police that he was in fact poor, and also hungry, and he assumed (not unreasonably, really) that the food in the bin was meant for people such as himself.
He was arrested for theft and put in jail.
I wondered if I should offer my services to the public defender, in my capacity as an editor, to explain helpfully that a sign that says "Food for the Poor" doesn't actually as a matter of language specify that the food must be put into the bin rather than be taken out. It is only an assumption in the head of a given reader that makes one or the other meaning seem plain as day.
I imagined marching to the court to be a beacon of light with my copy of Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity under my arm. Editors needed everywhere.
But I had a vague insight that if I got involved, I might end up in jail too. Somehow. I decided to keep out of it, since I was already out of it and thus not threatened by the unruliness of anyone's assumptions.
I reasoned that the food "thief" is getting free meals in jail, courtesy of the county, so all is, if not well, then well enough.
"Open Mike" is the off-topic Editorial page of TOP, where we allow Ed. even freer rein.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Dave Levingston: "Reminded me of the old story of the guy stopped because he was tossing trash out of his car. He couldn't understand what the problem was since he had just passed a sign that said, 'Fine For Littering.'"
Stan B.: "There's at least one country that has a more enlightened view."
Mike replies: Now that's very interesting, and what could be more Les Misérables? Although they did spend an awful lot of resources establishing a pretty simple principle. Christ or Pope Francis would have gotten to the same place a lot quicker.
Dogman: "I was served a subpoena recently to appear as a witness in criminal court. I was confused since I felt I had witnessed no crime. Eventually I figured out what this was all about but I was still unclear as to why I was being called as a witness for the prosecution when what I had witnessed didn't appear to be illegal at all. So I spent a confusing afternoon in court, still unsure of what was happening. I was eventually released, still confused, without being called to testify or receiving any explanation from the prosecutor.
"For some time now I've felt the reason so many people have so little respect for the legal system is based on confusing and ambiguous laws that essentially appear to make everything illegal. After spending an afternoon in the local city criminal court, I'm now certain of this.
"Admittedly, I don't know the details involved in this story. There might be more than was originally reported and that could have led to the man's arrest. But taking the information at hand, a poor and hungry man takes food from a box of food meant for the poor because he's...well, poor and hungry. In a simpler but wiser time, no one would have called the police, no police officer would have ever made an arrest, no police supervisor would have allowed the man to be jailed and no prosecutor would have pursued prosecution. Somewhere along the line, someone would have displayed a little compassion."
Mike replies: And speaking of novels, your experience sounds more than a little Kafkaesque. The Trial I think it was?
Anyway we gotta get back to photography.
GKFroehlich: "Imagine how long some road trips would take if, every time you saw a road-side sign that said 'Clean restrooms,' you complied!"
Speed: "Re 'I had a vague insight that if I got involved, I might end up in jail too.' A 'chilling effect' describes a situation in which rights, such as free speech, are threatened by the possible negative results of exercising these rights. The effect is to silence criticism and freedom of expression, even in cases where criticism is perfectly valid."
Alan Carmody: "Re 'I had a vague insight that if I got involved, I might end up in jail too.' Fear not. People appeal to judges all the time, and chip in with letters, advice and pleas. Fear not, unless you've thrown in the towel and decided that we've gone the way of Soviet Russia."
Geoffrey Heard: "Assuming he was actually poor, as you correctly point out, he was not a food thief, he was simply someone who took the sign at face value and accepted the helping hand offered. I think you should have stepped up, Mike. At least it would be an experience worth looking back on.
"I interfered in a brawl here the other night in which a young guy was set fair to be beaten and kicked to death. A few days later, my neighbors who were involved are quite happy with me; their wives and mothers and whatnot have pointed out to them that if they had killed the guy or even hurt him more badly than he was hurt, they would all be set for long terms in jail. I am seen now to not only have saved the victim but also the attackers!"