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The Bard Never Said "Click It or Ticket"

There's No Such Thing as a Beneficient Autocrat

SEPTEMBER 01, 2002 by TED ROBERTS

I’m cruising down one of the imperial four-lane highways; paved, drained, and bridged by the tax dollars I pay to the federal government and the Great State of Alabama. I’m buoyant because He who wrapped the earth, the United States, and the great State of Alabama with its climatic environment has done an especially fine job today in my corner of the state. It’s May. The air through the open car window is a compatible pairing with that climatic adjective, balmy. It’s soft, it’s refreshing, it even has a piney scent–the kind of aroma you pay for in your kitchen cleanser. It’s climatically as clement as the fourteenth-century popes of that name.

Not only am I happy with the weather, but I’m thinking that somewhere over the next five miles or so I will be pulling in to a fried chicken pit stop. Even without a thick wallet it’s easy to purchase a fried chicken dinner in any one of two dozen gasaterias/foodaterias that bless the road from Huntsville to Memphis. A couple of bucks–20 minutes of minimum-wage work–and BAM! I’ve got a plateful of fried chicken that would turn Emeril’s face green. They grow a lot of chickens in my state. They’re automatically fed, watered, and climated. It’s as hi-tech as NASA’s lab here in Huntsville. So chickens are cheap and fresh. Whatta country, I’m thinking. I live in a capsule of time and space where (due to the work of many anonymous geniuses) I can visit my family 200 miles away in three hours (in the nineteenth century it was a week’s walk) and eat all the fried chicken I want. What more can I ask of the fates? The rest is up to me.

Then I see the first cloud on my horizon. A glaring, blinking, yellow, electrically lit sign beside the road. “Click it or ticket!” it says. That’s a quote, folks. The governor is talking and since he owns a couple thousand highway patrolmen, I better pay attention. Again, after a half mile interval the sign says, “click it OR TICKET”! The governor, an honorable man, but bored with the digs in the State House, has immigrated to my car. He may as well be sitting in my lap. Today my car–tomorrow my house, with a mandate to seat-belt that high, dangerous chair in the den. His federal co-conspirators are already in my backyard forbidding me ownership of my flora and fauna. Evidently, the eight-legged, bulgy-eyed praying mantis has a stronger lobby (you’d think such a pious creature could call on a higher authority) than two-legged taxpayers with recessed eyeballs.

But right now the governor sits beside me in my car. Once again he threatens me. “Men working–double speeding fines,” says the next admonition. Damn. If it was only 125 bucks to bowl over a state employee shoveling asphalt–well, that’s ponderable, almost a bargain. But $250, nah, I better be careful. That’s the state’s interpretation of my homicidal mindset? This must be that psychological mechanism wherein we infest others with our own motives?

But what a multifaceted talent is our governor: sign designer, Solomonic legislator, lottery lover, taxer par excellence, and now–POET. “Click it or ticket,” he says. I can think of an incredibly obscene and rhyming retort but I won’t use it in a family publication. Shakespeare, the great Bard himself-a freedom lover-would have tossed off something mockingly light like: “hickory dickory dox, upon your state a pox.”

Shakespeare, whom the world extols as a sublime interpreter of human motivation, would intellectually stumble over that seat-belt sign. He’d at first smile when you explained the democratic system of government. Then his brow would wrinkle–reflecting great tumult in the brain behind it–as you explained that the sign is a reflection of state law, enacted by representatives of the very people soon to be financially punished.

How could the poet understand our docility? After all, this is the playwright who wrote Julius Caesar about a man who kills his best friend. Why? Because Brutus fears the power of the state even when it is brandished by an admirable man like Caesar.

“Think him as a serpent’s egg, which hatched would, as his kind, grow mischievous,” says Brutus, a Roman libertarian who could tolerate a centralized republic, but not an autocracy. He knows that states, like serpents, are ever expanding. First, they puff up. Then they hypnotize their prey. Then strike.

The philosopher who said “To thine own self be true” would never countenance the governor as a copilot in his ox cart, carriage, or 2001 Honda civic. How can thee be true to thine own self if thy freedom of choice is denied to thee?

As the Bard implied in Julius Caesar, there’s no such thing as a beneficient autocrat. Even when his intentions are honorable.

-Ted Roberts

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September 2002

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