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Signs - The Ornery American


Signs
By Susan Wishnetsky September 17, 2003

"Do this, don't do that. Can't you read the sign?"
The Electric Flag

Soon after September 11, 2001, President Bush scheduled a "national moment of silence" in the middle of a weekday. In my city, Chicago, meeting places for this moment of silence were designated in community centers, churches, and schools, including a school on the block where I live. But Chicago already had a regularly-scheduled activity on that day--streetcleaning. On that particular day, it was my block's turn. "No Parking" signs with the effective date had been posted in advance, as required.

The hour approached, and the street filled up with flag-laden vehicles, the drivers ignoring the signs and heading into the school to share a moment with their fellow Americans. Streetcleaning? today of all days? They weren't about to let something like that inconvenience them on their way to a solemn patriotic gathering. The cops wouldn't dare ticket them at a time like this, and they'd only be parked there for twenty minutes or so.

But their silence was disturbed by a sound--the sound of the streetcleaning machine passing by. He showed up right in the middle of the big event. Because of all the parked cars, driving by was all the streetcleaner could do. Yet that streetcleaner was the biggest patriot of all, wasn't he? There was no American flag on his machine, but he was out there trying to do his job like always.

I'm not fully convinced of the benefits of streetcleaning (even when it works out the way it's supposed to) ... but our tax dollars do pay for it. Presumably the plan was instituted through some kind of democratic process, and could be discontinued if enough taxpayers felt it was not worth continuing.

Sometimes it is right or sensible to disobey a rule (or law). But before we disobey, shouldn't we at least think about the possible reasons for the rule, and inquire about the rule if we don't understand the reason for it? If we're convinced that a rule is foolish or wrong, don't we also have the obligation to speak out, to try to change it? If we simply ignore the rule, what we're practicing is not civil disobedience, but merely civil disregard.

Civil disobedience, in which people publicly violate laws in protest and accept the consequences, is rare in the United States. Civil disregard is common. (And civil disregard practiced in the name of patriotism seems hypocritical to me!) Civil disregard, in fact, seems to be everywhere you look.

I spend a lot of time standing outside buildings, especially the building where I work--because I'm a cigarette smoker. The main entrance to my university building has two revolving doors and a button-operated double-door. Each of the automatic swinging doors bears a sign: "These doors restricted use. Wheelchairs only."

Usually I stand silently marveling (as I smoke) at the parade of well-educated, upstanding citizens, my fellow workers, ignoring the signs and streaming endlessly in and out of the handicapper doors. Once, however, I remarked about the energy-efficiency of revolving doors to one of them, a coworker with whom I'd become somewhat friendly.

He asked, "Are you an environmental nut?"

I was startled, for I'm not an "environmental nut"--at least I don't think so. I usually favor pro-environment positions, but not always. Good heavens, I smoke cigarettes; doesn't that alone disqualify me? I do have some beliefs that could be considered "nutty," but not the environmental ones.

I'd always figured my preference for the revolving doors was based on self-interest. Since my own department is part of a larger entity--the one that owns the building--it has to be affected by the costs of heating and cooling the building. When staffing is cut back, raises are small, or supply requests are denied, some people think of the cheapskates at the top, those greedy administrators with big salaries reluctantly doling out pittances to the underlings. But my thoughts always center on the heat pouring into or out of the lobby of the building.

That would make me, not an "environmental nut," but a stereotypical "grownup". We usually envision parents preaching this kind of responsibility, explaining to children the connection between trivial actions and their own (or others') well-being. But my coworkers who heedlessly use those double-doors are all "grownups," and unlike me, many of them are parents too. Once, in fact, I saw a little boy, one of the few kids I've seen in my building, point out the sign to the adult leading him toward the exit: "Mom, we're not supposed to use this door." (The mother led him through the door anyway.) It is wrong, I think, to call irresponsibility or thoughtlessness "immature" or "childish" traits, since they belong to so many "grown-up" people as well. So many, in fact, that someone who believes in a rule and wishes for others to abide by it may be considered a sort of "nut."

But to be fully rational about it, I have to admit it's doubtful that building costs have much affect on my own job or department. If the university suddenly found itself saving a lot of money on heating and cooling, that money would probably be allocated to something other than my department or my paycheck. The welfare of the nation is probably also on my mind as I smoke and fume.

I remember stories from my parents about the homefront during America's involvement in World War II, stories of sacrifice and volunteering to help. People actually gathered and donated bits of metal to help the war effort. They cut meat from their diets; some even saved their cooking grease to recycle. Sure, there were profiteers, black marketers, con artists who tried to personally benefit from the war ... but everyone I've spoken to who lived through that era seems to confirm that it was a time when vast numbers of Americans were willing to give up their time and change their lifestyles to help the United States and its allies. Maybe they were all nuts.

The last U.S. president to call upon citizens to help the nation by giving up something was, I believe, President Jimmy Carter, who suggested that we all try to reduce our use of fuel by putting on a sweater instead of turning up the heat. He didn't try to pass a law about it, he just asked Americans to please do it voluntarily. After the outrage that greeted this suggestion, our presidents stopped trying to encourage any kind of voluntary sacrifice.

To support our current "war on terror" Americans are expected to fly flags, to shop, to travel. We're all supposed to be selfish--but maybe we can't afford to be as selfish as others around us. We see rich and powerful people get away with criminal behavior, even get rewarded for it, but we're assaulted by capricious laws that limit our freedom. For example, good safe drivers are suddenly being targeted for not wearing shoulder restraints in their own cars, while those other drivers who do all the things that aggravate and endanger us are left alone. When we see police cars parked in the handicapper spaces at donut shops, it's no wonder we feel entitled to bend the rules when we can.

It's easy to be offended by a stupid sign with another stupid rule. It's an affront, another inconvenience, another imposition from above. We'll rebel any way we can (as long as we can avoid any consequences). To hell with mindless obedience to authority. Fight the power. If we throw a gum wrapper on the ground, or honk our car horns at a traffic jam in a hospital quiet zone, so what? It's not like we're dealing drugs or anything. We're the good guys! And we have our flags, so you know we're not unpatriotic ...

But we fail to realize that oblivious disregard of authority is just as thoughtless as mindless obedience to authority. The key is to think. We speak of coming together as a nation. If we're all in it together, shouldn't we accept that some of our laws and rules, created by our democratic process, might be there for our common good? Not all, of course, but some. Just because it's a rule written on a sign, that doesn't necessarily make it something we need to rebel against. Maybe it's something we would actually support, if we thought about it.

If our leaders aren't showing us the ways to help our nation anymore, then it's up to us to find out ourselves, and to tell one another. Sometimes those ways are posted on signs right in front of our eyes.

Copyright © 2003 by Susan Wishnetsky

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