Language changes quickly, given the proper nudge. Three years ago the phrase “Weiner tweeted his schnitzel” would have made you think he’d invented a wind instrument out of a sausage; now we all know what it means. (Given the Brooklyn rep’s flailing perorations, “wind instrument” might describe the man himself.) We’re not here to add to the parade of puns and euphemisms for the congressperson’s idea of a stimulus package, but to note something all embattled politicians say: They want to get the matter behind them — an anatomical impossibility in this case, you hope — and get back to the work of the people.
No! Please don’t. It’s your work that got us in this mess in the first place. It’s your inability to clean your teeth without wondering if there’s a national standard for dental-floss diameter, and if not, why not. It could be your name on that bill, you know. You could go down as the fellow who brought order out of the chaos, established uniform codes for mintyness. Never mind that the bill ends up so vague it exerts total federal control over anything string-related, and leads to the demise of the tight-rope-walking industry because OSHA gets jurisdiction and bans acts more than two feet off the ground. You did your part for dental health, and no one’s going to suffer from floss that breaks halfway through while teasing last night’s ribs from between two molars. You did that. You, you wonderful, selfless servant of the people. And hey, after Congress? Maybe a job with the Twine Council. Suddenly they need lobbyists.
A fine example of legislators who simply cannot pass up a chance to Do the Work comes from Tennessee, where the governor just signed a law making the entire Internet a tort waiting to happen. As the website Ars Technica put it: “A new Tennessee law makes it a crime to ‘transmit or display an image’ online that is likely to ‘frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress’ to someone who sees it. Violations can get you almost a year in jail time or up to $2,500 in fines.” It’s an add-on to an anti-harassment law, no doubt aimed at people who use the Internet to post Photoshopped pictures of their ex with a monkey’s head grafted on the neck. But it’s a bit broad: “For image postings, the ‘emotionally distressed’ individual need not be the intended recipient. Anyone who sees the image is a potential victim.” So much for the websites devoted to Lady Gaga’s couture.
For newcomers to the Internet, let’s explain how it works: If you disable the safety filters in your Google preference page, a search for anything will turn up something distressing. If you google “clay brick” you will get a picture of an “adult” star named Clay Brick. This might be emotionally distressing, but it’s hardly government’s job to pat your hand and say “There, there.” On the other hand: This means the entire country can sue the government for charts that show we spent $1 trillion on shovel-ready cowboy poetry, or orange highway signs reminding us that the Orange Highway Sign Recovery Act saved or created 28,945 jobs in the orange-highway-sign industry. It means that a parent who finds that his child posted a Facebook picture of a trip to a Cancun tattoo parlor can sue the child, and then the child can sue himself when he realizes what he did. It means the government could sue you for a mocking picture of the president, since it is emotionally distressing to many when they’re reminded that teabaggers doubt his ability to reduce ocean levels with his steady, paternal gaze.
Of course, the law will be selectively enforced, used only to add charges to people who’ve been texting an ex 250 times a day. But it’s government at its best: broad, vague, punitive, needless, and useful in an election when a candidate says he took a strong stand against “cyber bullying.” It lacks only a name of a young woman, such as “Ashley’s Law,” so we can take comfort in the belief that no one else will suffer Ashley’s fate when she saw a picture online of Justin Bieber with his girlfriend. (Hate her hate her HATE HER.) The law will join the billion other millstones hung around our necks, all because legislators had to do the work of the people — a concept that rarely seems to aid such things as people, working.
Not to drag it all back to Representative Weiner, but as his sorry case limped into its last act, a new wrinkle: His car registration was expired, and he switched the plates on his vehicles — both imports. Here’s a fellow you could expect to raise the cost of registering a car (to encourage mass-transit usage), support increased fines for out-of-date registration (to assist cash-strapped governments, as well as take a Strong, Wide Stance against scofflaws), support auto bailouts (to encourage a vital domestic industry), and wave off a cop who stopped him by deploying his congressional badge. You find yourself surprised he can’t even get a staffer to send in the paperwork to get the registration tabs. The idea he’d take an afternoon off work — unpaid — to enter the labyrinth of the D.C. motor-vehicle department doesn’t even enter your mind. These are our Tireless Servants, and they have Work to do.
Sign them all up for Twitter, give them a BlackBerry, and beg them to go pose in the gym. For the sake of the nation, work on your pecs. The people will be fine.
– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.