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Gift of Graft
In August, Pittsburgh’s 27-year-old mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, along with his wife and some friends, hopped into a GMC Yukon and went to see a Toby Keith concert. Turns out it’s a sort of double-secret-probation-mobile, purchased with a federal homeland security grant and assigned to a police “intelligence unit.” Questions arise. Politically: Why does Pittsburgh have a 27-year-old mayor? Aesthetically: Why does he listen to Toby Keith? Ontologically: Why is Toby Keith? Practically: What the fuck kind of intelligence do you gather tooling around the hilly neighborhoods of an old steel town only now on the uncertain cusp of a modest economic recovery in a 5,500 lb., 5.7-liter, 320-bhp V8?
The Yukon, meanwhile, has gotten itself one of those permanent modifiers: Just as you can’t say “Muqtada al-Sadr” without “Radical Shiite Cleric,” you can’t mention the troublesome truck without adding the Homeland Security prefix. The price tag is also a popular adjectival appendage. Forty-five grand, give or take. The federal grant that paid for it came in the amount of $59,000, which compels us to ask: Where did the rest of that money go, and can we get some decent rims?
Ravenstahl has elsewhere and otherwise been prone to embarrassing transgressions of political decorum, which is as you’d expect from a kid his age. I say that as a kid his age. Were I in his shoes, that truck would’ve come back with a lot worse than “barbecue stains,” as goes the current allegation. Pittsburgh chose to reelect the dumb stooge, and who am I, at last, to contend with the Triumph of the Will of the People? And yet a certain irony—at least, a disconnect—underlies our ongoing scandale. If the mayor’s personal outing violated the terms of the vehicle’s proper use, then what precisely are those terms? What constitutes proper use?
That is the rub. These Homeland Security SUV mini-scandals are common these days—Buffalo had its own too, with public officials using similarly purchased SUVs for “personal use.” But again—what would constitute “official” use?
The answer is that no one seems entirely sure. Our US Attorney, Mary Beth Buchanan, more widely known for her quixotic (by which we mean Javertian) pursuit of various porn purveyors, is looking into possible improprieties, and within the police department at least one whistle-blowing type has suggested that the federal money came with “strings attached.” By which we mean that the feds could conceivably issue some sort of take-back, although frankly with the way SUVs bleed blue-book value from the minute they roll their fat asses off the lot, the federal grantmakers come out the losers in any such scenario.
Mayor Luke isn’t a smart man. He’s not even a smart boy. He’s certainly no disestablishmentarian. Lord Jesus and his choirs of mewling angels know that no man who takes his wife to the homosocial proving grounds of a Toby Keith stadium show is angling to heighten any fucking contradictions or subtly undermine the operations of the global gulag by exposing its operations as a vicious—and expensive—fraud. Yet the truth is that the absurdities of the system are often better exposed by its exemplars than by its harshest, most insightful, and most incisive critics. For a hundred years, for instance, America has pursued empire abroad, and for all that time wits, wildmen, professors, aberrant congresscreatures, celebrities, street-corner preachers, secular saints, columnists, madmen and militiamen alike have cursed it and hurled invective against it. But who has done more to expose its failings to the broad, broadening, and bovine public than America’s imperial apotheosis, George W. Bush?
The unintentional aftermath of our mayor’s high-rollin’ car-pool scam has been the further transformation of Homeland Security, both the Department of and the Idea of, into more of a joke. Pittsburgh is a town of deep affections but few pretensions, and the idea that a terrorist would ever choose it as a target strikes everyone as more than a little ridiculous. Now the bemused question lingers over water-cooler conversations: Supposing Al-Muslim bin-Nazifascist, having finally realized that the Steelers are America’s team now, decides to blow himself up in a crowd of vastly overweight tailgaiters in the far lots of Heinz Field—supposing he does, what on earth will ownership of a big ugly truck contribute? And if nothing, then who really cares if the mayor wants to use it to cruise for pussy, listen to bad country music, or run over small animals?
Mencken said that a belly-laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms, and to the extent that minds change at all, I wouldn’t argue. Unfortunately, even the mild transformative power of laughter and ridicule is inadequate to the challenge of changing minds enough. Mencken watched Darrow turn William Jennings Bryan and his biblical certainty into a laughingstock, but lo these many years later the population of Tennessee is still more inclined to think that man is the dust of the earth rather than the fruit of some dirty damn ape’s loins. Hell, half the field of Republican candidates will tell you the Earth itself is 6,000 years old.
Today you’d have a hard time striking up politics in a bar and finding a drinker who doesn’t think all this War on Terror huff and Homeland Security stuff is a waste of bad time and good money. It’s up with the Drug War as something to be mocked when some particularly egregious example of fraud and skullduggery makes the papers, but otherwise to be ignored. Both the laughter and the lack of interest otherwise spring from the same unfortunate perception: that this shit is just implacable, as much a fact of life as death, taxes, and gravity.
I say unfortunate perception, but I can’t call it untrue. Do Americans recognize that the domestic security apparatus is a cracked panopticon whose endless maintenance serves only to line the pockets of the powers in our Sovietized system of State Capital and occasionally to exact petty revenge on poor, powerless peaceniks and other assorted losers whose eternal response to the United States of Pepper Spray and Tasers is to complain that it is all horribly, horribly unfair, and to erect, without apparent irony, towering monuments of rhetorical indignation that dissent should bring reprisal in America as it does in every other society on earth—ever? Sure they do. What are they going to do about it? More and better Democrats?
The well-meaning and thoroughly moronic optimists who now hawk their internet-ready people-powered politics with the predictable fervor of losers trapped in a pyramid scheme from which escape means ruin, the folks who populate websites like DailyKos, who give money to MoveOn.org, who persist in the belief that deliverance will come in the form of electoral politics, are the exemplars of this error. They think of themselves as the empire’s irritants, agitating for a better, fairer, juster world in which slicker politicians will keep from them the dirty truths about the maintenance of their comfortable lives, when so clearly they remain its enablers.
The question before us is not how we get more and better, but more and worse. I don’t mean worse in the sense of Iran-slavering Joe Lieberman, say, or Iran-slavering Hillary Clinton. I mean worse in the sense of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. I mean: How do we stuff the public coffers with dishonest losers who will grind the gears of the state and its security apparatus through sheer, ham-fisted, dumbassed graft. How do we ensure that the police will take our bribes, that the city council will blow Homeland Security funds on Vegas hookers, that our local black markets will proliferate? Dissidence, if it’s to be practiced in our terrible, powerful country, is going to be practiced in the provinces. The path to liberty lies in misappropriation.
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