Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Banning Brazilian Boomerangs

I wrote to the New York Times a few weeks back concerning an article on various US States’ neurotic tendency to ban things. [Sample regarding the recent proposal to ban smoking in your own home: “Eventually, the push to forbid smoking in apartments was dropped, partly because it would complicate the smoking of medicinal marijuana.” Is this stuff even meant to be tongue-in-cheek?].

In my letter, I referenced a similar Orwellian disposition here in Brazil where I recently stumbled across a killjoy poster akin to that shown above near the lake next to the rescue house, but listing so many banned items that the author had to use the tiniest font possible to fit them all in. The 34 prohibited evils included riding a bike and flying a kite. Bearing in mind that the scrubland next to the lake is one of the precious few square inches in this part of the city where its tortured citizens can breath unpolluted air or even see some sky is neither here nor there - it seems - for the jobsworths at the local authority. They have even posted guards in jumpsuits who now patrol what has been rebranded a ‘park’. Green bouncers.

“I bet you’re popular with the kids,” I said wryly to a particularly mean-looking guard standing next to the sign. He ignored me and gazed disparagingly at the pathetic-looking kites which the boys were clutching (we had cycled from the rescue house to kill some time by the lake). “Do you use a gun to enforce these rules?” I asked mischievously, gesturing at the poster flapping in the wind. He explained that they were a private security firm employed by the local authority and had no police powers and no authority to enforce the rules or prevent people from entering the park. Just what this paranoid city needs, I thought: even the plants have security now.

One can smile at a list of 34 restrictions for what essentially used to be the favoured spot for criminals wanting to dump bodies and stolen burnt-out cars, but there is a wider issue here. Part of my work is to instil in the boys a sense of respect for the law and for authority (parental, teacher, or otherwise) in general - a respect often long lost or (more often) never there in the first place. A closer look at the list of prohibited activities (more the lawyer in me than any desire to comply, I assure you) provides a perfect example of my dilemma. You see, it’s not just bikes and kites, but boomerangs too!

It is yet another example of this dear country taking a good idea from another country, twisting it and in the process making it entirely impractical and open (at best) to ridicule and (at worst) to abuse, resulting - in turn - in an erosion of respect for lawmakers who seem not to understand the basic principle that laws need to be objectively reasonable (and comprehensible) if there is any hope of compliance by the people subject to them.

There is what is commonly called a “biting period” for new laws here in Brazil. If rushed-in, badly drafted legislation is more commonly observed in its breach, then after a few years it quietly disappears from the statute book because it is said not to “bite with the people”. It sounds like a laughable concept (surely the legislature should be confident in the power of their convictions?), but there are of course about-turns - large and small - in every democracy (the “poll tax” in 90s Britain was one of the most high-profile and garnered perhaps the most public ire in the decades pre-austerity), although perhaps not so frequent.

Here’s hoping the 37 don’t bite (well, there are no dogs allowed anyway).

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