"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 20 April 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Morality Play



Democracy prevailed over fascism

in Paraguay last month as the

men who run the nation's

government and political parties

pulled together, fighting to

save the right of the people to

elect their leaders freely. But

the cause may still be lost: The

anti-democratic son-of-a-bitch

they threw in prison is

apparently unable to take a

hint, still campaigning for the

presidency - and he's winning.

If his judicial appeal from

behind bars is successful, he

can even remain on the ballot.


Lino Oviedo, a retired general,

was leading in the polls when

President Juan Carlos Wasmosy

formally accused him of

attempting a 1996 coup; as the

Miami Herald explained after

Oviedo's 10 March

sort-of-arrest, "Wasmosy cannot

seek re-election but maintains

that Oviedo, accused by

government officials of

trafficking in toxic waste, is a

threat to democracy." The police

didn't exactly have to hunt him

down, either: The threat to

democracy was already safely

behind bars, jailed following

criminal allegations that he had

insulted a defender of freedom -

namely one Juan Carlos Wasmosy.

Despite the coup attempt that

cost the general his army post,

Wasmosy hadn't actually had his

former subordinate locked up

until Oviedo had won a spot on

the upcoming 10 May final



So: Free elections are important

- and we cannot allow the

election of a candidate who

might not agree. Oh, yes, and no

fighting in the war room. You'd

have to will yourself blind and

deaf - a defense we tend to

think of only in the context of

being asked to watch George Will

speak on baseball (or anything,

really) - to notice that this is

hardly a unique argument. This

kind of thinking is, for

example, neatly reflected in

Turkey's ongoing crusade to

maintain a secular government

despite contrary pressures from

an Islamic majority. Among many

others awaiting punishment in

that country for excessive

religious zeal, Istanbul mayor

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is

currently being prosecuted in

security court for allegedly

giving a speech that referred to

faithful Muslims as "our army."

("The minarets," he supposedly

also said, "are our bayonets."

Must be some pretty unwieldy

bayonets - say what you will

about the different religions,

but you don't see Christians

trying to stick people in the

chest with the top of the Sunday

school building.)


And this kind of thinking is also

neatly reflected - a little too

neatly - in much of the thinking

here on Suck's home shore. Funny

how one really minor encounter

can change the way you look at

things. We've spent the last

couple of weeks viewing the

world through the dark

sunglasses of the traffic cop

who suggested that we thank him

for not throwing us in jail

right then and there. We

declined to take him up on the

offer - hope we didn't hurt your

feelings, sir! - and instead

ended up calmly (well, not so

calmly) trading notions of law

and order as he wrote a

misdemeanor citation.


The accusation: Driving nearly

three times the speed limit. The

speed limit, however, was 15

miles an hour, an odd and

pointless choice for an airport

access road well-isolated from

much of anything; with no other

cars around, in the daylight, on

dry pavement. We're pretty sure

we could have safely made it

down that road with another five

or ten miles-per-hour on the

speedometer. Which we told the

officer, a bit peevishly, as he

thrust his radar gun at us so we

could see the blinking read-out.


He wasn't terribly impressed with

the argument. And so we asked:

How dangerous was it, really?

Setting aside what the sign

says, for a moment, did our

driving cause any actual danger?

(We actually used the term "the

spirit of the law," and with a

straight face.) The officer

looked up, blinked, and went

back to scratching out the

ticket. "So you think you should

just be able to make up your own

speed limit?" he asked -

rhetorically, of course. The

sign says "15," pal - what's

your point? The number on the

sign, obviously, was handed down

from a mountaintop, and is kept

on the original stone tablet in

a vault at City Hall.



Pretty silly, and just a traffic

ticket. But the attitude - the

law is what's written, not

what's intended, and anyway just

never mind what's intended, and

anyway what the hell are you

talking about - is plenty

pervasive, and we don't get many

opportunities to actually hear

it from The Man face-to-face.

Not that we don't get to hear it

from The Man through the media,

though; here's House Speaker

Newt Gingrich passionately

defending our American way of

life in a June 1997 speech:


Cut through the baloney and get
it fixed. Let me give you just
one or two examples. Senator
Lott and I have introduced a
bill that's very simple. If you
cross the border and get [caught
with] any amount of drugs, you
get life without parole. If, on
the other hand, the jury
concludes that you are a
professional narcotics
trafficker who repeatedly
crosses the border, you get a
mandatory death sentence.


Drugs, you see, are addictive and

dangerous, and harm people's

lives. So we should protect life

and health by, you know, killing

people. Interestingly, this

excerpt comes from a speech the

Speaker gave to a group of

county sheriffs; during the same

speech, he reminded them that

they were - as local, rather

than federal, law enforcement -

the front line of defense

against not just crime but also

against dictatorial government.


Up on that local front line, the

very same police department

responsible for our airport-road

ticket recently offered up an

extraordinary example of the

consequences that come with the



approach to enforcing the rules

of legislatively designed social



Michael Pismarck has rented the

granny flat in Bob Brown's back

yard for several years, but he's

not someone you'd be likely to

mistake for an actual granny; he

acknowledges that he

occasionally uses drugs -

marijuana, meth - and has lent

out his couch to

down-on-their-luck friends from

time to time, sometimes even to

friends who also do drugs. We

know, we know: a horrible human

being. But try to read on



As the weekly newspaper Westword

reported on 9 April, the police

showed up at Pismarck's door

back in December. They'd been

tipped off to the presence of

drugs in the house, and they

wanted permission to search;

Pismarck said yes. The officers

found an ounce of marijuana and

.078 grams of methamphetamine.

Since he had a roommate at the

time - the roommate apparently

being the person who called the

police - and didn't admit that

the drugs were his, criminal

charges against Pismarck were



The police, however, weren't

done. "We'll never know if the

officers found everything

there," a lieutenant told

Westword reporter T.R. Witcher.

"Perhaps he had a small amount

because he sold some."



Arguments like "we'll never know"

and "perhaps he sold some" are

kind of flimsy, but who cares?

Brown recently received a letter

from the police department

ordering him to evict Pismarck.

He refused. Pismarck had been a

good tenant for five years,

despite the single incident with

the police, and was insisting -

plausibly, Brown thought - to

have even "cleaned up his act,"

as Westword describes it. So

the police gave the landlord an

ultimatum: Evict Pismarck

immediately, or they would seize

all of Brown's property. As in

take it from him, remove from

his ownership, take away,

goodbye. The city code enabling

them to do this is called a

"nuisance abatement" law. An

ounce of marijuana, less than a

gram of meth, a few unprovable

feelings over at police

headquarters: Quite a nuisance,

and more than enough to justify

government seizure of someone's

home, clearly.


Despite the momentary lull, one

of the most common complaints

about current US culture is the

aggrieved belief that we no

longer have a good solid set of

rules and values, absolute

boundaries beyond which it's

simply unacceptable to go. Look

for this one to flare up again,

bright and hot, as the momentum

grows toward our next round of

national elections. Pat

Robertson acolyte Kay Coles

James has used precisely the

right language to sum up this



Just as the HIV virus [sic]
attacks those parts of the human
body that defend against
disease, so, too, has this
cultural virus attacked what
19th-century French observer
Alexis de Tocqueville called the
"values-generating" or
values-defending institutions of
society - the vital components
of the village. ... (L)ike the
"opportunistic infections" that
infect the human body, the
village is being ravaged by
infections that numb the senses
- murders, rapes, thefts,
rampant promiscuity, and moral


The murders and the rapes are

really terrible and all that,

but we're to understand that the

last evil, the moral relativism,

is the real biggie. It's the

root of the others - not that

crimes have "root causes," a

verboten term - and the disease

that has to be stomped out

before the others can be truly



This is supposed to be a

conservative idea, but the truth

is that it can be played either

way. One of the clearest

descriptions of moral relativism

was offered thirty years ago in

a book meant to teach about

social justice. Community

organizer Saul Alinsky

explained, in the 1971 book

Rules for Radicals, how to fight

evil; his recipe for

righteousness in the streets and

cities of the US still reads

like a handbook for third-world

thugs, religious-right-pandering

Republican politicians, and

James Carville. "All issues must

be polarized if action is to

follow," Alinsky wrote. "One

acts decisively only in the

conviction that all the angels

are on one side, and all the

devils are on the other."



And so it becomes possible,

possessing clear and firmly held

moral values, to imprison

anti-democracy candidates, and

prosecute people who express

religious convictions that

threaten religious freedom, and

kill people who sell marijuana

to protect the lives of the

people who smoke it, and seize

homes without evidence to

protect against nuisances. Free

of moral relativism, with all

the devils shoved over to one

side and the path to

righteousness bright and

unimpeded, the perils of

individual judgment are

conveniently overcome, and the

truth - check the appropriate

document for the truth belonging

to your particular order - can

be made to dominate.


Should make a hell of an argument

in traffic court, don't you


courtesy of Ambrose Beers