Big Brother boards the bus in Bangor


The thing that set me off last week was a report of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents boarding a Concord Coach bus in Bangor and asking passengers to prove their citizenship. I learned of it through social media, via an article by Colin Woodard on the Portland Press Herald website. A later piece appeared in the Lewiston Sun-Journal. Our local Bangor Daily News had nothing.

I ride those buses all the time, and I’ve never been asked for my papers. I do have to show a photo ID when I buy my ticket, but not to a federal agent. That sort of thing is supposed to be illegal in the United States of America, according to the fourth amendment to the constitution. If you are unfamiliar with the fourth amendment, here it is:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

But when I shared Woodard’s piece on the Slower Traffic Facebook page, several readers chimed in to support the policy. “Make America Safe Again,” one wrote, with a surfeit of exclamation points. “Great policy.”

And then there was this, also excessively punctuated: “I have nothing to hide! I’m a legal citizen. Are you?”

Now this is funny, because you can find my great-great grandfather’s bearded face on any presidential calendar in America. We even have the same last name. Though I don’t go around advertising this, my antagonist was all too ready to pronounce me guilty until proven innocent. For all he knows I could have changed it from Gonzalez, or Garibaldi.

I wondered if he would be as sanguine about getting pulled over in his car when he was doing nothing wrong, just because the police were looking for undocumented immigrants. Boarding a bus as a ticketed passenger does not constitute “probable cause” for a search of your possessions, including your wallet, any more than driving a car does.

When I pointed this out, I was called a snowflake and told to go find a safe space. This is what the Twitter Presidency hath wrought. This is the way we communicate now. And it sucks.

The left is just as guilty of this as the right, by the way, and Slower Traffic is not and has never been a political blog. But I suppose that by its very nature, the act of giving up car ownership in early 21st century America is political. If I don’t want to see oil exploration near Penobscot Bay, the less I contribute to the demand, the better. I support spending tax dollars on public transportation and bicycle infrastructure. I’d like to bring passenger trains back to Rockland and Bangor. I advocate for policies that encourage walking neighborhoods and reflect the true cost of cars.

None of this makes me a Marxist.

But neither does support for oil drilling, or conservative policies in general, make one a bigot, racist, misogynist, Nazi, or any of the other epithets some of my friends on the left throw around far too frequently.

It seems so difficult to have a real conversation any more. Nobody thinks before they speak, and it’s all happening electronically. Instead of trying to engage each other on the challenging issues of our times, and maybe learn something in the process, we’re busy choosing up sides, and selecting the best pithy insults to throw at one another This is why I refused to use Twitter long before Trump took office, and refuse to use it still. It’s designed to engender misunderstanding and resentments. It encourages us to attribute the worst possible motives to those with whom we disagree.

Thanks to the Twit-in-Chief, it’s now acceptable for elected officials to post memes on the Internet calling their fellow Americans traitors and scumbags and pigs, and tacitly encouraging violence against journalists. Straw-man arguments abound, as both sides assume the worst about each other. I’m dismayed at how often, and how quickly, this turns into invective.

Twitter has become like the car culture. You don’t have to buy into it, but you still have to be careful not to get run over. And apparently you have to be prepared to waive your constitutional rights the minute you step on board a bus.

One person’s entertainment is another’s disaster

Years ago, I almost lost my Toyota Corolla to rising floodwaters in California. Someone came along with a chain in the nick of time and pulled me out. So I can empathize with the owners of the car-sicles caught in the Kennebec River last week, flooded and then frozen. It’s like seeing your boat driven onto the shore by a hurricane.

Still, there’s a part of me that enjoys a good natural disaster. It’s why I watch films like Twister and Titanic and The Perfect Storm. There’s a vicarious thrill to seeing nature wreak havoc with human infrastructure.

Cars are expensive and many people depend on them. This I understand. But in the winter, I’m especially happy not to own one. I like to go cross-country skiing in the streets of Bangor when there’s a big snowstorm, because I’m the most mobile thing out there amongst the slipping and sliding vehicles.

It’s a failure of empathy, I know, to take pleasure from another’s pain. Yet we slow down to gawk at car crashes, we cheer at football games and boxing matches, and we consume crime novels and dramas by the fistful.

Which brings me to the subject of lobsters. Switzerland has banned the preferred method of cooking them: boiling them alive. Switzerland is a landlocked country in the Alps, with a vanishingly small lobster population. But the few lobsters that go to the pot will now be stunned first, like cattle.

What do lobsters have to do with cars? Bear with me.

I’ve thought a lot about the ways we use and abuse animals. We eat them and enslave them and make sport of them, and a lucky few, mostly dogs and cats, but also horses and hamsters and parrots, become our friends. Most people feel some sort of empathy for animals, especially our “neighbor species,” as fellow creatures. But we don’t make them citizens, or until recently, assign them “rights.”

I eat meat. I love boiled lobster. I like bacon. But consider: a pig is just as intelligent as your dog, whom you wouldn’t dream of eating outside of an Antarctic expedition, and probably not even then. The difference between loving a dog and eating a pig is mostly a matter of cultural preference.

A reader once told me that I would reduce my carbon footprint more if I bought a car but became a vegetarian. I conceded his point. But environmentalism was not the primary reason that I stopped owning cars. My concern for the planet comes with a large helping of enlightened self-interest.

I’ve read Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser’s scathing overview of the meat industry, and watched Super Size Me, Morgan’s Spurlock’s experiment in eating nothing but McDonald’s for a month. The lesson seems to be that billions of burgers are bad for us, on both a societal and individual level.

So I was happy to read that recent hikes in the minimum wage have led to higher prices at fast food restaurants. Maybe if Whoppers and Big Macs cost more, fewer people will buy them, and the health of the American population will take a couple of ticks upward.

The principle is the same as charging for parking, or for driving during peak hours, as some cities in Europe do. It makes long-term sense to channel a portion of car traffic into public transportation and other alternatives. It also makes sense to use less farmland for meat than for crops that provide much more nutrition per acre.

Maine has a culture of hunting, and I’m not here to criticize anyone who hunts for food. But I had the experience as a child to come face to face with a young deer in a blueberry field. We locked eyes for several long seconds before we both bolted. I knew I had looked into another consciousness. I don’t sense that when I look at a lobster.

But is that, too, just a matter of degree? I’ve dunked hundreds of lobsters without a thought to their suffering. I’ll dunk many more. It doesn’t hurt that they look like large, tasty cockroaches. If they were adorable it might be more difficult.

And there’s that question of empathy again. How far does it go? Does it extend to a squirrel on your porch, or a mouse in your cupboard? If you can empathize with a lobster, why can’t you care for the feelings of a clam or an oyster?

I was musing about this when I boarded the bus to go to my annual physical checkup earlier this week. I opened the laptop and started noodling with the first few paragraphs of this post. My doctor gave me a clean bill of health, with one caveat: I should avoid red meat and pork.

My fellow mammals can rest a little easier tonight.