Saturday, January 21, 2006

Duelling Fictions

So I was walking to work the other day and noticed a very curious billboard. It was done up to look like graffiti, and carried the slogan "Not a crime!", brought to us by the public-spirited citizens at The curious thing about the billboard is that it's part of an astroturfing campaign by ClearChannel, the huge, predatory, monopolistic, warmongering corporation that owns all the billboards in town. Seems that a few years back, the city of Portland decided that billboards and large ads painted on the sides of buildings were an eyesore, and banned them. You could get away with this in most states, but the Oregon Supreme Court takes a very absolutist position on free expression, and it's not ok here. The state constitution doesn't give explicit permission to treat commercial speech differently than other speech, so you can't. Our Supremes ruled against the city a few years ago, and at first the city decided to do the usual Portland passive-agressive thing, and go after "real" mural art, just to show how mean the nasty Supreme Court was by making them be consistent and all. That proved controversial, so then the city came up with the clever idea of reclassifying billboards and murals as city-sponsored "public art", so they need to go through a permitting process and be judged on artistic merit. Meanwhile, ClearChannel has made it clear they won't settle for anything less than total laissez-faire, so they can place ads anywhere they want, in any format, with no city oversight of any kind. In the end, it's about money, not speech, so far as they're concerned.

Nobody's an angel in this argument. On one hand, ClearChannel is about as evil a corporation as you can find, and I'd hate to see them have any more power and influence than they already do. And the idea that they're really supporting the rights of poor, oppressed muralists and taggers is just laughable. They certainly aren't in favor of graffiti when one of their billboards gets defaced, after all. On the other, I'm instinctively very, very skeptical when any government body tries to reclassify something so it's not protected speech, no matter how noble their intentions may be, or how malevolent the target of the action might be. Yes, lots of people think billboards are a public nuisance, but you could say the same about protest marches. Lots of people don't like those, and they tend to inconvenience commuters far more than billboards do. In general, we ought to be leery of restrictions on speech, and the more popular the restriction would be, the more skeptical we ought to be.

If I had to pick a side, right now I'm somewhat inclined, quite reluctantly, towards the evil, bloodthirsty corporation, even though I agree that billboards are ugly and all. But that's not really the fundamental issue here, for me, anyway.

The thing that really bothers me is that the issue's being debated in entirely fictional terms. One side pretends to be the friend of the common (artistic) man, while the other claims to be merely standing up for good art, as judged by a municipal panel of experts, and generally promoting the beautification of the city. Both duelling fictions are undoubtedly pollster-approved and focus group-friendly, but they're also utterly untrue in all respects. Nobody's being honest about their real motives. One shouldn't expect ClearChannel, or any corporation for that matter, to have motives beyond doing whatever makes the most money, and one certainly shouldn't believe them if they claim to have other motives. LIkewise, the city's trying to come up with a way to go on treating advertising differently than "real art", despite that pesky state Supreme Court ruling, purely because they don't like large outdoor advertising very much, and they really don't like ClearChannel much at all. Even that ruling contains fictional elements, in that the very idea that a corporation has a general right to free expression stems from the notion that a business is considered a person under the law, a 19th century legal fiction concocted by the US Supreme Court, back when the railroads and various industrial robber barons called the shots. People have gotten used to this concoction over the years, but it really is a ridiculous idea on its face. And the fact that your average corporation has vastly more financial resources at its disposal than the average living breathing human means that the corporation tends to win out when the two come into conflict, with the legal system all the while pretending that the two are precise equals under the law.

Within the world of law, the culture equates cleverness in a legal argument with truth, beauty, justice, and sometimes even morality, even if there's no factual basis behind it whatsoever. A while back I promised an eventual rant about Oregon's "landmark" Beach Bill, but a full rant is unnecessary to this argument, so here's an abbreviated version. The law, which aimed to protect the coast from encroaching development, did so by reclassifying the state's beaches as a state highway. Really. This was considered a great move, because it prevented anyone from building directly on the beach, portions of which remain technically private property to this day, with the owners not receiving a single cent in compensation. And not a thought given to the obvious fact that the beach is not a highway. In reality, the law was passed this way because it was cheaper than actually buying everyone out, plus any improvements the state wanted to make nearby -- parking, campgrounds, etc. -- could be funded through state gas taxes, since they'd effectively be rest areas along the side of a (fictional) highway.

I suspect, but can't currently prove, that reasoning along these lines for too long eventually damages one's basic ability to think rationally, to distinguish fact from fiction, and right from wrong. If you want to know why our political system seems so broken, look no further.

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