Sunday, June 7, 2009



I have been busy lately. Mild upheavals in my personal life have been keeping me away from the blog more than I would like. Plus I have been dealing with myriad maddening administrative problems, which I absolutely detest. I am not sure whether to label my uneasiness with everyday administrative "stuff" a badge of honor or a handicap. No matter how I label it, it gives me untold difficulty in life. I am constantly struggling to reconcile my creative impulses--which just want to sit me down and write--with the insistent need to handle "everyday business" (ie, phone calls, shop, go out, pay rent, make some money, do chores, clean the house, make appointments, make checklists, run errands). If I give myself wholly to my writing, my "administrative life" crumbles, and that makes my existence difficult because it damages my relationship and living circumstances. But if I give myself wholly to "administrative life," my resentment toward the world builds and I just want to start writing again. My goal in the coming weeks is to find the right balance. And it is no small matter. I am running out of money and I soon will likely need to waste countless hours attending to "a job" to finance myself for the next few months. I apologize in advance if "the job" interferes with my posting. I just know it will. Whenever I "work for pay," I feel so drained by the end of the day I can barely turn on the television, let alone focus my mind on writing that matters to me.

Despite all this, my mind is as sharp as ever. I just haven't had all the time I need to put my ideas into writing. Thankfully, today I have some time.

Yesterday I saw a small parking lot in the West Village. The West Village is unique in Manhattan because its streets weave, bend and form strange intersections, unlike the grid layout that takes over above 14th Street. The buildings generally date from the mid-19th Century and space is extremely limited. Although the Village used to shelter hip artists and left-wing runaways in decades past, those days are long gone. Now, only bankers, doctors, dentists, lawyers and heiresses live there. It is an upper bourgeois enclave dotted with gourmet coffee parlors (hawking cups for $5.50) and speciality dog grooming salons (puppy cuts start at $105). Although the Metropolitan subway system still brings less well-situated social classes to the Village, nobody actually rents an apartment there without verifiable income beginning in the mid-$100,000s.

Space is expensive in the Village. And it is at a premium. People are jealous about their property in the Village because they spent a lot for it and they didn't get very much for their dollar. Apparently, too, they are rather hostile toward anyone who violates their hard-won property rights. Above the parking lot I saw yesterday stood the following notice. It was posted in bold letters: "Anyone caught parking here without proper registration will have their tires slashed and their license plates removed and discarded."

This notice surprised even me. In most cases, I criticize the law because it is unfair. But here I actually relied on the law to frame my response to the notice. Property law says that you have the right to use your land as you wish, with some notable exceptions; and always subject to public ordinances. It also says that you have the right to exclude anyone you wish from your property. Property, then, bestows two essential rights: The right to use and the right to exclude. They are equally important. After all, you can't really enjoy what you own if you do not also have the right to expel unwanted people from your land. In sum, property is essentially selfish. It defines what is "mine" and grants the legal right to deny enjoyment of "my stuff" to all the world. It grants legal authority to the childish impulse to cling onto objects and to ward off all those who attempt to encroach on them. There is nothing remarkable about it. In fact, it gives legal protection to a facet of human nature that I find especially rancorous and violent. I am not saying that we should abandon private property law. I am merely saying that private property promotes intensely negative human behavior. It fosters ruthless competition, pettiness, acquisitiveness, resentment and mutual mistrust. And it leads to so much envy that men willingly kill one another to take their neighbors' property.

People know that everyone else wants their property. In fact, the law really can trace its origins to the common desire to defend property against lawless brigands. In order to gain some lasting assurance in their property, men willingly submitted to sovereigns, who in turn promised to punish anyone who violated their property rights. In short, people would rather give up some freedom in order to live in the knowledge that their property is safe. Hobbes made this "covenant" the basis for his Commonwealth in Leviathan (1651). And our Framers read Hobbes very closely before writing our own Constitution. Government makes property its primary business because people care about property more than anything else. In fact, people care about property so much that they express violent hatred toward anyone who threatens their rights. In this sense, men's obsession with property goes beyond legal abstraction. It also touches upon a deep emotional root.

What else but base emotion can explain a public threat to slash a trespasser's tires and remove his license plate? From a strict legal perspective, a private property owner has no right to damage, remove or destroy a trespasser's property. If someone trespasses on another's land, the aggrieved party can go to court for money damages. If someone leaves material on another's land without authority, the aggrieved party can go to court for an order to forcibly remove the material. Trespassing cars can be lawfully towed; it is even lawful to require the trespasser to pay all the incidental expenses. But the private property owner has no legal right to wreak physical revenge on the trespassing car. Still, this is precisely what the property owner wants to do. The law gives him an abstract remedy and condemns the trespasser's wrong, but the owner wants more because he has an emotional attachment to his property. When someone violates his property, he wants to hurt the offender. This is not a "theoretical anger" that springs from violated principle. This is pure, animal vengeance. With his threatening sign, the Village parking lot owner simply expressed his appetite for vengeance against anyone who dares to violate his hard-earned property rights. This is nothing new. These sentiments have gone hand-in-hand with property ever since the first caveman claimed a particular rock for himself. Woe to anyone who attempts to trespass upon that rock.

And woe to anyone who dares park in this Village property owner's parking lot.

Anger, property and revenge occupy a common conceptual ground. It may be 2009, but human beings have not come very far in the property department. We have supposedly "reasonable" legal rules to help us curtail our violent natural lusts and hatreds involving property. But our emotional connection to property remains as combative as ever. We want property. We spend our lives seeking it. We invest our best years in an effort to seize it for ourselves and make it "ours." When we do, we'll be damned if some Johnny-come-lately tries to deny us the spoils of our life labors. We become angry and indignant toward the trespasser. We have theoretical redress to the law, but that does not stem our angry hatred toward the violator. We want to take revenge on him in our own way. We want to extinguish our anger with fitting vengeance. Vengeance feels good. It makes the hurt go away, at least partially. The law gives abstract "rights" to the aggrieved party. But vindicating abstract "rights" does not neutralize the combustible emotions that lurk in our attitudes toward private property. This is true even when people do not have an abstract "legal right" to the property they defend. Repo men and sheriffs die all the time because people get angry about property they think is theirs. Law, then, merely throws a superficial overlay over the intensely animal emotions that accompany property. Emotion will always beat reason. It is just a question of sufficient provocation and circumstance.

Property feel good. Anger feel bad. Me want to hurt man who make me feel bad. Revenge feel good... as you can see, we are not dealing with delicate, rational subtleties when it comes to our relationship to property. It implicates our basest animal emotions. In our society, we cannot escape property. I simply think it is important to keep it in proper perspective.

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