Over There a while back, Jon Rowe posted about his experience selling his car to a tow driver {followup} {followup} {followup}. The basic order of events was:

  1. In Pennsylvania, Rowe’s car broke down and he sold it to the towing company for a nominal sum.
  2. The towing company did not properly transfer ownership of the car to them. They instead put some New Jersey plates on it and left it for sale on the side of a road in the Garden State.
  3. New Jersey authorities considered the car abandoned. They tracked down the title to Rowe through Pennsylvania. They contacted Rowe about paying a fine.
  4. Rowe talked to the authorities in New Jersey, explained the situation, offered the bill of sale, and was told that was the end of it.
  5. Months later, is contacted by the New Jersey courts with a summons to appear and the threat of arrest for a failure to do so.

Through this, Rowe railed against the immutable bureaucracy. While he was able to navigate the system, this is exactly the sort of penny-ante thing that snowballs and lands people who aren’t lawyers in jail.

The response was, overwhelmingly, “Screw you, Jon.” Well, that’s not quite right. The criticisms fell into three categories:

  • Rowe is the villain here who got what he deserved. Rowe sold his car to someone he shouldn’t have and any and all negative consequences of doing so belong to him because he didn’t do due diligence.
  • Rowe is the villain here who got what he deserved. There were rules and he didn’t follow them. At first it was the assumption that Rowe himself was supposed to transfer the title and didn’t. That turned out not to be quite true, so then it was a fixation on the license plate. Rowe was supposed to turn it in and didn’t. There is reason to believe that the course of events would not have changed even if he had turned in license plate – because he would have been turning it in to the same people who failed to transfer the title – but that didn’t matter because Rowe had Failed The Bureaucracy and because he sold to the wrong person.
  • There is literally no way that this could have turned out differently than it did, given the previous two items. No way at all. There were repeated demands that Rowe outline precisely how it could have gone differently and saying that he couldn’t because this is how it had to happen. Even the part where New Jersey had told him not to worry about it, Rowe was talking to the wrong person and therefore was to blame and the bureaucracy cannot be expected to deal with that. You cannot possibly expect the bureaucracy to be able to accommodate user error.

All of which actually made Rowe’s points, and other points, more forcefully than Rowe did. Truth be told, I thought that some of Rowe’s criticisms of the bureaucracy were off-base. he criticized Pennsylvania for not cancelling the title of his car, but in all honesty I think that such cavalier canceling of title would do more harm than good. I think the system did work, as well as can be expected, right up until he was told by New Jersey officials that it had been taken care of and it had not been taken care of. I can even give them a pass for the whole “Respond or go to jail” thing because I do think that particular stick is probably necessary.

However, because that’s the stick, I do believe that it is incumbent on the system to make avoiding that as easy as possible. While various critics of Rowe did agree that the system could be streamlined and made easier, but treated doing so as an act of benevolence on the part of the state rather than an imperative to keep people from needlessly going to jail. And the assumption that because it is that way that it has to be, which simply isn’t the case. Several people reported having been in a similar circumstances but with bureaucracies that handled the situation differently. My father had a title-non-transfer issue and it was taken care of easily and without fuss. It’s not some tangential that such alternatives are possible, or something that the state might want to do because wouldn’t it be nice, but rather it’s something extremely important.

But at the end of the day, Do Not Fail The Bureaucracy was the order of the day. And though Jaybird was criticized for making the comparison, it really did seem to me to be the equivalent of “Don’t talk back to the officer or you own the consequences.”

Leaving aside the fact that the same consequences would have occurred whether he had turned in the license plate or not, that’s a somewhat disturbing attitude. As was the pouring over the record finding a way to make sure that it was Rowe’s fault. And especially the bit about Rowe demonstrating classism by believing he’s too good for a Trenton jail.

And so Rowe’s point was made, emphatically, by his critics. So, too, was a stronger and more important point that Rowe wasn’t especially trying to make: People lose their minds when it comes to anything political.

The truth is that I probably could have posted complaints about the DMV Over There instead of over here and even though certain aspects of my recent difficulties were my fault, a good chunk of the response would have been sympathy for the inconvenience instead of blame for Failing The Bureaucracy. However, since Rowe approached it as a political matter, it was responded to as a political matter. And advocates took on the role of prosecutor. No holds barred. Though it’s less true than it used to be, you can still complain about the DMV, or Comcast, without people assuming that you’re being political and not responding politically. For now, anyway.

But once it does, everything does change. Perhaps the most recent example of that is Ahmed the Clock King. There are multiple angles from which to view the story

  1. The Ahmed story is indicative of anti-Muslim prejudice.
  2. The Ahmed story is indicative of how out of control zero tolerance policies and excessively anxious administrators have become.
  3. While it turned out to be unnecessary, the actions of officials were completely justified behind the veil of what was unknown.
  4. Ahmed is a bad kid who wanted to freak everyone out and therefore the response was entirely justified even knowing what we know now

At the outset large segment of the left (and not just the left) went straight to #1, and a smaller segment on the right went to #4. A lot of people initially landed on #2… only to graduate to #3 and #4. It was interesting to watch, and very much reminded me of the Rowe row, because it seemed to be an immediate response to the political implications of the whole thing. It’s hard to separate #2 from #1, and if #1 scores points for the left, then those talking from #3 and #4 are suddenly making more attractive arguments.

The end result of which is that a lot of people start latching on to some pretty flimsy arguments. As if it matters that Ahmed was using a very liberal definition of “made” when he said he made the clock. As if it matters that his family has a bit of an activist streak. It seems to me that even if it was a deliberate prank, it was kind of a lame prank and that the school and police were not only successfully baited but responded the way that they did remains the focal point of the story.

Unless you’re committed to ceding no political ground whatsoever unless you absolutely have to. In which case, all of that becomes important – like Rowe’s failure to turn in the license plate in a manner that almost certainly didn’t matter – because it’s all you have. Ahmed is the villain here. He has to be. He has to be.

Category: Statehouse

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27 Responses to Jon Rowe Ain’t No Angel

  1. Joe Sal says:

    ‘there ought to be a law’ possibly pre-constructed Jons problem.

    I don’t think it created Ahmeds, or possibly even could have avoided the outcome, but it is squishy living in a world without such written laws. It will be telling how next years school manual treats a one-off occurence.

  2. Oscar Gordon says:

    I am still amazed at the mental contortions people exercised to justify the actions of “the state” toward the boy, especially from those on the right. Lots of the contortions were along the lines of #3. One guy I know, who maintains traffic signal control equipment, was very critical of the kids work after he viewed the images, highlighting lots of places where the “clock” could present an electrical hazard, and then using that to apply a post hoc justification for the authorities, even though none of them could have possibly known that since none of them were experienced electricians/electronics techs.

    Just reinforces the whole Smaller Government except Police!

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      And let’s not forget that the kid is 14. The colossally stupid crap I did when I was 14… Hell, the colossally stupid crap I did when I was 19 & responsible for the maintenance of $20M of military hardware.

      Man we expect a lot from kids these days.

  3. I shaded over to a softer version of #3 in the Ahmed case. Instead of “while it turned out to be unnecessary, the actions of officials were completely justified behind the veil of what was unknown,” I would have preferred “granting that it was somewhat understandable behind the veil of what was unknown, the school’s and police officers’ ultimate reactions were unnecessary and unjustified.” The softer version, in my view, is compatible with #1 and #2.

    None of which denies your main point, but in some cases it’s not only political. I sometimes get defensive when people complain about “bureaucracy,” even when the complaints are, as I believe in Jon’s case, almost completely justified. My defensiveness isn’t solely from the “political” stakes.

    It’s also because I see myself as the bureaucrat or customer service worker who has to enforce the stupid-seeming (and sometimes stupid-being) rules and who has to face the angry customers/clients who don’t always differentiate between the system and the person who in mostly good faith takes a check for working for the system. That doesn’t mean I’m right to be defensive. But that’s one reason why I choose to be so sometimes.

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      You get made at the bureaucrat because it’s more satisfying that getting made at the soulless bureaucracy. Even though it isn’t usually the bureaucracy’s fault, but the elected officials who give poor guidance, or conflicting guidance.

      • True. And I should add that the bureaucrat ought, perhaps more than sometimes, to bear some of the blame in these situations. There’s usually wide latitude for bureaucrats (in private organizations as well as public) to avoid responsibility for what they tell people. And while that may or may not be part of the problem in Jon’s specific case, it can be a problem in other cases.

      • Oscar Gordon says:

        And crap I hate autocomplete sometimes.

        mad, not made…

        than, not that…

  4. Glyph says:

    I can’t help but feel that this is directed at me, since I posited a softer version of 3 in this very space.

    I would write it more like “While it turned out to be unnecessary, the actions of officials were [perhaps somewhat-justified or at least understandable/excusable] behind the veil of what was unknown.”

    Also, this:

    “Ahmed is the villain here. He has to be.”

    Is something I strove mightily to avoid, largely because I don’t think that can really be *known*, at least by us, with the info we have – in my original comment, I noted how difficult it would be even for anyone with firsthand knowledge to distinguish between “good kid, who did a thoughtless thing” and “bad or pranking kid, who was smart enough to create plausible deniability for himself”.

    IOW, the focus I was making was not on the X factor of [Actual Ahmed]; but how well The System (and unless you are an anarchist, we will always have A System) can be expected to deal with the ambiguity of [an Ahmed].

    (And again I will stress, to whatever degree the police violated Ahmed’s rights as far as interrogation/holding without parents or attorneys, they should be held to account for that violation).

    My position was that in a post-Columbine, post-Dylann Roof world, a school will be fully-expected to refer to the police any potential risks to its students.

    IOW, it is completely-understandable to me that a school would react as they did, unless they want to open themselves up to massive liability.

    The police, again, should have followed proper Constitutional parameters for holding or interrogating a child; but as Ahmed was ultimately neither shot, jailed, nor charged, the total outcome of this situation was, roughly, within acceptable or at least understandable parameters.

    I want to return again to the subject of Schrodinger’s Bomb. Many have focused on the fact that to them, it did not “look like a bomb”, as though that should be dispositive.

    Two things:

    1.) Recall that there was never any risk Ahmed was going to be charged with having a real bomb. The only risk was that Ahmed was going to be charged with perpetrating a hoax, somewhat like falsely calling in a bomb threat with no bomb. This threat of course never actually came to pass, as Ahmed was released without charge.

    2.) To the idea that it is easily possible to conclusively-settle all ambiguity in one direction, take this hypo:

    What if a student makes what even to expert eyes very much resembles a bomb. It is very realistic-looking, has what appears to be an explosive charge, the works.

    Student leaves it in the cafeteria; on it is a large, stenciled note reading “NOT-BOMB”, signed and notarized by the student.

    Could not the student mount the same defense? He could claim it was an Art Project Which Was Clearly Labeled to avoid unnecessary panic.

    What do you mean, he was obviously attempting to scare people? He told you he wasn’t, and of course ultimately the bomb was not real.

    Isn’t his word good enough? Are we going to condemn him simply because he had the artistic ability to make a more-realistic looking bomb?


    I should note that some years back, when post-9/11 paranoia was considerably higher than it is now, my wife had to help bail a friend’s boyfriend out of jail, because he (a notoriously smart-assed hyperactively-motormouthed person, of dark hair and olive complexion, and probably buzzed) had had the dumb idea to, in the course of his petty customer-service dispute with a college-campus cafeteria worker over some coffee, make a dumb joke about putting a bomb in the espresso maker.

    No one ever seriously believed there was really a bomb in the espresso machine; and ultimately, via long and somewhat-costly legal wrangling, the charges were reduced to some minimal generic fineable thing like “disturbing the peace/disorderly behavior” or somesuch, (I don’t remember all details of the ultimate outcome)- but boy, it messed up his life for a while; and none of us (including him) felt like he didn’t bear at least some of the responsibility here, even if he couldn’t have foreseen how out of control the situation would ultimately become.

    • trumwill says:

      Was totally not directed at you. In fact, I kind of avoided the Ahmed discussion Over There so wasn’t strongly aware of what you said. That part of the post was more of a Facebook/Twitter frustration.

      • Glyph says:

        Ah. I actually posted what I did Over Here, which is why I made the assumption (I mostly conversed with Gabriel and Oscar on it though IIRC).

        • trumwill says:

          Oh, that’s right, now you’re jogging my memory.

          You are a terrible person.


          • Glyph says:

            That’s weird, my earlier reply vanished and this one is not threaded.

            Yeah, our friend’s then-BF was originally charged with, IIRC, “Making Terroristic Threats”.

            So, protip, don’t ever make jokes about bombing the espressomaker.

          • trumwill says:

            I must have accidentally hit the Spam button. The WordPress app can make comment handling too easy sometimes.

        • Trumwill says:

          Glyph, Talking to Tod below, I am recalling that we did have a back-and-forth on this. It definitely wasn’t what I was thinking of, though. I was satisfied with the equilibrium we found in that exchange.

  5. RTod says:

    A few random thoughts…

    1. I think it’s important to note the common denominator of the discussions being noted here: they’re all on the internet.

    More and more, I am becoming convinced that the internet allows and encourages people to make the least charitable assumptions about people they are talking with or people they are talking about. I’m not sure if it’s the absence of certain types of data such as body language, the ability to separate yourself from the consequences of your words with a click of mouse, that you can’t look someone in the eyes, or that the internet just attracts a high percentage of people with limited social skills, but there’s clearly a dehumanizing aspect of dealing with people online.

    If you dropped Jon and any five OTers in a bar and had him grouse over beers, for example, I suspect you would have had a very different reaction to his plight.

    2. I find the Ahmed story fascinating. Or more accurately, I find the reactions to the Ahmed story fascinating.

    It seems obvious to me that one of the most likely conclusions one should come to is, “In today’s climate, authorities were right to be initially cautious and take steps to ensure the safety of the other students. However, that should have been cleared up relatively quickly, and the authorities should absolutely be taken to task for how they have behaved after they confirmed the device was just a clock.”

    To me that reaction just seems like a no-brainer, or at the very least it seems like enough of a no-brainer that I would expect it to carry more supporters than, well, almost none. It’s just a sea of either “Ahmed is a thug being controlled buy his eeeevil parents” or “even questioning the clock at the outset was racist.” There seems to be almost no middle ground at this point.

    3. This was a really, really great post.

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      However, that should have been cleared up relatively quickly, and the authorities should absolutely be taken to task for how they have behaved after they confirmed the device was just a clock.”

      My thinking on this is that the police have somehow gotten in their heads (perhaps because of quotas or budgets being dependant on arrest numbers, or what have you) that if they get called in, someone is getting a ticket or arrested, and the more severe the initial call is made out to be, the more likely it will end in an arrest.

      So the moment the school called the police and said ‘bomb’, someone was leaving in handcuffs, it was a foregone conclusion.

    • Trumwill says:

      I think your third point is very, very sound.

      Regarding the second point, that’s close to where I initially landed. Two things moved me to #2:

      First, I saw the clock and it didn’t look like a bomb or something that might even be a bomb.

      Second, it was pointed out to me that it is apparent that the school and officials never believed it was a bomb. If they had, they would have evacuated the school or at least the classroom. But that would have caused them inconvenience. Instead, they wanted all of the inconvenience to land on the kid. They wanted to “teach him a lesson” for what they immediately saw as a hoax.

      Now, once it was determined that it wasn’t an active bomb situation, that is when the urgency was lost. They should have investigated to find out that if at any point he wanted people to believe it was a bomb. That might be a serious thing. But it’s not an urgent thing and there is no reason to contact the authorities.

      Outside the world of Unflinching Zero Tolerance, that’s at most a “week’s worth of detention” thing and not a “have him arrested” thing, absent some extraordinary circumstances, or at least a demonstration of harm.

      At least, that’s how it reads to me.

      (There was some uncertainty as to whether or not Ahmed wanted people to think it was a b

    • Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

      the ability to separate yourself from the consequences of your words with a click of mouse

      Those of us who believe in free speech consider this to be a feature, not a bug.

      • RTod says:

        I believe that those of you who believe in freedom from *responsibility* are the ones who see it as a feature.

        Most people I know who believe in freedom of speech are not, in fact, people who think that one should be protected from the social consequences of what one says.

        • Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

          Most people I know who believe in freedom of speech are not, in fact, people who think that one should be protected from the social consequences of what one says.

          We hashed this out Over There to the nth degree, so it shouldn’t surprise you to read that I don’t think the people you refer to in this quote actually believe in free speech; they just think they do.

  6. Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

    And especially the bit about Rowe demonstrating classism by believing he’s too good for a Trenton jail… People lose their minds when it comes to anything political.

    Kazzy has taken this as a shot against him, which I agree it is.

    A well-deserved shot.

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      For my part, I like Kazzy, but he has really chosen a strange & worthless hill to defend so vigorously.

      • trumwill says:

        Yeah. I was reluctant to include that bit, but it was the most obvious example of where the conversation (prosecution) went in trying to demonstrate that the problem here was mostly Jon.

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      I don’t even think he really likes that hill, or that he really dislikes Jon, but rather he took exception to how Jon went about attacking the hill.

      Baffles me…

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