In today’s Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus there’s a story on the front page about new program between Casella Waste Management (the local trash collector’s) and the Vermont State Police.  The article details, without a single critical word, a new collaborative effort which will have the trash haulers, as they go about their regular duties, keeping a watchful eye on the neighborhoods they travel through.  Specifically, the article explains that Casella’s trash haulers have recently been trained in a “Neighborhood Watch”- like program to notice any suspicious activities, things out of the ordinary, and criminal behavior and to either call 9-1-1 in an immediate emergency or to radio in to their dispatchers with less immediate but nonetheless “concerning” or “unusual” instances.  It will then be at the dispatcher’s discretion as to when, and if, to notify State or local police authorities.  I have a few reactions/concerns about this that I’d like to share.

First, while I feel like the reactionary elements of the left have watered-down (through over-use) the severity of the charge of “fascism”, this particular instance does seem to warrant a charge of quasi-fascist behavior, or at least a notable movement towards it.  By its classical definition, fascism is a merging together of private, corporate functions and interests with that of the public (government).  Leaving aside more ideological comments about the police in general, I for one am loath to see law enforcement agencies training and relying on private sector enterprises (that are entirely disassociated with any kind of “security” function no less) as a part of their general strategy towards combating crime.  Not only does this program beg for comparisons to Orwellian ideas such as the post 9/11 TIPS program and red-scare era “spying on your neighbors to root out communists”, but in general it fosters an atmosphere of distrust amongst neighbors and communities.  With trash collectors, postal workers, perhaps soon landscapers and whoever else in formal cooperative agreements with police and other government agencies to “keep an eye” on things, when is enough enough?  Will it be long before our thoughts, ideas, and opinions are enough to get us hauled away for being “suspicious” or “out of the ordinary”.

The depth of the problem of this kind of relationship (the one between Casella and the State police) may be lost on some, especially those who will make the usual “only law breakers have anything to be concerned about” argument.  But I wonder: waste collection and disposal are highly regulated for their impacts on public and environmental health and safety, is there really any way to trust that Casella is going to be held to task by the State and law enforcement agencies if they go astray of the law?  Just like cops who don’t give speeding tickets to other cops (on or off duty) how (or why) are we to trust that the appropriate people/agencies won’t do the same in the face of having to enforce the law against what could now be considered “one of their own”.  This is the problem of government and private sector collusion, and it’s why fascism is wholly rejected by nearly everyone the world over.

Speaking further to those that will argue that “only criminals” have anything to be concerned by here, or that such measures will help reduce crime and make our communities safer: I see the exact opposite.  I see the perceived need for a program such as this to be a sad and even dire statement about the state of our communities and our collective sense of humanity and social responsibility to each other.  Trash collectors, postal workers, landscapers, painters, neighbors- we should all be keeping an eye out for each other, and we should all take the appropriate actions when we see crime or concerning and suspicious behavior.  These are, after all, our communities, our homes and neighbors.  One thing I got from reading the TA article about this is that, before the “training” and implementation of this program, Casella drivers weren’t necessarily inclined to take action if, while going about their routes, they witnessed something criminal or disconcerting.  It is not a police sponsored or endorsed program we need to make our neighborhoods safer, it’s common sense, a notion of connectedness to place and people, and a personal recognition that we are each responsible for the quality of the places that we live.

Finally, I find the Times-Argus article on this matter to be an illuminating example of not only the increasingly poor-quality of journalism that they are offering Central Vermont residents, but of the exact problem of the Fourth Estate for the past several decades.  There is, of course, a noticeable difference between editorializing and journalism, but there is also a noticeable- and equally important- difference between reporting on a story and merely regurgitating the information handed out by those involved or “of authority” on a matter.  The “new journalism” which portends some kind of “objectivity” is a scam and an abomination.  The lie of human “objectivity”, in any kind of absolute sense, has done nothing but water-down and pervert what we have come to expect by the very medium which is charged with keeping us informed and protected from the worst that the government or Big Business will try to pass onto us.  Journalism, besides just giving us “the facts” (i.e., “President Bush signed this today”, “IBM announced that today”) should also put the events of a story into context; what’s the history of the issue? what’s the theoretical as well as practical context for such? what’s being gained and lost? who’s affected? what’s the dissenting or minority viewpoint? what do “officials” say about it? where do such officials derive their authority (and is it warranted)?  As I regularly read the Times-Argus at my local coffeeshop, I often ponder seriously whether or not to get a home subscription.  Tellingly, nearly every time I’m on the verge of making that investment, I am put face-to-face with some form of disappointing to abysmal reporting which turns me off.