An Irregular Column
by Mykel Board
Perhaps there exists no
one, however virtuous he may be, who may not be led one day by the complexity of
his circumstances to live on familiar terms with the vice he condemns most
expressly. -- Marcel Proust
In 1973, Professor Milgram
wore a white laboratory coat and surrounded himself with scientific-looking
equipment. A student volunteer became "the teacher." It was "the teacher's" task
to give steadily rising degrees of electric shocks to "a learner." This
"learner" was supposedly strapped to a chair in a nearby room in front of a task
to be "learned." "The teacher's" job was to condition "the learner" with a shock
every time he made an error. "The teacher" couldn't see "the learner."
Unknown to “the teacher,”
“the learner” was an assistant of Milgram's. He did not receive a shock. He
merely acted the part--complete with cries, shouts, and pleas for mercy all
coming from the next room.
The teacher sat in front
of a sophisticated-looking "electric shock-inducing" switchboard. It had a
keyboard with marked buttons ranging from "slight shock" to "danger--severe
shock." Before the teachers administered shocks, Dr. Milgram gave each a tiny,
genuine shock. That way they could understand what sorts of pain the learner
would be receiving-- but in ever-increasing doses.
The learner made many
mistakes requiring the teacher to give numerous and more severe shocks. At one
end of the experiment, there was a suffering victim calling for the experiment
to stop. At the other end there was the authority figure instructing the teacher
The authority figure would
first say "in the interests of science continue." Then "please continue." Then,
"the experiment requires that you continue." Then, "it is absolutely essential
that you go on." Finally, "you have no choice but to go on."
This proceeded until the
teacher pressed the button for "fatal shocks." After that, there were no further
cries from the learner.
"The teacher" was the real
subject of the experiment. The object was to discover how far a normal male
would go in carrying out orders by an authority. This included orders injuring
or killing another human being.
Milgram repeated this
experiment many times. He found that ordinary young men would invariably obey
orders to torture and murder a complete stranger-- someone they never even saw.
Milgram writes, "even with
this low degree of expected zeal or commitment and without prior conditioning,
not one participant refused to go on the moment he knew he was beginning to
cause discomfort to another human being. Two-thirds of the subjects obeyed the
experimenter to the last and severest shocks."
His conclusion: "This is,
perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing
their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become
agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive
effects of their work becomes patently clear, and they are asked to carry out
actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few
people have the resources needed to resist authority. A variety of inhibitions
against disobeying authority come into play and successfully keep the person in
Flash ahead thirty years.
At first, it looks like nothing has changed. The soldier-scapegoats in the
torture of Iraqis are the most obvious example that come off the top of my
I sit on the stoop of a
building on St. Marks Place. I'm tired, slightly soused, and want to take a
breather. I just sit, watching the Japanese tourists telling each other how
exotic this place is. From behind me comes a voice-- loud and jockish.
"Hey," it says, "can't you
"No," I say. "I don't have
He doesn't get it.
"Look here," he says.
I turn and look at what
he's pointing to. It's a piece of paper, printed by computer, in Microsoft Word,
in large type: NO SITTING!
"Sorry," I say. "I didn't
see the sign."
I get up and stagger home.
It's only an hour later, while I'm letting loose the brown squirts, that I get
"I'm just like one of
them!" I think. "I just listened to that guy on the steps. Not because he said
anything. But because it was WRITTEN. Because there was a SIGN. What the fuck is
Suddenly I'm depressed.
I'm one of those authoritarian folks. I HATE authority, and here I am following
it, just because it's written.
A few turds later, my
depression turns to inspiration.
"Maybe our way out of
authoritarianism is overkill. Just as no one pays attention to commercials any
more... because they're everywhere. Maybe authority will die because it's
everywhere. I obeyed that sign without thinking, but how many written
instructions do I reject? Every day signs tell us to do so much. We CAN'T obey
everything. Maybe it's a kind of automatic rebellion."
But the more I think about
it, the more I have my doubts. I think about Iraq... and my own knee-jerk
I wonder what happened to
the debriefed members of the Milgram experiment. They learned how blindly
obedient they were. I bet they'll forever be more distrustful of authority.
Maybe I have to provide my
own debriefing. Maybe I have to train myself to disobey authority by showing how
foolish-- and evil-- it is to obey. Starting tomorrow, for 24 hours I will do
what I'm "told."
Tomorrow: I leave my
apartment on Bleecker Street. On the way to the subway, I walk past a bunch of
newspaper boxes. White, red, blue, they're filled with free newspapers. On the
front of each box is a Plexiglas door and a handle. Etched into the Plexiglas is
a sign that says: TAKE ONE.
I open each door and TAKE
ONE. Soon my arms are filled with THE COMPUTER SHOPPER, NY EMPLOYMENT WEEKLY,
TENNIS NEWS, L-MAGAZINE, PARENTS WEEKLY as well as the local free dailies. The
bundle is as thick as two phonebooks.
I go down the stairs into
the subway station. Once in the subway itself, I sit with the stack of
newspapers on my lap. Next to me, a chubby white woman, whose too short shorts
bind into her thighs, reads the front page of AmToday in my lap.
Across from me is a large
sign. On the sign is a picture of an empty subway car with a big black bag under
the seat. Under the picture, in 288 point type: IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY
I turn to the lady sitting
next to me and point to the poster. "There's a sign over there. See it?"
"Yeah," she says. "What
"Nothing," I tell her.
"I'm just saying something about it because I see it. Want a newspaper?"
She declines... and a
lucky thing too. When I get out of the subway, I pass a large wire bin with a
sign from GRAND CENTRAL PARTNERSHIP. [Note: I don't know about your city. But in
New York, PARTNERSHIP means homeless people forced to work for a flea
infested place to sleep because the city prohibits them from sleeping on the
streets... or fines them for lying down in the subways.]
This partnership tells me
to PUT TRASH HERE. Ok, I'm ready. I dump my armload of papers into the can. And
walk on. Uh oh. There's another can, also telling me to PUT TRASH HERE. Shit!
I go back to the first can
and pull out most of the papers. Then, can by can, I throw a few pages away so I
can follow the written orders.
Turning the corner in
Grand Central, I see a huge banner over the entrance to the exhibition hall.
VISIT THE SUPREME COURT EXHIBIT IN VANDERBUILT HALL.
Dammit! I'm running late
for school, but an order is an order. I turn the corner and walk smack into one
of those saw horses. When I start to climb over it, I hear a female voice behind
"Hey! Whadaya think you're
I look back and see a
short Oriental policewoman.
"There's a sign out there
that told me to visit this exhibit. So that's what I'm trying to do."
"It's not open yet," she
says. "It doesn't open until 9:30."
"But the sign says VISIT!"
I protest. "Aren't I supposed to follow what the signs say?"
The cop looks skywards as
if saying, Another nut. Is this what I get paid for?
"The exhibit opens at
9:30," she says. "You'll wait until then. Okay?"
In my thirst to obey
signs, I let nothing stand in my way. I throw down my remaining papers, pick up
the wooden barrier and slam it into the cop's belly. Then I trudge ahead to the
No I don't.
"I'm sorry officer," I
say, sheepish as a Jew in a cattlecar. "I'll come back."
To official head-shaking
and tsk tsking, I head for the escalator in the back of the building-- a
relatively cop-free area.
At the escalator, there is
a sign on the space that separates one escalator from the other. [Note: There
must be a technical word for this space. When I put "escalator separation space"
into Google, however, I only get a bunch of building codes, no special word.]
HOLD HANDRAIL. ATTEND
CHILDREN. Says the sign.
If I get on the escalator
and there are no children, I won't be able to do both. Holding the handrail will
force me to go to the top. It will also keep me in one place so I can't attend
I'm not exactly sure what
attend means. But I figure it's something like watch so they don't
slide down the escalator separation space and make sure they don't do other
Ah, there are some people.
They look like tourists. A plump blonde, with her husband. He's tall, skinny
with glasses. He wears shorts and loafers. NOT a New Yorker. And they've got a
kid with them! A little girl, about 8 years old. Her brown hair is cut about
chin length. Her turned up nose and turned down mouth corners make her look like
a perfect brat.
They get on the escalator.
I get on the step behind them. Holding tightly to the handrail, I place myself
behind the little girl. I bend my knees slightly so my legs are right behind the
little brat. If this isn't attending, nothing is.
Dad looks back at me.
Looking me up and down, hat to boots, he pulls the girl around in front of him.
If he punches me, I bet it'll cure me of bending to authority.
"Please don't move her," I
say to him. "I'm attending her."
The muscles in his arms
and face tighten. His wife tugs at his sleeve.
"Please, Sam," she says.
By this time, we're at the
top of the escalator. The family turns quickly to enter to Grand Central Deli. I
walk out the door on my way to work.
At work, there are lots of
little signs about refilling the ice cube trays after you use them. Not pouring
water down the cooler drain. Nothing that would make me act in any way different
After work, I take the
subway home and get out at the Houston Street exit. On Houston Street, there is
a shelter where busses start and end their uptown/downtown journeys. I pass it
every time I go to the post office to check my PO Box. Today, I notice a sign.
It's on the pole just on the east end of the shelter. BUS STOP, it says. NO
STANDING ANY TIME.
No standing at a bus stop?
What are you supposed to do before the bus comes? Well, if I'm going to follow
orders, I can't quit now. I sit down. Right at the curb.
A taxi passes too close.
In wetter weather it would have covered me with the remains of a muddy puddle.
Now it only scares me into backing up a bit. But I've still got a problem. I
need to cross the street to get to the post office. As long as I'm at the bus
stop, however, I can't stand.
Leaning back, I push
myself up on my arms and legs and crabwalk. I propel myself back, away from the
street. Right arm. Right leg. Left arm, left leg. Moving slowly so as not to
bump into any one or any thing, I navigate around the L-shaped bus shelter
toward the cross walk. Bang! My shoulder hits something.
"WHAT THE FUCK'S WRONG
WITH YOU?" comes a deep voice above me. From the courtesy of the comment, I
figure it's a New Yorker.
I tilt my head back to
look at him. He's a skinny guy, about 23, with acne so thick you can grate
cheese on it.
Balancing on two legs and
one arm, I use the other arm to point to the sign.
"Can't you read?" I say.
"This is a bus stop. No standing."
"ASSHOLE!" says the zitguy
with typical New York conversational wit and aplomb. But he doesn't do anything
else. So I still may not be cured.
It doesn't take long
before I crabwalk around the shelter to the crosswalk. There, I stand up and
wait for the light to tell me to WALK.
Coming home, I check my
personal mail box. I put the key in the mail box door and take out a bunch of
bills and a couple other envelopes. In the elevator up to my apartment, I see an
envelope that says WARNING ADULT CONTENT on the front. That isn't really a
command. Then, one from Citibank, says PLEASE DO NOT DISCARD on it. I pull that
one out. When I get into my apartment I stick it on a bookshelf next to my first
edition SHARDS OF GOD. It'll keep.
Another envelope is from
The Franklin Mint. It offers me
a Medal, plated with 14 carat gold. On one side, a picture of liberty's arm,
torch lit. On the other the profile of the 43rd president of the United States,
George W. Bush.
Along with an illustration
of the offending medal is an order form. Send a check or money order for
--> Incentives Dept:
Maybe it's in the genes, but I can't resist a free offer. Every time I get a
magazine subscription coupon that says "first issue free, cancel if not
satisfied," I always subscribe and write CANCEL on my first bill.
You can imagine how
excited I was when HEALTH AFTER 50 NEWSLETTER offered me a free issue and a
special bonus. Yours to keep no matter what you decide. Said the ad.
The offer? A free
health calendar, specially prepared to help you keep track of your own health
needs. So when I got the first issue of the newsletter I tore through the
too-skinny envelope, looking for the health calendar.
What I found was an 8 x 10
piece of paper. On each side were 6 months. Each month was labeled. MARCH is
National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, for example.
Within each month, one week is
highlighted. The week is also named. In case you didn't know, the week of April
17, 2006 is Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. July (Eye Injury
Prevention Month) and August (National Immunization Awareness Month) have no
special weeks. My specially prepared calendar says so.
-->National Sex Offenders
Persecution Month? I continue the story I wrote last week about how sex
makes crimes forever unpaid.
New Jersey is now
providing a map of registered sex offenders. At http://www.mapsexoffenders.com
you can check where they live. It's easy to pinpoint those houses for a
latenight raid, cross burning, or simple brick throwing. As long as you don't
say homo or nigger, no jury in America would ever convict you of
-->I Expect They're As
Accurate With My Credit Dept: It used to be the mantra of conservatives that
private enterprise can do anything better than the government. Of course, when
the conservatives get hold of government, that's true. But if you want an
example of Private Enterprise try calling for your "free credit report" from the
credit collection agency at: 877-322-8228. A machine answers the phone.
Speak, then spell your
I understood BORGE, B...
O... R... G... E. Say YES if that's correct...
I'm sorry, I didn't get
that. Please say YES if that is correct.
Ok, we'll try again,
please spell your name...
I understood CORBE, C...
O... R... B... E. Say YES if that's correct...
I'm sorry, I didn't get
that. Please say YES..
-->Quality of WHOSE Life
Dept: NY's soon-to-be reelected mayor has somehow managed to bamboozle the
city's Democrats. His smile, non-confrontational style, and tons of money make
him a nice sop for the locals-- despite his huge contributions to George Bush's
Now, The Independent
newspaper reports that three police sergeants from the 75th precinct in
Brooklyn testified that their commanding officer presumably with orders from
higher up, "had circulated a note mandating that officers issue at least 33
quality of life summonses per quarter in order to avoid poor performance
Quality of life, if you
don't know, is a code name for crimes without victims. "Crimes" like
pan-handling, drinking on the street, and cleaning people's car windows. And
people say Bloomberg's not a real Republican. Tsk tsk.
-->Nuclear Reaction Dept:
Sierra Magazine reports that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
is working on recycling contaminated materials. The agency is considering
selling the dirt to home owners as compost, the clay to brick makers, and other
material to landscapers. When critics argued that maybe this could be hazardous
to ordinary people, the agency answered:
"We're not going to react
to emotions. People are afraid of radioactivity; they're afraid of anything
nuclear. It's just like a built-in emotion. And we're not going to react to
-->Plastic Wrap Tax:
Denmark is my favorite country... and they've just added another reason. They've
started a "green tax" on product packaging. The more "environmentally
unfriendly" the packaging, the higher the taxes. Glass and cardboard-- low tax.
Polystyrene and aluminum-- high tax. Yeah!
-->Is It Safe To Do It?
Department Samsung has a Korean only cellphone that does more than bore your
neighbor with intimate details of your bodily functions-- it measures them.
Marketed to women, this phone counts calories, keeps track of your period, tells
you when you're ovulating and when it's (relatively) safe to screw around.
-->Is It Safe To Do It? Pt.
2: Named in
Press as one of New York's most despicable people, Attorney General Eliot
Spitzer continues to prove himself worthy of the title.
Spitzer was notorious
during the Guiliani administration. It was his intervention that fought free
speech and closed the porno shops in Times Square. This made the area safe for
Disney and Starbucks.
In his latest fight
against freedom, Spitzer has fined a local hip hop station a quarter of a
million dollars for promoting "Smackfests." These are smacking contests between
volunteers-- young women usually-- in search of prizes and fame.
Not only is Spitzer an
opponent of personal freedom. The enforcer is also a hypocrite.
"We are not, nor should we
be, the arbiters of good taste and bad taste in the media," says Spitzer.
Oh yeah? About this case,
he says, "Hot 97 violated good judgment and it violated any sense of decorum and
Just what are you
arbitrating there, Mr. Spitzer?
-->No Evidence Dept:
These days Christians are pushing for Intelligent Design to be taught in
science class along side evolution. This despite the fact there hasn't been one
article on I.D. published in a scientific journal, or one peer-reviewed
experiment. The essence of science is review, test, and counter-test. It makes
On the other hand, humans
are pretty dumb. They react in stupid ways. As a matter of fact, a lot of human
design is pretty damn poor. Take pain. Please! Don't tell me it's a "warning
system." Why not have a doorbell ring? What about pain that can't be stopped?
What about cancer, and other horrible diseases? What about bird flu? If they
proposed a "stupid design," theory I might buy it and let 'em teach it in
science class. The fundies would be their own best proof of the theory.
-->Whoring for Dollars Dept:
If you hate this column, there's more where it came from. I've just published a
book of columns called I, A Me-ist. If you'd like to look at it, check
out the links from my website
www.mykelboard.com. I'll be traveling around to support the book, so if
you've got any ideas of where I can read, or hold a book signing, or just set up
a table at a punk show, let me know at: