The Audi Motor company's idea of an environmentally-correct America, to judge from the TV commercial it spent several million dollars to air during the Super Bowl, is one in which homeowners could be arrested for using incandescent light bulbs, customers choosing plastic bags at the supermarket would be mandhandled by the Green Police, and anyone tossing an orange peel into his kitchen garbage pail might suddenly find himself in the beam of a searchlight, hearing a voice bark through a loudspeaker: "Put the rind down, sir! That's a compost infraction!"
It's also a place where highway traffic would back up at an "eco-roadblock," but a motorist driving a "green" car like Audi's A3 TDI would be waved right through the checkpoint.
Of course, the notion of an environmental police state terrorizing citizens for not being sufficiently "green" is just parody meant to be laughed at. Or is it? On its website, Audi USA earnestly describes its Green Police as "caricatures" created to "help" consumers "faced with a myriad of decisions in their quest to become more environmentally responsible citizens." And what better way to "help" them than with scenes of ruthless Greenshirts handcuffing hot-tubbers whose water is too warm, or raiding the home of residents who threw a used battery into the wrong trash bin?
"Green has never felt so right," proclaims Audi's dystopian ad. Others agree. David Roberts, who writes for the environmental webzine Grist (and who has called for putting global warming skeptics on trial like Nazi war criminals), says the "thrill" of the ad "turns on satisfying the green police." The commercial makes sense, he writes, only "if it's aimed at people who acknowledge the moral authority of the green police people who may find those [environmental] obligations tiresome and constraining . . . but who recognize that living more sustainably is in fact the moral thing to do."
On Twitter, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom expressed his approval more concisely: "That 'green police' Audi commercial hits home." He would know. Under a composting ordinance Newsom signed last year, throwing orange peels, coffee grounds, or greasy pizza boxes in the trash is now illegal in San Francisco, and carries fines of up to $500 per violation.
There was a time when Americans were thought capable of deciding for themselves what to do with their coffee grounds or whether to carry their groceries home in paper or plastic bags. It isn't only in San Francisco, and it isn't only when it comes to "green" issues, that such mundane or personal choices are being subjected to government coercion. One thin slice at a time, liberties we once took for granted are replaced with mandates from above. Instead of leaving us free to choose, Big Brother increasingly makes the choice for us: on trans fats. On gambling. On smoking. On bicycle helmets. On health insurance.
In Massachusetts, the Boston Globe reported last week, new regulations will soon require thousands of restaurant workers to undergo state-designed training on handling food allergies, and every restaurant menu will have to be revised to include a new message: "Before placing your order, please inform your server if a person in your party has a food allergy." In Pennsylvania, the Reading Eagle notes that it is illegal for volunteers to sell pies or cookies at a charity bake sale unless the treats were "prepared in kitchens inspected and licensed by the state Agriculture Department." In Oregon, an eight-year-old boy was suspended from his public school on Monday because he came to class with a tiny plastic toy gun from his G.I. Joe action figure.
It isn't to evil dictators with a lust for power that Americans have been slowly surrendering their autonomy. It is to well-intentioned authorities who genuinely believe that freedoms must be circumscribed for our own good. At the White House on Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama announced what The New York Times called "a sweeping initiative . . . aimed at revamping the way American children eat and play reshaping school lunches, playgrounds, and even medical checkups with the goal of eliminating childhood obesity."
Nothing in the Constitution allows the federal government to take charge of "revamping the way American children eat and play." It is only our passivity that makes such an encroachment possible. This used to be the land of the free. Is it still?
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.