Rats and the Ship of State

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As much fun as it was watching rats scamper inside a New York City restaurant last month, it’s been even more fun watching the political rats since. They writhe and squirm, trying to justify themselves after photographers from both the New York Post and CBS-TV Channel 2 documented herds of Massive Pound-And-A-Half Rats Infest[ing A] KFC/Taco Bell In The West Village.

The rats were filmed mere hours after New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) inspected the restaurant and noted few health-code violations. Those who see government as our steadfast protector will be disillusioned to learn that citizens had long complained about said rats to said protector. Some phoned 311, the City’s "number for government information and non-emergency services" while others called the DOHMH — for three weeks. Despite the heads-up, the Department gave the restaurant passing marks at its inspections, though it did cite the place "several times for evidence of rodents dating to 2004." One inspector even fined it $1,300 for various violations, including mice droppings. Whew! For a minute there, I feared the City might not make money on this fiasco nor force customers to pay more for their chicken and fries.

Naturally, Michael Bloomberg, New York’s nanny — sorry, mayor, excused the City’s malfeasance. "If you take a look over the last year or so, we have a new person in charge of [the DOHMH’s Food Safety Division]," he told the Post, "and they have doubled the number of restaurants and bars that they have closed down." Depriving us of products, services and choices: isn’t that always government’s measure of success? Then again, consider its incentive. The City has shuttered 469 restaurants since last July 1, and it fined each one before slamming its doors. Mike continued: "…we don’t think [closing so many is] because the quality of sanitation is any worse. We think it’s because of just better management and more focusing on the details." Yeah, right. And all those fines flooding the City’s coffers have nothing to do with it.

Meanwhile, the DOHMH’s chief, Thomas Friedan, announced, "We’ll be training every one of our inspectors in how to better recognize and deal with rodent infestation." Whoa! No one mistakes bureaucrats for intelligent life, but who guessed they’re too dumb to know a rat when they see one? These jokers are college grads sucking up between $35,423 and $62,926 of our taxes per leech per annum, and now we’re going to pay for them to learn their animals as well.

But inspectors’ inability to "recognize and deal with rodent infestation" hasn’t kept them from issuing a blizzard of violations and closing restaurants. After all, the DOHMH must convince taxpayers that its $1.644 billion annual budget buys us something other than inspected rat resorts.

Intriguingly, the ploy hasn’t worked. Leviathan’s failure is so large and immediate, so visceral and repulsive that it’s finally penetrated Sean and Sharon Sheeple’s blinders. "Why do we even have a Health Department if they don’t know how to do their jobs?" one woman plaintively asked the Post.

Even more thrilling has been restaurateurs’ refusal to kowtow. Businessmen almost always knuckle under to Leviathan without a peep. That’s due in part to their gratitude that the beast licenses — and thereby stifles — competitors as well as to fear that their own licenses will be revoked. But this time, they’re standing up for themselves. Perhaps Sean and Sharon’s incipient skepticism inspired them, or perhaps they’re tired of taking the hit for a problem New York City government creates: not only does it prohibit restaurants from installing garbage disposals, it requires them to bag and then hold their garbage onsite until the time the City decrees for trash collection. Predictably, those smelly scraps draw vermin.

And so restaurants are calling the DOHMH’s crackdown what it is: self-serving. The Post reported that the proprietors of two closed eateries "insisted they were victims of a backlash because of the Health Department’s embarrassment over the Village KFC rat problem." Others explained their closings by posting signs like this in their windows: "It seems that due to the extensive media coverage of a certain fast food restaurant and the scandal surrounding the N.Y.C. department of health, they now are trying to save face and set examples."

Joining the public and the restaurateurs in their new-found cynicism is the print media. Usually Leviathan’s apologist, it is kicking the critter’s butt instead. The New York Sun editorialized that in this "age of Zagat’s, Gayot, Citysearch, Chowhound.com, and AAA," "highly intelligent and savvy" New Yorkers don’t need "the government to tell them where to eat." The Sun is reliably neoconservative and pro-state; if the Bush Administration declared that good Americans eat rats, the Sun would publish recipes as well as photos of its staff chowing down. Yet it’s recommending that the City fire all its "restaurant inspectors" and rebate "the cost of running the whole inspection operation to New Yorkers in the form of a tax cut."

The Sun also pointed out that the most rat-infested areas of New York are those the government controls. The Post put flesh on that by quoting the "residents of a HUD-subsidized building…in The Bronx" who "described how their kids have to beat down hoards [sic] of the rampaging rodents with sticks just to get to school. Tashone Glenn, 30, said that three days ago, she went to check on her sleeping son, Javon, 3, and, u2018I see a rat in the bed. It was dead.'”

Business and the media usually fawn while Sean and Sharon yawn at Leviathan’s criminality. But not this time. For some reason, rats have prodded them into questioning government when few other outrages can. The bodybags coming back from Iraq, the cries of the tortured from Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, the eavesdropping on our phone calls and emails, the unreasonable searches and seizures at airport checkpoints — these provoke little more than a shrug. Standing in line for a driver’s license, being robbed to educate other people’s kids, and having to ask permission before buying a gun infuriate mighty few. But let some rats scurry around a restaurant, and their political equivalents scramble for cover.


Becky Akers [send her mail] writes primarily about the American Revolution.

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