Tilly: Let the rhetoric games begin

BY ZACH TILLY | APRIL 05, 2013 5:00 AM

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On May 7, Johnson County will ask voters to approve $43.5 million for the construction of a new jail compound that will be a touch smaller and a touch uglier than the $46.8 million building that fell short of the 60 percent supermajority required for approval in last Novembers election.

Though the county’s plans have been (very modestly) scaled back this time around, one often-overlooked peculiarity of the new jail remains: its ambiguous, downright Orwellian name.

The Johnson County justice center.

It’s tough to find a pair of words that mean less than “justice center.” When I say “prison yard,” for example, you think of convicts in orange pants milling around on a gray day, a high fence, and maybe a sniper in a guard tower. When I say “justice center” you see nothing at all, just a swirling white cloud of mind vapor.

That’s what happens to me, anyway. And I think that’s just how they want it.

The county’s plan all along — consciously or unconsciously — has been a rhetorical bait-and-switch; they hope to sell you a shiny, glass-and-steel “justice center” and deliver a jail.

It’s a peculiar phenomenon that so many of Iowa City’s political fights — like the county’s decade-long quest to build this new jail — degenerate into this sort of rhetorical gamesmanship, but I believe that much of the problem begins with the opposition.

Let’s take a look at the recent opposition to Iowa City’s decision to install red-light cameras.

There is, of course, a perfectly understandable argument against red-light cameras: They do very little to reduce intersection collisions, and some cities have installed them for the ethically dubious purpose of increasing revenue by issuing more traffic citations.

But Iowa City’s red-light camera opponents have chosen a different tack. The front page of their official website (which can be found at stopbigbrother.org) is plastered with the phrase “1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual.” They view traffic cameras as an imposition of government control on the private lives of Iowa Citians; Big Brother is watching, they say.

In a double-barreled blast of rhetorical lunacy, this group fear implores Iowa City to wake up and demand that the powers that be “ban cams and drones” in our beautiful city. Drones.

“Surveillance technology, and in particular traffic surveillance technology,” they say, “is increasingly being pushed by technology vendors and device manufacturers to municipalities across the country under the banner of increased public safety, and, as we are entering the Drone Age, this trend is only going to accelerate and intensify.”

This isn’t the only issue dominated by ridiculousness.

I admit that I’m unsure about the cause of Iowa City’s surplus of overblown rhetoric, but I suspect — based on close reading of a number of letters to various local editors peppered with such words as “bourgeoisie” and “collusion” — that our town may be overrun by an extremely vocal community of textbook liberal rabble-rousers without a proper outlet for its political animus.

And so, my hypothesis continues, when a potentially juicy issue crops up — a new skyscraper or traffic cameras — they manufacture conspiracies about greedy politicians colluding with big business to ghettoize a neighborhood or an overbearing government setting up red light cameras to spy on its citizens.

When the criteria for reasoned debate are as debased as they seem to be in Iowa City, who could blame the county for dressing up a new jail as a “justice center” to try to avoid a little bit of the headache?

I’m not saying Iowa City’s scorched-Earth contrarians aren’t right at least some of the time, but God, what a town it must be where a camera is a camera, a building is a building, and a jail is a jail.

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