Two things people seem to like: duck liver and lawbreaking. Yesterday, in Chicago, diners and restauranteurs revelled in the transgressive pleasure of eating foie gras. They ate it on Connie’s pizza (and let me confess a profound soft spot for Connie’s, where my dad used to take me before White Sox games); they enjoyed it at Harry Caray’s; and they even chowed down at BJ’s Market & Bakery, a soul food joint on Stony Island (on the South Side, where I grew up.) But Chicago recently adopted an ordinance banning the sale of this fatty food product on the grounds that the ducks and geese that provide the delicacy are abused. The restaurants serving foie gras yesterday were breaking the law.
Both the Trib and the NY Times featured the story of the outlaws who ate the evil liver. (Curiously, these two stories covered remarkably similar ground. I’m thinking that either these reporters are copycats or someone put out a press release directing eager reporters to the same dining establishments.) It’s clear that restaurant owners and customers were downright happy to break the law. But wait a minute. This is the law here! That incredible institution that must be respected, lest the entire society be put at risk. Or not.
Law-breaking is a powerful source of pleasure for many people. We elect representatives to set speed limits, and routinely violate them. Those same legislators create open liquor ordinances which we flout at outdoor concerts, parades, and other festive occassions. They ban gambling, and we ignore them. Even Justice Rehnquist got into law breaking; his chambers sponsored the NCAA pool at the courthouse and he even he hosted an election night pool involving the ’92 Bush-Clinton race.
Crime isn’t the only transgressive pleasure. Take the briefest detour down the path of the Internet Porn Machine – or save yourself the effort, and read your spam folder – and you’ll soon discover a smorgasbord of socially-proscribed delights. Smoking cigarettes has become much cooler now that it’s prohibited everywhere. And let’s face it. Eating super-fatty meat products like foie gras has become a social violation in many quarters. But the truth is, people love actual lawbreaking. Sure, if nothing else is on the tube, we’ll watch the CSI team fight crime. But true TV pleasure comes when we root for Tony Soprano, cheer for the Hendrickson family on Big Love, or laugh with the 420-ready housewife on Showtime’s Weeds.
Many criminal laws are designed to protect society from serious harm. Others are less essential, and reflect the preferences of particular powerful groups. And in many respects, the best way to show opposition to the ruling majority – to take a public stand against the regulators and with our nation’s wild past – is to break a few laws. Or perhaps less dramatically, lawbreaking is one small way to assert one’s individuality against the rigidity of state regulation.
Over the years, I’ve met my share of self-described rule-followers. But scratch the surface and you’ll usually find these people have identified at least one offense that they deem unworthy of respect. Or simply well-suited to producing the pleasure of transgression.