Texan laws and the big machine

on Jan 1, 2014 in Hand Baggage | No Comments

“All the evil in the world comes from the fact that we care about one another.”

Alberto Caeiro


What do others want? Law and humanity.

What do we know about what others want?

How do we know what’s good or bad for someone else?

Once, when I was in Texas, the following topic came up. For a decade, that State has had a law that prohibits a certain (we would say offensive) game, in which dwarfs are shot out of a canon. Players try to hit a given target with a dwarf. This game, which had been legal in Texas for years, became illegal around a decade ago.

The point is that recently, it seems, the discussion regarding this law has been reopened. An association of dwarfs wants the game to be allowed once more. Yes, that’s right. The association complained that once the game had been prohibited, many dwarfs became unemployed. The argument put forward by the association of dwarfs wasn’t only centred on economic issues. They also said that they did not consider the game offensive since their physical characteristics (being small) were taken advantage of in the same way that very tall people were channelled to the game of basketball, for example. In other words, the dwarfs themselves, through their association, did not consider the game of shooting dwarfs out of a canon at a target offensive to human dignity. They even viewed it as a way of valuing their physical uniqueness.

It is, in fact, always the same: it is very difficult to know what acting humanely really is. We might think that the political gesture of banning this game – which we consider repulsive – would be a humane gesture and protect the human dignity of dwarfs. But they themselves are saying the opposite. And so, what do we know about what others want?

It’s becoming increasingly clear that there are no absolute humane policies; the greatest humane gesture is to ask ‘what do you want?’

What do others want? That is precisely the starting point for those who want to help others.

Sometimes, we begin to help others based on what we want and what we think others should want for themselves.

In the smallest of spheres, and in the largest ones too, the question that sets companionship in motion is: what do you want?


“When night fell I was calm,

but my shadow beat

on the drumhead of despair”

(Tomas Tranströmer)


City, invention

Lisbon: city of successive intersections but boasting good light; natural, instinctively right lighting, Lisbon.

The city is a machine, the great invention. The city is made of intersections. The intersections are there to separate: some go left, others right. The city is thus a succession of separations.


“People are taken much too seriously. One equals no one. Anything less than two hundred at a time is not worth mentioning. Of course, anybody can be of a different opinion. An opinion is of no consequence whatever. Any level-headed man can level-headedly adopt two or three different opinions.”

Bertolt Brecht – “Man Equals Man”


Let us look at the means of public transport that has just arrived at Marquês de Pombal: a thousand people leave the same place more or less (front door or back door). At the end of the day, a thousand people go back home. They leave the Metro station, and right there and then the city’s machine instinct kicks in.

First intersection: out of 1,000 people, 500 go left, another 500 go right. Further ahead, another intersection: out of the five hundred people that were there, two hundred go left, 300 right; new intersection: of the 200, 80 go one way and 120 go another way, and quickly in this way, in six or seven intersections, the crowd disappears and this is what the city is: a machine that firstly gathers and then separates, a great deal; and it separates with the meticulousness of a smaller machine that separates tiny pieces such as screws of different sizes.

At most, there are two people there now, out of the one thousand who left that Metro Station; there they are at the last intersection that will separate them. At the end of the day, this is it; ultimately, this is how this machine works: the last intersection has the citizen go home alone and to his bed.

The city, that machine of successive intersections, has worked once more. It made the many into one. Separating humans, that is the great task.

The problem arises when the intersections do not separate human beings who do not want to be together. That’s when crime, fear and violence arise – the machine has failed. Two people are close to each other and the machine should have prevented this.

Sometimes, it would be interesting to remove the entire population from a city, an enormous city, and then look at the empty city, with no humans about, as if it were a giant machine. A machine that doesn’t fit into any compartment, but only on a map; a machine that can only be seen and understood when put on a map.

And then to look at this machine and try to understand its pulleys, its connections, the way it works.

The city is a great machine, perhaps the best of all. When it fails, tragedy begins.

And then, of course, there’s also nature.


“Far under the traffic, deep in the earth,

the unborn forest waits, still for a thousand years.”

Tomas Tranströmer

by Gonçalo M. Tavares


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