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Indy Staff

Santa Barbara Is Ready for Its Close-Up, Mr. DeMille

Plastic Straw Bans, Fake News, and Me-Too Journalism


Like pornography and beauty, a whole lot of fake news lies in the eye of the beholder. That’s what makes it so irresistible. Some, obviously, is manufactured solely as cynical click bait to drive revenues. Some, less obviously, is the work of certain foreign governments — and their witting quisling stooges — produced to destabilize nothing less than the geo-political world order. But a whole lot of what gets tarred as fake news these days reflects nothing more than differences of political opinion — profoundly and radically felt — as to what makes the world not go round. It’s into this latter camp that I’d place last week’s eruption of “fake news” that heaped upon the City of Santa Barbara more free and unwanted publicity than it could ever afford to buy.

Santa Barbarians relying upon the national media for news of the City Council’s vote to ban drinking straws last week might well walk away with the distinct impression that jack-booted goons and police SWAT teams would soon be shutting down all non-compliant restaurants in which customers equipped with illegal plastic straws — every one of which would eventually find its way up the nostrils of unsuspecting sea turtles — to assist with their extrusion of beverages and libations that could otherwise be consumed the old fashioned way: cup to lip.

Leading the media stampede was tiny Reason magazine — must reading for snarky-minded libertarians equipped with a sense of humor to accompany their perpetual outrage. Reason reported that plastic straw outlaws — even first-time offenders — could face six months behind bars and fines up to $1,000. Later, Reason would point out in a corrected version that such harsh discipline might be meted out only to repeat offenders and plastic straw recidivists. It was not an insignificant change.

But by then, the horses were out of the barn. The story was then seized upon by the National Review — sniffier and boarding-school highbrow in its brand of conservatism — and from there, Forbes and Fox News. When the dust settled, everybody from Newsweek to People Magazine had weighed in, all with headlines riffing on the use-a-straw-go-to-jail meme now alive and well in the People’s Republic of Santa Barbara.

As if.

Or perhaps, “If only.”

Eventually, even Donald Trump the junior weighed in, there apparently being a paucity of Russians with whom he could collude this time of year. The straw ban, Junior tweeted, was all about the evils of evil immigrants. Naturally. “If only Democrats cared as much about curbing MS-13 gang violence,” he tweeted, “as they do straws.”

When, I wondered, would Oprah’s other shoe drop?

What about Ellen’s?

More to the point, was this sudden media blitz bringing more shoppers downtown? Or would greedy landlords chase them away with their obscenely high rents and then blame it on the homeless?

Most importantly, where could I get one of the plastic gummy wristbands for the heroic survivors?

Having watched and reported on this particular City Council meeting, I was upset. Could I have missed something so basic? Turns out I hadn’t. But in the universe of real but practically irrelevant facts, I actually did.

Here’s how. In the fine print of the proposed ordinance — it’s still not adopted by the way — violators can be charged with either an infraction or a misdemeanor. It’s up to the City Attorney to decide. This is generic default language, by the way, and is true for every offense written into the city’s administrative code. If he were to choose the latter, then yes, six months of jail time would be within the realm of possibility, as would $1,000 fines. As a practical reality, however, that’s never going to happen. To the extent City Hall enforces this ordinance at all — and I’m betting it won’t — it would be to issue warnings to first-time offenders. After that, shops catering to hypochondriacs and germaphobes insisting on their right to plastic straws would face fines ranging from $100 to $250, depending on the number of priors. It should be noted, the ban excludes people who genuinely need straws to sip their nutrition. It should also be noted, I am not relying on City Hall to behave fairly enforcing the ordinance, just in its own self-interest. If it chose to prosecute violators on misdemeanor charges, the defendants would be entitled to jury trials. No matter how such trials played out, City Hall would look ridiculous. And Police states can’t afford to appear silly.

This default language in Santa Barbara’s ordinance, by contrast, reportedly does not exist in any of the anti-straw ordinances passed by Seattle, Miami Beach, San Francisco, 10 other California cities, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and even in the edict issued by Queen Elizabeth for all royal properties. So it is technically factual — if only theoretically so — to report Santa Barbara has the most severe and draconian straw ban on the books.

For publications that regard straw bans as empty, rhetorical, feel-good gestures concocted by environmental elitist activists teaming up with Hollywood personalities and insufferably cute kids to enact new laws to solve problems that either don’t exist or won’t be fixed, the mere existence of this boilerplate lingo is further grist for their mill. I would put Reason into this category.

And I get their point. But from my vantage point, plastic straws qualify as unnecessary evils, so ubiquitous, yet so utterly unessential. Some rhetorical gestures are worth making, however empty they may seem in isolation. Among the many habits we need not cling to, the mindless consumption of single-use plastics seems egregiously heedless, elitist poseurs notwithstanding.

In a more perfect world, we’d all stop just because. What I’ve discovered doing this job is that when city councils pass stupid laws that will never be enforced, a whole lot of people “discover” the meaning of “just because” a whole lot sooner. That may not be news, but it’s real.

Given this mindset, is it any wonder I missed the story?

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