05/25/2012 12:10 EDT | Updated 07/25/2012 05:12 EDT

I Can't Escape the Man, and Neither Can You

How does the fact of U.S. journalists winning against the Obama administration in court on Thursday connect to stealing signs and punishing driver's tests in New Brunswick? It's all a part of an overarching pattern. We're living in times of growing intolerance and diminishing trust. And if civility and trust disappear, what do we have left?

On the local front:

We went down to the polling station to vote in the municipal election last week. It wasn't even noon and already there were long lineups.

Yes, local election fever had swept through our small New Brunswick town. And it had infected us, too. My wife found a mayoralty candidate she liked and volunteered to help his campaign.

Three days before the end of the campaign my wife worried that her guy didn't have enough exposure, so she went shopping for paint and Bristol board, and the family pitched in making bright, flourescent signs. Then she posted the signs around town, some on telephone poles and others on supporters' front lawns.

In the evening, she took the kids out to take a look. Twenty minutes later the door opened and I heard, "The signs are all gone." I thought they were kidding, but no. Of the 29 signs they'd put up, 22 were gone. By the next morning only two were left -- and those went down by noon.

I suspected that there was some by-law about posting signs on telephone poles. But if that were the case, why weren't old yard sale signs also torn down? And why were lawn signs also removed?

The answer was obvious. Someone wanted them gone. It turned out it was the retiring mayor, who was supporting another candidate, and he was using the "rules" to support his position. Of course, the unspoken message seemed clear: "Zero-tolerance if you're not with me! No lively participation allowed."

But what about common decency? Or citizen enthusiasm, or freedom of speech?

To his credit the local town manager told the mayor that the signs would only be up for a day, and that there was no need to have town staff take them down. So the mayor took it upon himself to have the signs removed.

I guess if the rules on signs were really important to our past mayor, all yard sale signs should be regularly torn down, along with posters for fundraising spaghetti dinners, and even realtors' signs planted on town-owned easements. But of course it wasn't the signs; it was the message on the signs.

And in the end? Most of the residents saw the colourful signs go up, and then go down. It was the talk of the town when someone tore down the signs in the pouring rain -- and on Mother's Day no less. And the next day my wife's candidate won.

Meanwhile on the home front:

In the middle of the campaign our daughter took her second driving test. She was nervous and it was nerve-wracking for me, too. I couldn't find our insurance slip so on the way I stopped to get a new one and we barely made the appointment on time.

Predictably, the tester asked for her paperwork, and after looking it over, noticed that my wife hadn't signed the car ownership. And that was that. He shut down the test and mumbled about making time for us later if we wanted to come back.

We drove home (a maddeningly unnecessary 25 minutes each way) got the paper signed and drove back. He was on his lunch. So we waited. When he showed up, he said he could take her right after his first appointment.

His first victim was a young woman, also anxious, who arrived with her mother. After she passed, her mother told us that this was their fifth try. Hmm. The girl didn't appear to have a learning disability. My daughter told me later that one of her friends had taken the test eight times. I could see that this was a whole new standard of testing.

It was my daughter's turn and off they went. When she returned, I knew. Tears didn't flow until we were back in the car. Apparently, she hadn't parked well enough in the test space. On the retry she forgot to use her turn signal (this was an off-street test site) and he failed her. Plus there was also some confusion around a tricky yield sign. But on the positive side, he'd told her with a smile, she definitely knew how to drive, and he liked her car. Well, gosh.

I resigned myself to the fact that she could have done better. But my cynical side tells me that this is a very convenient way to keep income rolling into the Service New Brunswick office to keep staff gainfully employed.

It is also painfully obvious -- given the numbers of absolutely dreadful drivers I encounter here every day -- that the new zero-tolerance approach to testing is virtually useless. But somehow the rigid enforcement of the rules is now paramount.

On the world front:

These things are more than a local aberration. There's the growing trend of unchecked authority hiding behind new rules -- rules that will allow almost limitless power over ordinary citizens.

But there are a few rays of hope on the horizon.

On Thursday, journalist Chris Hedges, Cornell West and others on their team are celebrating their victory in court against the Obama administration. U.S. Federal Judge Katherine Forrest just struck down the most controversial portions of the National Defense Authorization Act that would have allowed the U.S. military the right to indefinitely detain and hold U.S. citizens anywhere in the world, including at home, without charge or trial. Forrest ruled that the Act appeared to violate the First and Fifth Amendments and was therefore unconstitutional.

How does this connect to stealing signs and punishing driver's tests? Just that it's all a part of an overarching pattern. We're living in times of growing intolerance and diminishing trust. And if civility and trust disappear, what do we have left?

I somehow doubt the crushing hand of authority ever contributed to a kinder, gentler society.