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One man's museum is another man's menace

By Michael R. Shannon
web posted August 15, 2011

When is the last time you saw a McDonalds' commercial ridiculing fat people? Costco checkers questioning the intelligence of bulk buyers? Or the staff at Ralph Lauren lecturing the clothes–conscious on the contents of their closet?

Yet newspapers continue to treat readers who collect back issues as if they have a mental problem. One would think an industry that has seen a breathtaking decline in circulation, advertising revenue and public approval would be supportive of those customers who still subscribe to the print edition. Instead newspapers go out of their way to alienate their most loyal and enthusiastic customers by referring to them as "hoarders."

I consider any reader who keeps an extensive collection of back issues containing my column a hero. MSM reporters write lurid stories about tottering piles of newspapers blocking the hallway, when they should be sending interns over to build more shelves.

Even if you don't enjoy reading and rereading my columns, there are many other practical reasons to save back issues. Newsprint is an excellent insulator. Blocking unneeded doors and drafty windows can substantially reduce cooling and heating bills. Torn into strips, newsprint takes the place of kindling when starting a fire. And Heloise says that for those windows you decide not to block, newsprint is better than paper towels for wiping the glass clean.

Besides, it's easy to detect more than a hint of classism in news coverage of "hoarding." Film collectors, book collectors, art collectors, antique collectors and even lottery ticket collectors, have been mentioned in news stories during the past three months, all without even a hint of criticism.

Evidently a fancy Latin name like "bibliophile" or "vexillogicalist" and membership in a society, association, guild, cabal or conspiracy equals an interesting hobby. But if your name is Darryl and you store the collection in a double–wide, it's time for government intervention.

And who determines when "collecting" becomes "hoarding?" Do you add up the cash register receipts and if the total doesn't exceed some arbitrary amount you're suddenly a menace to the neighborhood?

Whatever the criteria, residents of Prince William County, VA are about to find out because Neighborhood Services Coordinator Patricia Reilly has formed a "hoarding task force."

According to a story in the News & Messenger, Reilly says reality TV shows on "hoarding" have raised awareness of the issue and resulted in annoying complaints to county staff. But reality TV also chronicles the adventures of addled youth on Jersey Shore, so is a task force on sluts in our future? (If so, I propose applying free market principles and auctioning off the membership slots. Making the Slut Patrol it is the only county task force that turns a profit.)

Right now the Reilly's task force isn't sure what constitutes "hoarding," but it is certain we have a lot of it. She estimates between 8,000 to 20,000 residents could be "hoarders," which puts potential unlicensed collectors ahead of drug users who number only 13,620. (Unless we have double–dippers who are shooting up and then saving the syringes.)

Reilly's pack rat estimate exemplifies the fuzzy math underlying the fuzzy thinking on the "hoarding" epidemic. Fairfax County has over one million residents. In 2008 it opened 147 cases and closed 101 by burning down the house and recycling the residents. Fairfax estimates the total number of houses with "varying degrees of hoarding" (an extremely loose criteria) number about 3,500. So how can PWC, with one–third the number of residents, have five times the "hoarders?"

Easy, any bureaucrat who wants to build an empire knows no one's going to get excited and form a task force to combat a more realistic 1,100 "hoarders." But 20,000 is a "hoarding" horde with a concentration of crap that could cause the earth to tilt on its axis! No wonder we need Government Man!

What nanny–state meddlers can't accept is in a free society people have the right to make bad decisions. Some people stuff their homes with trash, others stuff their bodies with light beer.

Reilly says that in the past two months seven of eight complaints about "hoarding" have been considered valid, even without a final definition. Some of the guilty were evicted, which only makes my point.

Any landlord worthy of the name has a lease that prohibits a tenant from damaging the property. He doesn't need the county to barge into a situation that can be handled under existing contract law. And if the "hoarder" owns his home, no doubt the county already has zoning and health ordinances that address the problem.

Besides, the Board of Supervisors just voted to allow residents to keep a few chickens in the yard, so what's wrong with adding a flock of pink flamingos that don't crow or cackle? ESR

Michael R. Shannon, a public relations, advertising and political consultant with experience around the globe, can be reached at michael–shannon@comcast.net.


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