Momus, the Greek god of satire, was expelled from Mount Olympus for his sharp-tongued criticism. He wasn’t much more popular down here among the mortals, where Erasmus wrote that the god was “not quite as popular as [the others], because few people freely admit criticism, yet I dare say of the whole crowd of gods celebrated by the poets, none was more useful.”
Nothing can blend utility, charm, artful frankness, and analytical intelligence quite like satire. It can be light and giddy or plodding and terse. It can charm or appall. It will pragmatically assume any guise in order to hit its mark, and the heftier its target, the more impressive the strike. Like metaphor, satire tells us what we already know through an act of comparison in such a way that you’re allowed to feel as if you’re experiencing that truth for the first time. This is the subversive power of Momus: to paradoxically uncover obvious truths through minor dramatic misrepresentation.
Mike Chase, legal humorist known for his @CrimeADay Twitter feed and author of How To Become A Federal Criminal, is a contemporary disciple of Momus. The various ways in which someone can find themselves breaking federal law—from drinking a beer while on a bike in a national park to running your own mail-order denture business—is a perfect target for the cold eye of satire. Satire works best when it takes as its object of derision an irrational or incoherent use of power. What better example of that than the numberless codes, and laws which make up various federal statutes. As Chase writes in the book, it isn’t difficult to commit a federal crime:
Far from it, actually. Congress has passed thousands of federal criminal statutes and has allowed federal agencies like the IRS and FDA to make thousands upon thousands of rules that carry criminal penalties. These criminally enforceable rules cover everything from how runny ketchup can be, to what you’re allowed to do if a bird of prey takes up residence in your house. Federal law even sets limits on just how friendly you can get with a pirate.
Calling itself “An illustrated handbook for the aspiring offender,” How To Become A Federal Criminalis a mostly light, fun read which asks us to laugh along at all the various ways in which it appears the federal government has lost its mind. Categorized generally by the type of crime being committed, the book breezily moves through detailed instructions—“Don’t do anything discussed in this book,” reads a warning, “Just stay at home with the lights off, and unplug the phone”—on how to successfully and unsuccessfully break federal law. Giving a stationary horse on private land the middle finger, for example? Not a crime. Giving a “passing” horse an “unreasonable” gesture at a National Park, however? You’ve just violated the law, friend.
“At a minimum, before making any gesture at a passing horse,” Chase writes, “it’s important to ask yourself, ‘Would a reasonably prudent person do this?’ If the answer is no, then making the gesture could be a crime.” Helpful illustrations, which are just as funny as the text, also attend the descriptions of the crimes.
Sure, crimes such as selling a pig corpse that has “pronounced sexual odors” are funny, but the humor wouldn’t matter if the subject itself weren’t important. As Chase writes, “The tricky part for the average person is that there’s no comprehensive list of all the things that are crimes today. In fact, no one even knows how many federal crimes there are. What’s worse is that the law usually doesn’t require that a person know something is illegal before they can be criminally charged and convicted for it. And when you can’t always know if something is a crime, you can’t always know if you’re a criminal.”
As if this sort of legal sprawl weren’t alarming enough, many of these laws come directly from unelected heads of federal organization instead of Congress itself. As Chase explains:
By the late 1800’s . . . Congress started passing broad statutes giving executive branch officials the power to make rules with the force of law . . . So Congress began delegating its lawmaking authority to federal agencies. As a bonus, congressmen didn’t have to face the political repercussions when agencies made unpopular rules the way they would by voting on controversial bills. And if there’s one thing that’s popular in Washington, it’s lack of accountability.
And so year after year federal agencies have produced tens of thousands of pages of codes which carry the force of law. Compound that with the fact that Congress does actually pass laws the old fashioned way, many of which stay on the books long past their usefulness (such as the laws, still on the books, about falsely labeling stagecoaches and steamboats as postal carrying vehicles), and what we’re left with is a deep morass of vague and outlandish rules, many of which were passed in the most undemocratic ways conceivable. Chase writes:
Unfortunately, if you’re hoping to learn all the ways that you could possibly become a federal criminal in America, this book can’t help you. In fact, no book can. Lawyers with the Department of Justice once tried to count all of the federal crimes on the books and gave up. Since then, others have tried and failed. Hell, as a criminal defense lawyer who spent years researching and cataloguing federal crimes in a daily effort to do the same, I’m not even sure it’s possible.
Chase does a wonderful job at conveying seriousness and desperation without becoming overly somber or preachy. His humor is deft because it has a light touch. That’s both a strength as well as a limitation of the book. Though the bulk of How To Become A Federal Criminal reads with a MAD magazine tone, it also leaves one hungry for substantive arguments against the sprawl, legal and otherwise, of the federal government. Perhaps the book might be best paired with others, such as John Marini’s Unmasking the Administrative State and Daniel Ernest’s Tocqueville’s Nightmare.
That said, this book is of the moment. Perhaps Momus is, tragically, always a necessity, even if exiled from Olympus. But as outmoded notions of what it means to be liberal and conservative continue to keep us from squarely confronting the reality before us, books likeHow To Become A Federal Criminal will be particularly relevant. The fact that it’s hilarious, too, is an added bonus.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.