Dog Shit on the Sidewalk

Part of artist Allan Adler’s Pieces of Trump series (via Orlando Weekly)

I was on one of my daily constitutionals recently when I saw a giant pile of dog shit on the sidewalk. It made me think about the president and current American political culture.

There’s something especially pernicious and unseemly about dog shit on the sidewalk. Dog shit on the grass can be unpleasant, particularly if its in your yard. Particularly if your two-year-old wanders up to you with it in his hand saying “Daddy what this.” But dog shit on the sidewalk. I mean, ugh. To quote the twentieth century social theorist George Costanza, “We’re living in a society.”

Dogs are particularly emblematic of the cliche that pet ownership, though rewarding, is a tremendous responsibility. There are plenty of articles to be found about dogs teaching children to be responsible. And many couples, my wife and I included, get dogs as a sort of starter kid: practice before settling down to start a family. We got our shelter pup in 2009, and, as her primary trainer and caregiver early on, I can testify that it’s not all adorable snuggliness. Dogs need plenty of time, affection, and patience. They also require a fair bit of walking around with a plastic bag over your hand, picking up poop.

Obviously, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about dog shit. Some would argue too much. Sidewalks, on the other hand, are something I never thought much about until the last few years. I started noticing that they aren’t ubiquitous. Some streets have them only on one side, weirdly. Some neighborhoods don’t have any at all, as if to discourage the very act of walking among their smoothly sculpted, overwatered lawns. Having a dog to walk, then kids with bikes and scooters, I started to notice that I really miss sidewalks when they aren’t around.

More than a place to walk, sidewalks are public spaces. They don’t belong to the homeowners whose abodes they wind their way in front of. They’re not a part of the street where vehicles have the right of way. They’re community resources that we have to negotiate cooperatively. Nobody owns the sidewalk. They require a skill every child learns and every adult forgets — sharing.

Thus, dog shit on the sidewalk represents a break in the social contract represented by sidewalks. Cleaning up after your pet is part of the responsibility of pet ownership. A steaming pile deposited in the middle of a sidewalk is a failure of personal responsibility that results in the defiling of a shared public resource. Private avoidance of accountability has public consequences.

On the sidewalk or in the public square, the world would be a more pleasant place if people just acknowledged and handled their shit. White people’s racist shit. Men’s misogynist shit. Privileged people’s classist shit. Everybody all the time with so much shit in so many ways that it’s impossible to quantify. Left unattended, our collective shit could pile up to the point that we’ll run out of space on the shared sidewalk of society. That’s right: we could reach peak shit. Leave all the shit you want in your own yard. Start a shit garden for all I care. But, outside of those confines, maintaining meaningful public spaces requires rigourously accounting for private shit.

At the intersection of personal accountability and shared public resources, social responsibility should be a moral obligation. Where the dog meets the sidewalk, it’s selfish and inconsiderate to leave a mess somebody else can step in. Let’s start with the small shit on the sidewalk. We can work our way up to the giant shit in the White House.

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