Thursday, June 28, 2007

In praise of gesellschaft: notes on the quiet glory of the bureaucrat.

So, I'm reading the Nation a few weeks ago and I come across this piece "In Praise of Red Tape," by Christopher Hayes. It's a smart little essay, I think. Hayes points out that bureaucrats in the U.S. government--normally a derided subpopulation whose machinations are thought to suck the life out of all that is good in the world--are to be praised for their insistence on following the rules and making things relatively difficult for the Bush administration. Because the Bush administration wants to break the rules, and because bureaucrats are all about minding the rules, this puts U.S. government bureaucrats in the role of button-down 'truth to power' types, unwilling to bow to the cult of Cheney that demands loyalty (a charismatic concept, after all) above all. Who stands in the way of the Bush administration's destructive swath? Midlevel intelligence professionals, State Department planners, scientists "in the bowels of the" EPA, and other clipboard-holding Bob Newhart types.

When thinking about this, I'm reminded of cinematic tributes to the low-level bureaucrat, and I think we see this kind of praise of the bureaucrat, or of rational-legal authority, in a few different movies: Hot Fuzz, Jaws, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

First, Hot Fuzz. The plot: a truly incredibly talented and successful cop (Simon Pegg) is determined by his supervisors to be an embarrassment to the London force, where his efficiency and results put his peers to shame. He's rather forcefully directed to become a cop in a small English town, where there is said to be the lowest crime rate in Britain. The plot thickens, and in time, the small town is shown to be a violent place where a cabal of city leaders exterminate anyone and anything that get in the way of their dreams for a picturesque, Village Green kind of place. Hilarious violence ensues. The upswing of this? The movie pits a supercop--a stand-in for the written law and for meritocracy--against the idyll of the small town. A lesser (and less funny) film would show the cop falling in love with the slower pace of the small town. But no, this gemeinschaft striver cop peels the surface off the small town, to show all the wriggly, evil stuff that goes on in the gemeinschaft-y little town. Without sermonizing, the movie suggests that the comfy small town has problems of its own (without getting into the very dumb American Beauty-like suburb-bashing that I'll take on some other time). The viewer is left with a sense that strong community bonds aren't all they are cracked up to be in our 21st century world.

A similar theme turns up in Jaws. For those who forget what Jaws is all about (except, one assumes, for the shark), it's really the story of a small town (on an island, no less) sheriff (Roy Scheider)--here it's easy to think that he might be the grown-up version of Simon Pegg's character in Hot Fuzz, after years in the small town--who keeps does his level best to face up to the challenge presented by a 25-foot Great White Shark that keeps on eating the visitors to his island. He struggles with bureaucrats who, like the town leaders in Hot Fuzz, keep on getting in the way, making his job impossible. He also faces off against a raft of amateur, self-appointed shark-hunters, who are portrayed as a bunch of drunken dimbulbs. But against the odds, he winds up joining forces with an ichthyologist and a whale-hunter to go out and kill the damn shark. Gemeinschaft rules. The villagers simply don't have the ability to do what needs doing (and many fight against the worthy goals).

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three pits two minor bureaucrats against a ring of international crooks, who have taken the titular subway train, and threaten to kill everyone on it if they don't get paid. It's the same thing: the mayor's a feckless boob who is concerned mostly with his television image, the regular folks mostly don't know what's going on, and it's up to transit sub-chief Walter Matthau and mid-level policeman Jerry Stiller to save the day. Using their expertise for how things really work, they do indeed save the day. Then the crooks' leader (played by Robert Shaw) kills himself by touching the third rail. Classic.

What am I trying to say here? I suppose I'm trying to bring out an apologia for the bureaucrat. While communication and other fields cling stubbornly to the idea that truth and value are excised somehow through the involvement of bureaucracy, a simple rejection of bureaucracy seems terribly wrong-headed. The critique of bureaucracy can often be traced to the ideas of Max Weber, but it is easily forgotten that his take on bureaucracy was far more complicated than the 'iron cage' imagery in some of his writing would suggest. Indeed, the problem he found in bureaucracy was that, because it worked so unbelievably well (I believe, at one point, he called it 'awesome,' but I may be making that up), it became difficult to notice some of the problems that it inflicted. Now, I think we face a different problem. We are so accustomed to bad-mouthing bureaucracy that we find it difficult to remember what it can do for us. Hayes' "In Praise of Red Tape," coming at about the same time as Hot Fuzz, seems to indicate that we may be starting to realize why clipboards and flow charts might do for us after all.


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