Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Brush with Grayness

Passing into a government building resembles passing out of one mode of existence into another. The very act of gaining entrance into one of these citadels of authority is fraught with dread, anxiety and alienation. This is a normal response to the lifting of the veil from one's irrelevance and powerlessness before the State. It is the inverse of an impression (sometimes obliviously expressed by the newly elected when freshly immersed in the well of power) of those employed by the same, when taking in architectural government grandiosity: a novel, intoxicated thrill. This comes from finding oneself on the other side of the power equation. None of us are immune to either impulse; they are the same yearning, reacting to diametrically opposed contexts.

Just getting to the door is often a will-weakening ordeal, as these buildings seem to be purposely made inaccessible (even before 9/11 security concerns resulted in consequences filtering down through the massive superstructure of the empire, becoming manifest in the most banal and lowly reaches of the homeland). They are often difficult to access from the street and even in the center of the city seem remote from the very public they exist to serve. This is merely one of the lesser ways that government's service to the citizen becomes the citizen's subjection to the government.

The inaccessibility of the government power emplacement (to which the citizen is more often than not summoned), if not by design no less works to render the citizen a bit more compliant--or resentful. And in our time what has the portal by which we physically engage our government become? The metal detector. A crude undiscriminating dullard of a machine, sometimes accompanied by its more intrusive, leering partner, the x-ray device.

Submitting to the unthinking arbitrament of a machine is the ultimate act of dehumanization. The already humiliating effects of the search, the presumption of guilt to be disproved, is magnified, imposed not by another person but by the absence of humanity, by a machine with an insect sort of logic.

The metal detector itself, with its inability to reason, unable to give any quarter to the harmless batch of keys (or the quarter, for that matter), or the occasional belt buckle that requires disrobing of the now penitent citizen pleading entrance through that peculiar square plastic gate, holding his pants up like a beggar dressed in rags; this is nothing in comparison to the people who man it. The callow cruelty of the government building security officer is a solemn testament to how cheaply we will sell our humanity. The machine only seems to relish humiliating you, and clearly can't make it a point of pride or a source of amusement. The officers of the gate are no less unsentimental and unreasoning, while at the same time bringing the human elements of stupidity, cruelty and malice to a transaction already humiliatingly unequal. At their posts they become like mere apparitions of human beings, no longer bound by fear or fraternity, tasked with adopting a posture of unremitting suspicion and guile.

Those predisposed to cruelty thrive in this environment, and through emulation their advancement induces greater cruelty in all within it. Cruelty itself becomes selected for and magnified within the walls of such places and is carried out into the wider world like a virus in the host bodies of the government's minions.

Such encounters, increasingly common, are still brief and contained, individually of little significance, but they are not without significance, and the cumulative effect of these ever-multiplying requirements is still unknown. It alters us without our assent, or knowledge. The change is diffused across the population, altering society and changing the People. None of this is within our control, or even within our ability to comprehend.

Technology and modernity mean a world forever new. It means one's society differs greatly from that of his father's, and the society of his children will differ in ways unknown. It means one is born into one world and leaves another. There is a characteristic look of bewilderment that sometimes comes upon us; the modern mask of marvelment. Whereas throughout history humanity's experience has been of only slow, barely perceptible progress punctuated by periods of revolution that usually brought more noise than real change in the daily life of the individual, we exist in a continual, unending revolution--not of ideas or values, but of technology and commerce; it is not a revolution of a population or a faction with designs, but the aggregated energy of self-interest. No purpose; no design. It is under no one's control; yet the same game of wile and cunning will promote some to power and condemn most to insignificance. Same as it ever was.

Humanity's progress once seemed destined for a more libertarian future, and perhaps it is, but the lesson of our time is that there is no guarantee of this, no reason to make this assumption. Invasive technology and multiplying media unduly empower not only of the government, but any powerful entity, and the masses as well, to crush the individual. The surveillance state may in fact be the inevitable result of indifferent technology blithely destroying the private realm. But above all, technology, for all of its wonder and because of its irresistable nature, has thus far been as much a friend of government and corporate power as it has been a tool for resistance to them. And they already operate at a distinct advantage. I do not lament technology, but humanity, as always.

The very reason that government is necessary means that its benignity is not possible; the cruel force upon which government must be predicated, a consequence of nature, cannot be concealed or mitigated but through layers of restriction, dull and sense-deadening at their best, murderous at their worst.
But the threat of violence is there, always, implied but overwhelming, the most terrifying and all-encompassing sort of violence, state violence, the sort that, sufficiently provoked, can not merely kill a man but ruin him, with impoverishment, enslavement, scandal; the destruction of his very name and humanity it holds in reserve and uses with ease.

I don't pretend it can be any other way. One can just as easily argue that we've accomplished an astounding compromise with our violent nature, and the gray face of government is the dam behind which that dark force is contained. This compromise is more fragile than we know; we always forget. But our duty to humanity, to ourselves, is to remain keenly aware of these effects, to mitigate them as much as the preservation of order allows, to imagine the realization of something more. To be vigilant in pursuing the dream of liberty. To plot our escape.

(In a wholly unrelated side note, I will be absent from posting for a period of 2 to 3 years, with possible time off for--never mind)


dearieme said...

"Passing into a government building ..": for most of my life, passing into a Government building in Britain almost always involved a needless hassle. There would be a pair of doors. One would be locked in position; the other one is the one that you have to push, or pehaps pull. There is never a clue as to which is fixed, which mobile. Never. Always, you must wrestle. The staff don't care; they know, from mere familiarity, which one moves. Stuff you.

Burkeman1 said...

While government may be a necessity we should always predicate our views and interactions of government as if it isn't- it should constantly be on the defensive- constantly having to justify it's very existence. And this state of unease on the part of the state can only be maintained as if we address the state on all matters as if it were barely tolerated red headed stepchild.

Burkeman1 said...

By the way- has anyone else noticed the increasing secrecy of government at all levels? State officials refusing to publish telephone directories for their departments. Many buildings no longer have lobby guides that tell what and who is on which floor. I have of state employees being told to not wear clothing that might indicate their home town or where they might live. Doors to offices and departments with numbers only- no names on the doors . . . It is getting spooky.

Dennis Dale said...

Good point. The same security concerns (real, exagerrated or fabricated) that are currently eroding the privacy of citizens (wiretaps, data mining, fourth amendment compromises) simultaneaously make the government more secretive and opaque.
Consequences and repurcussions.

Anonymous said...


I read a Tom Wolfe novel a few years ago in which a loan office in a bank had a special room to hold business meetings with clients whose payments were in arrears, and the bank had decided to close the loan with the ensuing sale of some of its backing securities. The "room" was designed to look cheap and tawdry with rubber plants, plastics, paper plates on the table, plastic cutlery, uncomfortable colors, and cheap potraits and prints on the walls, with faux-expensive chairs that anyone could spot as inexpensive. The food was deliberately bad even. The intended effect was for the borrower to know just how little the bank cared for him at this point.

Perhaps the "processed" feeling you get is exactly what the psy-op folks who designed the security measures intended for you to feel: helplessness and isolation before the mass anonymity of the state.

Burkeman1 said...

Thinking about this great essay a bit more this morning- I remember getting into a bit of an argument on another blog- some standard "mainstream" site I can't recall at the moment headed up by some Beltway foreign policy technocrat. Anyway the topic of the thread was a Russian diplomat being gunned down by some crazed Honduran or Guetamalan at their embassey in that country. It wasn't ideological or political. Just a gunmen going nuts and shooting someone inside the embassey.

Anyway the site regulars were making fun of Russian embassies for their lack of security. It seems the Russian embassey in question had no armed guards on duty. Had no gate or barriers. Didn't even have a metal detector. It was a street front building anyone could just walk into. These American technocrats were incredulous at the Russians and talking about them as the Ruskies were too poor to afford security and "what do you expect from Russkies?" type comments.

I then challenged them. I have read that American embassies are now little fortresses. That they intimidate and frighten people. Surrounded by myriad barriers with armed guards (sometimes in black) all over the place. Blast wall encased pill boxes with State Department officials talking behind bullet proof glassed enclosures to the foreign public that enters them. I tried to point out to these arrogant dopes that perhaps Russia didn't feel the need to make their embassies into little walled defensive compound eyesores and that the primary purpose of an embassey is not the protection of its own personal but the good face forward of the country in a foreign land. They didn't get it. I also tried to point out the irony in comparing the security free and unparanoid feel of embassies of "authoritarian" Russia to "Free" America. Also went over their heads.

Bill said...

It's interesting that this theme seems to be on a lot of people's minds lately. Derbyshire wrote a piece for VDare about it, and I was recently reading Orwell and comparing his warnings to the present.

The Orwell essay, called "politics and the English Language" contains warnings that are so appropriate to today that it's uncanny.

From what little I can extrapolate from the current climate, it seems that some ideological clashes are starting to gather on the horizon again. Maybe it's about time someone stood up to these encroachments on freedom, but I am worried about the ultimate form any such struggle could take.

Black Sea said...

A few months ago, my wife and I took the subway train to the main Social Security office, a concrete cube, naturlich, so that she could change her SS registration so that my (now our) last name would be on her documents.

After disembarking from the train at the appropriate station, we saw a sign indicating the nearest exit to the SS office. This entrance, however, was accessible to SS employees only, who could pass directly from the station into their building. The general public, on the other hand, had to go up a floor, cross the street, and pass through all of the usual security apparatus at the main entrance.

Entering the building, we passed through the security gates and metal detectors, manned by at least 4 guards, whose demeanor was that of all other guards in an equivalent position. They weren't particularly hostile, but they weren't particularly friendly either. I suppose they weren't supposed to be.

Once we reached the appropriate office on the appropriate floor, we saw two more security guards keping vigil over a total of about 25 compliant, patiently-waiting, SS patrons. One guard chatted at leisure on the phone about his previous evenings activities (I believe he'd been to a nightclub), while his female counterpart stared absently into space, despite the fact that there was a magazine open in front of her. This was all they did during our entire time there (I was watching with curiosity.)

When our number was called, we went to the designated window, which consisted of what appeared to be a dense sheet of anti-ballistic glass. (They know their clientele, apparently).

Behind this glass sat another officious SS employee, who, like the security guards at the entrance, managed to convey a mild annoyance as to our presence, without going so far as to be deliberately rude. My impression was that she felt that, in doing her job, she was doing us a favor.

Despite the fact that EVERY document that my wife provided used her maiden name as her middle name, the woman neglected to exert the extra effort required to type my wife's maiden name onto the offical SS form. When my wife pointed out that this omission might cause confusion, given that all of her other documentation (my wife is not a US citizen) includes her maiden name, the woman did not deign to reply, but did reprint the document with my wife's maiden name included.

Perusing the document further, my wife pointed out that the clerk had managed to spell her place of birth as "Ankwra." This combination of consonants is fairly unpronounceable, which one would hope the woman might take as indicating a potential spelling error, but apparently not.

Further examination also revealed that our home address had been misspelled, which is rather important since all the SS documents will be sent there.

So, three significant errors on a one page form. My wife was instructed, rather haughtily, to correct with a ballpoint pen the latter two mistakes, which one can only hope the woman then entered correctly into the computer. As I've said, at my wife's prompting, the woman corrected the first mistake herself.

As we walked down the corridor to the elevator, I asked my wife the inevitable question:
"What do you suppose she gets paid to do that?"

I'm not sure I want to knpow the answer.

Dennis Dale said...

I want to report a wrongful arrest.

(looking at form)
You want Information Adjustments. Different department.

(exasperated but controlled)
I've been to Information Adjustments. They sent me here. They told me you had a form I had to fill in.

Have you got an Arrest Receipt?


Is it stamped?

(producing Buttle receipt)

(examining receipt)
No, there's no stamp on it. You see! I can't give you the form until it's stamped.

Where do I get it stamped?

Information Adjustments.