Seeing things in another light

It’s funny, sometimes, to notice how one thing leads to another.  Events and thoughts can proceed in a way that makes you suddenly see something in a completely new light.  

The other day, in the sudden extreme heat (the real feel temperature got over 100 in New York City the last few days), I found myself walking around in just shorts.   It was too onerous to wear a shirt, or socks, and since I was inside, moving from fan to fan, I simply wore the minimum to remain decent while walking past the many ground floor windows at the farm.

At some point, standing at the sink of the upstairs bathroom, looking into the mirror, I suddenly saw my immense, oblong gut in a new light– sunlight.   Sunlight may be the best disinfectant for certain things, but it is the harshest possible light in which to see something like a watermelon-sized stomach ballooning over a waist band.   The slanting sunlight lit my stomach from a merciless angle, with a light that made the bulk fully three dimensional in a way my own dim bathroom mirror does not.

I was suddenly filled with horror, true horror, as I turned and saw it from all angles (it was particularly grievous from the side).  I immediately vowed to limit my caloric intake (and have so far, going on my third day, though today for brunch I had toast and home fries) as I rehab my knees, toward the day I will also get back on my former exercise regime.  It was a visceral thing, truly.  Not as if, mind you, I was unaware of the twenty or so pounds I have to lose, but seeing it in this harsh new light there was no longer any way for me to rationalize wearing this thick, bulbous vest of adipose tissue.  Not good for my health, nor for wearing a bathing suit next weekend at our friends’ house by a lake. 

From this thought to Hannah Arendt’s illuminating insight that totalitarianism, as distinct from normal despotism, military dictatorship, brutal monarchy and other familiar time-honored forms of authoritarianism, requires mobilization of the masses in the complete service of the leader and his State.   This new mass authoritarianism only became possible with the advent of truly mass media.  Hitler or Stalin, no matter what their genius for manipulating their followers, could not have exerted the complete social control they did without full ownership of the press and those two nascent mass media technologies, motion pictures and live broadcasts over radio waves (plus telephones and a few other useful technologies for keeping tabs and issuing orders).  

Totalitarian society is always organized as a strict hierarchic bureaucracy, with party loyalists running every one of its hundreds of branches.  Bureaucracy had been around before totalitarians harnessed it, but with the advent of new technologies, it became a much more efficient machine for social control.   Technology, as it was developed, became instantly part of the administration of these bureaucracies.

International Business Machines (IBM), for example, caused a little bit of a stink (though it didn’t seem to hurt their corporate bottom line) when it was learned, after World War Two, that IBM had made its new punchcard technology available to Nazi bureaucrats who used it to ensure the cattle cars heading East were full, and to keep track of who was left to ship East for “resettlement”.   Just a business doing business, corporate bottom line and all, no moral stance whatsoever, just money making money. [1]  

The word bureaucracy conjures hellish images out of a Kafkaesque nightmare. That is for good reason.  Bureaucracies are pyramids, and the vast bulk of the workers in a bureacucracy are powerless, hopeless ants serving their individual bosses on each level, without the slightest autonomy, or even much enthusiasm for their small, mechanical jobs, jobs they usually do with almost total indifference.  

An ant seems undeterrably  enthusiastic about moving crumbs back to the queen at the top of the anthill hierarchy because it is programmed to do so, not because that individual ant has a sense of agency or any kind of autonomy.   A chemical impulse makes the ant behave as it does, and it is not the ant’s place to question anything. The human member of a bureaucracy, however, is by nature somewhat resigned, depressed and embittered.  It is a job that can make you cynical and mean.  You have responsibility for a limited set of mechanical tasks, a limitless amount of drudgery to get through each shift, a very small amount of power (if any at all) and, the best you can hope for, if you do the shit little job well, is upward promotion.

Reminds me of a great remark I once heard about the Rat Race.   Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.

To be human is to expect more, if only because we have powerful myths about our unlimited power as individuals to determine the course of our own lives.   It is undeniable that human progress, and individual progress, is made by those who tirelessly work to make this potential real.  But for the vast masses of individuals, it’s off to work, to a job that usually sucks, for less money than they need or feel they deserve.

As a low level bureaucrat, you tell the disgruntled member of the public you are forced to deal with that they must do such and such.  When they complain you defensively tell them you didn’t make the rules, and that if they don’t want to give up their place on the long line they have already waited on, they’d better do what you’re telling them.   In modern corporate and government bureaucracy your chance of being given correct information is about 50/50, at best [2].   Things are much simpler under totalitarian bureaucracy: you simply do what they say or they send someone to get you and they kill you.

Adding current digital, algorithm-driven technology to bureaucracy brings us into a whole new world of shit.  Use your phone to look for a product, you get all the related ads almost instantly.   When Hitler was pioneering the use of radio, he could get on the air and make a persuasive, lying pitch to millions of Germans at once.  This ability to sell “on the air” helped make him a celebrity, a star, a man with seemingly superhuman powers.  He was the first to address a nation from the air, as his plane flew over a disputed corridor, under Polish control, that he claimed should by right be part of the German Reich.   This was something only a god could do back in 1932, thunder from the air to millions of people.  In 2018, a three year-old on the toilet, tweeting incoherently from his celebrity mommy’s phone, is as godlike as a flying, thundering Hitler over the Polish corridor.  OK, extreme example, maybe, and not the best.   A public official with 20,000,000 twitter followers can reach them all instantly, 24/7, from wherever he/she/it is.  How’s that for a god?

I don’t know where else to go at the moment with these thoughts.  It’s not as if, thank God, we actually have a public official with 20,000,000 followers who can instantly send them ranting real-time temper tantrums at 5 a.m. while straining over his stools.  

(More fiber, you imaginary costive motherfucker.)


[1] In our own time, recently Bill Gates had a tiny bit of dung flung his way when it was revealed that Microsoft facial recognition software had been sold (or perhaps given) to the current U.S. government to help I.C.E. recognize and root out the many potentially dangerous foreign rapists, murderers, terrorists and just plain undocumented “illegal aliens” and their so-tempting-to-cage children.

[2]  Trying to log-in the other day to pay my $375 biennial fee to keep my law license intact, I encountered a series of technological cul de sacs that prevented me from completing my registration (or even starting it, really).  Frustrating.   I sent an email to the help desk and got a helpful reply instructing me on exactly what I needed to do to complete my registration.  I did those things, got no further than the day before, wound up in the same cul de sac.  

Fortunately, the email reply came with a phone number, which I then called. Unfortunately, the phone was eventually answered by an imbecile.   The imbecile told me that I had to log-in with a computer, that I couldn’t use a Mac or an iPad to register.  I told the imbecile that I’d logged in and registered successfully two years ago with a Mac, which is also, by the way, a computer.   He soon grew impatient with my attitude.  

I asked him for the number for tech support, which he said was located in Albany.  He didn’t have the number.  Connected me to somebody who told me what was going on:  the site had been down the other day when I tried to log-in, there had also been many problems with the site’s functionality on Google chrome.  He assured me that, of course, it had nothing to do with Mac or PC format.  While I had this guy on the phone I logged in with another browser and found myself in the same cul de sac.   The problem was not Google chrome.

He agreed that an email about the website being down the other day, or known problems with Google, would have been preferable to constant ambiguous error messages, incorrect instructions, or the idiotic invention about the Macs.  I mentioned my former friend the computer programer who is on the Asperger’s scale, suggesting that many automated replies, such as the ones I kept getting were programmed by folks like him and were neither intuitive nor helpful.  We agreed that often machine logic is simply not the same as human logic, much as we might wish it to be so.   We talked for a while and found a work-around

He had more useful information for me, I could forego the $375 fee if I did such and such (I may do it next cycle, if I can confirm it’s true).   We spoke for a while, I made notes, he verified everything I read back to him.  Great guy.   Asked his name.  It was Joe.  “Thank you, Joe,” I told him.   The odds of talking to a person like that, in any bureaucracy, are about 10 to 1 against it.

In any bureaucracy, you have a more than 50/50 chance of talking to a peevish moron talking through his or her ass than to someone who actually knows how to help.  Luck of the draw, really.


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