A former LAPD officer turned sociologist (Cooper 1991) observed that the overwhelming majority of those beaten by police turn out not to be guilty of any crime. “Cops don’t beat up burglars”, he observed. The reason, he explained, is simple: the one thing most guaranteed to evoke a violent reaction from police is to challenge their right to “define the situation.” If what I’ve been saying is true this is just what we’d expect. The police truncheon is precisely the point where the state’s bureaucratic imperative for imposing simple administrative schema, and its monopoly of coercive force, come together. It only makes sense then that bureaucratic violence should consist first and foremost of attacks on those who insist on alternative schemas or interpretations. At the same time, if one accepts Piaget’s famous definition of mature intelligence as the ability to coordinate between multiple perspectives (or possible perspectives) one can see, here, precisely how bureaucratic power, at the moment it turns to violence, becomes literally a form of infantile stupidity.
—  David Graeber, Dead Zones of the Imagination

Well, that was a waste of time: Over the span of nine months, a “phantom planter” in Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood has been planting flowers throughout the iconic metro station entrance on the north side of the circle. Days after the mysterious planter came forward—local garden artist Henry Docter—the WMATA system showed exactly how much it cared about the feat. Rather than letting the flowers bloom—creating a red, white, and blue flourish at the station—the metro system removed the flowers entirely last weekend, days after citing safety concerns. (The rogue planter said he would use his own equipment and wouldn’t sue if he got hurt.) “It never occurred to me that Metro would think it was more efficient to rip out the plants than to let someone water them,” Docter told The Washington Post.

The picture in my stolen [passport] wasn’t half bad, but in the new one I look like a penis with an old person’s face drawn on it… This was the new me, post-theft— all my youthful optimism gone, filched by some drug addict in Hawaii.
—  In this week’s issue, David Sedaris reflects on the time his passport was stolen while on vacation, and the bureaucratic troubles that ensued (subscription required): http://nyr.kr/ZfFFmb

We’d probably have to begin by recognizing that there are two critical elements here that, while linked, need to be formally distinguished. The first is the process of imaginative identification as a form of knowledge, the fact that within relations of domination, it is generally the subordinates who are effectively relegated the work of understanding how the social relations in question really work. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant kitchen, for example, knows that if something goes terribly wrong and an angry boss appears to size things up, he is unlikely to carry out a detailed investigation, or even, to pay serious attention to the workers all scrambling to explain their version of what happened. He is much more likely to tell them all to shut up and arbitrarily impose a story that allows instant judgment: i.e., “you’re the new guy, you messed up—if you do it again, you’re fired.” It’s those who do not have the power to hire and fire who are left with the work of figuring out what actually did go wrong so as to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The same thing usually happens with ongoing relations: everyone knows that servants tend to know a great deal about their employers’ families, but the opposite almost never occurs. The second element is the resultant pattern of sympathetic identification. Curiously, it was Adam Smith, in his Theory of moral sentiments (1762), who first observed the phenomenon we now refer to as “compassion fatigue.” Human beings, he proposed, are normally inclined not only to imaginatively identify with their fellows, but as a result, to spontaneously feel one another’s joys and sorrows. The poor, however, are so consistently miserable that otherwise sympathetic observers face a tacit choice between being entirely overwhelmed, or simply blotting out their existence. The result is that while those on the bottom of a social ladder spend a great deal of time imagining the perspectives of, and genuinely caring about, those on the top, it almost never happens the other way around….

Now, in contemporary industrialized democracies, the legitimate administration of violence is turned over to what is euphemistically referred to as “law enforcement”—particularly, to police officers, whose real role, as police sociologists have repeatedly emphasized (e.g., Bittner 1970, 1985; Waddington 1999; Neocleous 2000), has much less to do with enforcing criminal law than with the scientific application of physical force to aid in the resolution of administrative problems. Police are, essentially, bureaucrats with weapons. At the same time, they have significantly, over the last fifty years or so, become the almost obsessive objects of imaginative identification in popular culture. It has come to the point that it’s not at all unusual for a citizen in a contemporary industrialized democracy to spend several hours a day reading books, watching movies, or viewing TV shows that invite them to look at the world from a police point of view, and to vicariously participate in their exploits.

— 

David Graeber, The Dead Zone of the Imagination

This is why that article in the Washington Post by cop Sunil Dutta sounds so exasperated. It’s the usual “I’m a lowly bureaucrat, despite the control I have over your life. If i bother to take my blinders off and treat you like a human being, I’ll get fired. Why can’t you understand that and empathize with me like all the other good Americans who watch CSI and Sherlock and understand what being a cop is about?”

If the State is oppressive, if democracy is a delusion, it is because the State is composed of three permanent bodies, recruited by co-option and distinct from the people, namely, the army, the police, and the bureaucracy. The interests of these three bodies are different from those of the population and consequently opposed to them. It follows that the “State machine” is oppressive by its very nature, its mechanism cannot function without crushing the citizens; the best will in the world cannot turn it into an instrument for the public good; the only way to stop it from being oppressive is to smash it.
—  Simone Weil, Fragments, 1933-1938

Why It Sucks to be a Government Employee

Peter Orszag quit his government job. For three and a half years, he ran two federal budget agencies, and in 2010, he defected to Wall Street. Even though he thinks the government desperately needs more smart people, he has deep empathy for those who flee to the private sector.

“In a hyperpolarized environment in which we effectively have a bipolar Congress with no middle, there are just much smaller returns to being in government,” he said during an interview with The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons on Wednesday. Because of this, smart people working in business see less appeal in taking a pay cut and moving to Washington. “What would excite many of the people I know about being in government would be the opportunity to actually do things, rather than just lob grenades at each other,” he said.

Read more. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Clerk at the Russian embassy in Ljubljana, today: “Just to clarify, you have a Russian birth certificate, you carry an American passport, you live in Ireland and you’re with a Slovenian?” 

Me:”…I also have a dual citizenship.”

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