There are two seemingly conflicting ideas of what it means to be privileged and powerful: on the one hand, it means that you no longer have to botherThere are two seemingly conflicting ideas of what it means to be privileged and powerful: on the one hand, it means that you no longer have to bother yourself about the day-to-day tedium of how to get your needs met; but on the other hand, it means that you’re in charge of all of this day-to-day tedium of how people get their needs met — bwa ha ha. You get to decide who owns what and how transactions will get transacted and who gets their cut.
Bureaucracy, according to David Graeber, is part of the solution to this conflict. It allows the powerful and privileged to maintain their blissful ignorance of the tedium and the personalities of the hoi polloi they lord over, while giving them the illusion of knowledge so they can be confident in their mastery. Bureaucracy tediously collects data of usually stupid varieties and then summarizes them craftily so as to make it seem the epitome of knowledge — something that someone of privilege can digest in an afternoon and then feel as knowledgeable as though he had spent years among the people learning the lay of the land.
I can relate to this. I was once a low-level manager (more of a team leader) at a software company. Part of what I was supposed to do was valuable: I was supposed to motivate the employees on my team to work productively, and to feel good about what they were doing, and to help promote their career goals, and also to help coordinate their efforts. But most of what my new role entailed was wholly bureaucratic: supplying “metrics” to and writing weekly “progress reports” for people further up the ladder that they could use to justify their decisions (decisions I suspect that they would have made in just as slapdash a fashion without my input). I eventually found that my most useful role was to be an insulator between upper management and the people doing productive work — protecting the latter from having to think about the bombastic and erratic pronouncements of the former.
So, anyway, one of the purposes of bureaucracy is to organize ignorance in such a way that it allows powerful people to maintain their hard-earned stupidity while projecting an air of command and control. “Bureaucratic procedures,” writes Graeber, “which have an uncanny ability to make even the smartest people act like idiots, are not so much forms of stupidity in themselves, as they are ways of managing situations already stupid because of the effects of structural violence.”
By “structural violence” he doesn’t mean “metaphorical violence” as in “the ideology of racism is a form of structural violence because of how it demeans its victims” but he means “actual violence” as in “racism is perpetuated by the threat and use of police billy clubs on behalf of the dominant racial group, among other such things.” That violence is stupid is not an insult to violence but a description of it: it is the antithesis of understanding.
Graeber’s analysis of bureaucracy, both in government and in the more-or-less private sector, is also an analysis of how structural violence and bureaucracy support and justify each other, and also how the rest of us become complicit in structural violence and bureaucracy in pursuit of our own little slice of the stupid that we can luxuriate in from time to time.
It's an excellent prison memoir from a man who has been imprisoned without charge at the U.S. torture facility at Guantánamo since 2001. It will probaIt's an excellent prison memoir from a man who has been imprisoned without charge at the U.S. torture facility at Guantánamo since 2001. It will probably be enshrined as one of the best prison memoirs.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi taught himself English, largely while in captivity, and what his (at times heavily-redacted) writing lacks in vocabulary, it makes up for in wit. The author has an excellent memory, which helps him describe the various aspects of his imprisonment, interrogation, and torture vividly.
The redactions are often bizarre and contribute to the book something like a second author or character whose destructive and sometimes ridiculous censorship is, from a literary point of view, a valuable foil to Slahi's open-heartedness.
Slahi is still imprisoned at Guantánamo, as are many others. His torturers are still collecting government paychecks or pensions, as are those who ordered the torture, and those who continue to cover it up....more
I'd kept reading about the wonders of the Johnson/Boswell thing in other books and finally decided to find out for myself. I'm not impressed. I read tI'd kept reading about the wonders of the Johnson/Boswell thing in other books and finally decided to find out for myself. I'm not impressed. I read through the first half, which is mostly Boswell's fawning recollections of Johnson (who doesn't seem all that interesting a person, truth be told), and then gave up on it when Johnson took the reins and began writing of things I didn't care about in prose that wasn't interesting enough to keep me hooked.
My favorite bit was Boswell's recollection of how he annoyed Rousseau mercilessly like a fanboy autograph hound.
I'm sure this is a landmark in the history of biography or whatever, but its intrinsic merits don't seem to be many and I think I could be spending my reading time more wisely......more
His thesis, in short, is that the IRS is being chronically underfunded by Congress, that this may be at the behest of Congresspersons who want the IRS to become a failed agency, that they are on the cusp of succeeding in this quest, and that this will be a cataclysm.
His book takes the form of a letter “to Patriotic Americans Concerned with the Federal Tax System,” in which he begs them “to take immediate action to stop Congress from cutting the IRS budget.”
If the under-funding continues, the result will be cataclysmic. As funding of the IRS declines, its ability to perform its functions declines. With under-funding, the IRS will be less able to keep up with enforcement and taxpayer support, among other activities, and its diminishment will lead to further spoiling of the IRS’s reputation for fairness and integrity.
…Once this happens, the reputation of the IRS will have been diminished beyond repair, and neither the Congress nor the agency will be able to make the IRS credible again.
…The net effect long-term is a loss in the public trust that government is fair and its systems work. When faith in government is broken, voluntary compliance with the tax laws goes away, and it becomes clear that no one pays their fair share any more. Scofflaws become the rule rather than the exception.
Following this are some dull rambles through the history of the income tax in the United States, and the history and structure of the IRS, that might have made useful appendices in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King but didn’t add much to Gregory’s argument (which he repeats, in various ways, again and again, as though he can feel he’s not quite getting through to us). He also presents some statistics about the agency’s inability to keep up with audits, with delinquent tax payments, and with "customer" service, and reproduces some testimony from various oversight boards and ombudspersons in which they too complain about the IRS not having enough budget to do its job....more
…[T]he branch of philosophy on which we are at present engaged differs from the others in not being a subject of merely intellectual interest — I mean we are not concerned to know what goodness essentially is, but how we are to become good men, for this alone gives the study its practical value…
By this standard, Essays on Aristotle's Ethics is not a book with much practical value. It is largely academic hairsplitting about what Aristotle said, what that might have meant, how it relates to his other works, and how to discover and interpret the harmonies and inconsistencies within it.
Plenty of interesting stuff there if you're an Aristotle geek, but if the reason you became an Aristotle geek was to learn "how we are to become good men," you will not find much assistance here....more
A strange sort of autobiography in that he says very little about himself after age ten or thereabouts. He's trying to recover how he came to be, andA strange sort of autobiography in that he says very little about himself after age ten or thereabouts. He's trying to recover how he came to be, and what theories of purpose he tried on along the way, during childhood....more