Dec 15 2016

The Genie, the Jury, & a Lack of Community Service

An essay on some things I’d read recently and from long ago
as well as some recent experiences, and some from long ago.[1]


If you ring the bell you release the genie. Today it appears to be a genie named Johnson, sometimes called “the POTUS from Podunk,” other times just Lanky Lyndon. And this genie, like all genies, can’t grant wishes if you know not what you want. All genies, no matter their names, are free to roam around in the vast past, but I am jailed here in modernity, which is a fancy way of saying that I know there is a problem all around me but I don’t know what the problem is.

So I rang the bell and summoned Genie Johnson, explained to him how, not so much had I discovered or found the problem at hand so much as reconfirmed its existence. It seems silly to say I was doing nothing but muttering the utterness of the situation to a hard-of-hearing genie, but it is so. Yes, I, a child of the naïve nineties, merely affirmed the apparentness of the problem but without thinking through the implications.

And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

Even previous good ideas and sound programs and policies require hard decisions that create haves and have-nots—red tape means everyone wants a slice and everyone wants to cover their ass when they don’t get their slice.[2]

I once was an outlaw child, at least when it came to driving, and outlaws tend to end up in court. Yes, I was a child. I was an outlaw. I was my own attorney and made my client keep quiet while I raised objections and offered a sense of objectivity before the judge, a judge who had been a friend to me long before I was ever a child. But with evolution having occurred since then, he now was my moderator. There in the courtroom sat just me and my objectivity, him and his moderation, and a jury of sneering, jeering peers.

 Yes, I pled my case before a jury of my peers, all children and outlaws who had once served time in modernity, but now, as qualified jurors, had put all that behind them. My pleading was ineffectual. Their sentence, therefore, was blunt—an awful asymmetrical prime sentence: apparently I now owed seventeen hours of service to my community for the high crime of a traffic misdemeanor.

 And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

As bureaucracy grows, so does specialization…. The watchword of bureaucracy is authority without responsibility and responsibility without authority….[3] Karl Mannheim, the well-known sociologist, noted many years ago that it was the fundamental tendency of bureaucratic thought to turn all problems of politics into problems of administration.”[4]

The town had named itself Sixes-and-Sevens[5] after its seven flowing springs and its six dry wells. Why anyone chose to live there I never learned, for the water smells like sulfur and tastes like lime. But one terribly bright, fiercely silent Saturday morn I strolled the town plaza looking for a way to carry out my sentence and serve my community. On one side of the plaza stood the firehouse, on its opposite the police headquarters, on a third side sat parked the ambulance fleet, and opposite that, the dog catcher’s kennels, and in the center of it all loomed the courthouse.

First I went to the police who gave me an interceptor to wash and clean from the inside out, and that took about two hours. Next I went to the lobby beside the garage to the ambulance fleet. There I defrosted a freezer and de-fungi-fied a refrigerator meant to feed the triage technicians working standby. That too took about two hours. Then I went to the kennels and helped hold down stray dogs while the catcher put them to sleep, and that took about twenty minutes. Finally I went to the firehouse and for about an hour chamoised the trucks, even though they were already shiny.

 And Lanky Lyndon counseled how in a bureaucracy:

everyone has an excuse…. In other words, the legal code—at least in several areas—is no more than a facade, an aspect of the world of appearances. Then why is it there at all? For exactly the same reason as ideology is there: it provides a bridge of excuses between the system and individuals, making it easier for them to enter the power structure and serve the arbitrary demands of power.”[6]

Cleaning emergency vehicles meant I was helping to serve the servers of the community. It also meant I was re-cleaning things already clean. It was all sanitation versus sterilization. Perhaps there were just too few messy emergencies in the town of Sixes-and-Sevens. It wasn’t like that old Taxi Driver flick where Travis Bickle lists all the different body fluids and their multiple colors to be cleaned out of his big city cab at the end of the night. Sixes-and-Sevens was a small town, not a big city. Still, other government bureaus in town might’ve offered their own forms of community service, but, with too many hours to serve and not enough deputies to watch me do the work, who would supervise? Perhaps the problem emerged because too many others had already completed so much community service that none could be had by me.

And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

because we are no longer treated as citizens but as clients of the StateI wonder if all institutions mold individuals into clientele? When I was a child, “residents [were] treated as fellow citizens by leaders they know well, rather than as clients by professionals who drop into the community from nine to five….”[7]

Being a child of the naïve nineties, I was slow to realize the town had not enough service for me to render, despite the fact that I had worked slower than normal and exaggerated my inefficiencies and went through the motions to uphold my appearance of serving the community.

And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

Every time we blame government for our public problems without contemplating our own role in their solution—from public safety to public works—we view ourselves as customers rather than citizens….[8] Modern democracy does not, on its own, encourage a political life and therefore does not encourage people to think of themselves as citizens….[9] To maintain order in your bureaucratic life, you more or less have to stay home; go away for any length of time and you’re always likely to run afoul of some agency or other.[10]

I had worked a little over five hours that Saturday, but when the authorities signed the timesheet they essentially gave me the missing eleven hours plus. It turned out neither my service nor my sentence mattered that much, and I didn’t know if this was just one more consequence of the privilege of being a child of the naïve nineties or the result of mere defiance from inept bureaucrats who had been scheduled, to their surprise, to work on Saturday afternoons? I didn’t know what it meant except that I was now qualified to serve on a jury at some later date.


[1] Things recently read include: “Why Don’t Poor People Move?” By Rod Dreher, December 12, 2016, The American Conservative (; and “Indiana town left with no police force after every single officer resigns in protest.” By Jason Silverstein. December 14, 2016. New York Daily News. (

[2] Caro, Robert. The Years of Lyndon Johnson [Vol. I]: The Path to Power. NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 1981.  p. 350.

[3] Laqueur, Walter. A World of Secrets: the Uses and Limits of Intelligence. NY: Basic Books. 1985. p. 312–13.

[4] Laqueur, A World of Secrets 93.

[5] Sixes and sevens: “the hazard of one’s whole fortune, or carelessness as to the consequences of one’s actions, and in later use the creation or existence of, or neglect to remove, confusion, disorder, or disagreement,” (Oxford English Dictionary).

[6] Havel, Vicláv. “Moc bezmocných.” (“The Power of the Powerless.”) October 1978. Translated by Paul Wilson. § XVII.

[7] Scruton, Roger. “A Plea for Beauty: a Manifesto for a New Urbanism.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 168.

[8] Peterson, Pete. “Place as Pragmatic Policy,” Why Place Matters 214.

[9] McAllister, Ted V. “Making American Places: Civic Engagement Rightly Understood.” Why Place Matters 194.

[10] Houellebecq, Michel. Sounmission. (Submission.) Translated by Lorin Stein. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015. p. 141.

Aug 24 2016

On Cake (and Eating It Too)


Rod Dreher is appalled that an institution (this time public school) has the audacity to institutionalize its participants the way it sees fit:

Parents started wearing bright purple buttons to school every day indicating their support of gender ideology. They were impossible to miss and prompted questions from many of the students.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t accept the money/milk of the government cow then complain about how it tastes. The only way to not pay for electricity is to get off the grid. The only way to educate your kids the way you want is to pull them out of public school. If California won’t let you do that, do as Kevin D. Williamson advises: move.

Aug 24 2016

Suspicious of ALL Institutions

bookbread pencil shavings

Michael Baggot writes at First Things:

Nones succeed in avoiding a full buffer against the divine at the vertical level, they often succumb to an atomized approach to religion, which buffers them from a believing community at the horizontal level. They tend to regard their neighbor as an obstacle to their private experience of the divine. They are suspicious of traditional ritual, skeptical that what has proven formative for generations can be assimilated authentically. Relations with a higher power or purpose, they think, should be more fluid.

As a None, I don’t quite understand (of course) where Baggot’s coming from with the line: “They are suspicious of traditional ritual, skeptical that what has proven formative for generations can be assimilated authentically.”

I would rephrase it as suspicion and skepticism toward traditional “bureaucracy” or traditional “institutions”–whether governmental, educational, religious, media-based, or corporate or non-profit.

Many (but not all) Nones are exhausted with the rituals of institutions and the draconian rules and practices and procedures and predicaments of bureaucracies because we have no experience of the word “ritual” meaning anything but going through the motions to keep up the appearances for the sake of sustaining said institution/bureaucracy, whether secular or transcendental.

Oct 13 2015

Intricacies of Bureaucracy & Images of the Body: Rereading “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

bookbread Canterbury

Two passages particularly struck me when rereading Ilyich. The first has to do with the way healthcare workers tend to cross examine the bodies of patients, like lawyers cross-examining the mind of a witness or police interrogating a suspect. Amid an illness, particularly chronic illness, the patient is always on trial:

Ivan Ilyich knows quite well and definitely that all this is nonsense and pure deception, but when the doctor, getting down on his knee, leans over him, putting his ear first higher then lower, and performs various gymnastic movements over him with a significant expression on his face, Ivan Ilyich submits to it all as he used to submit to the speeches of the lawyers, though he knew very well that they were all lying and why they were lying. (Ivan Ilyich, “Chapter 08”)

It is almost as if Ivan Ilyich––a bureaucrat and son of a bureaucrat, see “Chapters 02 & 03”––suspects he may die by the bureaucratic ways and means of his doctor. Recently, I had my own health scare, and while everything turned out to be alright, there were nevertheless forms to fill out and receipts to file away. It is not just 21st century Obamacare or British healthcare or Canadian healthcare that piles on the paperwork—Tolstoy had the intuition, imagination, and foresight to see that healthcare and bureaucracy are intimately intertwined, and have been so since at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

And after all the paperwork has been completed, the tests run, and the doctors have finished updating the diagnoses for their patients—after all these barriers of bureaucracy are crossed, the ill individual looks in the nearest mirror and does not recognize the stranger reflecting back:

And Ivan Ilyich began to wash. With pauses for rest, he washed his hands and then his face, cleaned his teeth, brushed his hair, looked in the glass. He was terrified by what he saw, especially by the limp way in which his hair clung to his pallid forehead. (Ivan Ilyich, “Chapter 08”)

Intricacies of bureaucracy and images of the body—these are what moderns like us, like Tolstoy, and like those around us must deal with when confronted with a crisis of healthcare. But do we Westerners tend to focus more on the image of the body because of two millennia of Christian culture? The American philosopher James Bissett Pratt (1875–1944) seemed to think so when he observed in an essay written thirty years after Tolstoy’s story:

I think, however, there are several additional factors which give Hinduism a certain advantage over Christianity in nourishing a strong belief in immortality. One of them is connected with the question of the imagination already discussed. The Hindu finds no difficulty whatever in imagining the next life, for his belief in reincarnation teaches him that it will be just this life over again, though possibly at a slightly different social level. I am inclined to think, moreover, that the Christian and the Hindu customs of disposing of the dead body may have something to do with this contrast in the strength of their beliefs. Is it not possible that the perpetual presence of the graves of our dead tends to make Christians implicitly identify the lost friend with his body, and hence fall into the objective, external form of imagination about death that so weakens belief in the continued life of the soul? [Bookbread’s emphasis] We do not teach this view to our children in words, but we often do indirectly and unintentionally by our acts. The body––which was the visible man – is put visibly into the grave and the child knows it is there; and at stated intervals we put flowers on the grave – an act which the child can hardly interpret otherwise than under the category of giving a present to the dead one. And so it comes about that while he is not at all sure just where Grandpa is, he is inclined to think that he is up in the cemetery. Much of our feeling and of our really practical and vital beliefs on this subject, as on most others, is of course derived from our childhood impressions.

(“Some Psychological Aspects of the Belief in Immortality” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 12. No. 3. (July 1919.) 294–314 at 308.)

Jul 31 2015

The Benedict Option: Cheerleading from the Sideline

bookbread typewriter

Over at The American Conservative Rod Dreher, who has previously written how the upcoming generations have lost faith and trust in all institutions, has now written a post showing that some inside the clergy and clerisy can properly diagnose their own symptoms, so perhaps the Benedict Option is the proper remedy for cleaning house.

As part of the under-40 crowd, I confess to being completely weary of all bureaucracy, a weariness I suspect comes from being institutionalized in childhood by small town Texas teachers, preachers, and coaches.

The feeling of graduating university made me understand the lines from the old time hymn “like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away”—it was (and remains) particularly refreshing to be able to read books of one’s own choosing—at one’s own pace––rather than being assigned a text on the whims of a bureaucrat and having to rush through it.

Now as an adult (or at least one in disguise) I choose to opt out of the idolatry of religion (in its old, etymological sense of “binding” as well as its modern meanings of “just another bureaucracy” and “authority-for-authority’s-sake”) and am attempting to opt in to authentic encounters in the I-You mode of discourse used by individuals while, at the same time, attempting to resist the I-It mode of “discord” practiced by all modern institutions (schools, religions, hospitals, sports, national media).

The BenOp may not be for me, but from the sidelines I’m willing to cheer for anything that actively deconstructs any kind of bureaucracy in its resistance to that bureaucracy.