Government: It's Just Routine

by Jane Meyerding

[Note: this essay was included in a 1987-88 issue (No. 13) of Social Anarchism. That means it must have been written no later than 1987. Needless to say, it would be somewhat different if I were writing it today.]

The group of eight middle-class "white" Americans had gathered to talk about war-tax resistance, the refusal to pay all or a portion of one's federal taxes on the grounds of conscientious objection to war. "I don't mind paying taxes," said one man. "In fact, I want to help pay for government services, for things like the highways and the national parks. But I don't want to pay for the arms race."

Going on around the circle, several other people gave their agreement to the first speaker's words, each adding an item or two to the list of government services they supported and wouldn't want to do without: subsidized railroads, environmental protection activities, food and drug safety regulations, the constitutional guarantees safeguarded by the Supreme Court, welfare, and so on. What a bleak and dangerous world it would be without the federal government!

Sitting there, listening to these good and thoughtful people, I began to feel like I'd been infected with a terminal case of cynicism. Every governmental beneficence mentioned by the group immediately turned over in my mind to reveal its negative side. "Highways" reminded me of the government's overinvestment in private transportation at the expense of public mass transit. "National parks" produced a graphic mental image of animals and birds dying slow, painful deaths after exposure to government funded poison spread to kill coyotes. Not to mention the government supported policy of "denning," burning baby animals alive in their dens.

"Environmental protection" -- the dismantling of the EPA and the raising of "acceptable" pollution levels (at the request of the polluting industries). "Food and drug safety" -- DES (diethyl-stilbestrol), "acceptable" carcinogens, "dumping" of dangerous drugs in Third World countries. Even "welfare" produced no rosy glow in my mind. Although I was as safely middle-class as anyone in the group, I had known too many women and children forced to rely on this uncertain, oppressive, self-serving government bureaucracy.

Under what circumstances, I wondered, would I too want to pay non-war taxes?

The answer to that question, I suspect, is "never." As I see it, the government is a massive series of offices designed to establish and perpetuate routines. The purpose of these routines is to maintain the status quo -- to keep the poor poor and the rich rich, the powerful strong and the disempowered weak -- while disguising the facts of responsibility. Reality -- the bloody, personal reality of individual lives -- is filtered through these offices and comes out as clean, dry, harmless, and impersonal statistics. If the established routine dictates that a certain number of individuals must freeze to death every winter because they are poor, or that a certain amount of torture and murder must be supported (and supplied the wherewithal) because of U.S. economic interests...well, that's just the way it works out. Nothing personal. These by-products of government routine are seen as unfortunate but inevitable facts of life, rather than as symptoms of a very basic, systemic pathology.

Although incredibly resistant to change, the mass of governmental routine can spread itself quickly to cover new situations. The Cuban "boat people" -- the thousands of refugees who left Cuba for the U.S. in 1980 -- are a case in point. According to a newspaper report, 354 of these Cubans were incarcerated in the McNeil Island federal prison while the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) routine was applied to them. All 354 were men, and all had been accused and/or convicted of committing a crime in Cuba. Knowing nothing of this, I happened to answer a newspaper ad that winter for part-time transcription typists and wound up transcribing tape recordings of their INS hearings. The job paid $7 an hour -- more than I've ever made, before or since.

As I sat there, wired to the tape player hour after hour, the INS routine through which these men were being processed gradually became clear to me. Certain INS forms and documents came up again and again in (and as) evidence: I-589, "the State Department letter," the Refugee Act of 1980.... Moreover, there began to grow in my mind a graphic understanding of how the hurriedly established routine presented a very different face to its creators than to the Cubans who were its victims. A major reason for creating the routine, in fact, was to enable the individual human beings employed by the INS to "process" several thousand other human beings (the refugees) without becoming aware of the moral implications of the situation and their role in it.

I was amazed at how quickly a newly established routine can come to take precedence over the chaotic reality of human lives. In every case, the INS court upheld the artifacts produced by the routine as more valid than the living, breathing, remembering, spoken testimony of the Cubans themselves.

For example: Several of the defense lawyers objected to the admission as evidence of the I-589 forms. An I-589 is a "request for asylum" and, in these cases, the I-589s were filled out by INS agents who were communicating with the Cubans through interpreters (many of whom were not fluent in modern Cuban Spanish) in a large barracks room filled with dozens of other agents interviewing other refugees through other interpreters while typists sitting at the same small tables with the agents, refugees, and interpreters transcribed the agents' handwritten notes onto the forms. These interviews followed a period of intense stress and confusion -- imprisonment in Cuba, sudden release, and virtual expulsion in many instances, after a televised invitation from the president of the United States saying the U.S. would welcome them "with open arms." Then there was the crowded and dangerous boat trip to the near-mythical "land of the free" -- where they were immediately imprisoned. The refugees had received mixed messages from all sides -- for example, being told "sign here or you won't be released" and then being targeted for deportation on the basis of the "statement" they "voluntarily" signed. When I realized that the "applicant's statement" on the I-589 was actually the INS agent's version of what he thought the refugee meant to say to the interpreter, and that the hearing judge and even the refugees' own lawyers, despite their best efforts and the slow, relatively calm setting of the courtroom, were unable to understand many of the refugees' references to particularly Cuban institutions, customs, and cultural assumptions....

Well, it seemed patently obvious to me and to the refugees' lawyers that the I-589 forms were not worth diddlyshit as evidence. But listen to the judge: "I will overrule the objections. I admit this document as a statement made by the applicant. I admit it both for substantive and impeaching purposes. And I admit it as being a government document that was prepared in the routine course" of INS procedures [emphasis added]. The document -- born of routine -- was considered a more trustworthy expression of the applicant's reality than his own words spoken there in the courtroom. And whenever there was a discrepancy between the routine-blessed document and the words of the human being, the judge invariably chose to believe the piece of paper.

We are governed by routine, not by men. Most men -- and women -- would not be willing perform the "neces sary" work of government if it were not disguised and morally neutered by its transformation into routine. Only because they are protected by routine are most people willing and able to "do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad" people (C.S. Lewis). Unfortunately, routine does not always protect its functionaries from eventually becoming the very bad people they would never have set out to be.

For example, consider the people who work in jails and prisons -- not the prisoners, but the government employees. It is a tremendous moral responsibility to incarcerate people, a responsibility so deep, and so deeply moral, that most people could not stand it without the protection of established routine.

In this country, not only do jails and prisons remove individuals from their families, friends, and all the associations and activities that make up their daily, individual lives, they also subject prisoners to various intense forms of abuse. The primary form of abuse is the degrading assumption that the prisoners have consciously and deliberately chosen to behave immorally (as defined by the system) and thus have forfeited the right to basic respect for their lives and identities. Additionally, and in consequence, prisoners are abused by being deprived of adequate health care and/or subjected to medical mistreatment; by being denied humane living conditions as they are defined in this culture; and by the direct physical abuse of beatings and forcible drugging. All the abuses of the U.S. injustice system stem, however, from the first abuse: the denial of the prisoners' humanity, the humanity they hold in common with those who imprison them. And this quintessential abuse -- this denial -- is made possible, and inevitable, by routine.

I remember when, during the first week of my imprisonment in a state penitentiary, I was among a group of newly arrived cons being given a tour of the prison. Well, certain parts of the prison, anyway. Our first view of the place ñ after the obligatory stripping and confiscation of personal effects, body-cavity search, and delousing ñ had been limited to the isolation cell block. There we saw, in addition to our own small cell for 23 hours a day, only the one corridor where we were allowed to sit on the floor three times a day and smoke a cigarette. For company, we had the muffled screams and hoarse, distant hollers coming up from the hole (the punishment cells) in the basement.

One thing we did catch a glimpse of on our tour was the prisonís main clerical office. I remember thinking, as we were led quickly through the emptied room, how familiar it looked: a largish room filled with old desks positioned so as to give each secretary the best illusion possible of a little privacy, a little place of her own, a little control over her own life. Since I was 16, Iíve worked mostly as a clerk/typist or secretary, and I could have sat down at any one of those desks and felt right at home. Everything in the desk would have been exactly where I expected it to be: the stationery, the paperclips, the tea bags and stale sugar cubes. Like any office Iíve ever worked in, each desk carried a few personal items, too, virtually identical to those Iíd seen a hundred times before: the picture of the kids, the perennially drooping plant that never blooms, the half-used box of cut-rate tissues. And yetÖ.

The women who sat at those desks were no long my co-workers, no longer the ones I routinely shared complaints and coffee breaks with. (1) The work they did ñ their routine ñ was making it possible for the state of Connecticut to saturate my hair and scalp with DDT and forbid me to wash it off for 12 hours. The forms they typed and filed were what made it routine and acceptable for the man who called himself a doctor to force his hands into my vagina. Of course it was of much greater significance that the work of these secretaries was a part of what made it possible for the state to lock up hundreds of women, some of them sick, most of them mothers, for long periods in sub-humane conditions. But somehow it was the details that caught at my mind as I was marched through that office. The personal details. Would the woman who worked every day at that desk be able to look in my eyes without anger, without shame, as these things were done to me?

I hope not. On the basis of my later experiences, however, I would guess that her acceptance of these mundane horrors would depend on how long she had worked there. The routineness of such work provides a necessary psychological distance to those who do it and automatically functions as its own justification. The system of offices ñ the bureaucracy, and the hierarchy within the bureaucracy ñ assures that the workings of any sub-system (for example, the injustice system of cops, courts, and cages) are so fragmented as to obscure the assigning of responsibility. And then the routine, should any questions arise, simply and effectively restores the status quo by means of the inarguable fact that ìitís routine.î ìYouíre not responsible, itís just routine.î ìWe always do it that way; itís routine.î

I have heard judges publicly state that they have no responsibility for what happens to the people they send to jail. To these functionaries in the judicial routine, there is no connection between their action (sending a person to jail) and the result of their action (the physical and mental damage done to that person by the people and pressures of the jail). You can lay it all out for them, saying, ìThis is what itís like in the jail; here is what happens to people you send there.î But their routine must go on, because it is the routine; and other routines, though interdependent, are not their responsibility.

If judges, safe on their high and respected benches, can deny responsibility for their actions, how can we expect any more from those ñ the prisonís clerical workers, for example ñ who are equally caught up in the established routine though less highly placed, less distanced from their victims, less well respected, and far less well paid The routine carries us all along, and the longer we depend on its comfortable reassurance (ìdonít worry, itís not your responsibility, not your problemî), the less we feel it when the routine requires us to cause pain to others.

Itís happened to me that way. When I was working as a secretary for a medical school M.D. (that is, a professor, researcher, and writer as well as a practicing physician), I regularly had to answer phone calls from people in pain, worried about their symptoms, fearful of upcoming surgery, or angry at the quality of their treatment by the doctors or other clinic personnel. It was the most rewarding part of the job at first: dealing with people instead of tapes, papers, and machines, feeling I had an opportunity to help someone in need, and being more in touch with the clinical aspect of the work I was doing. Before long, however, I discovered that the established routines of the medical school/hospital/clinic complex made it virtually impossible for me to interact with these patients honestly, to give them the help they wanted, or to make this aspect of my job more meaningful to me than was the mechanical transcription of tape-recorded lectures and letters. I had no responsibility to the patients, only to the routine; my only responsibility was to carry out the routine prescribed for dealing with patient phone calls. I was to listen only long enough to assign each call to one of a few given categories and then route it according to the routine established for that category.

Most significant to me was the way this established routine managed to convert me from a rebellious individualist to a convinced and grateful user of the system. Hereís how it worked: Gradually, it became clear to me that my personal efforts to help each individual caller were not doing any good. No matter what special arrangements I tried to make for the patientís aid and comfort, as soon as the patient and I hung up our phones the established routine took over, ignored my effort to make a special case out of the patientís problems, and continued to deal with the patient according to the same old laborious, bureaucratic, impersonal procedure as always. It didnít take long for me to get very frustrated by seeing my careful, time-consuming, and personal attention to individual patients get steamrollered each and every time. And like most people in such situations, I increasingly found myself taking out my frustrations on the people in whose behalf I had originally wanted to do battle with routine and all its supporters. I was still polite, of course; Iíd have been fired if I werenít polite on the phone. But I put less and less of myself into it; it didnít do any good to take extra trouble, so why bother? The more fully I realized how little room there was in the routine for personal attention or personal responsibility, the more unreasonable patients seemed to me when they expected to be dealt with as individuals instead of categories. Phone calls from patients made me feel frustrated and angry, and eventually the transference was made: ìPatients cause trouble [that is, make me feel bad] calling up here, wasting my time, when thereís nothing I can do for them. They ought to know better; they are tiresome fools.î Blame the victim.

The ostensible reason for routine, of course, is efficiency. Without a routine, how can we possibly accomplish all that needs to be done, or deal with all the people who must be dealt with? The hidden reason for routines is that they obliterate personal responsibility for the results of oneís actions, and therefore we donít have to care. We donít have to care about the people whose lives are controlled or impaired by or through the work we do, because our work is not personal. Itís just routine.

Well, I think there are some things we should care about. Some things should not be handled by routine procedures, because then they begin to be seen as ìroutineî themselves. (2) When imprisonment, for example, becomes a routine procedure (handled according to a series of established routines), the personal, individual horrors that result from incarceration also become routine, become acceptable, become perhaps even inevitable and, finally, necessary. And because they are part of the routine, no one is responsible for them. If some unusual circumstance (such as a rebellion) makes it necessary to ìdeal withî these horrors ñ you guessed it: a new routine is developed (or an old one is adapted) to handle the problems caused by the original, unchanged routine. Examples of these secondary routines include the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; the ìtask forcesî at all levels of government that intermittently study prison conditions, police brutality, racial/sexual discrimination, etc.; the ìAnimal Care Committeeî at your local universityís biological research facility; and so on and on.

The basic fallacy, I think, is an increasing overestimation of our own abilities. We tend to believe we can handle not only prisoners, immigrants, and patients but the whole world, if only we set up more offices to funnel the information through and more complex information management technology to process it further into the familiar, dead statistics. But those statistics can give us only a distorted, misleading picture of reality, because the living reality of hundreds of millions of diverse, complex human beings is far beyond our actual capacity to understand, much less ìhandle.î As far as I can tell from my own experience and my own slowly acquired knowledge of the word, each person is actually capable of handling no more than her own self ñ and sometimes not even that. It takes years of acculturation (the informal but rigorous equivalent of schooling) for a person to learn the skill of parenting in order to successfully ìhandleî ñ be responsible for ñ even one other person.

Nevertheless, we think we have the capacity, as a nation, to extend our self-interested manipulations worldwide through improved technology, and especially through our grasp of military technology. We think we are capable of handling the world by controlling the threat of nuclear mass destruction. Why do we think this? Picture in your mind the thousands of offices, thousands of rooms where individuals go every day to sit at their desks and handle the innumerable details of this routine by which we believe we control the world. Each person, like all of us, has a stake in her or his work, in her desk with its illusion of privacy and self-control, in his status as a person whose work is meaningful and respected, in the money that each needs and is paid for performing fragmented pieces of the huge routine. Naturally, they have a stake in the routine: itís a vital part of their lives. And most of them are well able to handle the demands of their particular job. But they cannot handle ñ cannot be expected to handle ñ the responsibility for the destruction of the world and all of its inhabitants, even though their work is an integral part of the routine leading to that destruction.

Again, because of an established routine, the people whose actions cause or contribute to horrors and disasters are relieved of responsibility. Because we approach ìmutual assured destructionî through an established routine, we are able to fool ourselves into believing that we are in control of the situation. It is precisely when ñ because an established routine is in operation ñ no one is finally, personally responsible, however, that the power of routine is most complete and most free from human control.

Although I am uncomfortable with the tendency of many new wave anti-war people to overuse the metaphor of the Holocaust, I can see a clear parallel here between the use of routine in that situation and in the situation we face today. How did the Holocaust happen, after all? It happened according to a set of established routines:

ìNorth of Munich was a collection of old stone huts at a place called Dachau. Here Himmler built the first concentration camp; a prison in which communists and social democrats were incarcerated. Every aspect of the organization of this camp was controlled with bureaucratic efficiency. Forms appeared in triplicate, statistics were carefully maintained, and the relentless machinery of the police state began to emerge.î

And later:

ìAt the Nuremburg trials each of the SS defendants justified his behavior during the war with great tenacityÖ.They were only too ready to agree that ëthe war entailed much suffering,í but by phrasing it in this passive way, they implied that they could not be regarded as active instruments in this process. They were victims of the war as assuredly as were those who had been killed. Their real enemy was Heinrich Himmler, the boss, who had no real understanding of administration, of how to run the business.î [both quotations from G.S. Graberís History of the SS, McKay, 1978]

Even when the routine has been smashed, the people who worked within the routine are unwilling, perhaps unable, to see that the responsibility was theirs all along. It was just routine, after all, just a matter of one little routine detail after another.

Government routines are very powerful, and they can be deadly. I canít think of any circumstances under which I would want to pay for their support. Far better if that money could be used to support and encourage those who are oppressed by governmental routines and those whose resistance exposes these routines as the deadly nonsense they really are.

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(1) (footnote added in 2002)Well, actually, I never in my life engaged in that kind of social behavior with my co-workers. But thatís because Iím autistic. I certainly had watched the other secretaries at their coffe e breaks, though, and overheard their conversations, so I knew what ìnormalî was even if I couldnít do it myself. (Back to text).

(2) (footnote added in 2002) On the radio recently, I heard an interview with a young woman who was considering paying for her college education by joining Air Force ROTC. Would she be afraid, she was asked, of serving in actual combat? No, she responded, because it wasnít like, well, war. All sheíd be doing was flying in a plane and pushing buttons. That the buttons she pushed would result in the painful death of who-knows-who (college students? children? no way to know) did not come into her calculations. She knew already that there was safety ñ in more senses than the merely physical ñ in sticking within the established routine. It tells you not only what to think but also what you donít need to think about at all. (Back to text).

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