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17

flags of power

I am not the only one shaking my head in disbelief over the official outcry from Washington about Russian President Vladimir Putin taking unilateral military action in Ukraine. Yes, what Putin has done is wrong: sending troops into a nearby country without threat of imminent attack. But the big news story is not Russia! It’s the U.S. pretending to be outraged.

“It is diplomacy and respect for sovereignty and not unilateral force that can best solve disputes like this in the 21st century,” Kerry said, after accusing Vladimir Putin of 19th Century behavior.

Secretary Kerry, for all your intelligence, you are not thinking! It was as recent as September 2013 when you were championing Obama administration’s proposed unilateral military action in Syria, whose government was not threatening attack on the U.S. You thought that particular 19th Century behavior was justified.

“We’ve also seen an acknowledgement from the Foreign Secretary about the United States’ right and ability to make our own foreign policy decisions that are in our national security interest,” said Josh Earnest, the White House deputy press secretary, August 30, 2013. It’s an argument that the U.S. has the “right” to make our own decisions and take action. Even with no support, not even from our closest allies, the British.

I remember how angry Putin was with the U.S. at that time. Isn’t it obvious – dare I say predictable – that Putin would do the exact same thing in retaliation when he got a chance?

And the 800-pound gorilla in the room: March 19, 2003 we invaded Iraq. We went to WAR unilaterally. How can Secretary Kerry publicly imply that we wouldn’t take unilateral military action and therefore can cast judgement on those who do? Well, how can he say such things and not feel ashamed, I should have said.

Hypocrisy.

When my own country’s leaders are as oblivious as that, when all they can think is that the U.S. is always right and everybody else is always wrong all the time no matter what the question is, then they lose my respect. They lose a little more of my patriotism. They lose a little more commitment. My country started off with a devoted fan, and lose me a little more all the time. I am disgusted. Again.

It’s been 26 years since I registered to vote in time for the 1988 Presidential election. I could have been successful at any University at the time, I had great grades, involvement in a dozen clubs, awesome SAT scores, but out of patriotism I joined the Air Force to serve my country instead.  I’m crazy about the U.S.A. This dang country can be so embarrassing and arrogant…and yet I still keep loving it.

The decision-makers in D.C. are not learning, not growing, toward being a better nation, nor are they interested in real solutions. The very top people in government are obsessed with the wrong goal: finding more effective ways to win the game of power. I know a lot of cynical wisecracks might come to mind, but it’s actually pretty dismaying to discover that.

Someone said it really well in a recent BBC World Service podcast (4 March 14 pm). That someone was Putin. Struck so close to the truth I nearly flinched. 

Questioned about recent talks with world leaders, Vladimir Putin responded through a translator: “We are often accused of carrying out illegitimate actions, and I asked the question, ‘So, you think everything you do is legitimate?’ They say ‘Yes,’ and I have to remind them of American actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Our partners in the United States have clearly defined their own geopolitical interests. If you follow what they say, carefully, they use a framework of ‘those who are not with us are against us.’ This forces the rest of the world to align themselves accordingly. Those who refuse get badgered. And more often than not they get badgered into submission.”

Let me be clear: I understand that Putin is a sneaking, conniving, power-monger like all the rest of them. But these words above are true. It tells us that those countries who have the ability to badger the others are the ones who win the power game. I don’t like it, but that’s the way it works. (“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” said President Bush)

Stinking ugly hypocrisy. Putin called it right.

Most of the time there is so much good in the United States government that I am able to forget the idiotic moments. I never have to pay bribes. Nearly everyone on the highways behaves as I expect them to. Same sex couples kiss in public. Immigrants are CEOs of major companies. If I am hurt, I will get treated at any hospital emergency room I go to. My own job is taking care of military veterans – what other country on earth cares for veterans like this? No one! Not even close.

Despite all the good it does, I can’t help but be astonished when my government shows that its primary goal is to maintain power. Not to take care of me. Not to be honorable. Not to do good with all that power, but only to use it to get more power.

A prison designed to follow Bentham's Panopticon design

An illustration of Bentham’s Panopticon design

Obviously I am not feeling much workplace satisfaction at the moment. Moods are low at VA. Public opinion of the Department of Veterans affairs is historically poor and getting worse. I lament the absence of breaking news stories about how hard we work for very little gratitude, and how frequently we are the force behind changing veterans’ lives for the better. Granting a few exceptions, we are a remarkable group of dedicated and diligent workers (many of us veterans ourselves), daily negotiating the morass of bureaucracy in order to do our jobs. (Did you ever grumble about the laws and paperwork it took to unravel a tax problem, or get a Fannie Mae loan, or file for Social Security disability? Imagine if your job was to work within that system every day.) Recently we were ordered to mandatory overtime for the third summer in a row.

Where I work

Where I work

Some time ago at work we were talking about prisons (voices bouncing across the tops of the cube walls low enough that foreheads remain visible), and books on prisons. I mentioned Foucault and how it struck me that our Cubicle Sea (as I fondly call it) is a form of Panopticon.

In his famous book Discipline and Punish, Foucault examines Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon, a radical prison design. You can read an excellent summary of the design, and its intent, at J.N. Nielsen’s intriguing post. Very briefly, the Panopticon as a prison is where the cells are arranged in a circle around a central tower. The cells are backlit and open to the center, so that anyone in the tower can instantly ascertain what an inmate is up to. The tower is shuttered, so the prisoners can’t tell what the officers are up to, or whether there is anyone in the tower at all. They are motivated to behave at all times, since theoretically they could be watched at all times.

The aspect I am taken with is the pure application of power, disguised as something else. It’s a smart use of space, it’s good for reform, and it reduces the burden of the officers. But really, it’s just an effective application of power. The Panopticon states to its inmates: you are inferior to us and we have the right to observe and judge you in every aspect of your time here. Dehumanizing and brilliant strategy for hegemonic control.

Consider if you will, the office environment of Yours Truly. My floor takes up an entire block, with windows nearly floor to ceiling around the perimeter. The center of the floor is where the building elevators are located, and around the elevators are arranged the supervisors’ offices, with large windows and shutters and doors. Cubicles fill all the space between the center offices and the perimeter windows, and they are set back from the windows when possible in the office design, to prevent any blocking of the light. The height of the cube walls is just below chest-height when you stand, and does not obscure your head when you sit. We are all in view, therefore, of each other, and of our supervisors in their offices.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that our cubicles are a modern-day Panopticon, an unsettling mimic of Bentham’s idealized prison scenario. No wonder we’re inexplicably miserable: aside from the other frustrations, we spend our entire work day in a physical environment that someone once believed would be ultimately demoralizing and punitive for inmates. It is a canceling of our individuality, decrying the idea that we are valued (or trusted) contributors.

I searched the Internet to see if anyone else had come to this conclusion, and found that my idea is not original. Cynthia M. Daffron thought the same thing.

When recently the topic of cubicles came up in a Marketplace story, on American Public Media, I listened hopefully for some expert’s exposure of the failure of cubicles. Instead, in a cost-saving measure advertised as a hip new way to encourage co-worker collaboration, many companies are ditching the whole idea of cubicles to simply fill a huge open space with a bunch of desks and put us all side by side. I’m assuming the supervisor still gets an office with windows. If my employer were to ever take this step, I might suggest the supervisor’s office be placed in the center.

A parting quote. You may also be interested in the blog post from which I snagged the image.

A parting quote. You may also be interested in the thoughtful blog post from which I snagged the image.

one of my fave graffiti shots downtown

When I went for a run Wednesday morning, I passed the sweetest sight. A man was carefully removing falling leaves from a chalk message on the sidewalk. I couldn’t read the name written there (I was too close to the sidewalk to see the giant letters well). It said, “[NAME] I love U!” The word love was actually a heart.

It’s a ritual on this block: people send chalk messages to inmates held in the jail across the street from where I work. Apparently, they must be able to see the message from the jail and pass it on to whomever is named. Messages show up on both sides of my building, kitty corner on the sidewalk intersections, silently sending love up to the people in the towering building.

A couple hours later, I left my desk on the third floor and walked over to the windows to see if I could read the chalk name with a better angle. I looked out the window and felt like I was socked in the gut. All I could see on the sidewalk corner was a wide wet area, where the chalk had been scrubbed off. No, it wasn’t that the whole sidewalk had been sprayed. Just the message. Washed off.

I don’t know why it hit me so hard. I suddenly thought of oppression. I thought of a stifling work environment, and a totalitarian regime. I thought how easy it is for those in power to take tiny steps to squash the people. The people who scrubbed the message off probably weren’t even directed to do it by anyone related to the jail. The slightest details, perfectly, hegemonically aligned, will have devastating effects. And yet, no one can point a finger and legitimately make it stop.

“Take a stand! We must FIGHT the scrubbing of chalk messages!” See? That wouldn’t go anywhere. And yet, think of how devastating it could be to someone who has been waiting for a love message, to keep up hope while waiting for the court date or something. What does it mean to that person, who was assured by a loved one: “It will be there. Wednesday morning. You look out that window. I promise.”

Arno suggests that I could look at it with an entirely different perspective. “It’s a very positive idea, though,” he said, “that there is a means of getting messages to the people in the jail. They have a way to send their love.”

Arrggh. Pandora you wicked one.

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