When I was in first grade, there was a woman hired by the school to assist kids in the cafeteria. But she decided that it was her job to ensure that all kids ate properly. (I found out later that she had come to this conclusion completely on her own: it wasn’t her assigned duty.) If you bought a meal from the school, you had to show your tray to the monitor, in order to prove that you had eaten everything. If you hadn’t, you weren’t allowed to leave the cafeteria.
The food was truly terrible. I still remember the hamburgers, which came served with a coating of congealed lard on both sides of the patty. Eventually, a lot of us figured out tricks to get out of eating the soggy, swimming-in-liquid canned cold green beans or the lard-coated burgers. If you had a little plastic baggie in your backpack, you could scoop the green beans or other wretched vegetable into the baggie and smuggle them out for disposal. We found out that the lard-coated burgers would stick to the underside of the table, and then you could go ahead and eat the reasonably edible bun.
For this reason, about halfway through the year, the custodian began to give us permission to leave even if we hadn’t completely cleaned off our plates. I think he was getting tired of having to scrape patties off the underside of the tables. So from then on, we ate what we were inclined to eat, as long as we were smart enough to go to the custodian on the way out. The monitor fumed (I remember her glaring across the room at him with a stare that would burn a hole through metal) but since she’d assumed the power to compel eating on her own, she had no basis to tell the custodian that he couldn’t do it.
When I try to explain to liberal friends and colleagues why I think we ought to be more anthropologically and politically curious and even accepting about grassroots hostility to government or the state in American society, as well as other societies around the world, it is often a struggle. Friends and colleagues who straightforwardly accept the accuracy of Frederick Cooper’s characterization of rural African communities over the course of the last century persistently seeking to evade or erode the authority of powerful institutions over their lives (European empires, neoliberal development, the local nation-state) seem far less interested in or prepared to accept a similarly skeptical or evasive characterization of government as the enemy if they come across it in a small town in the interior west of the United States.
In both cases, actually, I think there are reasons to be modestly critical of the way that ordinary people hedge their bets against power. Certain kinds of positive social transformations may require putting all your money down and taking your chances, may require a risky transparency to the state or other powerful institution. Certain kinds of benefitting from community or social relations may require sacrificing some aspect of your immediate self-interest on behalf of others. I’m not writing a brief here for popular objectivism.
But a presumptive skepticism at the popular level about institutional power, including governmental power, strikes me as a completely warranted reading of modern history, whether we’re talking about a village in central Tanzania or a town in Wyoming. In part, this is because most of us know, from both personal experience and from a generalized knowledge, that any single institutional authority figure that we have to deal with can potentially be:
1) arbitrary in their interpretations of the authority they are granted
2) expansive in their definition of authority
3) likely capable of punitive retaliation against those who challenge either the arbitrary or expansive character of their authority
4) insulated from supervision by neglect, by design, by the social and political distance between the subjects of authority and any hierarchy above the authority figure, or by a gap between supervisory checks-and-balances “on paper” and the lack of them in actual practice.
If we’re talking about police power, I don’t have any trouble getting my friends on the left to agree that all of these are legitimate concerns. But it can be hard to get them to see that seemingly well-meaning planners or people involved in social support services might pose similar dangers. Many people on the right, especially Bush-style “big government” conservatives, have their own blinders on.
There are cafeteria monitors everywhere who may seize a kind of power that they weren’t intended to have, under circumstances where we may be powerless to stop them. We’re right to worry about them at the fine-grained level of individual and daily experience, even while it’s also right to remind us of the useful functions that governmental or institutional authority may be serving in general.
When flying out of Philadelphia recently, I was stunned by the way a TSA screener treated the woman in line ahead of me. She put her laptop in a bin with the mouse still attached. He looked at her, reddened and screamed (I am not exaggerating), “NO MOUSES ALLOWED IN THE BINS. MOUSES MAY NOT BE CONNECTED TO LAPTOPS! REMOVE YOUR MOUSE AT ONCE!” Her other bag had already gone in; she hurriedly detached the mouse, wrapped the cord around it, and put it by itself on the belt. The TSA authority looked at her again and yelled (again), “REMOVE YOUR EARRINGS NOW.” She did that, blushing and fearful, putting those in a separate bin. He let her through. I got through without any drama, but the whole thing made me so sick at heart that I resolved to see if I could avoid flying for the entire coming year. You can say that I could protest, or write a letter, but what good would that do? I feel as if I’d be as likely to end up on a watchlist, or to have my letter thrown away, or even to provoke the TSA to come up with an official no-mouse policy in order to back the screener’s actions. For all I know, they have one already. Others might say, “Get over it, it’s no big deal, who cares?” But then I think about that woman, and her evident sense of humiliation and even fear. I think of her having to lower her head and frantically try to appease the whimsical command of some angry, red-faced stranger in a uniform.
Then I came back to Philadelphia from Detroit, and the TSA people there were polite and professional, even gentle. So there’s the puzzle of it all. I have no objection to a reasonable screening process, or to innumerable other things that authorities at all levels require me to do. I recognize the constructive character of state and institutional power.
I only fear those circumstances where I feel a highly increased probability that there will be a rogue bureaucrat or official who will make me the target of his whimsy, where there’s some imperative or excuse that signals every tinpot dictator with an ounce of power that they are accountable to no one. BoingBoing has one example: a Canadian professor denied entry to the United States because in 1967, he took LSD as part of a controlled therapeutic exercise and later wrote about the experience in a scholarly journal. I feel there are a lot of stories out there which are similar about the TSA and Homeland Security. Of course those cases are anecdotal. That’s the nature of my argument, that the authority of government is viewed warily not because of what we see it to be doing systematically, but because we recognize its constant potential for anecdotal injustice or whimsy. The case worker who may take a child away from a family based on a careless misreading of circumstance, the cop who decides to hassle someone because the cop himself is having a bad day, the agency that uses the pretext of a regulatory procedure to force elaborate ceremonies of submission from petitioners. Sometimes the opposite worries me: authorities who ought to enforce rules and procedures but who either arbitrarily or systematically decide not to do so. Arbitrary favoritism is as abusive as arbitrary punishment. We can have structural safeguards against such abuse, and in some cases, we do. So where I worry is when there is a structured lack of accountability, and I think there are more and more instances of that lack in the contemporary American civic world.