Teaching alienation to citizens

Peter Berger says in one of his early books on sociology that “society” is a show that is meant to be seen only once.  It’s like a magic act.  The first time the illusion is complete.  Later on, you begin to wonder what the other hand is doing while you are watching the hand the magician is showing you.  Finally you get how he does it and the “magic” is over; now, it’s just deception.

In my 80s now, I have been more and more getting the feeling that I have seen this show before.  When I read in the New York Times about the crap that Mike Abate took from flooded out locals, I was reminded very much of Tom Wolfe’s essay, “Mau mauing the Flack Catchers.” [1]

I didn’t like the process much when I first read about it in the 1970s.  Since then, I have had some experience as a “flack-catcher” which I also didn’t like very much, so I responded to this piece about citizen outrage even less well that I did the first time.

To tell you the truth, it reminded me of my time as a legislative assistant in the Oregon Legislature where part of my job was to take calls from constituents who were either just pissed off or were deeply confused.  My boss, who had actually won an election, would eventually get to the place where he would just tell a persistent caller to shut up.  I didn’t get to do that. [2]  

The constituent who comes most readily to mind would call on Friday afternoons and give me a tongue-lashing about how much money the national government spent on military hardware.  I agreed with her completely (but didn’t say so) and then she would go on to demand that I intercede with my representative to get him to withdraw his support.  My explanation that my boss was a state legislator and that we did not, in fact, control any military spending at all, did not move her. [3]

It is experiences like that that make me sympathetic to Mike Abate.

So Mike is appearing at a meeting of angry flooded out citizens and as part of this abate 2confrontation, something happens that bothers me a good deal.  It is not John DesBarres allegation that the Corps of Engineers made a mistake in retaining or releasing floodwaters.  That may be true of partly true or entirely untrue.  Mike says the Corps did everything its policies require it to do in balancing the range of interests they have to balance., but DesBarres has suffered a loss and he is angry about it and he wants the Corps to have done something different.


Then he says that the government owes them money in compensation for their losses.  The government “took” their property he says, referring I presume to the “takings clause” of the Constitution.  I think that is far-fetched.  In a situation of triage among several classes of constituencies, someone is not going to be in first place, but still, it is an argument DesBarres is making and it relates to his losses.

Mostly fine.

Then he does this.

Mike Abate, the chief of civil works in the Corps’s Tulsa District, was asked [by DesBarres] if his home had flooded.

That’s over the line, I think.  It isn’t the worst thing that happened at the meeting.  I’m still getting to that.  The question takes away the obvious situation, that there has been a lot of rain and that people’s homes and businesses are going to be at risk.  For that situation, DesBarres substitutes one that puts Abate on one side of the divide and “honest citizens” (who don’t work for the government) on the other side.  Abate and his property have been “privileged” or “protected” in some way, treated as elites.  Abate and his cronies have rigged the course of this natural disaster so that DesBarres’ home is flooded and Abate’s is not.

That is what DesBarres does and I think he should be condemned for it.  But that’s not the worst thing.  Here’s the worst thing.

At the church in Sand Springs, flooded neighbors and some officials came up to Mr. DesBarres when the meeting was over and thanked him for speaking out.

That’s the worst thing.  DesBarres neighbors saw him making absurd accusations againstabate 1 Abate and they thought of it as “speaking out.”  Presumably, “speaking out” is a good thing.  It is a citizenship skill.  It calls tyranny by its name and opposes it in public.  Those are the connotations of “speaking out” as I see them.  And that expression, which I treasure, is used to refer to DesBarres’ “mau mauing the flack catcher.”  Abate is the flack catcher.  Here is the caption the Times put under that picture: “John B. DesBarres, a lawyer whose home was flooded, was met with applause as he spoke out against the Army Corps of Engineers at the meeting.”

These neighbors are going to tell this story to others.  This kind of bullying of public officials is going to be identified as “good citizenship,” as behavior not to be deplored, but to be lauded.  Treating it that way is only going to make it more common and the self-inflicted gap between citizen expectations and government performance gets wider and wider and more to be condemned.

Mike Abate is really good about it.

Mr. Abate stayed in the worship center after the meeting ended to answer residents’ questions. He defended the agency’s decision to not prerelease water until the rain starts coming down, and said he didn’t mind the heated comments. “I work for the government,” Mr. Abate said. “I’m a public servant. If I need to serve the public by getting yelled at, that’s O.K.”

I like it that he stayed until he wore the dissidents down.  That’s a really good thing to do.  On the other hand, he thinks he is serving the public by presenting himself as a piñata and I am not convinced at all that that is true.

His taking the abuse DesBarres is dealing out—and is modeling as good behavior for his fellow citizens— is playing the confirming role.  The combination of the two roles defines them as a natural pair and therefore as solid and enduring.  As “normal;” maybe even as a duty.  The bureaucrat who thinks getting yelled at is part of his job and the angry lawyer who thinks personalizing the flood is his job.

If I am right about that, then we all lose by DesBarres’ irrational anger (the third charge, not the first two) and by Abate’s idea that he is serving the public by taking it.  A direct confrontation of DesBarres might be inflammatory in the long run, but if he is supported by his agency all the way up and if what he rejects is the abuse, not the hard questions, it might repair a little of the breach he and DesBarres are creating.

DesBarres wants as Us v. Them scenario.  He wants Abate to be held personally accountable for not getting flooded out.  Us v. Them is going to hurt us all.  It will hurt Abate’s children and grandchildren and DesBarres’ children and grandchildren.  It valorizes irrational personal vilification and it is wrong.

Then this:

Mr. DesBarres approached Mr. Abate after the meeting. Mr. DesBarres was done venting. He wanted to make sure there were no hard feelings. He extended his arm to Mr. Abate, and the two men shook hands.

I see that the reported does go so far as to call DesBarres’ outburst “venting.”   DesBarres wants to be sure, privately, that the outrage he perpetrated publicly was OK.  He probably said, “It wasn’t anything personal.”  And the two men shook hands and the public damage caused by that redefinition of what nature  does, will continue to spread.

[1]  Wikipedia: “Wolfe describes hapless bureaucrats (the Flak Catchers) whose function was reduced to taking abuse, or “mau-mauing” (in reference to the intimidation tactics employed in Kenya’s anti-colonial Mau Mau Uprising) from intimidating young Blacks nd Samoans, who are seen as reveling in the newfound vulnerability of “the Man. ”.

[2]  Which I thought, even at the time, was eminently fair.  He had run for election and had won and that gave him the right to choose me as his flack catcher.  I liked most of the job a great deal but I didn’t like that part.

[3]  Eventually, I did what Mike Abate did.  I just outlasted her.  I took all the questions and all the rebukes and asked if she had any more until she didn’t have any more.  Then she stopped calling.



About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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