While I waited in line at the central post office in Jerusalem I wondered why such a large facility would have only a couple of lines open, this on a Friday morning as people rushed to send last-minute mail before the arrival of the Sabbath. I finally reached the head of the line where I informed the clerk that I had a package to mail to Beersheba. “Go to the inner room,” he instructed me, where he met me and asked again what I wanted. “I have a package to send to Beersheba”
“Let me see your identity card.”
“I don’t have one. I’m a tourist,” I advised him, surprised that he hadn’t figured that out.
“Let me see your passport.”
“It’s at the hotel.”
“You need your identity card or passport to send a package,” he told me, and I resigned myself to walk back to the hotel, get my passport, and try again, and quickly, as the post office would close about noon.
Not forty-five minutes passed when I was in line again and greeted by the same clerk. “I want to send this package to Beersheba.”
“Go to the inner room,” again, where shortly he greeted me, “What do you want?”
“I want to send this package to Beersheba.”
Let me see your identity card,” he asked again.
“I don’t have one. I’m a tourist,” I advised him again, surprised that he hadn’t remembered or figured it out. The clerk just followed the rules of the bureaucracy. I learned that day that while the British invented bureaucracy, their one-time colonial subjects, the Israelis, had refined the system beyond any Englishman’s nightmare or parliamentarian’s dream.
We all complain about bureaucracies, institutions that lack imagination, apply too much focus, promote automatons, and preserve—no, ingrain—outmoded traditions. Recently my congressional representative, an opponent of health care reform and champion of big business and big insurance, complained about a new governmental bureaucracy that health care reform might bring. If you Google “bureaucracy,” once you get past the formal definitions, many of them correct, you will wade into a spate of complaints about ridiculous behavior and waste. If you Google for images you will find dozens of comical pictures, some wry, some angry, some with apparent built-in warnings, including one that looks like a photo of a soldier in a Soviet-era uniform, captioned, “According to company rules there can be no innovation, fun, creativity, change. Now run along.”
Nevertheless, I find myself ambivalent about bureaucracies. They could have merit. A goal of bureaucracy ensures that no government worker has too much power and none has too little. The supposed result is that participants, clients, bureaucrats cannot corrupt the system since all responsibility is divided and everyone is accountable to everyone else. And even if no one is watching, no one has to watch because the system is so convoluted that corrupting it requires machinations that would bring a blush to Rube Goldberg. Bureaucracies might be slow to change, impossible in the face of novelty, maladaptive, and even unintentionally abusive, but they generally do not let anyone steal the store. Their genius is inflexibility.
So if it is good for the civil service, inflexibility must be good for justice, too. At least that was the assumption that produced the era of zero-tolerance regulations in US education. Accordingly now we have school systems that have zero-tolerance for drugs (even birth control pills bring mandatory suspensions), zero-tolerance for weapons (so that a first grader with a folding spoon that also has a tiny food knife gets the boot), zero-tolerance for fighting, zero-tolerance for bullying, and on and on. However, zero-tolerance has brought us solutions that are worse than the problems. Tomorrow, the North Carolina Supreme Court hears the case of two students challenging a zero-tolerance action that resulted in a full-term suspension of children from their high school in Beaufort. As a New York Times article points out, no weapons were involved, no serious injuries ensued, and students were even prohibited from enrolling in a special school for troubled students. Yet nothing happened that had not happened decades ago in many schools that earlier adults handled with a trip to the principal, parental intervention, and some old-fashioned grownup judgment.
Zero-tolerance takes the supposed virtue of bureaucracy and raises it to an angry and destructive height. Moreover, it punishes African-American kids more than any other group and often provides a gateway to quick and final disenchantment with education, truancy, dropouts, personal failure, sustained poverty, even serious crime. Fortunately many school systems are reevaluating zero-tolerance and attempting to find ways to re-humanize education discipline.
However, zero-tolerance vibrates with Americans right now. Unfortunately, we have a chicken-and-egg problem. Has zero-tolerance developed out of US incivility or has incivility been the result of institutionalized zero-tolerance, bureaucracy, mandatory sentencing, and other devices meant to thwart human thought, human judgment, human wisdom, human reason? When you finish Googling “beaucracy” take a shot at “zero-tolerance,” for gems like this one: “Instead of having zero tolerance for toy soldiers and plastic butter knives, the schools should have zero tolerance for gang-related clothing, rap music, sagging pants, and homosexuality. Furthermore, they should have zero tolerance for students abusing teaches [sic], and for teacher [sic] abusing the minds of their students with Jewish/leftist lies.” Or read about educators with zero-tolerance for linguistic fads, or drivers who have zero-tolerance for other drivers who do not drive well, according to some personal intolerant standard. On another front, our town has a policy, honored in its breach, to promote affordable housing. A recent letter to a suburban newspaper complained that if affordable housing comes to one man’s wealthy community, Ballantyne, he will move out, since he relocated there to get away from the poor and middle class. Apparently he shows zero tolerance for you and me.
I’m personally glad that my teachers used discretion and taught with tremendous tolerance. And I’m grateful that most other drivers on the road make room for whatever mistakes I might make. We used to call that defensive driving, while now we’ve entered the era of zero tolerance vigilante driving. Oh, and I’m glad I moved out of Ballantyne.
Is this where bureaucracies have taken us? Maybe not, but bureaucracies and zero-tolerance thinking fit well into the angry culture in which we live, populated with tea partiers who mock the sick rather than seek means to heal them, a country of angry unemployed and furious wealthy, the latter who fear that their privilege might be harmed if we let the rest of the world in on the goodies. Now, when I look more closely at my benighted congressional representative and her supporters, I realize it is not bureaucracy they fear. On the contrary, they are the most eager supporters of inert bureaucracy, a system that protects their privilege by suppressing human judgment and simple decency. No, they fear change that might let the middle class and the poor—new poor and entrenched poor—into their doctors’ offices and their comfortable waiting rooms and neighborhoods.