In contemporary United States a child can be charged with battery for throwing a piece of candy at a schoolfriend. Students can be placed in solitary confinement for cutting class. Adults aren’t much better off: in 2011 the Supreme Court decided in 2011 that anyone the police arrest, even for an offense as minor as an unpaid traffic ticket, can be strip-searched. These acts of official violence are just the tip of the iceberg in our society.
The number of rules and laws to which Americans, mostly unbeknownst to them, are subject, is hilariously excessive. But what makes this comedy unbearable is that these rules and laws are often enforced with an overabundance of self-righteous venom. Increasingly, contemporary American bureaucrats—be they police, teachers or government officials—are obsessed with following strict rules and mercilessly punishing all those who fail to comply (unless they are very rich or politically connected).
In so doing, these bureaucrats have become so liberated from the constraints of common sense that the situation has gone far beyond parody and is now a full-blown farce. Consider this recent news story involving a Virginia sixth-grader, the son of two schoolteachers and a member of the school’s program for gifted students. The boy was targeted by school officials after they found a leaf, probably a maple leaf, in his backpack. Someone suspected it to be marijuana. The leaf in question was not marijuana (as confirmed by repeated lab tests). End of story, wouldn’t you think?
Not at all! The 11-year-old was expelled and charged with marijuana possession in juvenile court. These charges were eventually dropped. He was then forced to enroll in an alternative school away from his friends, where he is subjected to twice-daily searches for drugs and periodic evaluation for substance abuse problems—all of this for possession of a maple leaf.
“It doesn’t matter if your son or daughter brings a real pot leaf to school, or if he brings something that looks like a pot leaf—okra, tomato, maple, buckeye, etc. If your kid calls it marijuana as a joke, or if another kid thinks it might be marijuana, that’s grounds for expulsion,” the Washington Post cheerfully reassures us.
A reasonable school official would recognize the difference between a technical violation caused by an oversight and a conscious attempt to smuggle drugs into the school. But school officials were intent on ignoring their own better sense, instead favoring harsh punishments.
In his new book, Bureaucratic Insanity: The American Bureaucrat’s Descent into Madness, Sean Kerrigan documents dozens of eyebrow-raising examples in which America’s rule-enforcers perversely revel in handing out absurd and unfair punishments for minor infractions. They demand total and complete submission, driven by a perverse compulsion to “put us in our place” and to “teach us a lesson.” They mercilessly punish even the most inconsequential transgressions in order to maximize our terror and humiliation.
When Sean first began following this story several years ago, he became mesmerized by this bizarre carnival of unreason. “Where is all this pent-up rage coming from?” he wondered, “and why is it being directed toward the weakest and most vulnerable members of society?” And then news stories like those mentioned above grew more and more common. Eventually, he started compiling a list of the most egregious abuses, trying to detect patterns, searching for some explanation for why your average garden-variety bureaucrat has morphed into a monster and has started to take sadistic pleasure in the suffering of innocent people.
Some people might argue that this kind of behavior is the result of political correctness gone amok. Others point to the irrational fear of terrorism and mass shootings. Yet others might think that it has to do with the bureaucrats’ fear of losing their jobs—merely for failing to comply with the exact letter of some rule. While there may be some truth to each of these explanations, they are far from adequate. Many of these bureaucratic abuses have nothing to do with political constraints on free speech, or with guns or terrorism, and in most cases the bureaucrats have the power to minimize harm, but instead they choose to maximize it.
In looking closer at each individual instance, it became clear that most of the offending bureaucrats weren’t even attempting to use their judgment but were mindlessly following written rules. Even in the most nurturing and humanistic professions—teachers and physicians—their practitioners have been robotized to such an extent that they now perform a very narrow range of actions. Thanks to all the progress in IT, their work is now quite detached from physical reality. Much of their work now consists of monotonously, mindlessly pounding at the computer keyboard. Consequently, a large portion of their waking lives has taken on an ethereal, pointless quality. Even teachers, who once had a relatively free reign in forming the minds of the next generation, are now forced to behave like machines, teaching to standardized tests and working a grueling average of 53 hours a week.
The psychological effects of this pressure have been profound. Minus the opportunities to make their own decisions and to see those positive effects of their efforts, their work has become personally meaningless, alienating, depersonalizing and psychologically damaging. As a result of this damage, American bureaucrats, although they may look like mild-mannered professionals, have become prone to sudden bouts of aggressive, sadistic behavior. They are unable to act out their repressed rage in any socially acceptable way other than by doling out punishments, fines, rejections, expulsions and other forms of objective, systemic violence.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and rest assured that this is all being done for our own good. The purpose of all of these rules and laws, from the perspective of the American system of governance, is to maximize control over everything that can be controlled and to micromanage every possible detail of our lives—in order to make them better! From student testing all the way to global trade, those in leadership positions are trying to centralize as much authority as possible in order to maximize efficiency, profit, American power… while minimizing our dignity, well-being and happiness. Oops!
In his book Bureaucratic Insanity, Sean traces the development of this trend from the early years of the industrial revolution to the modern day, from its initial appearance in factory life and in the military, to it later metastasizing to the office, and now taking over America’s schools. He argues persuasively, based on a careful and thorough review of literature in history, philosophy, psychology, anthropology and social criticism, that the average American bureaucrat is literally, clinically insane. The average American bureaucrat has a warped perception of reality and an intense, repressed self-hatred. Their only way to vent their rage is by punishing others using bureaucratic methods. They demand absolute conformity because it is their only way to give their meaningless lives some semblance of meaning. They suppress all thoughts that might lead them to discover the true nature of their condition, because that would cause them to spiral down into outright schizophrenia.
The book concludes with an assessment of what we can do to insulate ourselves from this seemingly unstoppable trend, and of how we can reinvigorate our lives by giving it real meaning.
Sean Kerrigan is the author of Bureaucratic Insanity: The American Bureaucrat’s Descent into Madness. He has been a writer and public social critic for the last 15 years, concentrating on issues of economic, political and social decay in the United States. Educated at Temple University in Philadelphia, he worked for several years as a journalist focusing on hard news coverage. Disillusioned by the economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, he refocused his attention on political and spiritual matters, with most of his subsequent writing challenging the accepted mythology of American society. His work has been featured on the BBC World Service Radio, popular blogs such as Zero Hedge, and several daily newspapers including the Bucks County Courier Times. He maintains a regularly updated website at www.SeanKerrigan.com and a Twitter account@SeanJKerrigan.