On humility

For many years I have believed that Carl Jung once said or wrote that “you must stoop to drink from the river of life.”

But google has taught me humility, or perhaps I simply do not have the energy after a long week at work, which taught me humility, to hunt my quarry quote with true literary scholarship. I get nothing when I type these words into a google search.

Humility is one of the Christian virtues, which might make a reader sceptical if he/she were steeped in Nietzsche or Machiavelli. Is it just the philosophy of slaves or the rationalisation of those on whom fortuna does not smile?

But Machiavelli practised a kind of intellectual humility. When after he had been humiliated, tortured and dismissed from his public office, as perhaps the most (posthumously) famous bureaucrat of all time, and sent into a kind of internal exile, from which he would never return,  he turned to the humble craft of writing, and produced the insightful, yet puzzling tract on politics and power, The Prince.  He introduces this enduring enigma – is it an imaginative response to the trauma of his torture and downfall? – from the viewpoint that the humble may not inherit the earth, but they can observe the battlefield of power as well as its princes:

Nor do I hold with those who regard it as a presumption if a man of low and humble condition dare to discuss and settle the concerns of princes; because, just as those who draw landscapes place themselves below in the plain to contemplate the nature of the mountains and of lofty places, and in order to contemplate the plains place themselves upon high mountains, even so to understand the nature of the people it needs to be a prince, and to understand that if princes it needs to be of the people. Machiavelli, “Dedication”, The Prince

I wonder too what the poet-philosopher-philologist, Friedrich Nietzsche would make of today’s new aspirants to be Übermensch, the vast cult of Leadership in organisations. Everyone in today’s organisations, even in the bureaucratic ones that I wander through like a reviled exile, wants to be a Leader. Leadership appears in almost every job description, and is most often interpreted as managing up, a kind of impression management to appear always in control, and always in conformity with the wishes of your masters.  In the vast literature on Leadership, humility struggles to be authentically expressed, and appears to be little more than a sort of understated modesty that is happy to share the limelight with other members of the club. So here in a randomly selected article on the eleven characteristics of great leadership, humility appears with false modesty:

Humility: There’s nothing wrong with accepting praise for accomplishments so long as there’s as much willingness to accept criticism, to declare weaknesses, to seek opportunities for personal development, and to value others as much as oneself. That, in essence, is balanced humility.

If we set aside the modern pseudo-secular celebration of Leadership, as a symptom of a culture in ruins, and return instead to older, longer and deeper traditions, we can practise humility as one of the ordinary virtues.

Ordinary virtues were described by Tzetvan Todorov in his accounts of responses to the degradation and inhumanity of the German concentration camps. He contrasted ordinary virtues that, in these circumstances, allowed some to endure the unconscionable. In those destitute times, the celebrated heroic virtues of defiance, bravery, combat and self-sacrifice – or we might say Leadership – would have led to compromise or death, the ordinary virtues reasserted in the worst conditions simple, small actions of daily life. Todorov identified three cardinal ordinary virtues: dignity, caring and the life of the mind.

Todorov’s work assumed humility, since the virtues are practised by those who suffer the regime, not those who administer it. But leading the life I do, I must speak up for and live out the practice of humility in the outer halls of power.

I remember in my early years as a public servant seeing this ordinary virtue practised by the then head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria, Peter Kirby. It was a more formal era prior to email and ubiquitous texting. Mr Kirby would give instructions to his direct reports through a neatly written sentence fitted into the margins of letters and briefs, and would always begin them Mr or Ms Surname: Mr Moran, please advise.  But the humility he practise, which is spoken of if not demonstrated in the obituary I have linked above,  was shown in another memory I have.

It seemed that he would lunch several days a week with a relatively low status person within the Department, Fred Warmbrand, in a modest cafe restaurant where all could see him. Just what was the purpose of these lunches – whether they were acts of friendship or ways to feel the pulse – I never really knew.  But I always remember this way of dwelling with the ordinary and the humble, even when he occupied one of the most powerful positions in the state. I rarely if ever saw his successors do the same.

Humility, and endurance of difficult experiences, are qualities I admire in my heroes. For me Vaclav Havel‘s story – stripped of status and imprisoned, yet sustaining faith in simple virtues that would become the foundation of a new state – is the embodiment of the ordinary virtues.  If we could bring down our modern courtiers, and restore public institutions, like those led not so long ago by Peter Kirby, where compassion, dignity, the life of the mind and humility prevailed as the ethos, we would not reach nirvana, but we would have restored some rare and precious things.

It is heartening that there is at least one project out there, the Humility and Conviction in Public Life project at the University of Connecticut that appears to be attempting the same thing.

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Why is alcohol policy difficult?

About 10 years ago I took a job running an alcohol and drug policy unit in the minor provincial government in which I serve as a lowly under-castellan.

It turned out to be a very rewarding experience, at least if you count the intrinsic rewards of work as the most important. I met some remarkable people – Robin Room, Stefan Grunert, David Best – and also struggled with some of the hardest questions, so it seemed at the time, of public policy.

Alcohol, so my colleagues kept telling me, was one of those wicked problems. For me though, coming to terms with the difficulty of alcohol policy was something more of a personal journey of recovery.

Serving the wayward and the drunken, it turned out, did very little for my career. I plunged deeper and deeper into a kind of career crisis, in a smelly eddy far away from the flow of success. But I also accomplished many things, and not the least of those things was a kind of understanding of my conservative disposition in which grew my attachment to the ethos of my institution.

It was that ethos that I saw forgotten and dishonoured all around me. It was the realisation that I had fused my identity with a culture that was disappearing from the world that would in time lead me into despair. About a year or so after leaving the alcohol and drug policy job, I wrote a conference paper that tried to make sense of it all. I gave this conference paper to the Kettl Bruun Society conference.

You can read it here:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265728731_Why_is_alcohol_policy_difficult_Reflections_of_a_bureaucrat

Or if you don’t want to bother with research gate, try this Why is alcohol policy difficult Kettl Bruun conference September 2014

Some time later, a student interviewed me about the experience when another great city took fate in its hand and succumbed to the grand follies of controlling the availability of alcohol.

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat XIII: the long waits of winter

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat XIII: the long waits of winter
XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird
Our working lives are long, and yet our culture’s celebration of youth is so strong: the energetic, the passionate, the believers and the ambitious displace those who know better, and who are resented for knowing better. After a certain time, all bureaucrats are passed over, treated like yesterday’s failed lieutenants, and pushed into some dark corner where they wait out the evening all afternoon long.
There they sit in the cedar-limbs, bristling against the snow. Cold, alone, forgotten, the despised part of their accursed kind.
How many years might this long winter snow continue? I ask myself this question since surely this is now my fate. But am I not the same blackbird whose mobile eye chased down the still world? Am I not the same blackbird who performed his cameo parts perfectly in the theatre of power? Do I not still have visions? Can I not still sing of innuendoes and inflections? Can I not be one with any man or any woman? Fly in green light, or swoop behind a glass coach in Connecticut?
I am. And the long years that I have to wait still in these cedar-limbs will be as truthfully, beautifully the way of a bureaucrat as the other 12, or as many more as you might imagine, manifestations. If the snow that I know will be coming does not kill me, it will make my winter’s mind stronger.

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat XI: people who live in glass coaches

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat XI: people who live in glass coaches
XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird
At first, the image of travel in a glass coach, magically through the harbour towns and rural havens of Connecticut, might seem an image of bureaucratic isolation. Don’t they live in a bubble, a fragile bubble, sealed off from the more robust world of rule-breakers, creators and destroyers? Do they not live in a privilege of immunity from the crush and hungry treading of the world and its markets?
But in way, we all live today, those of us who live in the affluent degraded democracies of the once liberal world order, as if we were travelling in a glass coach across the soothing countryside of New Haven. Our worlds are inundated with wealth, images and information, and anyone of us can summon  to our palaces our very own glass coach from which we explore in transparent isolation our soothing yet troubled world.
Of course this coach casts a shadow, even if faintly through its frames and joins. Even the simplest of our abundant pleasures have side-effects and preconditions. Every trip in isolation down the country road already assumes the we who made the road, who set out the signs, who explained the rules of driving (even in magical vehicles, safety rules keep more people safe), who plotted the countryside and kept the titles by which its dwellers claim it as their own. So much organisation, so much responsibility, so much bureaucracy for every freedom ride.
But we suppose ourselves born free, unchained from tradition, loosed from all institutions and unaccountable in our splendid glass coaches to the we who created our ride. We travel in Romantic splendour in a glass coach of change, of innovation, of the latest, and do not want to be reminded of the mundane work of stability, without which our glass cage of freedom would shatter.
So, we shriek in fear. So we see the ominous blackbird of bureaucracy staining our lives. Dull, lifeless, not at all a friend to man. What does the fearful shadow tell us?
That we are all bureaucrats?

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat X: flight in green light

X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
Wallace Stevens, 13 Ways of looking at a blackbird
It is not often that the average educated reasonable person catches a glimpse of bureaucrats in flight, out in the open, for all to see, their black wings starkly beautiful in a soft green light. They are told it is not their job to take the limelight. They should keep away from public stages, television lights, and open-ended discussions with media identities. Most are harshly disciplined for talking out of school, even for making critical comments on the upper hierarchy of their organisations on facebook. Free speech – even perhaps all elements of freedom of thought, conscience and religion as defined by the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights  – is something bureaucrats routinely, in my experience (yes, limited to a tolerant democracy of moderate quality), defend for others, while not enjoying themselves.
A great cone of silence – that evergreen metaphor of broken, mundane conspiracies created by Mel Brooks in Get Smart – and a more effective invisibility cloak screen out bureaucrats from the great conversations on matters of public importance that shape the moral lives of our distressed republics. Those republics suffer for it. They suffer through a lowering of standards of public speech and political thought. They suffer through the gradual humiliation and disordering of the great public institutions of bureaucracy, which are at their strongest when they enjoy a strong, open and accountable relationship with the people they serve. That relationship should not be funnelled through the cell phone of a whiz-kid political adviser and the mindless demands of the 24 hour political media machine. They suffer from the diminishing of the pool of knowledge shared to solve our many common problems of coordination. They suffer through the loss to the public stage of some of the best informed, articulate and compassionate minds. In their place we get panel shows of partisan left/right think-tankers, meretricious lobbyists and journalists endlessly talking to journalists about what journalists think of the issues of the day. Truly, the bawds of cacophony.
Could it be another way? I recall several years ago a serious current affairs television announced that it would interview the head of the department responsible for child protection and family services, then called, with no conscious irony, the Department of Human Services. The department had been heavily criticised on many matters. The still quite new Government, then within the first weeks or months of its office, had even made something of a major election issue of the failings of this department and promised a major and fundamental inquiry, quite an unusual reordering political priorities. The head of the department was also not some mere courtier, but had worked on the front lines of child protection for most of her career. She held a deep knowledge of the dilemmas, and had some real polish in speaking clearly to many audiences about how things ought to improve. Moreover, it was she who had been responsible directly and personally for many of the failures and many of the successes in child protection over maybe 20 years. It was right that she should face the tough questions, not some Minister newly briefed and with only a helicopter view of the problems. Surely, she is the best person to ask,  on principle because of both her knowledge and accountability.
But when it came time for the interview to air, the capable, polished and assertive Minister appeared in the studio and live to air. The first question of her was why would you not let your most senior bureaucrat speak directly to the program? The Minister’s response was that I am the elected official and the Minister responsible, and it is appropriate that I represent the Government’s views to the public. This is the Westminster system, but more it is a narrow code of operations enforced with rigid, thoughtless discipline entrenched by political and media advisory staff over the last thirty years.
It is not that the Minister was not capable and within her rights to speak on behalf of the Government. But was she really within her rights to silence her most senior official, and to prevent any form of direct relationship between the leaders of bureaucratic institutions and the public they serve? The Minister, after all, would have many more opportunities to speak to the media. The provincial government I serve releases five or more media releases every day. But they are the cheap and bowlderised verse of the bawds of euphony. It is surely time to silence their cries, sit back and observe the blackbird in flight in these strange and rare lights.

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat IX: servants of Utopias.

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat IX: servants of Utopias.

IX

When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles

Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird

There is a strange book out there, which, if I ever develop these blogged posts into a more scholarly collection of essays, I suppose I will have to read, and it is called On the Utopia of Rules: on technology, stupidity and the secret joys of bureaucracy. Written by an American activist academic, David Graeber, who describes himself as an “anarchist anthropologist”, it declaims the “total bureaucratization” of the world. This is the utopia of rules, in which there is a strange marriage between the worst of Capitalism and the worst of Bureaucracy, both accented with pantomime capitals.

It is very much a view from outside bureaucracy; the libertarian anarchism that seems so prevalent in American culture, and the resentment of constraints by rules and resources that is so common among the modern salaried professoriat. As a way of looking at bureaucrats, it is strangely unconvincing.

For a start, it misses the mark in describing the people who it caricatures. There are plenty of Graebers who I have encountered within the bureaucracy, who make it their mission to deregulate and strip away all constraints on the creative destruction of the merchants who they adore from afar. Far from utopians of rules, some bureaucrats are utopians of markets. I am not claiming there are not silly rules in all forms of modern bureaucracy, but these accounts of petty, rule-bound bureaucrats obsessed with process and paperwork are little more than thoughtless sneers. They bring us no closer to understanding the importance of law, as a repository of Edmund Burke’s compact between the past, present and future; nor do they really help us understand the strange and more pervasive role of utopian fallacies in modern bureaucracies.

These ways of looking at the bureaucrat suffer a conceptual hostility to the state that is itself utopian, or at least suffers from the born free fallacy described in Roger Scruton’s ever-useful, The Uses of Pessimism: and the Danger of False Hope. So John Gray’s review of Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules  isolates the book’s account of bureaucracy as a utopian vision of the world ruled by rational principles. Graeber extends his anarchist vision to believing in the deformation of of the true “insurrectionary moment” by the deviation of revolutionaries from their true lawless path through the maze of bureaucracy. So Graeber quotes Lenin scornfully saying he wanted to run the Revolution “like a postal service”. And John Gray scornfully corrects Graeber in believing that such martinet exclamations were the real cause of the disappointments of the Revolution.

The state, law and strong bureaucratic institutions are gifts of the political world. They are the artefacts that make freedom possible, not the curses that suppress it. They are the associations in which negotiated solutions to our many conflicts may be discovered, beyond the limited vision, however utopian, of any one mind. As John Gray observes:

“But does it follow that state power is always and only repressive? Can’t it sometimes also be liberating? Turning away from these awkward questions to a fantasy of unfettered freedom, Graeber joins hands with the neoliberals he scorns.”

John Gray has in mind some specific examples of bureaucratic institutions, such as the United Kingdom’s post-war National Health Service, that are threatened by both the libertarianism of the merchants, the follies of the spin-doctors and a more pervasive utopia of Reform. And it is here that I begin to see more connections with my own experience.

“In Graeber’s neo-anarchist view, the state is a demonic force thwarting human freedom. This seems to me a simple-minded philosophy, but perhaps it explains why he says so little about the public services that were created as part of the postwar settlement in Britain. Not entangled in government directives as almost every public body is at the present time, these were genuinely autonomous institutions. Regulated by those who worked in them, they weren’t burdened by the bloated bureaucracy that strangles them today. But they were able to enjoy this freedom only because a public space had been created for it by the use of state power.” John Gray

I work in one deformed successor to such an institution, although its origins are further back in the nineteenth century. The Health Department of Victoria has had many incarnations, and like public health departments around the world, it has long been at the heart of the modern state. It has used public resources, rules, professional expertise, imaginative action and the authority of the state to improve the lives of the community it serves. There is no clearer measure of this than the exceptional growth in life expectancy since the mid-nineteenth century.

Yet today this public institution and its best traditions are entangled in overheated grand plans, a bloated senior executive court, and a poisonous growth of bureaucratic utopianism. This poison is not Graeber’s Utopia of Rules, but a Utopia of Reform. It is a poison not of pettiness, but of grandiosity.

This Utopia of Reform is not an exclusively bureaucratic phenomenon. The Utopian plans, visions, “systems reforms” and targets to eliminate all blights on the human condition come from many sources – politicians, activists, lawyers, academics, the not-for-profit sector, even some business leaders. There is not a single Utopia pursued, but many Reforms – projected into a “future state” which these once prudent, proud institutions now kowtow before. All of these reform ideas commit the utopian fallacy, as Roger Scruton describes it:

“Hence the utopian fallacy, which tells us that the ideal is immune to refutation. We need never turn back on our utopian aims, since utopia itself can never be realized and thus never disproved. It serves instead as an abstract condemnation of everything around us, and it justifies the believer in taking full control.” Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism

It may seem surprising to describe the upper courts of bureaucracy as infected by Utopianism, but that is what I see around me. It is not necessarily a Utopianism without pragmatism, without cynicism, without opportunist careerism. To present yourself as a reformer, as an advocate of “change”, is the badge that marks belonging to the executive class of the bureaucracy today. And like group markers everywhere, this apparent idealistic, enthusiastic embrace of change is a declaration that those outside the club are the enemy of all their striving.

“The ideal remains forever on the horizon of our experience, unsullied and untried, casting judgement on all that is actual, like a sun that cannot be looked at but which creates a dark side to everything on which it shines.” Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism

The blackbird files out of sight of the institutions which they have coerced into their dreams, and marks the edge of the future circles from which the actual people of those institutions are excluded.

Is it any wonder that there are political revolts around the world against these Utopias of Reform that have come to dominate our bureaucratic and political elites over the last thirty years? People realise, as Scruton says, that “Behind the utopia there advances another aim altogether, which is the desire for revenge against reality.” (Uses of Pessimism)

This virus of reform cannot be effectively opposed by dreams of liberation from the state, but by a restitution of the institutions of law, good government and bureaucracy. It requires a defence of the tradition of bureaucracy, governing and authority that I am groping my way towards understanding in these posts. This is necessary since, as Scruton argues, the reform solutions of the bureaucratic utopians destroy the institutions that enable us to resolve our conflicts one by one.

Rather than pursue the disappearing circles of our utopian blackbirds, we need to restore a bureaucratic tradition of sober judgement, cautious authority, prudent thought, and respectful talking to strangers.

“The solution to human conflicts is discovered case by case, and embodied thereafter in precedents, customs and laws. The solution does not exist as a plan, a scheme or a utopia. It is the residue of a myriad agreements and negotiations, preserved in custom and law. Solutions are rarely envisaged in advance, but steadily accumulate through dialogue and negotiation. They are a deposit lad down by the ‘we’ attitude, as it unfolds through norms of mutual dealing. And it is precisely this deposit, in customs and institutions, that the utopians set out to destroy.”Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism

The antidote to the Utopias of Rules and the Utopia of Reform is thus not liberation, freedom or markets, but law, institutions and a modest belief that we are all blackbirds.

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat VIII: involved in what I know

VIII

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.

Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird

It was Mario Cuomo, now dead former liberal democrat, governor of New York, who first said that “you campaign in poetry, and govern in prose.” It is a phrase that has become a licence for political deceit. After all, poetry is grand, and prose is dull, are they not? So surely the public must understand that the political vaudeville is compressed and imaginative words that carry us away from the hard and prosaic accounting of compromised governing?

There is a misunderstanding in Cuomo’s words, that is never questioned when this licence to deceive is repeated to excuse every broken promise, every disappointing decision. Poetry and prose overlap; they are not separate realms. Poetry can be beautiful, and it can have a terrible new beauty. Poetry can be like God-given speech and it can be machine-written. Prose can be exquisite, of some other world, like Thomas Browne or his modern echo Max Sebald,; and prose can be execrable, unintelligible, devoid of all sense and purpose and beauty.

I have known moments of lucid inescapable rhythms in my working life as a bureaucrat. Once indeed I was called upon to write some poems. The Cardinal once decided that the Australia Day oath was not to his liking. A talk back host had objected to its corny lines, and the Cardinal wanted to impress his master with a better result. So he asked me to write some alternative poems to replace the oath. I wrote three. The one I liked best, which lilted to a Presley song and conjured toes curling in the sand of a summer beach, was rejected, and another took the place of the doggerel oath.

Other times, action has had noble accents. I have stood vulnerable before drug users and wanted to make changes to how we treat addiction to consecrate their pain. I have stood in a life and been confronted with the deepest questions – what is culture? And how do we change it – and gone on to answer the call responsibly as best I could.

In all these moments, the bureaucrat has been involved too. Beans have had to be counted. Forms filled out. Commands obeyed. Details checked. Poetry and prose intermingle in the culture of governing.