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Entries in government (1)

Sunday
May062012

Root Canal

River, Moscow (14 x 11 watercolours & India ink)

Because the truth will set me free, I confess that I was once a dentist.

Well, not a real dentist, as in someone who fills your cavity or relieves your pain. I was never that kind of dentist. But I would tell people, folks at cocktail parties for example, that I was a dentist.

And of course that was a lie.

But even today, like a drowning man clinging to an anchor, I maintain this was a necessary lie since I dared not tell anyone what I really did for a living.

In hindsight it's possible that I could have explained what I did for a living although it was all a bit mysterious. For one thing, I had a Top Secret security clearance. Though that probably wouldn't have stopped me from telling people what I really did. It was just that for the entire four years I toiled for government, no matter how hard I tried, I could never comprehend what I was supposed to be doing, or why.

Raison d'etre

So there you have it: the truth. The raison d’etre for my bureaucratic travails was a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Maybe a higher-up mandarin knew my purpose. But I did not know my purpose. And I suspect now that the truth is laid bare, that I was not necessary.

To the cocktail crowd my job sounded exquisitely important. I belonged to a government secretariat within The XXX. Even the acronym for the organization carried with it the odour of sanctity. Indeed, after years of sleuthing in my previous career as a newspaperman I was well able to read eyes and body language. And it was plain. Any fool could see that people were impressed. “So, what do you do at The XXX?” they would ask.

I found as I described my function, that it all made no sense. “Oooh, a little of this, little of that. Non-partisan. Vicariously I have worked for the last couple of Prime Ministers.”

Beyond that I really was not sure what I was at liberty to say. And even if I was at liberty to say what I did for government, it was near-impossible, objectively, to assign any purpose to it. You could see the cocktail party people accepted the description of what I did, but, like me, they just couldn’t fathom why it would be necessary. Eventually I was forced to abandon efforts to explain my job. In conversation, all references to government vanished. Finally, because I had to say something, I found that when you said you were a dentist, people understood. Secret Agent (5 x 8 watercolours)

So, what sort of practice did this dentist run out of his government office? I read the newspaper. Occasionally I picked up the phone to sniff around or have a lunch with a contact. This was called a situation scan. At least once a week I wrote a report. My reports were securely sent to colleagues in The XXX. From there they were forwarded to important (I assume) functionaries in the PMO – the Prime Ministers Office, which we called The Centre. As far as I could tell, there was nothing in my reports that dozens of others – including highly partisan political operatives inside the governing party - weren't also feeding to The Centre.

There was a secure phone on a table near my desk. Trust me, it was amazing, similar to a Maxwell Smart cone of silence. It had its own power supply in the event of nuclear war or something. It took a crew from the Department of Public Works an entire week to install that phone and to test it. And then, after that, it never rang again. There also was a paper shredder and a safe. I almost caught my tie in the shredder one time, and so tended to avoid it out of wariness. I can't remember what I kept in the safe.

It was once explained to me that in the private sector, where I have worked most of my life, things are pretty much action oriented: you set a goal, you get things done. Whereas government – inter alia - is all about process. The real bureaucrats understand this and they are able to find meaningful work navigating their way through the process.

Road map

But for me, an outsider, the process was inscrutable. Sometimes I gathered with folks from other commissariats and we'd chat interminably about what needed to be done and how to put together a road map. And that was pretty much it. We never got beyond agreeing on the need for a map. We networked and brought junior people into the mix, so they might do some of the grunt work, stumbling forward in the direction of some hazy objective. This was called capacity building.

Now that I am a few years removed from this bullshit and free to speak as, say, the kind of dentist who neither fills your cavity nor relieves your pain, I can diagnose that this patient needs a major a root canal, extensive bridge work and several extractions, top and bottom, to relieve all the nasty symptoms that have appeared.

Allow me to adjust your chair for the x-ray: rot and arrogance is spreading like an abscess. This happens to every regime that doesn't look after the health of its roots. The regime reaches the point where it begins to believe that it deserves to be in power. And that is the beginning of the end, where the ruling elite are no longer connected to the reality that sustains them from below.

I'm told that once upon a time someone from The Centre would actually pick up the phone and speak with someone on the ground, as they cross-checked reports, to see if there were reliable sources still on the ground, and, indeed, that the ground was still there.

But not today. I guess that's because you can get pretty high up at The Centre, or in The XXX, or in various ministries where only the Savoy Hotel is good enough and orange juice is $16 a glass and F-35 jets a mere $25 billion. That's pretty high off the ground. Stratospheric, actually.

(Top image: River, Moscow 14" x 11" watercolours and India Ink).