Saturday, May 20, 2006

Petty bureaucrats

One of my favourite people in the world is a professor of holocaust studies. He is also, inexplicably, one of the most tirelessly happy and optimistic people you could hope to meet and he shares my birthday. (I say all this because I’m about to grossly misquote him.) I remember reading one of his books on the holocaust and in it he says that he was struck by how much of the culpability for the holocaust came down to mundane people doing mundane things far removed from the actual atrocities themselves.

I think of this because the inevitable tedium of office life has overshadowed my day. If a hot wind weren’t blowing through the window, covering my computer with a fine dust, and I couldn’t hear the children shouting in Arabic in the streets, I could be in an office anywhere - New York, London, Hong Kong. There is payroll to be counted and month end reconciliations to be done. A trip to the bank is inevitable. A UNICEF cheque needs to be cashed. All of the routine and trivial things that make any operation run. All things that are being done in offices all over town. Some by humanitarian organizations and some by the government. I don’t doubt that there is a rebel group’s accountant sitting somewhere doing the very same things we are.

And this is both a depressing and encouraging thought. Because without us – the bean counters – things wouldn’t happen. In my case, programmes wouldn’t run smoothly, and in the case of the government…well, I’ll leave you to conclude what might not happen. While I sit here counting grimy dinar several gunships have just roared by overhead. Off to bomb Girayda or Shearia, or some other unhappy spot. Someone signed off their orders. Someone authorized and filed the paperwork. My point is that there should be culpability and responsibility for all of us whether we pull the trigger or not. I’m not sure I’m a fan of collective guilt and there has been a lot of talk – given all the wars and genocides of the past decade - about collective guilt. I don’t think that is what I’m talking about here. Rather, I think we should be careful to develop a sense of personal responsibility for the final outcomes our jobs and actions produce - whether we are petty bureaucrats or not.


Kristin said...

I'm glad you said "one of" or you might have hurt my feelings.

Dawn in Chicago said...

Found you! ;)
I'm sure you've completely upset the Professor by your mis-quoting....but will he still invite you in and cook you a meal? I believe he will!