In reading Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, I have been consistently surprised and delighted to share in her unique and fresh perspective on the world around her. She was open to experience and lived for adventure; of course, we all have a rosy glow when reminiscing about the past, but in her retelling, the reader is transported to the streets of Paris, the fish markets of Marseilles, the countryside spotted with orange flowers, all tied together by mouthwatering descriptions of French food and wine.
Paul Child, Julia’s husband, worked in government service for many years, beginning before World War II and continuing in various embassy posts (which is how they ended up living in Paris in the first place).
He was serving the US Government in the Marseilles post during the era of Senator Joe McCarthy, most known for his 1950s communist witch hunts. At one point, Paul was called to Washington, DC to be interrogated by the McCarthy commission; Julia recounts how the feeling of betrayal and anger remained with them “like ashes in our mouths.”
Making my bed (okay, laying in my bed) after reading this passage, I caught myself thinking “the government always screws you.” This is both somewhat correct and wildly inaccurate.
Governments, like all systems, are made of people. People are generally working in a highly specified job, doing a small task which makes up a small part of a huge, lumbering bureaucracy. If your job entails managing a small office and ordering paper clips in the country, its much more difficult to feel complicit or like you are actively part of an oppressive system. Plus, many people working in jobs funded through our government are good people doing good work (counselors working in the VA, for example). Are they also “always screwing you?”
Problems, in my mind, almost always can be traced back to the system. We have police brutality not because all policemen are sadists (actual numbers of clinically significant hostility and personality disorders in our police force are likely minuscule) but because we have created a system where police have ultimate power and are militarized; it’s no longer protect and serve, it is seek and destroy, and to seek, one needs an enemy.
Is our government actively hostile and out to “screw us”? I am not convinced (except if you’re a POC, LGBTQ, teenager, poor, immigrant…okay, maybe they are out to screw us). We are part of a system that has outgrown its parameters, and attempts to correct inefficiencies are met with indifference, at best, or active hostility, at worst.
[please note, i am only addressing the government and have left the analysis of institutionalized racism, sexism, classism, ablism etc. to those much smarter than myself, who have devoted their time to publishing thoughtful analysis of these issues. please see Feministing, Black Girl Dangerous, Color Lines, Think Progress, RH Reality Check for further reading, opinions and analysis.]
When people feel attacked or maligned, its unlikely they will be open to listening. When good works and corruption come from the same building, how can we say we’re always screwed? Is it even viable to treat individuals as such, and still run an efficient, fair system?
What’s the point? Final summation? I have none. Do you?
(Side note: whenever I think about trying to “fix” our systems, I start to have sympathy for anarchist politics; not because I believe anarchy is the solution, but because it seems so much easier to just start over than to correct a system that’s already functioning)