Bureaucracy and the Terminal
March 29, 2012
Because I have teaching about the bureaucracy in my American Government class, I showed the class the film, The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta Jones [or whatever her name is]. Whenever I teach about the bureaucracy, I seem to get involved and find it hard to stop. Wondering why, I think I now know, which I put to the class in the following way.
We are unlikely ever to confront or be confronted by the Congress or the presidency or the Supreme Court. Those institutions we view from afar, as spectators. But not so with the bureaucracy. We are, all of us, enmeshed in bureaucracy. I am and you are, we all are and so it behooves us to try to understand “the bureaucratic world” or, as my favorite book on the subject has it, “the bureaucratic experience.” And as I tell students, this world is a strange place and it requires that we learn how to navigate it or be destroyed by it.
The film, The Terminal, does a decent job of illustrating what this world is like, how strange it is, how hostile it is or can be. Hanks plays one Viktor Navorsky, who because of a revolution in his home nation of Krakozhia, gets stuck in Kennedy Airport near New York City. There he confronts and is confronted by a bureaucrat named Dixon who makes his life something like a living hell in order to try to get Viktor to leave the terminal and become, as Dixon puts it, “someone else’s problem.”
There is too much to discuss to discuss it all here so I will comment on two examples that illustrate the weirdness that is bureaucracy. First, at one point, Dixon points out to Viktor that “his country no longer exists” and, hence, “the United States is closed.” Now, of course, countries don’t just disappear and Viktor’s country still exists but from the bureaucrat’s perspective, it does not. And the bureaucrat actually acts as if the country does not exist, which means he is being delusional. And yet, when you watch the film, the bureaucrat’s delusional thinking and behavior do not strike you immediately. He is, as the students say, “just doing his job.” And, of course, if a person is just “doing his/her job” they are not, cannot be delusional. Or so we like to think. However, as a bureaucrat, Dixon is required to think and act in a delusional manner. It is a job requirement.
Second, at another point in the film, Dixon says that Viktor is “a threat to national security.” By virtue of his bureaucratic perspective, of course Dixon is correct, Viktor is “a threat to national security.” This is how the rules define Viktor and a bureaucrat is not allowed to look beyond the rules. But from any other perspective, it is simply madness to classify Viktor as “a threat to national security.” It is insanity given that the only thing Viktor wants to do is to go to a local Ramada Inn and get a famous jazz saxophonist’s autograph and then go home, to say nothing of the fact that Viktor is, as is obvious to almost all persons except Dixon, about as decent a human being as is imaginable.
As I like to point out to students, bureaucracy is part of a project, a rather large project, a project that seeks to rationalize the world. This project is not benign, not by a long shot. It has implications, even immense implications for us as human beings. Usually, I ask classes after we have viewed The Terminal why Dixon was so angry, so unhappy. They come up with different reasons, all of them correct to some extent. But then I offer them my opinion in answer to this question and it is this: Dixon is not a happy person and cannot be a happy person because he is not allowed as a bureaucrat to be a human being.
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