On bureaucracy and evil

By , 27 March 2009 7:43 pm

First of all, thank you all for writing in; the messages still keep coming and I value them. A good friend in church made the point that this is a biased sample of people who have read and enjoyed my books. He is, of course, right but frankly I don’t know how to poll those who haven’t read and enjoyed the books. Secondly, nothing much has happened at work to do with jobs and reorganisation. But I’m sure there will be news in the week before we break up for Easter.

So let me tell you about something that happened to me this week which I’m afraid is symptomatic of the New Britain. A week ago I had a letter from the local doctor’s surgery which included what was claimed to be the form for my annual test for fasting glycaemia. Very nice of them, you say; yes, but the problem is I have never had such a test. I politely wrote back pointing out that 20 years ago I had been diagnosed with blood sugar problems for a matter of a week before a thyroid issue was diagnosed but that had been 20 years ago and that I have had no such problem since despite a fairly regular battery of blood tests.

On Monday I had a phone call from the surgery. The insistent and unapologetic woman said that the reason for the letter was that they had noticed I had had a marginal result in 1991 and felt a retest was in order. I’m afraid to say I was very cynical about this; anyone who knows the British Health Service will realise that the idea of people sitting around saying ‘We’ve got nothing to do this afternoon so let’s look at 18-year-old test results’ is ludicrous. I mentioned this to a surgeon in our Bible study the following day and was told with that thin, weary smile that our healthcare professionals now bear, that doctors are now being paid for every screening they carry out. So they trawl through the records looking for likely candidates and once found, send them to be tested for no other purpose than financial. So, in the pursuit of spurious statistics and dubious gain, genuine issues of patient health are completely overlooked. I was not terribly surprised; we generate all sorts of figures in order for fundraising and quite a lot have nothing to do with our prime purpose which is (I still believe against all the odds) educating people.

This has led me onto a further meditation about the nature of evil. I always thought when I looked at those 20th-century mass killings of Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany that their awesome administration (all those names, those interminable lists, the sheer organisation) was merely an incidental feature. My logic had been something like the following: you decide to eliminate people so you are forced to create a bureaucracy which enables such a killing to take place. The murderous hatred comes first, the paperwork is second. I am now beginning to revise my opinion. I wonder if there isn’t something about the very nature of administrative systems that actually facilitates evil. All these forms, targets and goals actually create a fertile soil in which other evils, including mass murder, can grow. I am a long way from fully understanding how this works but I suspect that first of all it is to do with the dehumanisation of individuals. The very nature of bureaucracy is to render us faceless ciphers and turn us into impersonal and distant objects that can easily be moved around. In such a virtual world we have no more permanence than this sentence I am writing on the computer screen. A few keystrokes and we are changed; a few more and we are gone.

A secondary feature of this bureaucratisation is the substitution of human good (which ought to be the goal of all our efforts) by statistical achievement. In the beginning, no doubt statistical achievements represent no more than the necessary quantification of human good but all too soon they become not the means to the end but the end itself. It is all analogous to how the idol starts off as an aid to worship but soon becomes the worshipped object itself. So, slowly and insidiously, administration replaces humanity. On this view the tyrant does not so much create a bureaucracy of evil as divert an existing bureaucracy into flowing along an evil path. But I fear that such a diversion is easier than we may imagine. While bureaucracy may not be evil, it clearly lends itself to evil.

I have no idea what the solution is. The anarchist remedy of smashing all machines and systems is beyond credibility. Perhaps, at the very least, we need constantly to be reminded that human beings are in the image of God and that – however disguised by numbers and ciphers – we remain beings of extraordinary value.

Have a good week.

A response to your comments and other news

By , 20 March 2009 7:21 pm

Wow! Who would have thought that I had so many friends? First of all, let me thank you all for taking the time to write. In particular, I want to express my gratitude to those of you who contributed quite long and thoughtful comments. I have considered all that you have written with some care and I might pursue some of the practical approaches suggested. No one actually came up with my own preferred strategy of writing a new volume which is a bestseller and then having the old series relaunched on the basis of a new one. This of course is a wonderfully cunning plan that has just has one small catch in it: I need to write a new blockbuster. Well, I am giving it some thought.

What I have concluded from your comments – and please continue to send them in – is that much of my original dramatic instincts were right: it is better to start with the Assembly and let the shadow fall upon it. To bring in Azeras at the start is just too conventional. However I do think that I could probably bring in Brenito and his dream right at the start. Something on the following lines. ‘On a near perfect world a man woke screaming. It was the first such scream for over 10,000 years and it was heard across one thousand worlds.’ Vero too might be brought in slightly earlier with profit and this would also have the benefit of avoiding the slightly excessive ‘info dumping’ (as I gather it is called in the trade) when he talks to Merral. However, that is all some way ahead. For all I know, even as I write, a certain inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Washington is looking for something substantial to read on Airforce One. (I sense there may be a market for escapist fiction in the White House at the moment.) Anyway pray on and do what you can.

The main news for me this week has been that the storm clouds of the financial crisis that have so far been on the distant horizon have now swept my way. The institution that I teach at (Gorseinon College, Swansea) has been suddenly hammered with a massive budget cut from the Welsh Assembly and so we are now in voluntary redundancy mode which next week shifts to compulsory redundancy mode. By all accounts the science unit to which I am privileged to belong (and I mean privileged: there are some very fine teachers in it) should be secure but who knows? These are odd times and what is often described as rationalisation is often irrationalisation. Nevertheless I am angry about it all; ours is, by any standard of reckoning, a high performing and competent educational establishment in an area where mediocrity (and worse) is the norm. It is also a relatively ‘lean’ institution; there are barely a handful of people about whom I have wondered what they do to justify their existence. The cuts concerned involve a mere £800,000: a little over $1 million. I used to think that was a lot of money but in these days of billions and trillions it is nothing. So next week could be interesting…

Anyway here’s a moral problem for you my fans. If I keep my job, then my financial welfare is more or less secure, at least for the considerable future. If I lose it I will probably have to start writing like crazy. Now do you see the moral dilemma you are placed in? What do you pray for? (The ideal would be a generous offer for film rights to arrive the day before I get given my notice but I suspect such happenings are rarer in reality than fiction.) I would simply suggest that this reminds us of the wisdom of appending to all our prayers that most vital of clauses: ‘Nevertheless, Lord, not my will but yours be done.’

Have a good week.

So here’s what I’m thinking….

By , 13 March 2009 7:35 pm

Two weeks ago I mentioned to you that the entire Lamb among the Stars sequence was not doing at all well. In fact it has largely disappeared without trace and you have to do a lot of hard work in order to even find any of the books, let alone buy them. I asked you for some bright ideas and got some helpful comments for which I am very grateful. Anyway here’s my current – and still rather tentative – thinking and I’m interested to know any comments you have.

Now I need to say that I remain utterly committed to this sequence; I have spent an extraordinarily long number of hours on it and I’m not lightly going to give it up. If the reviews had been negative or critical I might have shrugged my shoulders and said ‘well there we are’ and walked away. In fact the problem has not been the negative reviews; it has been actually getting the series reviewed at all. But your comments encourage me to live in hope that I may yet see ‘the resurrection of the dead’ as far as these books go.

So what I am tentatively planning is this. I shall wait a few more months and see if everything goes entirely dead. If it does, I will write to Tyndale asking whether I can have the book rights back sooner rather than later. In the meantime, I will start rewriting the series. If you aren’t familiar with the books you will realise that the second and third volumes are slightly different to the first in that they include not just what is happening to Merral D’Avanos but to a handful of other people as well. To use the technical term there are ‘multiple viewpoints’. This does not happen in the first book. The single viewpoint of the first book works in one sense in that we are able to slowly watch evil gradually permeating a fallen world. Nevertheless it poses considerable problems, not least that you have to get at some 150 pages in before there is significant action. This is undeniably a flaw with an unknown author in today’s climate. As the wretched (and now already largely forgotten) Da Vinci Code taught us, you need to have a bizarre murder on the first page and keep the plot moving from then on. So, in the first 30 or so pages I might well bring in Azeras and the crew of the Freeborn ship about to land on Farholme and Vero being posted (much against his will) to Farholme by the Sentinels. I might include something of the Lord Emperor himself, although he is a fundamentally a very uninteresting character. (Most evil people are.) As you may be aware Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings in its entirety and then, when he had finished the last volume and before he submitted it for publication, he rewrote it. The result was a better trilogy (although even here a number of modifications and corrections were made in the next decade or so).

Other than that recasting of some of the material of the first book I do not anticipate any other major changes. One minor change would be to put ‘clear blue water’ between the diaries of the books and the iPhone; when I wrote the first few pages 20 years ago my communication devices were clearly fantastic – they are less so now.

So the idea is with all this rewriting done and the creation of the Lamb among the Stars ‘final version’ /’revised version’/’ultimate version’ I would then either offer the books to a publisher who felt they could handle the science-fiction market or find some other innovative way of getting it out into the general public.

I am open for comments on this. It is a long road but the hope is that it would mean that these books would be available for the future. Of course it would also mean that the first edition versions with Tyndale would be collector’s items :-) Well if you have any comments please let me know.

By the way my wife has started a blog of her own entitled Open My Eyes. Rather than summarise what it’s about let me simply direct you to it.

Have a good week

On two contemporary fallacies

By , 6 March 2009 7:40 pm

Four quick points first.

  1. Thank you everyone who contributed to last week’s blog about what I ought to do with the Lamb Among Stars series. I am coming to some conclusions, but will wait for another week as there will probably yet be a few comments from those people who have not so far said anything.
  2. I have just signed a modest contract with Hodder in the UK for a short book on the Prodigal (specifically) and parables (generally), which I am doing with my old friend J John. We don’t have a proper title for this yet but it should be out next summer.
  3. My previous book with J. John – The Life: a Portrait of Jesus – is now close to hitting sales figures of 100,000, which is really pretty awesome.
  4. Our grandson Simeon is continuing to do well and is slowly creeping up the weight charts. I must post some pictures some time.

Anyway several things have come together this week to make me consider that one of the main problems in contemporary society is a pervasive belief in two related fallacies. The first is a belief in the ‘Free Lunch’. This is, of course, a reference to the idea that ‘you need to do nothing in order to have something nice to happen’. Believers in such a creed (and there are many) think that you can lose weight without slimming, pass exams without working, achieve a successful marriage without effort and so on. I wish I could say this was a belief exclusively found amongst the adolescents that I teach. In fact, it seems to me that much of modern Britain (and probably the United States as well) is built on this idea. The present economic system seems to have been based around the extraordinary notion that all we need for national prosperity is a lot of people moving a lot of paper around in London and charging for the privilege. No product of any value is created but nevertheless wealth appears.

The second (and related) fantasy I am provisionally calling the ‘Get Out Of Jail Free fallacy’, although I’m open to suggestions for a better name. This is the negative version of the Free-Lunchism and can be summarised as ‘you can do all sorts of bad things and nothing bad will happen to you’. If the Free Lunch belief centres on ‘blessings without a price’ this majors on ‘sin (or stupidity) without a cost’. It seems to see us as having any number of get-out-of-jail-free cards which absolve us from any responsibilities and penalties, so that ultimately things are consequence-less. So, we can do all we want to whoever we want and it doesn’t really matter: there is no judgement, no price to pay and no penalty. This notion is found in adolescents who seem to be happy to engage in both careless sex and reckless driving. But it is also to be found in those who ought to know better, such as those politicians, heads of industry and bankers who are now exposed as quite happily having believed that they could do all sorts of outrageous things and nothing bad would happen.

Now as a Christian I feel somewhat ambivalent towards the free lunch and get-out-of jail-free fallacies. After all I believe both in grace and forgiveness; concepts which bear some resemblance to both of these. Nevertheless, the fact is that both grace and forgiveness do come at a price – one that is paid by someone else: Jesus Christ. We need to teach people the reality of a hard and fallen world: good things have a price and bad things a cost. In fact, one possible merit of the present recession is that it may be drumming home this lesson with a vengeance.

As a final comment I wonder whether the fact that the Gospel has so little impact in the West may be due to the fact that through a belief in a ‘free lunch’ and ‘get out of jail free cards’ people take its blessings for granted. The Gospel of grace and forgiveness is not good news to those who haven’t taken on board the bad news first.

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