The planners get embarassed when the plans go wrong

14 04 2009

Do you remember the story ‘Harrison Bergeron’? A dystopian bit on an egalitarian future in which every, last, bit of life was planned and coordinated by, hm, I guess the government.

I think I read it for an undergrad pol sci class; I probably have the story stashed away somewhere in my files. (Yeah, I know: hanging on to undergrad files. Well, I did. Some of them. So fuck off.)

Twenty years, and that story stuck with me—perhaps because of the finale, in which our hero skittles a bucket of marbles across a crowded platform or sidewalk, disrupting what should have been an orderly commute.

At least that’s what I remember. Why bring it up now? Rod Dreher at Crunchy Con had a bit on ‘Nemesis Visions‘, i.e., a great anxiety about what could happen. He cribs from James Poulos (no, I dunno who he is), who states that To qualify for nemesis status, a vision must be coherent, compelling, and viable on a mass scale. Rod feared the rise of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (don’t ask, but if you want to know, check out Philip Rieff), and others worried over the loss of Absolute Truth or the triumph of Absolute Truth.

My Great Anxiety/Despair? I offered my worries over the closing of the society, that is, that unpredictability and uncertainty will fall to ever-greater administration and planning, and a sense of wonder or unfolding or just not knowing will be snuffed out.

As I noted, I’m not against planning for specific programs—hello, universal health care!—and I’m the kind of chica who, for example, created a list on tasks to finish before her spring break concludes. I like to be on time for appointments, carry a Swiss Army knife, and am the person who will always have band-aids, ibuprofen, acetominophen, and tampons on her, just in case.

Still, there’s a difference between trying to keep my shit together and, as I noted, a general ethic which requires that every aspect of life be managed. I try to keep my shit together precisely because I expect things to go to hell, and I want to be prepared. And while it’s annoying as hell to have one’s plans fly apart, it’s good to be reminded that just because one’s afternoon or whatever went off the rails, one’s life continues, unabated.

Or, to sum up all the wisdom that can be contained in a bumper sticker: Shit happens.

The general ethic of planning, however, is designed to forestall any kind of shit happening. In fact, a sense of moral wrongness attaches to not knowing exactly what is to happen next.

What are you going to do with your life/When are you going to get married/When will you settle down/What about a pension/What about kids/How are your kids spending the summer/What about building a resume/How will you ever get into college/What do you mean you don’t know/don’t care/it doesn’t matter. . . ?!!!!!

I hope you know that this will go down/on your permanent record/Oh yeah/Well don’t get so distressed/Did I happen to mention I’m unimpressed?

Yeah, I could have gone with a disquisition on Arendt, but I think the Violent Femmes struck exactly the right attitude.

There’s a longer post lurking within this one, on the melancholy proposition that, maybe, this long moment of openness, begun around the time of the Scientific Revolution, is coming to a close. And perhaps it is. But as long as there’s a world, there is possibility.

And marbles. Damn, I really should rifle my files for that story.




2 responses

15 04 2009

Wow, totally new look. I wasn’t sure I was at the right place this morning — yeah one of those mornings.

I too like to be prepared for eventualities for exactly the reason you do – shit happens and I don’t like having to depend on other people to fish me out of it. Bad side of it is that everyone turns to me for emergency supplies and I can’t do tiny handbags (not that I do – what’s wrong with still carrying a backpack when you’re well out of school?)

Interesting question about planning. There’s a project that is trying to coordinate state government planning for at-risk teenagers in a chronically depressed area. The idea is that there will be a master plan coordinating all services to the “client” so that everyone is on the same page so to speak. I was discussing the evaluation of the assessment process. Someone asked me if I would like my life planned like this and of course I said no. It would piss me off to have the state telling me what and how to do things. The solution is to stay out of the system, me through education and continued employment (and not being a teenager!) and the clients often through disappearing or simply not turning up to appointments. I can see what the project is trying to do and admire it, but it does raise all those bigger questions about life.

15 04 2009

This is the difficulty, isn’t it? Some good and necessary things require planning, and taking care of the vulnerable is a good and necessary thing.

Perhaps the best that can be done in this situation is to create clear limits to any program—limits on the authority of those involved, and time limits, if appropriate. And, perhaps, to involve those who will be most directly affected in the planning process itself.

I don’t suggest making a 15-year-old an administrator, but it might make sense to treat that 15-year-old as a human being, with aspirations and fears and uncertainties, and to ask him what he wants for his life. And, most importantly of all, ask him unreservedly, that is, put no limits on his dreams and attach no punishments to his uncertainties. And if others want something more or ‘better’ for him, well, that’s all right, too—as long as those others don’t try to herd him toward their preferred outcomes.

That’s what happens, though, doesn’t it? Adults know better. Somebody always knows better.

Damned difficult, all around.

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