Friday, January 31, 2014

Eichmann in Salt Lake City or the Banality of School Lunches

So I spent quite a bit of time today getting caught up on the story of the 40 children at the Uintah Elementary School in Salt Lake City who had their lunches taken from them and thrown out because the parents did not have enough funds in the kids' school lunch accounts.

It's a sordid story revealing, as it does, the seamy underbelly of early 21st-Century America.

A couple observations: here's how the rocket scientists at Uintah (or maybe the Salt Lake City School District at large) ran their cafeteria line. They let the children go through the line and get a tray full of hot lunch. Only when the children reached the cash register would the cashier or other functionary determine that the child did not have adequate funds. At that point, the food  would be taken from the child and replaced with a piece of fruit and carton of milk. But here's the kicker: the food would be thrown out in the presence of the children. Supposedly there's a law that says the food has to be discarded and can't be given to any other child. Just like there's a law that says the child has to have adequate funds. It's all legal, you see.

There's so much wrong with this vignette that I hardly know where to start. I think it is the ritualization of cruelty that grabs my attention, the fact that students -- 10 and 11 years old apparently -- are allowed to proceed through the line as if nothing is amiss, only to find out, at the end of the line, that the repo man stands ready, wiilling and able to snatch it all away. Nothing to see here, just move along.

But as I continued to think about this it struck me that a lot of adults had to give their explicit or tacit consent for this ritual of cruelty to transpire. (Apparently, similar scenes have happened recently in other schools around the country, from Minnesota to Houston, based on anecdotal reports I came across today.) And what is required for these adults to give their consent is an attitude, a mind-set if you will, that places bean counting and Mammon above the interests of nurturing children. I am no sentimentalist  but, for Christ's sake, if some inner-city crack addict denied his or her children food, in order to use the money for his or her habit, we'd call it CHILD ABUSE. Right?

And so now I'm thinking about how fucked up this country has become, how the Uintah administrators initially said it was unfortunate IF some of the children were upset. (Oh, they were upset all right, as was at least one of the cafeteria workers detailed to serve as food police who reportedly wept inconsolably in front of the children.) And about how the cafeteria workers had no way to know ahead of time who was short lunch money before the kids reached the register. Just all this shit swirling around in my head about what this county has come to.

As is often my wont in cases of emotional turmoil like this, I fall back on books I've read in the past. In this instance, the book that immediately jumped to mind was Hannah Arendt's Eichmann In Jerusalem: A Report on The Banality of Evil. Arendt covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for The New Yorker and her reportage was subsequently published in a modest book. The thing I most remembered from the book was that Eichmann was not some raving psychopathic lunatic and, in fact, several of the Israeli psychiatrists who examined him prior to the trial testified to his utter normalcy. Eichmann testified that he had simply been doing his job, obeying the orders of his superiors (Reinhard Heydrich, among others) and above all, obeying the law. And what was Eichmann doing? Merely organizing the trans-shipment of Jews, a lot of Jews, (467,000 from Hungary alone) from various transit centers in Nazi-occupied Europe to the killing centers in Poland. Just a mid-level bureaucrat doing his job. Ordinary. Banal, even.

Arendt's point, as I took it, is that mass murderers in the modern age will as often as not be functionaries of the state, mere bureaucrats in the service of institutional imperatives whose reach exceeds the individual's contribution.  In other words, utterly ordinary. Banal, even. And then I came back to the events of Salt Lake City and understood in a way I never had before exactly what Arendt was getting at. Before the publicity brought this sordid episode to light, each of the adult players involved probably imagined that he or she was doing nothing wrong, merely obeying orders to keep a job in a society where keeping a job requires total unquestioning compliance at all times with the demands of the system. What they were doing in their minds was completely legal. They weren't doing anything wrong.

I'm still pondering this. The school district has apparently, as of this writing, placed a couple low- and mid-level functionaries -- can you say scapegoats? -- on 'paid leave.' (One of those placed on leave is reportedly the cafeteria line worker who was weeping as she confiscated the lunches. But not the superintendant of schools. No, never the Super.) I thought about writing a post that named names and sought to lay specific blame. But is that really germane? Here a system was performing with beautiful brutality, each functionary merely playing his or her assigned role in the infernal scheme. If there is a Hitler hiding behind the layers of the Salt Lake City School District bureaucracy, he or she has yet to be revealed. Hitler wasn't really necessary for this to take place, though, just a whole chain of people just following orders, just doing their jobs. Ordinary. Banal.

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