I remember in high school my friend Clint’s girlfriend Bethy was writing for the school paper. I’m not sure how, but the subject of affirmative action came up. She didn’t really know what it was so we explained it to her. She was incensed. The newspaper’s next publication contained a point/counterpoint on the issue in which Bethy wrote the “anti” argument. The rather bland article contained two of the strangest sentences I’d seen printed: “By promoting affirmative action, public officials and educators are promoting their own affirmative action” and “Affirmative action is simply affirmative action by another name.”
As it turned out, that made it in there because an editor took offense at her original wording, which suggested that proponents of affirmative action were engaging in some racial preferences of their own. He didn’t like the the term “racial preferences”, which she used repeatedly, so he did a mass-replace with “affirmative action” and never looked back.
I thought of that whole incident while watching the 80’s British comedy Yes, Minister. The serial’s villain is one Sir Humphrey Appleby, the bureaucrat extraordinaire whose primary function is to try to thwart the idealistic (if more than a little vain) Minister of Administrative Affairs, Jim Hacker. Appleby’s entire philosophy can be summed up with, “Sir, you can’t just go in and change things, and if you keep trying then things might change and that would be utterly unacceptable!”
In the third season he gives a stirring defense of being a moral vacuum. If he believed in all of the policies that he was ordered to do, he would be on both sides of every issue (depending on who is in power) and ultimately schizophrenic, so he takes no side ever. This would be one thing if it meant he dutifully carried out the will of his Minister without regard to his personal feelings, but instead it is his reason to thwart whatever it is that the minister is trying to accomplish in five simple steps. A man without a party, his interests begin and end in perpetuating the bureaucracy.
You wouldn’t think that a show about bureaucratic struggle could be so funny, but Yes, Minister succeeds admirably. Though Jim Hacker is the protagonist, it’s Appleby that’s really the star. His rationalizations, his sophistry, and his the genius of his manipulations are so funny because they are so familiar. It’s like watching Richard III and finding yourself sometimes more eager to congratulate the manipulative villain rather than the dupe in charge.
And Appleby isn’t always wrong. And even when he is wrong, I found myself understanding his need to guard his own interest, his very way of life in the face of those that would go needlessly upheaving everything. William F. Buckley famously characterized conservatism as “standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’” and in that vein Appleby is very definition of conservatism. There is much to protect about the British way of life and he is there to protect it. Forever, in amber.
But of course Appleby goes too far and views any and all change as a threat to the very Kingdom. And he makes the classic mistake of viewing his own needs as intertwined with the needs of the Kingdom. Many a mistake has been prevented by those that live and die by protecting the status quo, but government is serious business and it is people like Appleby that fiddle while levees deteriorate.
A free and democratic people simply cannot accept that the bureaucracy is and always will be and the status quo cannot change. The biggest case and point in the United States is Louisiana. They came to accept the corruption in their state and it actually became a marker of perverse pride as ego prevailed over self-esteem. They did make some attempts to change things as Edwin Edwards got shipped off to jail and, believe it or not, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was elected on a platform of competence and honesty. And indeed, prior to Katrina, Nagin was the most honest and competent mayor they’d had in decades. Think about that.
The seriousness of the stakes make us need to be careful before we laugh too hard. Yes, Minister, like our own The Daily Show, lives and breathes by our own cynicism. And as strange as it sounds I wonder if laughter is a form of acceptance. Forrest Gump once said if you can’t sing good, sing loud. AA has the prayer about changing the things you can and accepting the things you can’t. Shows like Yes, Minister and The Daily Show simply subtly tell us to skip the whole try to change part and have a good, sneering laugh.
of course, how does one try to affect change without being an obnoxious outrage generator? Right now liberals are purely outraged every time The President sneezes. Eight years ago Republicans were the same. And I absolutely hate those damn bumper stickers about “If you aren’t outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Oh, spare me. And while you’re at it, don’t mistake outrage for conscientiousness or conviction. Which then makes me wonder if I’ve just become cynical about cynicism.
So I really can’t tell you whether this post is a review of Yes, Minister, an obnoxious Public Service Announcement, or a simultaneous expression and disdain of cynicism.
Anyhow, Yes, Minister is a great show. Because pits unrealistic idealism against cynical realism and political arrogance against defensive institutionalism, it’s as relevant twenty years later as it was then. Though this is a series that probably couldn’t be Americanized very well, any American that can appreciate dry, sophistical (as opposed to necessarily sophisticated) humor, could laugh as I did. I just hope we don’t laugh too long.