In ‘Mau-mauing the flak-catchers’, Tom Wolfe describes how young urban entrepreneurs in San Francisco could get money out of the bureaucracy by mau-mauing — going down to City Hall and being so wild, so ghetto, that they would fund whatever youth group or outreach programme was being proposed as the solution.
Institutions evolve, however, and the bureaucracy developed a new appendage — the flak-catcher. This was the guy who would front for the bureaucracy, but not really:
‘Now I’m here to try to answer any questions I can,’ he says, ‘but you have to understand that I’m only speaking as an individual, and so naturally none of my comments are binding, but I’ll answer any questions I can, and if I can’t answer them, I’ll do what I can to get the answers for you.’
And then it dawns on you, and you wonder why it took so long for you to realize it. This man is the flak catcher. His job is to catch the flak for the No. 1 man.
The bars on the windows and razor wire that EQC has put on display is just the latest evolution. Sure, yeah, a few people have gone off at the flunkies behind the desk, and the police have spoken to a few people. But this is New Zealand, man. Chick pulls a knife on a plane and stabs the pilot, and still the local gate at the airport has less security than The Warehouse.
But EQC wants you to know that they are under siege. That’s the reason for the display.
Two things, though.
One — always, always, it is important to remember that EQC has not fulfilled the insurance policy that we all paid for. We paid money for many years in order to have full restitution within a year in the case of an earthquake. Two years after February, two and a half years after September, and still the earthquakes are costing the citizens and property owners of Christchurch. EQC did not sort things out and did not make people whole and never will.
Two — the spokesperson for EQC said something about not taking frustrations out on individuals, but on the organisation. This was the bureaucratic version of ‘don’t hate the playa, hate the game’. It is the fundamental tension in the modern age — individual versus collective. Who is responsible for the behaviour of the the bureaucrat? Is it the organisation, the agency called EQC who sets the rule and create the guidelines and makes the decisions? Or is it the person, the actual individual who applies the rules, guidelines, and decisions? And how, exactly, is a homeowner with shoddy workmanship or a property owner contesting the land classification supposed to challenge the organisation without making actual people uncomfortable?
EQC is hiding behind its front-line staff, who are flak-catching for the failures of the organisation. But this is an evolutionary game. EQC has just adapted — and these are serious adaptations by local standards. Next, watch as the mau-mauing turns pro.