Stuck in the Middle with the Circumlocution Office

Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit is not among his finest novels—those would be Dombey and Son and Bleak Housebut it deserves its place in the literary pantheon not only for its depiction of life in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison (something with which Dickens had personal experience) but for its invention of the Circumlocution Office. Fittingly, Dickens calls this chapter, “Containing the whole Science of Government.” It’s the ultimate revenge of the bureaucrats on the masses of suffering humanity who pay their inflated salaries and expect something in return:

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.

This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.

Through this delicate perception, through the tact with which it invariably seized it, and through the genius with which it always acted on it, the Circumlocution Office had risen to overtop all the public departments; and the public condition had risen to be—what it was.

Another word for such an entity is, of course, a racket, a criminal or quasi-criminal enterprise designed to enrich the barnacles while at the same time absolving them of all responsibility, including having to work for a living. In America, we call it the federal government.

Consider the recent reaction to president Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Those of us over the age of 25 have been hearing, and in part voting, on this aspiration of U.S. foreign policy for decades—and yet it never seemed to get done. Ditto the “peace process,” the war on poverty, a simplified and fairer tax system, honest elections, a balanced budget, the war on drugs and, latterly, the war on terror. Promises, promises, but always How Not to Do It.

That Trump finally did something is to his eternal credit. Naturally, the Democrats who have been mouthing the same policy goal forever, as long as there was no chance of its actually happening, immediately objected—just as they and their allies among the Republicans doubtless would, were there ever to be a definitive end to the various “wars,” including especially the War on Washington, of which the Trump election last year was the first significant opening salvo.

For elections come and go, but somehow the Circumlocution Office remains serenely ensconced on Capitol Hill, collecting record tax revenues, running up record deficits and, more important, record debt; and offering ever more generous services while delivering the Post Office and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Their real goal is to drive up real estate prices in Virginia and Maryland, to support hundreds of expensive restaurants, to care for and feed fleets of lobbyists who also care for and feed them, and—always—to survive. Even the names of the laws they pass are circumlocutory: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act being primus inter pares—although no doubt it will be topped in due course.

At last count, more than half a million elected officials “serve” at all levels across the country. Enormous sums of money are raised, generated, and spent in pursuit of many of these offices—funds that have no other reason to exist than to buy influence. Not that there’s anything wrong with this: from Caesar’s time to the present, humanity has organized itself into a hierarchy—sorry, ladies, a patriarchy—whose leaders control the spigots of life and death, and whose flattery by means fair and foul is thus essential to the smooth workings of the system. ‘Twas ever thus, and ‘twill ever be thus, no matter how furiously the Goo-goos rage, or how many new civil-service jobs are created in a vain attempt to take politics out of politics.

No matter how imperfect, the attempt to avoid a kind of Persian Empire satrapy or Arabic caliphate was and remains noble, and presidential attempts to cut the Gordian Knot have always been opposed in the name of dictatorship-avoidance. And yet, there comes a time when decisive action is called for. History does not “progress” (I argue that it doesn’t “progress” at all) by bureaucratic fiat or committee meetings; rather, it is suddenly and dramatically upended, for better or worse, by the actions of a few, most often in response to the sclerotic kluge of the Circumlocution Office and its minions.

It’s called, in less sanguinary terms, leadership, and over the past year, President Trump has been trying to provide just that despite relentless opposition from the Circumlocution Office and its media mouthpieces, none of whom wishes to see his apple-cart upset. Bureaucrats enjoy their salaries and perks; the barnacles of the press enjoy their access and reflected glory, plus their salaries and perks, and therefore will endure almost any humiliation to maintain them. Were the president—any president—to order an end to Islamic attacks on the West via drastic military action or reverse the “immigration” crisis by emulating Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback” (even the name is offensive now, not to mention the objective), the howls would be deafening. Similarly, were Congress to exercise its plain authority under Article III of the Constitution (yes, Article III) and reform or abolish the entire federal judiciary except for the Supreme Court, we’d never hear the end of it.

And so the public condition has risen to be . . . what it is.

“Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war,” declaims Antony over the freshly slain body of Caesar, speaking for the people of Rome, and we know just how he feels.

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About Michael Walsh

Michael Walsh is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He was for 16 years the music critic and foreign correspondent for Time Magazine, for which he covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. His works include the novels As Time Goes By, And All the Saints (winner, 2004 American Book Award for fiction), and the bestselling “Devlin” series of NSA thrillers; as well as the recent nonfiction bestseller, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. A sequel, The Fiery Angel, was published by Encounter in May 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @dkahanerules (Photo credit: Peter Duke Photo)

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14 responses to “Stuck in the Middle with the Circumlocution Office”

  1. Happy to be the first to weigh in here: this is a magnificent oration on what ails Washington and America.

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  2. As Mephistopheles to Faust…
    “Why this is The Circumlocution Bureau…nor are we out of it!”

    Living always in one section of the swamp, it is too easy to adapt, adjust and find it …ultimately…homey. Not bad, really, for a swamp…and once you get used to the snakes and alligators, the quicksand, and the sucking bogs, it’s actually rather a straightforward place to get from here to there via that and thus. You just have to keep your approved procedures straight.

    So from this sodden, and exceedingly Kafkaesque perspective, it is too easy to look East, and exclaim, “Lawdy, Pogo, now THAT place…that is REALLY swampy!” Pshaw…sez I.

    The Circumlocution Bureau is everywhere. It is how we live. It has filled our schools, our places of business, our neighborhoods & HoA’s. It has consumed the Media, or perhaps the Media has consumed It (they are indistinguishable, each thriving on the effluvia of the other). We live it, breathe it, eat it. We have met the Circumlocution Bureau, and it is Us!

    How many people do we know who actually create something we can see, feel, hear, smell, or taste? And how many do we know who are there to ‘support’, enable, control, manage, supervise, direct, protect, antagonize, overwhelm, bury, insulate, redirect, inspect, approve, and slow-down & encumber that one, productive individual? How many of us have become experts in Circumlocution (be it legal, rhetorical, procedural, political, social, regulatory, or cultural?) How many of us have made our careers that way?

    Heck, here in the heart of the Bureau we learn there are right and wrong ways to do everything. And the ‘right’ way, the approved way, the way described in all the policy manuals is ALWAYS slower, more indirect, cumbersome, counter-productive, and anti-intuitive. There are approved and unapproved ways to hold a baby, put him to bed, cover him with a blanker (not on your life!), cover his feet with shoes (not if you want him to walk!), feed him, let him cry, not let him cry…the list is endless and growing and worst of all taken as gospel but all the willing ’employees’ of the Circumlocution Bureau — The Baby Industry Branch. And every night on the news we learn from that particular branch of the Bureau the latest thing to do or not do (see our website for procedural details!).

    Of course no time for that now,we are consumed with the latest expansion of the CB as it works 24/7 to redefine & super-proceduralize the way men and women interact. “Was that a tongue I see before me…an uninvited hand upon a bottom placed — what monstrous thing is this??!! Have we not the signed doctrine of Affirmative Consent? Can the owner of said tongue produce the verifying document? Have our terms of interaction been effectively defined? Have we tested blood-levels for intoxication? Can we say, as objective observer, that both parties of the first part possess equivalent socio-political ‘power’ (with appropriate economic weighting)????”

    Why this is hell, nor are we out of it.

  3. I’ve been thinking the current situation is more Kafkaesque than Dickensesque. But I guess they are not mutually exclusive.

  4. Boy, this guy can write. However, there is some irony in his decrying “circumlocution,” commonly defined as “using many words where fewer would do, especially in a deliberate attempt to be vague or evasive; long-winded.”

    “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war,” declaims Antony over the freshly slain body of Caesar, speaking for the people of Rome[.]”

    Trump lost the popular vote and by virtually every measure does not have the confidence of two-thirds of Americans. Unlike Shakespeare’s fictional Antony, Trump cannot plausibly claim to speak for “the people.” Tens of millions of us are deeply unsettled, frightened even, at the “havoc” Trump apparently believes it is his mandate to create.

    “I argue that [history] does not ‘progress’ at all.”

    If he really believe this, then he must believe it doesn’t matter where political norms and governmental structures land after they are “dramatically upended.” And if this is true, if there truly is no progress, why suffer the immediate fear, discord, and chaos that will be engendered by the “havoc” for which he cheers?

    • What is the most frightening thing to you about Trump’s presidency?

      • Well, it probably won’t surprise you to hear I have many, and that they’re updated almost as frequently as the White House staff directory and Mueller’s list of indictments. But I appreciate that you’ve asked for Number One, which keeps the discussion focused. A few discrete issues/themes/fears seem to rotate in and out of the top slot, but right now it’s:

        Trump is willing, indeed eager, to attack, disparage, and undermine confidence in fundamental principles and institutions of the American Democratic Experiment – including a free press, an independent judiciary, and the soundness of our voting processes – as a cheap political tactic and to protect his Hindenburg-sized, eggshell-fragile ego.

        One can certainly see it differently and urge that my fears are unfounded. But I hope I don’t have to wade into the weeds of “It’s rigged, folks,” and “I’ll keep you in suspense,” and “three million fraudulent votes” and the Voter Election Fraud Commission, and the “the enemy of the people” and the incessant, reflexive, reactionary cries of “fake news” to convince you that I’m not just some libtard snowflake who can’t get over the fact that Trump won, #MAGA!!

        Far too often, this is the type of response I get when I voice these concerns in conservative forums, which immediately raises a corresponding worry: The President and his followers not only don’t care about me and my concerns, they actually have contempt for me because I’m one of the losers who didn’t vote for him.

      • I certainly agree with you that there are many jingoistic folks on the Trump side. Some are just plain foolish, some are fed up with the tyranny of the left, and are sick of being nice. Some, the intellectuals among us, are alarmed at the extra-constitutional overreach of American government (this includes the judiciary) in the last several decades.

        Some of us are morally sickened by the reckless casualness of our many Middle Eastern misadventures since 9/11. I hated Bush and was hopeful that Obama would do better and then I came to hate Obama as well. I personally think Hillary is a warmongering monster. Trump is certainly offensive at times, but as far as I am concerned Hillary is utterly devoid of soul.

        When I watch CNN, I see posers and liars and virtue signalers. It drips with insincerity.

        The Russia conspiracy stampede has been such a farce. Such a silly, desperate distraction. It’s hard to appreciate the media’s supposedly constructive role in our republic when they are so complicit in this fabrication. They have made themselves incredible, and laughable, and contemptible. And nearly brought our government to a halt.

        How has Trump attacked an independent judiciary? Are you referring to his criticism of the blockages of his travel bans?

      • We agree on some issues, such as perils of U.S. military adventurism, the irresponsible hyperventilations of the press, and extra-constitutional overreach (though I suspect we would evaluate specific ostensible examples of them very differently), and disagree on others, such as the merits of the Russia collusion investigation.

        But one thing you’ve said goes to the heart of your initial question to me: “Trump is certainly offensive at times, but as far as I am concerned Hillary is utterly devoid of soul.”

        The evidence of the thirty-plus years since Donald J. Trump first welled up like a gilded boil on the butt of American culture conclusively proves that all Donald J. Trump has ever truly cared about are the fame and fortune of Donald J. Trump. The herald and apotheosis of a reality TV world, where the mantras “there’s no such thing as bad press” and “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people” have been taken to their logical extremes, not only is he utterly devoid of soul, he mocks the quaint notion that a soul (or basic decency, civility, class, humility, introspection, etc.) has any value with every unearned brag and boast and with every slur, insult, and lie he hurls at anyone who doesn’t sing his praises.

        In my humble opinion.

        Yeah, I really, really can’t stand the guy.

      • Beautifully written. And I don’t care to try to deny his motivations.

      • Thanks, you do too, and conversations like this one are exactly the reason I keep venturing hopefully into forums like this. It’s simple: Reasonable, patriotic people of good will and good faith actually can differ.

        But no, I can’t share your joy. Your metaphor is apt: When Trumpinand finishes his rampage, I’ve no doubt all we’ll be left with is broken china and bullshit.

  5. We were doing pretty well there for a while, then we descended into SwampSpeak at the end:

    …or reverse the “immigration” crisis by emulating Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback” (even the name is offensive now, not to mention the objective)…

    OK, but “offensive” is not an objective quality of anything. That name doesn’t offend me, and its objective — the deportation of those here illegally — is not only not offensive, but vitally necessary and a large part of why Trump won.