In the late 19th century, bureaucracy was heralded as the ultimate progressive reform. After millennia of coveted government positions split between friends and relatives of the powerful and the highest bidder, dedicated civil servants with specialized training would take their place. Meritocratic expert governance would replace corruption with integrity, pettiness with professionalism, bias with compassion.
That progressive vision never worked. Franz Kafka was soon writing poignant novels about the inhuman mills the bureaucracies had become. The Trial and The Castle told chilling tales of innocents at the mercy of faceless, heartless systems oblivious to the human lives they were grinding to dust.
Things have hardly improved over the past century. On March 5, 2015, Hollywood actor Greg Ellis found himself cast in the leading role of a nightmare that would have made Kafka proud. That day, the police descended upon Ellis’s home and pulled him away from his two young sons.
As Ellis soon learned, he stood accused of having said: “I’m sick of this shit. I’m gonna harm the children.” The allegation alone was enough to destroy his life. The police confined him to a mental health ward “for observation” and ushered him into the system. Six years later, he remains trapped, alone, and separated from his sons.
The naked allegation turned out to be his wife’s subtle way of telling him that she wanted a divorce, she wanted him out of their children’s lives, and she was willing to scorch the earth to get her way. A trained professional might have sought at least a modicum of corroborating evidence. An objective investigator might have wondered about the accuser’s motive. After all, while there are indeed fathers who hurt their children, there are also spouses who lie to secure advantage in the midst of a divorce.
You might be forgiven for thinking that a system designed to resolve intra-family disputes would want to know which possibility was true in which families. When it comes to the Los Angeles County family law system, however, you would be wrong. No one cared.
Ellis found himself a faceless, stereotyped cog stripped of human dignity. The system dispenses with the notion of a fair hearing; it simply presumes that men are abusive while women are victims. Worse, unlike innocent Muslims presumed to be terrorists or innocent black teenage boys presumed to be criminals, innocent fathers presumed to be abusers garner little sympathy. No one in the media cares, no one marches expressing outrage, no one helps clear their names, no one ever apologizes.
As Ellis found himself falling down the hellish bureaucratic rabbit hole, he researched the situation. He discovered that he was hardly alone. Family law systems around the country systematically rip fathers from their children, bankrupt them in the process, and drive them into depression, anxiety, and suicide.
“The Respondent” is part of Ellis’s therapy. He wrote to make sense of the government-sponsored devastation of his life and destruction of his family. He wrote to let his children know that he had not abandoned them. He wrote to tell other similarly situated men that they are not alone. Perhaps most of all, he wrote to ring the alarm about a broken system.
He did all of those things well. He left only two critical points unstated.
First, much as bureaucracy realizes a goal of 19th century progressives, the family law bureaucracy exemplifies a goal of today’s progressives. In no other aspect of contemporary life does police action glide so seamlessly into the supposedly compassionate arm of social workers. Ellis’s observation? He would have been better off in criminal court. At least there he would have preserved his rights.
Second, though Ellis’ personal nightmare unfolded in family court, comparable nightmares abound. Veterans seeking care from the VA, taxpayers seeking redress from the IRS, landowners seeking EPA clearance to use their own land, parents trying to question their school district . . . the list is endless.
The TSA lines we have all experienced train us for life under totalitarianism: Stand nervously, keep to yourself, avoid eye contact, comply with arbitrary instructions, hope to avoid scrutiny, and never ask questions. In 2020, the expert-driven government response to COVID brought that ethos into our communities and homes. We stand today on the precipice of a full-blown, expert-worshipping, bureaucratic dehumanization of society.
The entire progressive experiment with bureaucracy has become a shameful, inhuman, failure. Humanity evaporates. Instructions are internally incoherent. Compliance is necessary but insufficient. Promised rewards may be withheld without notice.
Greg Ellis’ totalitarian nightmare caught him unaware of the moral depravity of modern American bureaucracy. It cost him dearly. Along the way, he devised some excellent ideas about reforming our family law system. That’s a fine place to start—but it’s hardly the only bureaucracy we need to gut and rebuild from scratch.
Those who have shared Ellis’ torment may find his book therapeutic. Those who have not would do well to internalize his lessons before becoming ensnared in one of the many inhuman governing contemporary American life.