SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: We may not be able to fight City Hall, but characterizing it is another matter.


There’s an old saying. I’m not sure I believe the overall gist of it, but it’s somewhere to start during the course of exploring the meaning of things.

(You) can’t fight city hall.

Fig. There is no way to win in a battle against a bureaucracy.

Bill: I guess I’ll go ahead and pay the tax bill.
Bob: Might as well. You can’t fight city hall.

Mary: How did things go at your meeting with the zoning board?
Sally: I gave up. Can’t fight city hall.

This term transfers the seat of city government to a more general sense of bureaucracy in any sphere. [Mid-1800s]

A bureaucracy comprises bureaucrats, and while we abhor bureaucracies in a general sense, in my view we do so in the understanding that individual bureaucrats aren’t necessarily to blame for the design of their habitat. Rather, they’re merely foot soldiers, following orders from higher-ups.

Their bosses “higher up” are the crux of the matter, and during the life of this blog, I’ve often used “City Hall” as representational shorthand to signify the upper echelon of elected and appointed officials who set policy, make decisions, give orders and divert the cash-stuffed envelopes.

There is nothing unusual about this usage, and we commonly see similar ones, as in the Kremlin, the Pentagon, the White House, and No. 10 Downing Street. Importantly, janitors work at each of these institutions, but we’re not speaking of them, are we?

The Kremlin has refused to comment on the situation in Syria.

In this sentence, we’re not referring to the kitchen staff, housekeepers or gardeners at the Kremlin. Rather, it’s an amalgamation of the power structure surrounding Vladimir Putin.

City Hall isn’t interested in the fair enforcement of downtown parking regulations.

In like fashion, this sentence obviously doesn’t imply that ordinance enforcement officers out on the street aren’t interested in doing their jobs. Rather, they take their orders (and their cues) from higher-ups, just like anyone on the shop floor, an aggregation also known as the rank and file.

Exceptions inevitably occur, but in the main, I’ve never been interested in calling out the rank and file. Their bosses are responsible for their performance. My personal theory of business management is that when things go right, the shop floor gets the credit. When they go wrong, management (or owners) take the blame.

Of course, politics tends to work a bit differently. Ultimate responsibility rests with the highest ranking official, but he or she typically fires an underling or institute a purge of minions to avoid responsibility.

The city of New Albany might well posses the ablest and hardest-working municipal parks department in the entire state. However, it has almost nothing to do with the the shop floor if we enter into a public debate about the parks department’s role in civic life, or its annual budget.

Asking questions about such priorities is to expect the answers from those who set them, not those whose job it is to implement them.

In a situation where the highest officials typically refuse to engage in debate, eschewing transparency and preferring to issue diktats in the fashion of a despot, all the while constructing a cult of personality demanding requisite play-acting from the rank and file … admittedly, this scenario might encourage a significant degree of cognitive dissonance in the minds of those inhabiting the shop floor.

But that’s nothing to do with a mere blog, is it?