Helplessness and Power

A great deal of fiction–possibly the majority–is dedicated to the fantasy of having some control over your life. Superman and Batman are strong enough that they can beat up (or otherwise stop) the bad guys, and don’t get sued or put in prison for their vigilante activities. Luke Skywalker gets in a little plane and shoots a laser beam into a hole and thereby brings down an entire Death Star. Voldemort gets pissed off at everyone for treating him shittily and so becomes the world’s most powerful wizard and sets out to make the world burn; Harry Potter uses his own magic power to defeat evil.

One of the most horrible villains in the Harry Potter series isn’t over-the top, sad-backstory Voldemort, but Dolores Umbridge–a plump Hogwartz teacher who dresses in pink, decorates with fluffy pink curtains and china plates with pictures of kittens on them, and makes Harry Potter write apologies in his own blood for, IIRC, having honestly states that Voldemort was back. She is the image of sweetness and propriety while torturing students and helping Voldemort, and there’s nothing Harry and his friends can do to stop her from using the official wizarding world bureaucracy to take over his school, at least until they lure her into the forest and trick her into getting abducted by centaurs.

In real life there are many Doloreses, but no centaurs.

In real life, it is quite illegal to get in a fight (of any kind) with anyone. Even cursing at someone can be “verbal assault.” The desire for revenge against those who’ve wronged you may be a basic human instinct (I am quite certain it is,) but revenge is illegal. Oh, yes, the state can take revenge–the state can lock people up or even put them to death–but ordinary citizens are not allowed to track down miscreants and beat the shit out of them. It is very, very illegal.

What do you do when someone wrongs you?

Here, fill out this form; talk to these people. If your case matches our criteria, something may be done–in months, or years. Here’s some more paperwork.

Nope, sorry, you don’t meet the criteria. There is nothing you can do.

The sheer amount of paperwork to keep track of in American society is overwhelming. I have friends who’ve lived in both America and China; the Chinese do not suffer under half the paperwork burden we do.

“Reducing overhead” remains one of my #1 political agenda items.

Paperwork, bureaucracy, and red tape are crushing our economy. They are probably worse than military spending, welfare, and everything else people hate that the government does combined. And they destroy people’s lives by forcing them to spend their time doing fucking paperwork instead of living.

And we do paperwork because we aren’t allowed to punch each other anymore.

If a mining company destroys a community by dumping poison waste into the local drinking water, the natural consequence is that the affected locals find the CEO, tie him to a chair, and drop him in the river. Today you file a class-action lawsuit and petition the local city officials to switch drinking water sources and groan in frustration as nothing happens for three decades straight.

Living in cities (as most of us do) means coming into constant contact with other people. Some of those people are nice, some are mean, and most are just irrelevant. You pass them on your way to work (or they pass you), ignore them at lunch and try not to make eye contact with them on the street.

Don’t make too much noise; the neighbors might hear you.

I was just talking to someone who was vociferously complaining that their neighbors “slam their car doors” at 2 am. And what will they do? Ask their neighbors to close their doors more softly? Or call the police to report a noise complaint? Probably the latter.

Everyone has to dial down their personalities, close up, avoid the people around themselves to avoid conflicts with the hundreds (or thousands) of people they pass by every day, otherwise lawsuits or police officers get involved.

Cities are intolerable.

There is no power in real life; no one (except maybe lawyers, police officers, and some politicians,) has any power.

For all my disagreement with them, I understand where the BLM crowd and their ilk are coming from: they feel powerless. The system is against them (it’s against everyone.)

Pretty much the only easy way to get power in modern society is to assemble a Twitter mob and attack someone. Maybe you can get them uninvited to a con, or kicked out of a university. Maybe you can just make them cry: power.

It’s the closest we come to bloodying a bully’s nose.

You might say the Twitter mob is the bully.

Yes, that’s the entire point. The bully is the one with the power.

A friend of mine was abused as a child. It’s powerless enough just being a child; everyone else is bigger than you. You must constantly obey others–teachers, parents, even older siblings and bigger kids on the playground. But to be beaten by your parents is another level entirely. And no one saved my friend. They grew up, broken, and devoted their life to becoming the biggest, baddest, meanest person around so they wouldn’t be hurt again.

Of course, then the police got them.

Even when something doesn’t involve conflict–just a simple change that would benefit everyone involved–it’s virtually impossible to get anything done. Take milk. Pediatricians overwhelmingly agree that children should drink regular–4%, full-fat, whole–milk, not low-fat or fat-free milk. The low fat milks are specialty diet products for people who are on a diet, and pediatricians don’t advise putting your kid on a diet unless they truly need to be on one, because calorie restriction can be really unhealthy when your body is supposed to be growing. Despite this, my kids’ school only serves low-fat and fat free milk, and since no one who has the actual power to make purchasing decisions gives a shit that this is actually unhealthy for kids, only an insane amount of protesting on my part (say, convincing a few hundred parents to sign a petition to change the milk) could get them to change the milk to the variety it is supposed to be.

And this is accompanied by the infuriating feeling that people are only pretending to listen, because they never actually change anything.

So the best we can do is put on a movie or pic up a book and read about someone else–the girl who wins the super handsome hunk, the hero who defeats the evil bad guy–who gets to be powerful and control their life.


20 thoughts on “Helplessness and Power

  1. Gas cans: All gas can spouts must now be compliant with some insane system which was theoretically intended to prevent them from spilling, because environment or something. They spill gas everywhere, far more than the old ones ever did.

    You know who uses gas cans? Mexican landscapers, and sad irrelevant rednecks too poor to hire a crew of Mexicans to do their yard work for them. People who deserve to be harassed by idiotic laws.

    Oh, and our brainless new HR bimbo just made us start writing our own yearly reviews. Because she’s a cretin, it’s the New Thing, and either nobody else in management gives a shit — or they do but they care more about hurting this moron’s feelings.

    America in a nutshell:

    “no one who has the actual power to make purchasing decisions gives a shit”

    They were probably Showing That They Cared.


    • My “water efficiency compliant” clothes washer does not use enough water to rinse the soap off the clothes… so I have to run all of the laundry through twice. Twice the time for no water savings.
      HR departments are horrible.


    • I had the same feeling. Yes, this is “democracy” in a nutshell. Though really I doubt it’s much worse being a subject of late democracy than it is being a subject of most of regimes. Power is always like that. The difference between being a subject of modern democracy and being a subject of a monarch is that when you’re the subject of a monarch, you don’t flatter yourself that you have power. In democracy, you do. It’s a matter of living without lies, not getting more of what you want.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ”They grew up, broken, and devoted their life to becoming the biggest, baddest, meanest person around so they wouldn’t be hurt again.”

    Being the meanest person means having a target being painted on one’s back. Being strong without needless antagonism is what is required.

    Those who commit to being the meanest person end up in the morgue or in prison or on drugs.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dolores was the ultimate bureaucratic nightmare. I wanted to see Voldemort defeated, but Dolores is the one with whom you felt no sympathy when she was–ahem–abducted by an angry mob of centaurs.

    “modern man is strapped down by a network of rules and regulations, and his fate depends on the actions of persons remote from him whose decisions he cannot influence.”


  4. ”The desire for revenge against those who’ve wronged you may be a basic human instinct (I am quite certain it is,) but revenge is illegal. Oh, yes, the state can take revenge–the state can lock people up or even put them to death–but ordinary citizens are not allowed to track down miscreants and beat the shit out of them. It is very, very illegal.”

    The good thing about this is that it puts an end to revenge spirals that end up happening if people are allowed to take revenge.

    However what people end up doing is trying to take revenge against the government for executing their own for their crimes.

    Many insurgencies and rebellions come to mind and the current wars organized crime gangs against the government as well as assassinating government officials in Latin America.


  5. Outstanding.

    You have gotten to the overall crux of the issue. When you add up all the things weighing down on us: paperwork, bad government, no way to punish people who do us wrong, etc. your perfect summary is: almost none of us have any power/control/agency over our own lives. Just thinking of it in this way actually gave me a feeling of relief–of COURSE modern life feels bad…they’ve taken away my agency.

    So, I’d love your advice on how can we get back some power in our own lives.

    I’m guessing that a few of the areas you might mention might be:
    – don’t live in a city
    – take a few steps to avoid the most soul-crushing paperwork (e.g., don’t bother filing the class action lawsuit, don’t try to set up a small business with 20 employees, etc.)
    – lower expectations, think locally, focus on what we can control

    What else? What are some tips for how to feel some agency in life while living in a system that strips us of agency?


    • Thank you.
      That’s a really good question, and to be honest, I don’t know. It sounds like you’ve got some good thoughts on the matter. “Avoid HOAs” comes immediately to mind, because HOAs seem to exist to harass people.
      An ounce of prevention probably is worth a pound of cure; I know people who’ve gotten really screwed in divorces because their ex had critical financial documents and they’d lost some of theirs. Keeping track of the papers ahead of time would have saved them much money and paperwork down the road.
      Spirituality is probably comforting to the religious, especially verses like the Beatitudes.

      I’ll have to give this some more thought to come up with better answers. :)


  6. The thing is, a lot of other parents don’t know that low fat milk isn’t great for kids. Even a lot of pediatricians routinely recommend low fat. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut on the issue with other parents around. My daughter is tall and skinny and constantly climbing, so nobody questions my giving her full fat milk, at least. (And, oh, if nutrition were my biggest worry about the whole school thing… Still have a few years to officially worry… Kindergarten here is full day with a grand total of 20 minutes recess… And they simultaneously have lackluster academics. Best of both worlds.)


    • You know, I don’t think the subject has ever come up with my mom friends, and our pediatricians have all been pretty on-the-ball with nutrition research. I guess I’ve gotten lucky.

      There’s always homeschooling. :)


  7. Even moving to the country is no help. In Florida a Women built a house with all solar and a well. They told her she couldn’t live in the house unless she hooked up to utilities which she didn’t need, for which they were going to charge her a fortune.

    I moved outside of the city and found after moving there that it’s still in the 7 mile city jurisdiction. So I had to deal with inspectors and pay the city even though I didn’t live there. This is apparently everywhere. How they can tax without representing you I don’t know. Apparently judges believe this is proper because the city might some day expand.


    • Bummer. :(
      I don’t know Florida law, but I’ve had relatives with no running water due to their wells going dry (drought) and who spent years and years hoping the nearest city would finally make good on its promise to lay pipes for running water. Frustrating for everyone.


  8. Yes, but even if this stuff was all solved we would still fundamentally powerless because of civilization itself. In the old, less civilized times people decided they want to eat cucumber, planted it, cared for it, harvested it and ate it. People who did not want to eat cucumber planted something else. Today we hope the job market will come up with a job we are qualified for and will not hate, get it, then do what we are told, we get paid, go to the shop and hope we will find some nice cucumbers, pay for them and eat them. The job market and the boss has power over whether we get the cash, the shop and producers has power over whether we can exchange the cash for good cucumbers. It feels like back when people grew their own they were more in power over it.

    I understand the division of labor leads to a higher quality of living, but it seems powerlessness is an unavoidable side-effect.

    This is while I disagree with stuff like socialism, and dislike most leftists, I have a certain sympathy with people who do not believe in telling the jobless to get off your lazy ass and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Today people are not born on their parents farm where if they just work that land diligently it will keep them alive. There are probably people who are willing to work hard, but they did not study the right things, just live in the wrong place, or something of that sort, they cannot just work their own land, they must rely on others to give them a job and that is powerlessness.

    Try to explain it to a hunter-gatherer that you cannot just go out to hunt a deer for yourself, you gotta wait until the demand for deer meat is high enough so that someone will hire you as a hunter. He would think you are crazy. While I think socialism, leftism etc. are the wrong answers, capitalism itself does not look that great either if it works like that.


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