I’ve recently completed an essay and like quite a few of my essays, it’s not been ‘optimised’ for publication in a magazine, so I may not try to publish it. But in case any folks here think it’s of interest, they need only put their email in comments below or email me and I’ll send them access to it on Google docs.
The first of six sections is reproduced below:
This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says “Doc, My brother is crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.” And the doctor says “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says “I would but I need the eggs”.
Woody Allen, Annie Hall
Jokes are special purpose vehicles. Like those mirrors on sticks that dentists use, they can illuminate things that are tucked away. In a recent essay I promoted a joke I’d previously used as an embellishment to the centrepiece of my analysis. It was Lord Acton’s joke about rowing being the perfect preparation for public life — enabling you to go in one direction while facing in the other. Writing about policy to promote Indigenous wellbeing, I argued that the system goes from one fad diet to another but won’t face up to the endless ways, large and small in which it says one thing — “we put people first” — but then does another whenever its own interests or routines would otherwise be disrupted.
The difficulty of getting some candid focus on this issue within the bureaucracy — with its obsession with appearances and with keeping its political masters safe — is regrettable but at least understandable. But the problem goes far deeper. Academia seems barely more cognisant of the problem. An analysis of the subtle elisions and evasions within government is difficult to shoehorn into the standard journal article in public policy or management.1 Meanwhile, those seeking to promote solutions in government both from within and without tend to work within parameters set by the system. Whether they’ve articulated the problem of the system’s duplicity to themselves, it a safer bet both for their careers, and also for the good they might do if they take all that as given and seek improvements with ‘bolt on’ initiatives that the system might be persuaded to want (See Section V).
And so to needing the eggs. As Woody Allen explains in the last lines of Annie Hall, relationships are full of things that make no sense, “but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs”. A simplified example of the phenomenon is provided by an actor on stage who mumbles through some lines they’ve forgotten. They don’t fess up to the audience. They keep the show on the road. They need the eggs. So does the audience. It’s slowly been dawning on me how ubiquitous this needing the eggs phenomenon is. And how much keeping up appearances drives dysfunction. The exuberant madness of the joke obscures the ubiquity of its subject — and its profundity. Indeed, as we go about our lives, our brains are keeping their own show on the road. As philosopher Michael Polanyi reported, there’s a blind spot in our field of vision which can obliterate a person’s head 6 feet away from us. Yet so good was our brain at keeping up appearances that it went unnoticed in human history until the twentieth century.
II. Needing the eggs in the academy (wonkish and skippable)
III. It was ever thus
IV. Needing the eggs 70 years on
V. What is to be done I: Your organisation
VI. What is to be done II: You