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What I’ve Learned About Crises, or How My Vaguest Shadow of a Doubt Died Today…

It’s been snowing heavily the last couple of days in my area. The thing about snowstorms–like other crises–is that they reveal a lot. It’s difficult to gauge the stability of a system in normal times, though of course you can guess. But a crisis, that lays bare a lot.

Now, when I say it’s been snowing “heavily” allow me to adjust that comment: I don’t know what’s fallen so far, but the prediction for was 10cm, which just barely qualifies as heavy. (And today’s snow certainly was not heavy, though it was constant.)

So… why did one of my colleagues (wisely) rush home instead of meeting up with me as planned? Why did I stand outside for 30 minutes waiting for a campus shuttlebus that was supposed to come, that was supposed to post a Facebook notice if it wasn’t coming, but which simply didn’t show up? (With no sign posted on the bus stop, even?) Why did the subway shut down periodically yesterday?

Why, when we walked through our neighborhood to get home, did we see people slipping and sliding all over the sidewalk, and struggle ourselves to keep our footing, even though I have decades of experience dealing with slippery, icy terrain every winter?

Crises are good because they reveal fundamental instability; in fact, the crisis is not the phenomenon that triggers it, but it is the manifestation of a system’s inability to deal with a phenomenon. A mere “heavy snow” is not a crisis when you have snow tires, or a city government with the memory to remember recent snowstorms and prepare for future ones.

So, no: the snow is not the reason why the trains and bus shut down; nor is it the reason why everyone was unable to walk straight through the snow to get home.

The train system was not built to handle “heavy snow” — not even a single instance of heavy snow — though of course it could have been, and could still be upgraded to that quality. There is a system in place for the campus shuttle bus to announce service cancellation, but it was not used by the employee who decided to call it a night. The streets (and especially walking spaces) were slippery because overly smooth bricks, being cheaper and more aesthetically pleasing to the eye for some type of moron, were selected for paving areas that are bordered by incredibly smooth concrete curbing, which is even more incredibly slippery — and not only in snow, but also in rain.

(And to be fair, this is true of crises everywhere. Hurricane Katrina didn’t cause the crisis in New Orleans: dumbassed unpreparedness, racism, and governmental dysfunction caused that. The crises what happens when occasional phenomena — predictable or otherwise — interface with a system’s inherent problems. I encounter crises more often in Korea, unsurprisingly: the attitude towards systemic problems here tends much more often to be, “Well, it turned out okay, so it’s not really a problem.” But this is true of crises everywhere.)

Crises. They’ve been all exploding all around me, today.

It’s not the crazed, power-tripping Korean-American down the hall who apparently is trying to get me evicted who is the problem; a sensible, non-bigoted system for processing complaints would reveal her craziness, through an arbitration meeting or something. Instead, I’m being issued a “final” warning for things that nobody complained about, for not following notices I never received, for problems that were sorted out as soon as I was notified (and one of which had nothing to do with me, in fact).

It’s not the special, foreigner-specific aspects of the tenure review process paperwork that are the problem, for these only reveal the fundamental disorganization and bias of the Kafkaesque bureaucracy issuing them. Instead, an insane amount of paperwork was sent to me, then discarded, and re-requested, including apparently foreigner-specific paperwork that Korean profs never have to fill out, and which nobody in the building the day it was requested (ASAP!) could explain to me, because even the admins didn’t know what it entailed.

Well, okay, maybe my crazed neighbor and the bizarre repeating mound of paperwork are problems, bbut they’re not the fundamental ones. I’m finding it more useful to recognize that they are more importantly the trigger for the manifestation of crisis, the crisis more deeply rooted in the system. The system is run by bigoted morons who have no systems to mitigate their bigotry; and it is disorganized, or rather organized like a make-work project for bureaucrats. The former is the real reason why my crazed neighbor is being taken at her word, and the latter is the real reason why the renewal process is so ridiculously extra-convoluted for people who look like me.  (That’s not a boo-hoo sob story about racism; it’s a simple recognition of fact. Were I pulling down six figures, I might be able to insulate myself from the reality, but things being as they are, I can’t, and recognizing that is realistic.)

The other positive thing about crises is that when they manifest, they make it impossible to ignore the systemic problems of which they are in fact manifestations. Human beings are prone to ignoring problems for a while, for a little longer, until a little bit longer becomes way too long; inertia, the fear of the unknown, the easiness of putting up and shutting up — all of these things are much harder to give in to when crisis comes. All these crises have killed every shadow of a doubt left inside me regarding the need for 2012 to be a year of big changes.

As I suppose that’s enough of an answer to a question I was asked here not so long ago. I’ll have more to say about that later, of course. But for now, I’ll just say: there’s a lot to look forward to. Primarily this works in contrast to what there’s a lot of right now.

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