Do you hate “process”?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Have you ever found that steam was coming out of your ears because someone told you that you had to “go through the process”? Are you sick unto death of being told to “trust the process”? (If you have ever been involved in an Episcopal Church search committee, we know that you will understand.)

A movie review by A. O. Scott in Sunday’s New York Times explains why “process” is so infuriating, and why it should be resisted whenever possible. This is the first part of the article (the movie reviews that follow are not very interesting so I do not show them.)

In 1988 The New York Review of Books dispatched Joan Didion to report on the presidential election, an assignment that resulted in a classic essay on the modern way of campaigning titled “Insider Baseball.” Over the years that phrase — usually in a snappier, syntactically dubious variation, without the R — has become both a cliché and a cultural principle. “Inside baseball” could be the name of a multimedia genre, a mode of storytelling focused, above all, on that mysterious thing called process.

“When we talk about the process,” Ms. Didion noted, “we are talking, increasingly, not about ‘the democratic process’ or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals.”

Today these words sound both prescient and a bit quaint. The mechanism Ms. Didion described — kept moving by interlocking cadres of consultants, pollsters, spin doctors and journalists — continues to distract and perhaps also to alienate the public from the substance of democracy. But the paradoxical appeal of inside baseball as a kind of narrative is that it promises to overcome this alienation through a mock initiation. Those unseen string pullers and manipulators are in possession of the esoteric knowledge that makes the world go around, and if we could glimpse them at their occult labors, we might taste a bit of their power.

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