Yesterday I attended a performance of the Theatre of the Absurd (see Martin Esslin’s piece on the Theatre of the Absurd here). It was an “open session” meeting sponsored by Congressman Bob Goodlatte and run by one of his district staff members. If you’ve ever seen or read Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, you’ll be familiar with the scene I offer here.
Staff member of a government representative
16 concerned citizens
1 unconcerned citizen
Ghost of a government representative
A little kitchen in the county offices of a town in rural Virginia. Long, plastic tables are placed in a rectangle, with folding chairs around them. Flickering fluorescent lights dot the scene, and in the background are sounds of people clicking on computers, answering phones, etc., in neighboring offices. The large, plain clock in the room ticks towards 8:59 a.m.
STAFF MEMBER (standing, holding a stack of folders and mail, speaks to one concerned citizen): Are you here as part of the group?
CONCERNED CITIZEN #1: What group?
STAFF MEMBER: You know, the group.
CONCERNED CITIZEN #1: Ummm… I’m here as a concerned citizen for the open door session sponsored by our district’s congressman.
STAFF MEMBER (still standing, directing herself to Concerned Citizens #’s 2, 3, and 4): Are you here as part of the group?
CONCERNED CITIZEN #2: What group?
STAFF MEMBER (glancing around nervously, gradually placing her things on the table): You know, the group.
CONCERNED CITIZEN #3: Well, I’m here just as a citizen concerned about the congressman’s policy issues.
As the clock shows the 9 o’clock hour, eight more concerned citizens arrive. Each is asked if she or he is there as part of a group. Each looks bewildered and responds, “no” and sits down at the tables.
STAFF MEMBER (passing around a pad of paper and pen): You need to know that this session is reserved for individual cases from individual citizens. I’m passing around paper and a pen. Sign your full name, address, and e-mail, and I’ll share this with the congressman.
(Directs herself to entering Concerned Citizen #13)
Are you here as part of the group?
(Concerned Citizen #13 looks around, recognizes no one among the seated individuals, shakes his head.)
CONCERNED CITIZEN #13: Umm, no, umm, what do you mean ‘part of the group?’
STAFF MEMBER: You need to know that this session is reserved for individual cases from individual citizens.
CONCERNED CITIZEN #7: Why do you keep saying that? Isn’t this an open door session sponsored by the congressman?
STAFF MEMBER: Yes, but you need to know that this session is reserved for individual cases from individual citizens. Now, if people have individual comments they would like me to relay to the congressman, they can raise their hands.
(Concerned Citizen #1 raises his hand.)
STAFF MEMBER (looks at Concerned Citizen #1): Sir, I believe we’ve already heard enough from you.
CONCERNED CITIZEN #1: But I haven’t even…
STAFF MEMBER (cutting off Concerned Citizen #1 and signaling to Concerned Citizen #6): State your name.
CONCERNED CITIZEN #6: Jane. I’m here to talk about the Affordable Care Act. I’m concerned that proposed changes sponsored by the congressman’s party will affect my son’s coverage.
(Staff Member scribbles on her pad of paper.)
CONCERNED CITIZEN #10: I’m here for the same issue. I am concerned about…
(Concerned Citizens #14 and 15 enter.)
STAFF MEMBER: Are you here as part of the group?
(Bewildered looks from Concerned Citizens #14 and 15.)
CONCERNED CITIZEN #15: Uh, what do you mean? We’re here to express concerns about our congressman and the ethics office.
STAFF MEMBER: So this isn’t an individual case?
CONCERNED CITIZEN #14: Well, I’m not sure what you mean. It is individual in that I individually am concerned about how the congressman is trying to gut the ethics office.
STAFF MEMBER: Take a seat.
(Concerned Citizen #10 picks up train of thought from before)
CONCERNED CITIZEN #10: …how changes in the ACA will affect 18,000,000 people in the United States, 30,000 of whom are here in Virginia. I’m also concerned about the billions it will cost to enact these changes.
STAFF MEMBER: I’m only here to hear individual concerns.
(Five other concerned citizens express extemporaneous individual concerns about the ACA. They all speak at the same time.)
(Concerned Citizen #16 enters.)
STAFF MEMBER (sighing heavily): Are you here as part of the group?
CONCERNED CITIZEN #16: What do you mean? I’m just here for the open door session sponsored by our congressman.
STAFF MEMBER: Well, I have to take care of the case load.
(Bewildered look from Concerned Citizen #16. Exasperated looks on the faces of other concerned citizens.)
CONCERNED CITIZEN #8: If we wanted to speak directly with the congressman, how would we do so?
STAFF MEMBER: Well, you can use his website…
(Snickers in the crowd. One loud whisper that the website only seeks donations for the other political party.)
…or work through me.
(Audible groans from the crowd.)
CONCERNED CITIZEN #9: Is it not possible to have a town hall meeting with the congressman?
STAFF MEMBER: No, no, of course not. It is the 21st century. You understand the security concerns.
(Unconcerned Citizen enters the room and pulls up a chair next to Staff Member.)
STAFF MEMBER: Hi, how’re you doing? Are you here for inauguration tickets?
UNCONCERNED CITIZEN: That’s right.
STAFF MEMBER: Here you go. Enjoy!
The plain clock strikes 10:00. The ghost of the government representative smiles and nods at Unconcerned Citizen.
Lights out. Curtain.
You get the picture, right?
Government is not working for the people when its elected officials bask in partisan praise, ignore real concerns offered by individuals and groups, and gerrymander the voting districts. The staff member here is just following orders—box them out (concerned citizens) and protect me (big man in charge). This theatre of the absurd seems all too familiar. Keep an eye on GoodlatteWatch and DearBob. We have to insist that these perennially elected, gerrymandered fat cats start to lose some elections so that we can elect a real representative who will work for—and with—the people.