Stains on “White Paper”–On the nature of bureaucratic information-gathering

Bureaucratic approaches to the study of history and culture are fundamentally authoritarian. Understanding bureaucratic knowledge-gathering and bureaucracies in general requires ethnographic knowledge, including the folk knowledge, traditions, and practices of bureaucrats, which is sometimes only retrievable through the Freedom of Information Act.

Bureaucrats insist on the codification of rules for gathering and interpreting history. Though apparently scientific and unbiased in nature these rules are self-serving for the bureaucrat, serving the goals of government agencies or private bureaucracies. It is always easier when dealing with information that is challenging to the position of the bureaucrat if one can question its adherence to a set of bureaucratically-established rules, rather than deal with the meaning of the information itself. Similarly, it is easier to call attention to the use of bureaucratically-defined terminology than to deal with the merits of an opposing argument.  If the non-bureaucrat–that is to say, the person–can be shown to have used a word or phrase in the wrong way, then this will be used as a way of defeating the person’s argument without necessitating the use of real contradictory data.

The concept of data, itself, is often a bureaucratic concept. In drafting rules and in defining terms, the bureaucrat seeks to define the very nature of what is information and what is not. The bureaucrat defines data in ways that is supportive of the bureaucratic position. Written records, viewed as authoritative, especially when created by a bureaucracy, are preferred over oral history or tradition, even in circumstances when the meaning in question has to do with living oral tradition itself.  When information that does not accord with arbitrary standards created by the bureaucrat is presented in a public arena, then the validity of the information can be easily undermined.

Bureaucracies are more forgiving of the flaws in their own historical records than they are of the history assembled by others.  Information that fits the bureaucrat’s own preconceptions, prejudices, and assumptions is assumed to be accurate. If information gathered supports the motives and beliefs of bureaucratic managers, standards for judging it are lower than evidence that contradicts those beliefs and motives. In fact, what bureaucrats know or think they know requires little evidence at all. Few critical standards of accuracy are applied to it.

In most public contexts, including in bureaucracies, history is respected if it comes from official sources. Information from such sources is sometimes labelled a “White Paper“–an ostensibly “authoritative report,” one without blemish or flaw. Information from bureaucratic sources is preferred to information from non-bureaucratic sources. Information from tribal governments is preferred to information from tribal people, even from tribal historians, elders, or spiritual leaders. Individuals are assumed to have an ax to grind. Bureaucracies are, by definition, never motivated by personal motives.They are believed to be purely dispassionate and scientific in their points of view. They never have an ax to grind or a dog in any fight.

Media are simply another form of bureaucracy. Newspapers in particular prefer information from official sources. Questions about the accuracy of historical information are often discounted by media when it comes from individuals, especially if this involves a challenge to information collected by official bureaucracies. When official sources question the accuracy of information from individuals, the official source is assumed by the media to be accurate.

All of this explains why it is difficult to call into question the accuracy of information gathered by a bureaucracy. Since bureaucracies naturally protect other bureaucracies, it usually takes a major scandal, such as a hand in the till, sex, or some vaguely shocking facts of some sort or another. Even if these facts are only related indirectly to the accuracy of information, they are often enough to raise questions. Once questions start being asked, it is finally possible to change the equation in the process of bureaucratic information-gathering. But the questions raised have to have some basis in fact or they will simply affirm the false legitimacy of the bureaucratic information structure.

The application of this analysis to the bureaucratic information-gathering practices of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area’s in regard to the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines Twin Cities Campus property in Hennepin County, Minnesota, will be discussed next time.

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