Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

30 Dec 2017, 17:12 p.m.

What We Confirm

Unlike this nominee for a US District Court judgeship, apparently, I can at least give a one-sentence definition of the Daubert standard because of the hobby I accidentally picked up this year. Which is telling enough. But that clip and its implications also poked at some old memories for me.

As a child and as an adolescent, I generally wanted to act not just well, but defensibly well. The specific scenario that I envisioned was that I would have to answer for myself someday at a confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate (although that was not a particularly fun way to live). Flashbulbs and microphones and wood panelling superimposed themselves on my bedroom wall.

As it turns out, I will probably never actually have that particular challenge. I took the Law School Admissions Test because my family suggested I do it to keep my options open, and got a 165, which was pretty good, but decided not to go to law school unless there was a specific thing I wanted to do that would be a lot easier if I had a law degree. Instead, I worked at a bookstore for a while, and then did customer service at Salon.com for a bit. And while there I followed the news about Hurricane Katrina, and wrote:

What we are now learning about the devastation in the Gulf combines with a growing desire, borne of my working life, to become a manager, a good one.
I reflected a few years later:

I looked at Katrina and said, "For God's sake, we have to do better than that. And I could do better!" I wanted, and still want, to reduce the net amount of mismanagement in the world. We owe ourselves competence.*

By then I was on my way in this new career. And as a non-lawyer who is only ever considered poised and diplomatic by comparison with other programmers, I find it unlikely anyone will ever nominate me for the kind of high-up government gig that would require confirmation hearings.** But I know some more things now about stewardship. I feel a special disgust and horror when I see someone else abuse a power or neglect a responsibility that I share. And the more I know, the more I can do, the more awful the sinking feeling in my chest when I see someone with less capability than me given an important task. I'm looking back at some notes from about a year ago, just after the election:

I am predicting a future where I will ask myself innumerable times "who's minding the store?!", and seek clues as to whether a particular folly is due more to the Scylla of incompetence or the Charybdis of intentional wickedness.
and:
[Laurie] Penny wrote that the President-Elect "has really messed with my life plan. This is far and away not the worst thing he has done, but it makes it a bit more personal." Yup. Dark humor is not usually my speed but I have found myself gasp-laughing a lot in the last couple of weeks and foresee using a lot of it in my near-future stand-up comedy. Like: of all the negative feelings I have about the election, one is the simple irritation I might feel if I were waiting at a restaurant to share dinner with a friend and they texted me, 20 minutes after they were supposed to arrive, and told me they were flaking out. It is the "but we had plans" resentment.

To that I can add another petty response I've felt a lot this year -- like Hermione Granger, bitterly asking the clearly rhetorical question, did no one else do the required reading?

Ben Franklin, in his Autobiography, recounts discovering one General Loudoun's astonishing indecision. Loudoun's procrastination slows down the entire economy of the Colonies and keeps mail boats from carrying urgent information back to England. Franklin says:

On the whole I then wondered much how such a man came to be entrusted with so important a business as the conduct of a great army, but having since seen more of the great world, and its means of obtaining and motives for giving places, my wonder is diminished.

Leonard and I sometimes now use "my wonder is diminished" with each other as shorthand for this kind of disillusionment. But I suppose I retain some capacity to be shocked-but-not-surprised, and sometimes I need to spend a little time grieving before I breathe a big sigh and put my shoulder back to the wheel -- or figure out that this means I oughta switch wheels.


* A little while after that, I read John Rogers's coining? of the term "competence porn", and have since then appreciated the "Damn, Fandom Is Good At What You Do" fanwork fest especially for this Harry Potter alternate-universe fic about property law.

** If it actually ever does happen and someone dredges up this blog post during the proceedings, I hope I have the sense of humor to laugh about it.