Friday, September 3, 2010

The Characters of Command

It can be easy to forget the importance of the chain of command. Establishing who can give orders to which people is of vital necessity in any organization or bureaucracy, whether you're talking about one that runs a country or one that you can fit in a broom closet. What's really important about it is the establishment of responsibility: no matter what, in every situation, there should always be someone who an order can be traced back to, who could theoretically stand up and acknowledge that a specific action was taken at their behest. Otherwise, the system is ripe for abuse by people whose ambitions outstrip their authority - and it happens, more often than you'd want to think.

When I was in Los Angeles in December, one of the attractions were the costumed characters along Hollywood Boulevard: everyone from Superman to Spider-man and Stormtroopers to Captain Jack Sparrow were there, mingling with the tourists and posing for photographs. Which, really, I can understand. Costumes aren't free, particularly the kind of costumes that characters in popular entertainment generally end up wearing. I don't recall ever having been accosted by a costumed entertainer on the Boulevard; it's a busy street, and there were always plenty of tourists who had no issue with being obvious tourists to compete for the characters' attention. I'll admit that one data point is just an anecdote, but it's all I've got.

Not so anymore. Back in June, though I didn't hear about it until yesterday, the Los Angeles Police Department launched an operation to arrest and evict the costumed characters from Hollywood Boulevard, in what KTLA News described as a "'zorro' tolerance policy." The most probing issue for me, learning about this situation, was "why?" After all, it's the most important question, and a question we should *always* be asking of authority figures. An August article in Curbed LA, detailing a suit filed against the city by some of the arrested characters, suggests that the solicitation of tips was an issue - even though the charges, it seems, never went ahead. At first I thought it could be an issue of characters being masked and not easily identifiable, but they've arrested Superman as well - and without his Clark Kent glasses, there's no super-hypnosis making you think he looks different than he actually does.

As long as he stays away from Hollywood Boulevard he should be fine.

The big problem for me came up toward the end of KTLA's report, where an arresting officer indicated that the order to remove the characters came from the Los Angeles City Council - even though a city council member interviewed by KTLA supposedly knew nothing about it. Not only that, the LAPD itself didn't know where the order was coming from.

Well, if you've got no idea whose word this is on, if your organization is so convoluted that it can't disseminate a simple message, I think that's the sort of situation when an order shouldn't be followed. Verification of orders is absolutely important! If it's possible during a war, why not in day-to-day city business? Is this just another example of a desire to act going beyond the authorization to act?

We can't allow leadership to become some kind of weird ontological paradox; directives must always be created by someone who can be made to explain them and take responsibility for them.

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