Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Art School, Sharting Cats and the IRS

1,000 years ago, when I worked at a Noted Art School, in addition to the tiny number of terrific full-time techs and managers who worked for me, I also had a small army of student workers under my command.

And when I say "under my command" I mean that at any given time I was running in nine different directions dealing with everything from the students who were chronically late or absent or stoned and left us in the lurch during peak busy hours, to the student who thought it would be an excellent idea to invite a phalanx of his fellow gang members into my department to help settle a dispute with campus security, to the instructor who told his students to commandeer several busy computer labs in the middle of finals week to work on his personal project because "you pay these guy's salaries", to the ambitious student reporter who kept randomly showing up at my door with a video camera in the hopes of catching someone doing something untoward something something "expose all the lies and ripoffs" (not that there weren't plenty lies and ripoffs going on, just not in my little acre of Heaven), to the student worker who left his cat in my office because he hadda getta class and had no one else to look after it.

A cat which, we all learned together an hour later later, was suffering from the most impressive case of projectile, sharting diarrhea you have ever heard of.

"Which has what to do with the IRS exactly?" you might fairly ask.

Well, see, once upon a time one of my student workers got a wild hare up his ass about people lookin' at dirty pictures on the internet in the computer labs.  This was during the dark days when paint-drying-slow phone modem dial-up access was the rule rather than the exception and when wardriving to find those rare, free WiFi hotspots was a real thing, so for the naughty-picture-deprived those college labs with high-speed internet access were a gift from the Porn Gods -- a fact which righteously pissed off the very religious student worker in question.

And he had a point: no one working at one computer carrel in an open lab should have to out up with being distracted or intimidated or repulsed by what another someone else is doing at an adjacent computer carrel.  Also during peak usage hours, someone goofing off at an open lab computer should expect to be asked to come back later if someone else with actual work to do needs that seat.

All part of functioning in a community of diverse people with diverse interests and expectations all trying to share the commons with a minimum of drama, and all of which can usually be handled with a little discretion, tacit and diplomacy.

But the student worker in question did not know from discretion, tacit and diplomacy: he just didn't think people should look at such things-- period -- and all on his own, he Took Steps to Solve The Problem and by posting and enforcing his New Rule that anyone caught looking at any nudie pics on any computer would be tossed out on their asses.

Did I mention this was an art school where the human form was used and abused in the pursuit of grades and truth and infamy and beauty every single day? 

Did I mention that -- from its faculty to its administration -- this art school was one of the last fastnesses of the 1960s?  That is had been one of the places where they painted the signs you saw adorning Grant Park during the polices riots in 1968?  That the DNA of the place as not just pro-free-expression, but in-your-face, I-dare-you-to-call-the-pigs defense of every work or art, no matter how offensive it might be because, fuck you, Art is supposed to Provoke!?  

Did I mention that these were the days when such institution were under siege by anti-art fascists like Jesse Helms?  When professors and students still talked about the time Alderman Allan Streeter, Alderman Bobby Rush and Alderman Dorothy Tillman stomped into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and confiscated Mirth & Girth (a painting of the late Harold Washington wearing only a bra, G-string, garter belt and stockings) as if it had only happened that afternoon, and when stories like this -- 
At the same time, a student artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Dread Scott Tyler, became the subject of controversy for his work, "What is the Proper Way to Display An American Flag?" that displayed an American flag on the floor in a way that encouraged viewers to stand on it. The U.S. Senate voted 97-0 on March 17 to make it a federal crime to display an American flag on the floor or ground. Veterans marched on the museum; the school was rocked by bomb threats; and the Governor of Illinois, while expressing his disagreement, nevertheless signed a bill in July, 1989 that eliminated state grants to both the School and the Illinois Arts Alliance, a state advocacy group which had defended exhibit.
 -- were very much alive and catalyzing just about every conversation about freedom and art in every corridor, classroom and impromptu stairwell smoking lounge?

And into this tinderbox, one indignant, oblivious student worker decided to toss a little match.

You know, until that happened, the record for me being called a "Nazi" in any given 48 hour period on that job was when I announced to faculty and the student that were no longer going to be allowed to use desktop computers as beverage carts  nor would they be able to use the keyboards as cafeteria trays for various configurations of pizza, Doritos and the truly awesome fried egg sammichs from the greasy spoon across the street.

I'm sure I was burned in effigy somewhere that night, but that reaction was trivial compared to the "How dare you you fucking Gestapo fucker!" wrath that fell on my head when I discovered much to my surprise that I was behind a sinister plot to arbitrarily ban the viewing of the human form on every computer in every open lab at a very, very Liberal art school.  This was all it took to confirm our most outspoken faculty members'  darkest suspicions that, despite my poetic license being all certified and up-to-date, I was (in no particular order) a fascist, a jackbooted thug, a Jesse Helms-lover, a narc and generally unfit to be a part of their reindeer games.

Also for one, thrilling moment, the college newspaper thought they might be onto the next Big Story About Hippies Being Repressed By The Man.

Unwinding it took days and talking the various faculty members down from their conspiracies and high dudgeons took much, much longer.

All of which I was put in mind of when I read this about management at the IRS:
"Criteria for selecting applications for the team of specialists should focus on the activities of the organizations and whether they fulfill the requirements of the law," the IG report found. "Using the names or policy positions of organizations is not an appropriate basis for identifying applications for review by the team of specialists."

As a result, most applications were not processed for more than 13 months, with some groups waiting more than three years for approval.

The IRS said in a statement this evening that it "welcomes" the report and "agrees that aspects of the original approach for handling the influx of tax-exempt applications were inappropriate, but it is important to clarify a few points."

"Inappropriate shortcuts" were used to identify groups that might be engaged in political activity, the IRS statement admitted, but said most of the groups would likely have been examined the same way regardless of whether those "shortcuts" were used to identify them.

"It is also important to understand that the group of centralized cases included organizations of all political views," the IRS statement said.

"There was no intent to hide this issue, but rather we waited until TIGTA completed their fact finding, made recommendations, and we reviewed their findings," the statement said.

Joseph Grant, the acting commissioner of tax exempt and government entities, wrote in response to the report that the decisions were made in an attempt to increase efficiency, not to target groups with a particular political view.

"The mistakes outlined in the report resulted from the lack of a set process for working the increase in advocacy cases and insufficient sensitivity to the implications of some of the decisions made," he wrote.

"We believe the front line career employees that made the decisions acted out of a desire for efficiency and not out of any political or partisan view point," he wrote.

According to the report, the practice emerged because of insufficient oversight and a lack of knowledge by IRS employees of the rules that governed tax exempt organizations.

"[T]he criteria developed showed a lack of knowledge in the Determinations Unit of what activities are allowed by I.R.C. § 501(c)(3) and I.R.C. § 501(c)(4) organizations," the report found, using the tax code designations for tax-exempt organizations. "Determinations Unit employees stated that they considered the Tea Party criterion as a shorthand term for all potential political cases."
Or, as Charles Pierce ably summarizes it:
Later on, however, at the very end of the Times story, which has more than a little Jeff Gerth to its structure, we discover -- as upper echelons likely did to their horror -- that, like campaign money, dumbassery finds the cracks in every system.
The inspector general did seem to back up the Obama administration's portrayal of a roguelike operation in Cincinnati flouting the wishes of senior I.R.S. officials in Washington. After being briefed on the screening criteria in June 2011, which included a search of case files for criticism of how the country was being run, Ms. Lerner immediately ordered them to be expanded to encompass applicants that would not necessarily be conservative. But in January 2012, the Cincinnati team had again changed the criteria "without executive approval because they believed the July 2011 criteria were too broad," the report said.
So Lerner told them to stop. And then, six months later, they started again without telling anyone, and on their own.  And now the IRS is telling us all how it happened. Yeah, this is just like Watergate. I predict nobody will remember this last detail two days from now. There will be too many horror stories -- boogedy, boogedy! -- to tell from the darkling halls of Congress.
In the end, what happened at the IRS might indeed turn out to be the vital missing piece of the Grand Old Party's Grand Unifying Obama Conspiracy Theory...or it might be the story of underlings within an understaffed, poorly managed bureaucracy who were left to their own devices to decide how to cope with flood of brand new work.

All I can say for sure it that I while really loved my art school gig,  running the joint was never a matter of "control" so much as it was a matter of constantly renegotiating the acceptable balance between order and chaos caused by too few professional staffers chasing too many weird problems ... on roller skates ... with sharting cats randomly tossed in at moments of maximum stress to keep things lively.


fritz said...

Wait, you're a former CCC guy?

StringOnAStick said...

"Sharting cats" is pretty much the only image I have of Congress these days. Fits them to a T.

illinoisfrank said...

So the cons are making hay that Obama should know everything that goes on in the federal government. Every agency, every embassy, etc. Does that mean that Rupert Murdock should know everything that goes on in his company? Y'know the illegal stuff and all?