The other day we had one of those revelations here that make the blood of libertarians course quicker, causes right-wingers to roll up their sleeves and look for somebody to punch in the nose and leaves most souls wondering.
What happened was that people applying for certain government jobs were being asked a batch of curious questions, among them:
"The media have come under attack from former president Nixon and recently by Bert Lance. To what extent do you believe the media have gone beyond their justifiable role of reporting and commenting on the news?"
"If you had been a U.S. senator at the time, how would you have voted on the Panama Canal treaties? Why?"
"Do you believe that teachers, police officers, firefighters and garbage collectors should have the right to strike?"
"Would you require persons welfare to accept employment if offered and they were physically fit?"
"Is the administration of criminal justice in the courts today too permissive, too strict or about right?"
"Has affirmative action gone too far?"
It was the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that asked those questions and more like them.
Now, if I were being interviewed for one of the 500 brand-new jobs (at $10,000 to $12,000 a year) that drew 20,000 applicants, I would feel darned uncomfortable about such politically loaded questions. How would I know what the beady-eyed interviewer believed?
I was for the Panama Canal treaties, but what if the interviewer wore a Ronald Reagon button under his lapel? I don't think that teachers, policemen and firemen should have the unconditional right to strike, but what if that mini-explorer dangling the job didn't agree with me?
I also believe that affirmative action, especially now that the government is counting Aleutian noses, has gone too far, but how would my opinion set with the EEOC, which turns out affirmative-action cases the way General Motors turns out cars?
Alas, no matter how honestly I answered, I would also be convinced that my responses would be programmed into some great computer at the Civil Service Commission, or even at the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover Building, and remain there, indelibly, until my demise.
Anyway, no sooner had the local prints splashed this story than faces turned red at EEOC and the Civil Service Commission. The questions were "clumsy, insensitive and inappropriate," declared Eleanor Holmes Norton, EEOC chairman, as she ordered a "full investigation." Now, in Washington, when a top bureaucrat orders a "full investigation," don't hold you breath.
Meanwhile, it was learned that some poor devil at the Civil Service Commission okayed the questions for use by EEOC, so that made it necessary for the commission's vice chairman, Jule M. Sugarman, to agree that the questions amounted to poor judgement. "The staff person who authorized them will be so counseled," Sugarman dryly announced.
But still, who was the culprit who wrote the questions and supplied them to EEOC interviews to spring on unsuspecting applicants? Was there someone in the Carter administration who believed in fishing about that way to make sure only "safe" people were hired?
Much as that theory would appeal to the suspicious, the truth is that an old-timer, one Nathan Shinderman, who claims 33 years of government service, designed the questions, just as he had authored similar testing techniques in the Nixon years for the Office of Economic Opportunity.
"It never occured to me that these questions would ever the used for any purpose other than intended," he told me, "namely to find out what insights an applicant had, and how aware he was as to what is going on in society. We didn't give a damn what the person's opinions were. I guess I was naive about how this could become controversial."
Now civil libertarians, indeed all of us, have a right to ask whether someone in government was using such questions to exclude people from employment if their views weren't acceptable, whatever "acceptable" might mean.
But Shinderman's remarks make me conclude that the prosaic explanation is likely correct, that in isolation a well-meaning bureaucrat can pull a dumb one and unwittingly give the impression that Big Brother is imposing thought control on poor common souls.
It is good that someone protested the use of these questions by the high and might EEOC, and that our press was sufficiently offended to pursue the story. In terms of exposing a thought-control scheme, this episode is a false alarm.
But it is also good to remember that the bureaucracy has such arbitrary and often uncontrolled power, it takes a little whistle-blowing to keep the government on a reasonably even keel.