Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Xenia at Work (or Who is the Worst Person in Western-eros: Rob Olson?)

After each episode of Game of Thrones, the online magazine Slate asks “who is currently the worst person in Westeros?” “Westeros” is the fictional continent whose throne everyone is fighting over on HBO. “Western” is the shorthand everyone in Bellingham uses to refer to our community anchor, Western Washington University. My former employers at the Washington Attorney General’s Office hired me to serve as Western’s chief legal advisor, then spent the next year abusing and discriminating against me. When I’d made enough progress with PTSD to share some of the stories about my experiences, I decided to borrow Slate’s framing device. Stay tuned to see who will ultimately be crowned as the Worst Person in Western-eros…. 



This is my 75th blog post since I began writing last spring.

The most popular so far has been The Misjudgment of Paris, an essay about Xenia – the Greek concept of hospitality. Several readers responded favorably when the post came out in November. (Shout out to my mom in Bellingham and my ex in Vienna!) Nevertheless, this specific post’s rise to record heights seemed strange, particularly in the absence of any efforts to market my website.1 When I examined the web traffic data, I discovered a daily influx of unidentified visitors referred by mysterious websites in Eastern Europe.

1We’re still working out the kinks here, folks, no rush. Malcolm Gladwell claims it takes ten thousand hours of practice to master a field, and I don’t think I get credit for twenty years of purely legal writing. To the contrary, I’m worried I’m subject to some kind of negative offset. In the meantime, you’re definitely welcome to pass my name/URL along to anyone you'd like, particularly book publishers, online magazine editors, and cute guys who like kids and English majors.

I carefully re-read my Xenia essay to figure out what inspired all those foreigners to visit. I thought salacious search engines might be picking up a stray mention of a certain recently-disgraced Hollywood mogul, so I edited out Mr. W’s name. The numbers didn’t change. Perhaps a friend signed me up to review new Bel Ami porn videos from that country I still call Czechoslovakia. (No, thanks.) My current hypothesis: people inevitably associate anything called “The Misjudgment of Paris” with videos featuring the celebrated Ms. Hilton. It’s a brain thing.

My European visitors are obviously just click-baiting spam. I’m not going to visit any of their websites myself, even though I know that’s exactly what they want. (Hey look everyone, I’m getting less codependent.) So far, they’ve been polite guests. I’m a gracious host. Xenia is working.


“Xenia” shares the same Greek root as xenophobia – a deep-rooted fear or hatred of foreigners and other strange things.

We are social animals, born into a particular tribe. Our core identity emphasizes the life or death differences between kin and stranger. Our brains are therefore wired to filter experiences through the prism of our tribal affiliation.

For example, a famous psychology study showed test subjects the same film footage from a hard-fought 1951 football game between Princeton and Dartmouth. The average Princeton student saw Dartmouth commit 9.8 infractions of the rules, while Dartmouth students saw their team commit 4.3 infractions. The researchers concluded the partisan students didn’t have “different ‘attitudes’ concerning the same ‘thing.’” Rather, “the ‘game’ exists for a person and is experienced by him only in so far as certain happenings have significance in terms of his purpose.” Our brain automatically processes experience through a tribal filter.

What evolution designed as a feature is now a bug. Tribalism is one of those human traits, like our cravings for sugar and dopamine, that benefited our hunter-gatherer ancestors for millions of years. But after just a few thousand years of so-called civilization, reflexive xenophobia has become a bad fit for the species. Philosopher Robert Wright considers the impulse toward “tribalism the biggest problem of our time” because it could “undo millennia of movement toward global integration,” and “unravel the social web just when technology has brought the prospect of a cohesive planetary community within reach.”




Bureaucracies can be cruel to outsiders, including LGBT individuals and persons with disabilities. Responsible organizations therefore engage outside investigators when a whistleblower alleges serious adverse employment actions were taken for invidious and illegal reasons. They recognize internal investigations may be tainted by the effects of confirmation bias, internal politics, and personal prejudice – potentially resulting in an echo chamber that amplifies noise and drowns out the truth. The impact of bureaucratic cruelty increases exponentially when such ostensibly independent professionals fail to do their jobs.

In the previous episode of Worst Person in Western-eros, I highlighted a bit of irony: the State’s top employment lawyer, Shane Esquibel, was the one who secretly assigned Ogden Murphy Wallace to investigate my supervisor’s complaint about conduct related to my disability. I foolishly thought Ogden Murphy was investigating my separate sexual orientation discrimination complaint – the task my disability attorney and I both understood the firm was hired to perform.

After the AGO illegally terminated me, I finally had a chance to read Ogden Murphy’s investigation report. I had three immediate reactions. The first was disgust to see its character assassination of me and its unsolicited whitewash of the AGO, with virtually nothing in the Ogden Murphy Report about my actual sexual orientation discrimination complaint. The second reaction was amazement that a reputable Seattle law firm would produce such laughably third-rate work product. And the third was to recognize from the Report’s candid acknowledgment that I never really had a chance – my superiors secretly concluded I was a “bad fit” within weeks of my arrival, and proceeded to make my life hell for the next six months until they could get rid of me with the obliging help of Ogden Murphy. Months of hard work and vain hope had accomplished nothing beyond aggravating my disability. 

I was very naïve when I joined the Washington Attorney General’s Office – the state’s largest but least competent major law firm. Now that I’ve learned about the AGO’s pattern of malpractice, I shouldn’t have been surprised by blunders at any level of the AGO bureaucracy.

Sure enough, I've now seen the detailed chronological file memos about me generated by each of my superiors. They read like the files Stasi informants in East Germany kept about their families and neighbors during the Cold War. Each memo is almost comical in its breathless attempt to characterize even our most mundane interactions with a hostile spin. It’s like they took away the wrong lesson from some Human Resources training about the need to create a clear record before terminating an employee who doesn’t quite fit in. Particularly a single gay dad performing admittedly exceptional legal work under trying conditions.

For example, here’s one supervisor complaint that showed up in the final Ogden Murphy Report:
“In a group meeting for the Bellingham Section to discuss diversity as a hiring focus, Mr. Leishman commented that the Bellingham Section seemed to be the only Attorney General's office without any straight white males. Straight male employees were in attendance at the meeting.”
Before leaving Seattle, I was the longtime board chair of the Initiative for Diversity, the Washington nonprofit that promotes diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. A law office cannot become more diverse until it recognizes how diverse it is not. At the time I left the AGO, the Bellingham office had eight nonlawyer staff, all women. The eleven attorneys included seven women, a black man, a South Asian-American man, and two openly gay men. That adds up to zero straight white male employees. I am offended by my employer’s suggestion that I acted unprofessionally because delicate “straight male employees” at a diversity-themed meeting might be bothered by my honest demographic observation.

A second example: many of these informants’ secret complaints represented revisionist attempts to justify a fluke of the AGO’s organizational chart. Although I was a senior lateral attorney specifically hired from the outside to serve as general counsel of Western Washington University, I was assigned to report to the Bellingham Office’s “Education Team Leader.” Her position was created as part of a recent office reorganization that did not anticipate the arrival of a new university general counsel. My team leader had no prior management experience, let alone preparation for the complex task of integrating an experienced outsider into an established organization. When problems arose, they were all blamed on me.  

Western is Washington’s third largest public university. UW and WSU each has its own dedicated Division of the AGO. Experienced lawyers from the AGO’s Education Division represent all the other state universities. Only a few small community colleges – and Western – rely on lawyers from the AGO’s catchall Regional Services Division. And other than me, no other chief legal officer for a major Washington state agency has ever reported to a low-level “team leader.” Indeed, I am unaware of a college or university general counsel anywhere who reports to a part-time staff attorney also working in the counsel’s office. Every non-AGO attorney I describe this arrangement to finds it to be bizarre.

Tragically, my superiors at the AGO invariably had the opposite reaction, reflexively cheerleading each other’s supposed organizational genius. Worse, each insisted the arrangement was ideal not merely because they were in charge (hardly what a recovering Mormon with PTSD needs to hear), but also because it should have been obvious to me I had been placed in the best of all possible reporting structures. 

My colleague’s Orwellian insistence turned out to be another example of gaslighting. Tellingly, after my departure the AGO eliminated the Western chief legal officer position, and instead advertised for a fulltime staff attorney. The AGO ultimately appointed one of the Children’s Team attorneys in the Bellingham AGO office, whose only prior legal experience was as a public defender after briefly and unsuccessfully hanging out his own shingle. As with the cliché that the French are always fighting the last war, it is unfortunate that the AGO’s distaste for outsiders left Western with such limited legal options.

Reading each of my colleagues’ Kool-Aid-drenched accounts of events during my tenure at Western was excruciating. As a codependent person, I reflexively empathize with others’ perspectives, and I’m much too quick to credit any complaint about me. But I didn’t recognize myself or the dystopian alternative universe described in their pile-on-Roger chronologies.2
2You're lucky to be spared the numerous other examples of these bureaucrat’s inept efforts to paper the file with exaggerations and lies. After months of stonewalling, the State finally produced copies of the materials they shared with Ogden Murphy and relied upon as the basis for firing me – but the AGO still objects to their public disclosure. We are currently in the process of determining whether the State’s Nixonian conduct violated Washington’s Public Records Act, and exposed tax payers to additional financial penalties.
Fortunately, I found a little reality-checking relief whenever I read a contemporaneous file memo from the Human Resources staff member responsible for coordinating AGO employees’ reasonable accommodation requests. We spoke on the phone about my disability on several occasions. Each of her file memos fairly described our conversations. Unlike my purported colleagues, she didn’t have an ax to grind before chopping off my head. She was just doing her job – not contributing to an echo chamber of xenophobia, confirmation bias, and bureaucratic groupthink.


During my time in the Bellingham AGO office, Rob Olson was the other gay attorney. Rob and his partner David live down the street from my parents. I was a guest in their home when they hosted the annual holiday office party. Rob and David are also generous Western boosters. Soon after my arrival, they kindly invited me to join them at a major donor fundraiser, and introduced me to many community members.

Throughout my tenure at the AGO, Rob was a gracious host and helpful colleague. Even after reviewing the State’s secret informer files, I’ve seen no evidence Rob contributed to the monstrous caricature created by my other colleagues. I have no complaints about Rob’s good-host Xenia. To the contrary, I’d like to imagine someone on the inside, maybe Rob, unsuccessfully spoke out against the AGO’s xenophobic rush to misjudgment.


The last time I spoke to Rob was at a gay potluck. My landlord, a longtime family friend from my mom’s years of service on the Bellingham PFLAG board, lives in the restored Victorian house across the pond from the kids and me. For years, Carl hosted regular community potlucks. During the summer they’re held on our large deck. Rob and David were regular attendees.

The AGO fired me immediately after receiving the Ogden Murphy Report. I ran into Rob and David at the potluck on my deck shortly afterwards. David made small talk, and politely asked how the kids were doing. Rob didn’t say a word. Instead, I was struck by his red-faced and hostile expression. I assumed by now he had chugged the anti-Roger Kool-Aid. Since it was a friendly social occasion, I didn’t attempt to disabuse him. Even after watching Auntie Mame countless times, I'm not the kind of host who relishes melodramatic scenes.

What I didn’t know at the time was Rob had already accepted the AGO's newly-emasculated staff attorney position at Western. He even sits in my former office in Old Main.

I do not begrudge Rob’s decision to apply for and accept his dream job representing the university he loves. I don’t even begrudge the way his brain has apparently justified the sacrifice involved in creating a vacancy. Someone has to sit at my desk.

Returning to the Greeks: On one level, it’s hard to blame Paris for falling for the most beautiful woman in the world. Aphrodite, a frigging goddess, promised he would have her love. Helen herself fell in love with Paris. Even though she was married to Menalaus, Helen and Paris were both consenting adults. Personally, I think the whole Trojan war was an overreaction.

But.

What kind of man would take another man’s wife/job, then have no qualms about coming into his home and accepting his hospitality? Someone whose lack of Xenia offends the gods.


Next Wednesday’s edition of "Who is the Worst Person in Western-eros?" is brought to you by the words “Humble” and “Bureacracy.”



Click here for other episodes of "Who is the Worst Person in Western-eros?"

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