Arts & Culture

This American Life Man-Fatuation Post: Petty Tyrant

This week’s This American Life, holds a special meaning in the wake of the deaths of numerous not-so-petty tyrants in the past couple months. Read More

By / November 10, 2011
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It’s This American Life, I’m Jon Reiss and this week we become intimately acquainted with a man named Steve Raucci, head of the Schenectady public school district’s maintenance department whose prediction for space heater theft, megalomaniacal manipulation of employees and quarter sticks of dynamite affords this week’s entire hour of air time.

This week’s theme, “Petty Tyrant,” holds a special meaning in the wake of the deaths of numerous not-so-petty tyrants in the past couple months.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely but what this week’s episode examines isn’t quite absolute power, it’s more like assistant to the assistant manager type power that through delusion becomes something else entirely.  For the most part Raucci’s job is cut energy spending within the school district, which is illustrated in the episodes opening story of employee who brought a space heater into his office during winter months, only to have it covertly seized the following day.  It’s quite the opening gambit.  Something so ordinary makes the behavior of the man in charge all the more confounding.  We soon learn about Raucci as a man who uses power, control and intimidation to turn utilities department of a public school into something akin to this season Boardwalk Empire. For instance, after work dinners aren’t optional when you’re working for Raucci, and during these dinners everyone has assigned seating, particular Raucci’s secretary who sits right beside him up until the day where she lets it slip that she’s attracted to Matthew Macuonhgough and is banished by Raucci.  But it gets way worse, at the department Christmas party, Raucci gives a speech akin to something Scarface would say, a litany of the punishments bestowed on those who’ve crossed him.  By the end of story, Raucci is bombing the houses of his perceived enemies, spray painting “Rat” across their doors, and storing explosives inside a grade school.  When these things occur, Raucci has turned himself into head of his own union, so that anyone with a complaint has only him to complain to.  Absolute Power isn’t the only kind that corrupts.  If this glorified PTA guy is capable of all this, it’s a wonder Kim Jung hasn’t destroyed the planet.

What’s left at the end of this episode is the lingering question, “Where does this kind of behavior come from?”  Ira plays tape of a very sad Raucci, admitting to a friend that he does all these bad things for all these people who he considers friends, but that most of them would never even ask him out for coffee after work.  He confides in this friend that he’s one of the few people he trusts, the sad irony being that this friend is wearing a wire, which is used to put Raucci away for 23 years to life.

So, why do people act this way?  My guess is that we all model ourselves after others, and we start choosing who to model ourselves after very young.  Often, the people we model ourselves after aren’t even real.  Raucci, for instance, seemingly chose Joe Pesci’s Goodfellas character somewhere along the line and stuck with it.  Me, I chose Arthur Fonzerelli, then changed it Zack Morris, then to Arthur Rimbaud and have most recently been pretty fixated on Rachel Maddow.  This week, my message to you: if you’re looking for someone to mimic, nobody has ever landed in prison by trying to follow in the footsteps of Ira Glass.