How To File a Complaint, or: The Bureau and Andy Rooney
by Tye Pemberton
Rooney, who died in 2011 at the age of 92, made a career of complaint, appearing weekly in his 60 Minutes segment, “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney,” from 1978 until the year of his death. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine that Rooney did not live his life the way he conducted his career — shrill, officious, deeply dissatisfied, and humming with self-regard the way a compressor in an old refrigerator is off key with any nearby silence.
While sitting to write the comments you are currently reading, this bureaucrat is haunted by a clip of Rooney’s agitation as he launched an assault on the design of coat hangers — the type of complaint anyone familiar with Rooney’s shtick would recognize. At face value, Rooney embodied all that I approach with caution at the Bureau: pettiness, tedium, and the dual conviction both that any given individual’s half-formed pondering is novel and that the attention demanded by authorship is justified. Rooney reminds us that the bores inflicting their opinions on us often seem either unaware or unconcerned with whether or not those opinions were solicited in the first place. The irony of this plaintive essay on being subjected to the self-absorption of curmudgeons is not lost on me.
I think, however, it is still worthwhile to use Rooney to interrogate the very nature of complaint. While Rooney’s frequent screeds against common inanimate objects seem like the very definition of frivolity, they are a reminder that complaint, at its heart, is a rare exercise that triangulates the self, reality, and the imagination. To complain, one must first recognize one’s own displeasure. To complain well, one must then recognize both what is causing that displeasure, and what might end it. In 2020, loathsome startup culture has boiled this process down to the mantra “Where’s the pain?” Rooney had no trouble identifying just what was chafing him, and to that end, I think the Bureau can be a space for fellow plaintiffs to petition for a better fitting suit, a smoother driving car, a less non-sensical reality, and a better fitting world.
But it is also valuable to reflect on how this mechanism can be abused. Today, Rooney is largely remembered as a comforting gadfly, a man whose opinions were so numerous and seemingly trivial that there was pleasure in their seeming harmlessness. In his 33 years in public discourse, Rooney became quaint. With each passing year, it became easier to imagine that his continued career was some sort of kindness — surely we as a people, or somebody, somewhere, was humoring him. But amongst all the screeds on everything from bridges to hotels, from war to bottled water, Rooney also suggested, without an ounce of self-consciousness, that African Americans were less intelligent because they had “watered down their genes” and that “homosexual unions” lead to premature death. It is important to remember always that sometimes the discomfort that tempts one to complain has more to do with ourselves than it does with the world. Rooney may have been a complicated figure who felt levels of complaint that ranged from the outrage of a pacifist in the midst of WWII to the impotent fury of a dissatisfied customer to the sputtering bewilderment of an old man in a more and more unfamiliar world and his diminished relevance in it, but not all of his complaints were harmless.
To that end, I wish to remind our readers and our applicants that if they believe that the Bureau is a “marketplace of ideas,” they will be disappointed. With the example of Rooney in mind, it is useful to ask, when complaining:
“If the world changed to address my complaint, would anyone else benefit?”
“If the world changed to address my complaint, who would have to suffer for my relief?”
Tye Pemberton is the co-creator of the webseries Quick Brick Tips. His fiction has appeared internationally in Versal, and domestically in California’s Watchword. His nonfiction can be found at The Rumpus, BookTrib, The Life Sentence, PopMatters, and in the journal We Still Like. He holds an MFA from Columbia University. You can find him on twitter @pemberto. He is an arbiter of complaint.