That Instructive Tone
by Stephen Cox | Posted June 25, 2014
Many years ago, when I was a kid libertarian emerging from the swamps of the New Left, one of my friends, a student of sociology, told me something he had learned in class: among its other functions, government is a means of supplying information.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “like when they put up a traffic light. It tells you when to stop and go.”
I was too young to be paying any perceptible amount of money in taxes, so I didn’t think, “So this is why we need a government that spends as much every year as Europe did between AD 100 and AD 1960 — so it can throw that little switch on the traffic light?” But I did think, “Gosh, that’s banal.”
They are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide.
Since that time, unfortunately, government has become ever more intent on fulfilling the vital function of supplying information. Its attempts to do so are not limited to “merge,” “no left turn,” “pay your taxes by April 15 (or we are sending you to prison).” In my state, you can hardly eat a meal without being informed, someplace on the menu, that eggs and chickens need to be cooked at such and such a temperature. You can hardly pick up a package of anything without seeing a sign that says:
WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.
You can hardly enter an apartment house without seeing an even more disturbing sign:
WARNING: This Area Contains a Chemical Known to the State of California to Cause Birth Defects or Other Reproductive Harm.
A second or two after grabbing their genitals, most Californians recall that this information is without any merit or interest. Every property in the world includes some substance, some chemical, that might conceivably prevent you from reproducing. Eat enough dirt, and you will never reproduce again.
But lately the “information” conveyed by government has assumed a somewhat more lethal form — lethal to mental health, at any rate. President Obama’s comments are almost all of this nature; and the problem has gotten worse as Obama has moved from Partisan Manipulation and Just Plain Lies to the still deadlier genre of Words for the Ages. Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.
As for the people who thought those speeches had information to supply, they are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide. I’m sure we can agree, however, on the idea that with such encouragement from the top, Obama’s subordinates are very likely to optimize their own potential for banality.
Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.
Governmental banality manifested itself in virtually Platonic form in remarks delivered on June 11 by Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel, former senator, former banker, former head of a cellphone company, former organizer for the Reagan campaign, former official of the Veterans Administration, former lobbyist for a tire company, and current Secretary of Defense. The occasion of his remarks was an investigation conducted by the House Armed Services Committee into the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who walked away from his post in a combat zone in Afghanistan, was captured by the enemy, and was ransomed at considerable expense by the Obama administration.
Wars are messy, and they’re full of imperfect choices. . . .You know there’s always suffering through war. There’s no glory in war. War is always about human beings. It’s not about machines. War is a dirty business. And we don’t like to deal with those realities. But realities, they are. And we must deal with them. . . . . . War, every part of war, like prisoner exchanges, is not some abstraction or theoretical exercise. The hard choices and options don’t fit neatly into clearly defined instructions in how-to manuals. All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war.
Now, would anybody ever guess that this man had come to Congress to talk about Bowe Bergdahl?
Of course, it’s hard to talk about something you know absolutely nothing about. Hagel’s comments, on this and other occasions, indicated that he had no idea whether Bergdahl was a deserter or if other soldiers had lost their lives looking for him or if the five Taliban honchos who were released in exchange for him were really important or not. But as Secretary of Defense, he had to talk about something, so he talked about the eternal truths. If someone produces The Wit and Wisdom of Chuck Hagel, these wise observations will need to be included:
Wars are messy.
There’s always suffering through [sic] war.
War is not some abstraction.
War is always about human beings.
War is a dirty business.
And just to keep the troops happy:
There’s no glory in war.
What is the listener supposed to deduce from this string of truisms? Don’t go to war? If you go to war, make sure to obliterate your enemies? All’s fair in a dirty game? What goes around comes around? War is an existential tragedy, best understood by curling up with a Camus novel? War isn’t half so pleasant as a successful career in Washington? Pass me the gin bottle?
Here we have a traffic light that’s blinking red, green, and yellow, all at once. But Hagel’s demeanor insisted that you had to respect any information he supplied. When anyone expressed a hint of skepticism, the Secretary of Defense was miffed.
Watching Hagel’s testimony, I was reminded that Leland Yeager had alerted me to the existence of another exponent of government as information, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. And Yeager was right, although McCarthy turns out to have a very different style from Hagel’s. Hagel (age 67) plays the part of the wise but grumpy old grandfather; he reacts to criticism by twisting around with an expression on his face that suggests his hearing aid is missing and he knows that the questioner has stolen it. By contrast, McCarthy (age 60) is young and hip. At least she thinks she is.
In a long, long speech delivered on June 2, McCarthy puffed something called the Clean Power Plan. In case you hadn’t guessed, this monstrosity has to do with governmental “shaping” and “crafting” of large but impenetrably vague “solutions” to such nonproblems as global warming.
Remember global warming? The idea that people are heating up the globe, or planet? Yes, that’s what we used to hear. But since the expected warming doesn’t seem to be going on, people concerned with the purported emergency have changed their name for it. What government is now supposed to prevent is climate change, climate inaction, or, if you’re really hip, just climate. Those are the words that McCarthy uses in her speech; never once does anything so frank as warming appear. But she is hip, or cunning, enough to realize that some people in her audience know, or have heard somewhere, that there’s been a lot of actual cooling going on. How can she handle that? She handles it by indicating she’s so far ahead of the game that she’s plumb tired of watching it. After all, her sole purpose is to win. So whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we? I mean, sometimes the electricity goes off!
If anything, what threatens reliability and causes blackouts is devastating extreme weather fueled by climate change. I’m tired of people pointing to the Polar Vortex as a reason not to act on climate. It’s exactly the opposite. Climate change heightens risks from extreme cold that freezes power grids, superstorms that drown power plants, and heat waves that stress power supplies. And it turns out, efficiency upgrades that slow climate change actually help cities insulate against blackouts.
The solution, of course, is a set of nationwide government interventions, entailing many billions in losses for companies and consumers.
But what strikes me is the tone. It’s the tone of a tenured sage who is tired of people with their petty questions and objections. If that’s the way they are, they’re not worth talking to — even though they’re paying her salary.
Remember, this woman hasn’t even been elected to her exalted position. And she isn’t a person who has won repute by offering the public some goods that it wants to buy. She’s just a government employee. But here she is, talking to people who have either been elected by the public or whose business has been favored in some kind of marketplace, and acting as if it’s her role to give awards at the kindergarten graduation:
I want to give a shout out to all the local officials, rural co-ops, public power operators, and investor owned utilities leading on climate change: It’s clear that you act not just because it’s reasonable, but because it's the right thing to do for the people you serve. Governors and mayors of all stripes are leaning into climate action. They see it not as a partisan obstacle, but as a powerful opportunity. And we know that success breeds success. Those of us who’ve worked in state and local government have seen healthy competition push states to share ideas and expertise. That’s when everybody wins.
If McCarthy actually were a teacher, I would advise her, first, to drop the attempt at pretending to be hip and cool. If you’re not young, you ought to know enough not to do that. But this is a teacher so unwise as to think that somebody’s going to like her to death because she uses expressions like shout out, lean into, and, elsewhere in her rambling, boring, repetitive speech, all about (“This plan is all about flexibility”), a win (“efficiency is a win”), think about it like this, calling our number (“Now, climate change is calling our number”), etc. It must be admitted that there are some signs of authenticity in McCarthy’s youthful patter: she resembles many young people in never having mastered English grammar and syntax. In company with her boss, President Obama, she has not yet learned the “like-as” distinction — and that’s just one example of a grammatical notion she’s never leaned into.
Whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we?
Second, I would advise her that one establishes one’s credentials to instruct others by recognizing and avoiding clichés, and not by running after them as if they were one’s heart’s desire. How else could she give us the right thing to do, of all stripes, success breeds success, and everybody wins within the space of five lines? In other passages we get in the driver’s seat, shifts the conversation, proven path,skeptics who will cry the sky is falling (actually, a skeptic would doubt that the sky is falling, but if you’ve collected a lot of clichés, you may as well butcher some), competitive edge, think of our children, cried wolf, bottom line, doomsday predictions that never came true (another odd choice for a person who spends her time warning about apocalyptic climate stuff),and my favorite pair of bromides, “Corporate climate action is not bells and whistles — it’s all hands on deck.”
That, like the earlier list, is selective. In the space available to me, I can’t do justice to McCarthy’s clichés. But go ahead — read the speech. I dare you. I gave you the link.
In the meantime, I ask you: Is she truly exercising the function of government to supply information? What she supplies is attitude, and a very bad attitude indeed. Bad ’tude, dude. No adult should talk to other adults in this way. In fact, no one should talk to anyone in this way. Although both the tone and the total absence of thought will be familiar to all who remember their high school assemblies, that precedent doesn’t make any of this a good, or even a decent, model for discourse of any kind, including high school assemblies.
But here, as bad speakers like to say, I’m reminded of a joke. Once there were two people who were very religious. They went to church all the time; they gave money; they never missed a vigil or a potluck dinner; with them it was all hands on deck. I’ll call this couple Adam and Steve. One Sunday Adam was sick, but he wanted to find out what the new priest had to say that morning, so he sent Steve along to church with instructions to report back to him. So Steve went and returned, and on his return he said, “Do you want the bad news first, or the good news?”
Adam gulped. “I guess,” he replied, “I’d better hear the bad news first.”
So Steve said, “Well, the priest got into the pulpit, and he preached nothing but heresy!”
“Oh my God!” Adam exclaimed. “After that, what could the good news be?”
“The good news,” Steve said, “is that nobody was listening.”
I would place bets on how many people, if any, read that speech by Ms. McCarthy, or, if present, listened to it. I fear that Leland Yeager and I may be her only attentive audience. And Obama’s sermons are just as eagerly followed.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison and American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution. Newly published is Culture and Liberty, a selection of works by Isabel Paterson.
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