by Martin Harris
If you’re coming down with presbyter-itis (becoming an elder) you can remember when normal people, even in the public square, didn’t apply adjectives like “excellent” or adverbs like “frankly” to their own efforts or words, but now they do. Thus, along with the Ed Commissioner and the Rutland Superintendent, the new Vermont Guv describes Vermont public education with the e-word, even though, as I’ve repeatedly recited the Federal test-score stats in these column-inches, some 2/3 of the students it produces can’t make “proficient” which means they can’t function at grade level in such basic competencies as reading and math. Recently he deployed the f-word as follows: “New Hampshire is to our east and Florida is not far away and frankly my job is to take the 435 high income taxpayers in Vermont and grow that base, grow our customer base, so that we have more revenue”. A friend (name on his request-approval) who is sharper-tongued than I (I’m just a loveable elder fuzzball) responded as follows: ” OK, so that is what he said. Now, does closing Vermont Yankee, creating uncertainty for IBM, GE, Cerosimo, and putting Omya through another 250 hearing work to back up that chain of thought?” I suspect that the answer is “no”, and so, having seen many other politicians self-label with the f-word, I’ve learned to expect that one who so declares, isn’t so, in the specific instance wherein he/she/? uses it. I now estimate that rhetoric-veracity is better when politico’s don’t use the f-word than when they do.
Many of us afflicted with presbyter-itis also suffer a related malady: verbal-collection fetish. In my case it’s been identified as political-rhetoric magpie syndrome. I’ve been compelled to compile and assemble these shiny little jewels, and here’s a small example with the f-word at the center: “…this isn’t about me, the reality is that we need to re-frame the debate and elevate the conversation, at this point in time, because the underlying truth is, frankly, in the overall scheme of things, we are moving forward on this inherited problem with a robust mechanism and a unique perspective, because we need to get beyond distraction-diversions and get our priorities straight with a more nuanced position so that, at the end of the day, the fact of the matter will be that only a reach-out/big-tent world-view will enable us to celebrate the diversity of our collective sum of experiences and insights”. Other sufferers from this soon-to-be-identified-as-an-ADA-disability malady have, of course, shown far more severe collections of symptoms. As the New York Times has reported in its “all the news that’s fit to print” box, women and minorities have been hardest hit, but hasn’t added the usual send-money-to-this-cause explanation that, even if you haven’t come down with this voluntary-behavior-induced-and-transmitted virus, we are all in this together, and even those presently pure might someday succumb.
There are many f-word users in Montpelier, more, measured by statistical frequency of use, than in the population they are supposedly employed to serve; most function under the Golden Dome and one in the nearby reproduction Pavilion Hotel demolished and, Phoenix-like reincarnated 40 years ago as a State government office building, and it’s the latter (Shumlin) one – interestingly, a Germanic surname with spelling and pronunciation close to schummeln, ( a little Nostradamus-style letter-transposition, there) with a pejorative meaning I won’t recite here. His reversals on such matters as the quickly-thawed State employee hiring freeze (for it before turning against it) are now well-known; to my knowledge, he never used the f-word when on either side of that question, so I presume that he actually holds both views simultaneously. And there’s the wink-and-nod gambit, promising one group VY closure while promising IBM “really cheap power” perhaps by claiming defeat in the courts at the hands of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.through a surrogate. In sophisticated governance circles, this sort of intellectual flexibility (more crudely, cheating one set of listeners or their opposition) has a long history.
Consider, for example, the writings of populist historian/author Kevin Phllips in his “Wealth and Democracy” on those two legislative icons of the Gilded Age (check with your high school history student for relevant 19th century decades) the Interstate Commerce Act and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which he describes thus: “A century after the fact, memoirs have made it clear that both the ICA and the SATA were virtual empty shells, legislation designed to appear to respond to public demands”. Phillips doesn’t mention either ICA Senatorial sponsor, Standard-Oil-connected Johnson Camden or Baltimore&Ohio-connected Henry Davis, explaining to the Grangers hoping for railroad-tariff regulation that, frankly, their ICA would end short-haul up-pricing, nor does he write about Senator John Sherman making similar reassuring claims for his SATA, but the non-result was just as if they had so spoken.
If you prefer a contrasting 21st century example, consider hapless Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack’s handling of the unpleasant task of announcing the Administration retreat from ethanol because, by using up nearly a third of the corn crop, it has -horrors-made corn growing profitable, and, worse, might even raise food prices a couple of percentage points. As the Wall Street Journal reports and opines (4Mar 11) on “Wilsack’s Candor”, he has announced that tax credits will be withdrawn, not as a “cliff” drop but as a “glide-path”. Since he doesn’t say frankly I’d guess that these subsidies to bio-fuel producers will actually be cut. After all, despite all the deeply-held belief over recent decades that Social Security is the third rail of politics, I could make quite an argument, if I had the column-inches, that the voltage surrounding the never-openly-stated National Cheap Food Policy is a lot higher and more politically lethal to the touch. Consider, for example, that a gallon of milk in 1950 retailed for a dollar. That would equate to $8.30 today, and yet urban consumers still complain to their legislators about the outrageous price of milk. If I were (subjunctive contrary to fact) a politico speaking frankly, I would seek to reassure my consumer voters that food prices are unreasonably high. What right do farmers have to expect a profit on a necessity? However, I was parentally trained at an early age not to use the f-word.