Saturday, June 20, 2009

One Hand Clapping

Some time after I became a civil servant, I had to testify before a Congressional subcommittee—a first for me. My chiefs made laudable efforts to brief and to train me. We had a dry run with an audience drawn from senior staff. We had people impersonating congressmen asking me what were supposed to be embarrassing questions. By then, of course, I’d already written my six pages of double-spaced testimony—surprised that these words had to be approved by what is today called the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The text passed muster; not one word had been changed. Knowledgeable staff people also prepared a thick binder filled with Qs and As. The first time I heard those words, I’d no idea what Qs and As were. Such was my innocence. I was also surprised that the notebook would be shared with the committee, further that some committee members would actually ask the questions in the notebook; some, I was told, did not prepare but wished to sound good in questioning us. Well…

The hue and cry, the dry run, the Qs and As turned out to be ridiculously excessive preparation in light of what transpired. As I read my testimony, the chairman was reading a newspaper, holding the pages wide apart, a pair of glasses on his nose. Really; insultingly. His body was half turned away from mine. I was less than a cockroach, sitting way below him, sweating to get the words right, reading to the empty air. Only one other congressman attended this hearing; a dozen chairs stood empty; this second elected representative of the people spent the time of my testimony talking with his head bent down listening to the earnest but whispered briefing of a staff member squatting next to his chair. Welcome to democracy in action.

Leave the village and you’ll get an education. I gave testimony many times in the years that followed. Those were the days before C-Span. Congress treated those of us in the bureaucracy with barely-disguised contempt; and nothing since has changed my own echoing feeling for that body. Yes. I do remember one or two congressmen and senators who actually treated me with courtesy. Indeed, those were notable events, occasions you actually remembered. But the experience that formed my attitudes was what went down on nearly every other such occasion. Why should I believe the braying of these people before the cameras about the American people this, the American people that—when, with no cameras watching, they couldn’t even give the time of day to those who, supposedly just like them, were doing the work of government.

Why do I tell this story? Well, I had in mind addressing today the problem of policy, of group thought, of message, of staying on the message, riding it, as it were, as witches ride a broom. I was going to address the supposed truth that perception is reality, the current great illusion that shaping a message on the television screen actually moves the people to act in concert and in lockstep with those who manage the message. Instead of that, thinking back to my first ever step out into the light of public life, what I remember of it is the irrationality, the destructive force of it, the shape that it gave to my perceptions. Had that been an isolated case, Okay. I’d have gotten over it. But, since that time, I’ve seen nothing but more, more, and much more of the same, expanding outward from that powerful institution to the media, then to industry. I saw the same contempt in the hidden spaces and the pious posturing in the televised. Thus do people, raised by earnest mothers like mine had been, disaffiliate from a civilization once they discover that it is shot through, every fiber, with the same spirit of emptiness. Hear my applause of it....

1 comment:

  1. Very well put.
    I must say, this morning, after reading the NYTs for an couple of hours, I went on a tear when I heard issue forth from the TV the first lines of This Week with Stephanopolous... or whatever his show is called now.

    John had to switch to watching Rugby until I went outside to pain... The hypocracy, shallowness of the talking points, and arogance is just too much for me these days, almost regardless of topic.

    Summer activities call to me, begging me to think of other things...

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