Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Seeing Sophistry

   If the government funds you, 
the government owns you. 
 Those words are attributed by GreeneLander James Varelas to Charles Krauthammer, the columnist and Fox News commentator, and they are hailed by him as “a brilliant statement.”  In nine subsequent paragraphs of a letter to local papers (Daily Mail, 6/9/11) Mr Varelas hammers the Obama Administration, but he does not undertake to clarify the Krauthammer statement’s terms or to support his evaluation of its thesis.  I shall attempt here to identify properties that generate its rhetorical glitter.
       Pithiness. The Krauthammer statement is a model of brevity and rhythm. It seems to load a great deal of experience into a neat package.
Gravity.  Manifestly crucial to the Krauthammer proposition are the final words “owns you.”  Those words express the idea of being a serf, a slave, a disposable piece of tangible property.  Thus, the consequence of being funded by the government, as alleged in the “brilliant statement,” seems portentous indeed. 
Taken at face value, that proposition is false.  Few if any governments hold ownership papers on the people they fund.  But taking the proposition literally or legalistically would be imprudent and shallow. What is offered essentially is a strong quantitative claim.  It is a claim about variations—big variations—in degrees of servitude. Thus we have the still-portentous proposition that If the government funds you, you occupy a state of dependence and servitude that is far along in the direction of serfdom. 
Contrast.  Basic to such a proposition is a distinction between spheres of existence:  government, also known as the public sector, and non-government, or the private sector.  Invited by If the government funds you, the government owns you is the inference that if a non-government agent funds you, he or she or it does not own you.  Accordingly, If the government funds you, your state of servitude is much more complete than if a company, foundation, union, client, parent, church, bank, or paying customer funds you. 
     Conglomeration. Implicit in our “brilliant statement” too is denial or belittlement of differences in the status of people who are funded by different types of government. Denial is conveyed by the absence of differentiating adjectives such as despotic, autocratic, feudal, Fascist, theocratic, Communist, strong, republican or democratic. Denial is conveyed too by context: delivery to subjects of governance by elected representatives. Respondents are invited thereby to recognize that if the government—any kind of government—funds you, the government owns you; differences in degree of servitude under different forms of government, are trivial. (This leaves room for the possibility that, for occupants of the private sector, different forms of government do cause variations in degree of servitude).
    Personation.  Crucial to the power of the “brilliant statement” is treatment of the government as a sentient, willful, demanding actor. “The government” here is not an institution, a set of procedures, a mechanism.  It is an agent who (sic) can speak, think, pay, hire, fire, sell and boss people (including “you”).
    Diversion.  Thanks to its pithiness, its categorical distinction between government and non-government, its inclusiveness with regard to forms of government, and its treatment of government as a willful actor, our “brilliant statement” serves to divert attention from everyday experience.  As a routine matter we know people who are, so to speak, government-funded.  They are police officers, soldiers, sailors, engineers, clerks, lawyers, judges, bailiffs, mayors, pensioners, nurses, teachers, letter carriers.  They also are manufacturers, researchers, landscapers, and other private-sector workers who are funded by way of contracts with government agencies.  These people are not paid, however, by “the government.”  They are paid by various public-sector employees, who are constrained by regulations. They are supervised (governed!) not by “the government” but by various authority figures (governors) whose power, again, is constrained by regulations emanating from other authority figures.
      A common complaint about public employees in general is that they are too secure.  Rarely can they can be fired or demoted or transferred without an elaborate hearing. Never can they be auctioned off.   They may be redundant but, under established tenure rules, they cannot readily be discarded.  To think of them as government-owned chattels is quite a stretch.  Our “brilliant statement” seems to be reducible to initials: b.s.
     [BTW.  Mr Varelas's letter also was published in The Daily Freeman (7/21).  And although Mr Varelas did respond by e-mail to the above critique, he declined an invitation to have it, or a revision,
posted as a Comment here.  7/21/11]

1 comment:

Chip said...

If a campaign contributor funds you,
you are owned.