Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

What words have to do with distrust

I had lunch today with a priest who said at one point that he had listened to the famous speech the newly consecrated OCA Bishop Jonah (now Metropolitan) gave just before his election, in which he spoke with startling bluntness about the moral wreckage at the top of the OCA governance. My priest friend said he wishes his church had bishops like that, and observed that he knew while listening to it that Jonah must not have been a bishop for long, because they hadn’t yet taught him that bishops don’t talk that way. I laughed at that, because it’s so true. I’ve sat in on editorial interviews with bishops, even in one case a cardinal, and it’s really remarkable how practiced they are at saying absolutely nothing in a friendly, non-threatening way.
On the drive back to the office, I turned on NPR and heard a guest on a radio program talking about education policy. The guest was full of rah-rah bromides, empty-headed enthusiasm and cheeseball sloganeering, e.g., “They say we have to choose between good jobs and good schools, but I say we have to have both good jobs and good schools!” When he came out with that line, I thought, “This guy has got to be a government official.”
Sure enough, the host identified the man as US Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Because I got badly lost on the drive back to the office, I had the opportunity to listen to the rest of Duncan’s interview, and it was remarkable, really remarkable, how vapid and cheerleadery he was. That’s not a political judgment; I’m talking about his rhetoric. The interviewer quoted a line of Duncan’s from his last appearance on the program, in which Duncan said he was going to identify things that didn’t work in the US education system, and get rid of them. Twice the interviewer tried to pin him down on things he’d found that “didn’t work.” Finally Duncan identified one: “the blame game,” in which people blame others for the educational system not working. Wow. Brave.
Mind you, what I don’t know about Arne Duncan and his ideas is practically everything. This was the first time I’d ever heard him speak. And he was so full of hot air and robust cheer that, based only on the way he talked, I find it difficult to have confidence in him. If you go back and listen to that interview, it’s not like he was offensive (quite the opposite!) or stupid (plainly not). It was that his words sounded like he was not really trying to address the actual issues being discussed, but rather trying to sell confidence in himself. He sounded like a top bureaucrat. He sounded like a bishop.
Maybe words have a lot to do with why so many people distrust institutions these days. Maybe because the people who lead institutions — religious, governmental, commercial, etc. — are so practiced at the art of saying nothing risky or truthful, while trying to sound as if they’re answering questions or making sense — that people simply no longer believe a word they say. Or at least assume it’s b.s. until shown otherwise.
Language is so debased these days that the man who seeks to lead, and who simply tells the truth, will find himself with more followers than he might think.

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posted April 19, 2010 at 3:55 pm

“Language is so debased these days that the man who seeks to lead, and who simply tells the truth, will find himself with more followers than he might think. ”
Unless that truth is unpopular, and then they will have more enemies than they could imagine. For your scenario to work, Mr. Dreher, we need to have a populace who is truly hungry for the truth, no matter where that might take them. And, if anything from the past few weeks on this blog has shown you, sometimes that truth can take you places you do not want to go.
Americans at this point do not want to follow a difficult truth. They want easy answers that do not cost them anything. It’s one of the reasons that I believe you yourself offered for why Red Toryism would be such a hard sell here in the states.
People are indeed desperate for someone to stand up and speak truth to power. But if that truth has a price tag, its popularity drops dramatically.

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lancelot lamar

posted April 19, 2010 at 4:57 pm

I am often surprised to hear highly successful people speak in such an empty, clueless way. It all seems to be a confidence game they are playing to the extent that nothing seems real.
One exception is Warren Buffett, who in his letters to his investors seems unusually honest and even humble, in that he readily admits his screw ups and lifts up his associates. In his last letter, praising the head of his reinsurance group, he said that if his investors saw that this man, Buffet, and Charlie (Buffet’s second in command) were all drowning, they should save the insurance guy, because he was worth more to the company than they were.

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Your Name

posted April 19, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Give me a break. How often have you included a parenthetical like “I’m not saying it’s just Democrats [or Republicans]; the other side does it, too”? Why do people do it? You seem pretty well positioned to answer that.

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Rod Dreher

posted April 19, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Well, it’s true: they all do it. It comes with the territory. Nobody wants to offend, I suppose. People do it because they fear saying what they really think. If you say nothing, you risk nothing. People don’t want to risk anything.
I include that parenthetical because so many readers are eager to accuse me of carrying water for conservatives, or of dissing Catholics, or whatever, when all I’m really trying to do is to use a concrete example to make an abstract point. I would rather not have to qualify everything, but if I hadn’t done it here, someone would have accused me of trying to trash the Obama administration by picking on the Education Secretary (I didn’t even know who he was until the host introduced him after I’d already decided he was a blowhard who said nothing, but used lots of words to do so). I deliberately didn’t say which church the priest with whom I had lunch serves in (though it should be obvious he’s not Orthodox) because I didn’t want people to jump on that fact to ad-hominem away his point about how bishops seem to quick speaking plainly and directly once they assume the episcopate.
Perhaps this is your point, Your Name: I have to qualify so many things I say here because readers of whatever ideological or religious persuasion are so willing to jump down my throat for being a “bigot” or somesuch thing simply because I disagree with them. We’ve become that sort of culture. If you’re trying to say, “No wonder people in authority rarely say anything meaningful or potentially controversial, given how quick so many of us are to take offense,” then your point is well made.

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posted April 19, 2010 at 5:43 pm

“Nobody wants to offend, I suppose.”
Ain’t THAT the truth. This relates to another post where you talked about people being jealous guardians of their pet opinions/causes and woe to him who disagrees. Can’t piss off the unions. Won’t tick off the parents. Don’t blow it with the business community. Be carefully multi-culti and vague with religious leaders. It seems our politicians rarely say anything worth hearing as a result.
One refreshing change (at least so far) is Chris Christie, governor of NJ – maybe it takes a state in crisis to even consider big change!

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The Mighty Favog

posted April 19, 2010 at 6:08 pm

You mean you’re longing for folks who do the whole “let your yes mean yes and your no mean no” thing? Good luck.
Especially in the church. In some quarters of football, you may have a shot.

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posted April 19, 2010 at 7:20 pm

bishops seem to quick speaking plainly and directly once they assume the episcopate.
“Quit,” I think, rather than “quick.”

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posted April 19, 2010 at 8:25 pm

hlvanburen: For your scenario to work, Mr. Dreher, we need to have a populace who is truly hungry for the truth, no matter where that might take them.
Well, so much for that….
lancelot lamar: I am often surprised to hear highly successful people speak in such an empty, clueless way.
I’m glad you point that out, because I’ve noticed it, too.
In one of his books, Dr. Andrew Weil points out that various different non-standard medical systems (homeopathy, chiropractic, naturopathy, etc.) when originally developed were actually highly sucessful. This is especially interesting, he says, because the underlying theories of the various systems are not just different but contradictory. That is, they can’t all be right, and yet they all work in the beginning. Over time, though, as the first generation of practitioners dies off, the efficacy of the system also gradually diminishes (though not completely). Weil postulates that it is the near-evangelical fervor and zeal of the systems’ originators that has this effect, not the efficacy of the treatments themselves. The mind, in short, really does work “over matter” in ways we don’t understand to make the patients heal, regardless of the medical theory, because they believe they will be healed.
I often wonder if something akin to this happens in education and in other areas. It’s not that the actual program (shorter hours, longer hours, block schedules, whatever) makes a difference—it’s the enthusiasm with which it’s initially implemented. I suspect that this is why very early studies of charter schools, for example, showed so much promise, and why after they became commoner and the novelty wore off, the overall scores were no better than standard schools. I also suspect that this is true in other areas—maybe some of these highly successful people aren’t successful because they did fill-in-the-blank, but despite it. They would have been highly successful regardless because of their drive and enthusiasm, not because of their program.
I’d also add, as a teacher, that this phenomenon which Rod describes is endemic there more than in other fields.

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Bill H

posted April 19, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Language is so debased these days that the man who seeks to lead, and who simply tells the truth, will find himself with more followers than he might think.
Or, to sound negative, someone who is just really good at lying in a straightforward fashion.

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posted April 19, 2010 at 8:40 pm

Arne Duncan always seems like a nice guy who either hasn’t been in the public schools or isn’t able to tell the unvarnished truth about what he’s seen there.
They should ake Michelle Rhee, the chancellor who’s caused so much havoc in the DC schools US Sec of Ed. She’s willing to cut underperforming staff.

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posted April 19, 2010 at 9:10 pm

The prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time (Amos 5:13). What the culture needs to hear is the law, and nobody wants to be told to repent. For the typical person it is not their job, but the bishop and politician are called to something more. It is their job to apply the law. Unfortunately we are getting the politicians and bishops we deserve – which is never a good thing. We don’t want God to send us what we actually deserve, we want his grace.

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Lord Karth

posted April 20, 2010 at 1:25 am

Mr. Dreher, @ 3:17 PM, writes:
“Maybe words have a lot to do with why so many people distrust institutions these days. Maybe because the people who lead institutions — religious, governmental, commercial, etc. — are so practiced at the art of saying nothing risky or truthful, while trying to sound as if they’re answering questions or making sense — that people simply no longer believe a word they say. Or at least assume it’s b.s. until shown otherwise.”
Don’t look at the words, Mr. Dreher. Look at the behavior of the speakers.
There are two, maybe three, principal reasons for the average person to distrust institutions these days. First is sheer size; the central and (most) provincial governments, as well as most large corporations, are so large and so spread out that the average person does not feel as though he can affect the behavior of the bureaucrats/role-players whose own conduct affects him. That feeling of smallness can often breed discontent and distrust. An example: dealing with central- or provincial-government tax agencies, or Your Friendly Local Department of Motor Vehicles.
Second is the “Iron Law of Bureaucracy”; an organization that grows sufficiently large develops a group of employees who are more concerned with maintaining their own positions and perks within the organization than in actually seeing that the organization does what it is supposed to do. Sometimes there is an actual infiltration of the first organization by the second, as in the case of the teachers’ unions or the public-employees unions, and these separate groups become powers in their own right. Again, this sort of parasitism distorts the functioning of the original organization, causing distrust among outsiders who deal with it.
Under such conditions, the primary way to advance in the organization, or even to stay in place, for the average worker, is to “go with the flow”, to not do anything that would reflect adversely on the organization. “Don’t make waves” is the first rule of the successful bureaucrat. That’s what you saw in the Education Secretary, Mr. Dreher; an “organization man” acting in the way he’s been taught to act. When a person like that reaches the highest levels of authority in an organization, that’s a sure sign that the organization itself is ripe for being abolished.
A private-sector corporation with bureaucrats at the top will often find itself in financial trouble (see, e.g. General Motors or Chrysler) unless some outside force props it up. Unfortunately, in this case we’re dealing with a government agency; an effectively immortal grouping. So don’t look for the DoEd to go out of business anytime soon; Arne Duncan’s job is secure—a prospect which will make you sleep that much easier, I’m sure.
Your servant,
Lord Karth

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Your Name

posted April 20, 2010 at 7:10 am

People are so use to speaking in the context of no context that you can get all types and kinds of philosopheal trash to guide your socity.
Why dosen’t the foundation do a ‘paper or study’ of Gödel’s therom and its social implications.
SAincerely, J R Dittbrenner

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Scott Walker

posted April 20, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Anybody interested in the questions of language and truth, especially political language and truth, should read George Orwell’s “Politics And The English Language.” Be warned, however, that it will be nearly impossible thereafter to believe just about any political or commercial language one may hear, as one’s BS Detector will have been upgraded. (It also works to detect churchy BS, and is consequently a useful corrective to Bishopspeak.)

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posted April 20, 2010 at 8:53 pm

The government has had “plain English” initiatives for decades. But the issue Mr. Dreher raises stems from something other than overuse of jargon. People are people, in the workplace and within their marriages. Look at husbands and wives. If they provide each other a safe haven for dropping the masks put on for outsiders and sharing their thoughts, communications works well. If there is no safe haven, it doesn’t.
Some of the depictions of government bureaucrats in the comment thread here is widely off the mark. The weight of the public trust is not so easily shaken off as many outsiders like to think.
I don’t think it is possible to reach some of the people commenting here, although it is possible to catch Mr. Dreher’s eye. There are a lot of Ruthies in the public sector. My late twin sister, about whom I’ve written in some of the Ruthie threads, was a fed. She knew from the moment she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer that she was unlikely to survive. Nevertheless, she continued to work, first at her office in the National Archives, then from home, as she was able.
After she died, the Archivist of the United States wrote of my sister in a letter to me and to our mother that she “was a valuable member of our staff as a declassification team leader in the Initial Processing/Declassification Division of our agency, directing others in some of the most sensitive records review work we perform. In her 19 years, she distinguished herself in a variety of roles, including that of team leader for the review of the Nazi war crimes records.”
He added, “She was considered as committed a NARA employee as can be found, and gave guidance and assistance to anyone who needed it. Her colleagues truly enjoyed working with her and she was highly respected for her skills and work ethic. Her humor, compassion, and talent will be sorely missed here at the Archives.”
One of her colleagues said in an article published in the NARA Staff Bulletin about her death at 51, “‘She was always available to her team members and even those who did not belong to her team sought her guidance on declassification issues because of her openness and experience.’ He described her as ‘a joy to work with and a great office companion.'”
As Mr. Dreher has said about Ruthie, you get back what you give. One of my sister’s colleagues who gave a eulogy for her said of her that “she took pleasure in other people’s accomplishments as if they were her own.” She mentored and assisted countless colleagues, sometimes under very difficult circumstances. One of them, an archives-technician when I first met him, now heads NARA’s Office of Information Security Oversight (ISOO).
ISOO is the NARA unit that some people associated with the Vice President’s office talked about abolishing after the then ISOO chief tried to do a regulatory security audit of the handling of security classified records in OVP in 2007. He encountered very serious pushback, to the extent that there were rumors that OVP forces wanted to abolish his office. That’s not going along to get along. I, too, once worked at NARA. I went out on a limb a time or two myself on your behalf—on behalf of all who depended on federal employees doing our work within regulatory guidelines–while employed by the National Archives
To suggest that federal workers focus mostly on how to “go along to get alone” simply illustrates a lack of contact with actual government employees, beyond the most mundane or superficial. There are some cubicle drones, you’ll find them everywhere in both the public and private sector. But fewer than people think. That feds are slothful clock watchers is a perception seems largely based on ignorance. There are lots of Ruthies in the federal government. Some of you probably have been the indirect beneficiaries of their good character and work ethic. As with all othering, it’s just easier to project a cardboard image for them from outside.

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