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.