Thank goodness there have been geniuses over the years who have helped the common citizen make sense of the cacophony that so often accompanies public discourse in a democracy.
There is a natural tendency for the Common Man — and, in the modern era, the Common Woman — to feel inferior to those in positions of power. Being common, the Common Man and Common Woman can’t hope to match the intelligence and sophistication of those who govern. As one astute observer once sarcastically put it, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you a cabinet minister?”
For those who are compelled to dip a toe or tongue into the public square and participate in current debate, wise and timeless advice is available in George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Its 10 pages on usage and intent are especially beneficial to those who write letters to the editor or post comments on media websites.
One of Orwell’s tips: avoid clichés like the plague. Er … avoid clichés.
Another tip: mixed metaphors are a toxic stew of slings and arrows.
For politics as spectator sport, we can all turn to and learn from the great comedy duo of Abbott and Costello. Their famous “Who’s on First?” skit is sometimes deemed to be Vaudevillian slapstick. But the shtick and confusion has a serious undertone, a brilliant analysis of message giver and message receiver, of speaker and listener, of governor and governed, of batter and fielder.
If you hear an utterance in the public sphere that prompts you to think, “Who’s on first?” it is reasonable to conclude the speaker is spewing nonsense.
Who’s on board?
We witnessed a classic “Who’s on first?” moment this week.
The provincial government had appointed Elizabeth Matthews, former communications director to former premier Danny Williams, to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB).
The appointment was made in December. News of the appointment was not made public until March.
The delay of almost three months between appointment and announcement raised reasonable questions about the government’s motives.
Taking Orwell’s advice, we will refrain from pointing out that people with nothing to hide should live in glass houses.
The public’s suspicions understandably aroused, Natural Resources Minister Shawn Skinner stepped to the microphones and delivered a perfectly scripted “Who’s on first?” line: “There was no particular reason why I didn’t announce that she’d been appointed to the board.”
Where’s the vice-chair?
Matthews initially claimed she wasn’t informed of the December appointment. Then she clarified that in January she’d received a copy of the order in council making the appointment, but was told the information had been sent to her in error.
What’s on second. I Don’t Know’s on third. The game was obviously getting away from Skinner and Matthews, so a designated hitter was called in. Premier Kathy Dunderdale stepped up to the plate and explained Matthews’ appointment to the CNLOPB wasn’t announced publicly in December because it was not official and needed the federal government’s approval.
This rule apparently did not apply a few years ago when then-premier Danny Williams vociferously and publicly declared his intention to appoint Andy Wells to head the CNLOPB.
The federal government had a different plan, favouring Max Ruelokke.
If you recall, Williams mounted a loud and active campaign in support of Wells’ appointment. When it became obvious the federal government would prevail, Williams changed tactics, and argued the two men should share leadership of the CNLOPB. Williams struck out on that attempt, too.
So, Dunderdale’s claim that CNLOPB appointments should be kept quiet until they are officially approved seems to come out of left field. Or, more specifically, her assertions should lead Newfoundlanders (and Labradorians) to ask, “Who’s on first?”
Brian Jones is a desk editor with The Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org