OF JONAH’S FATHER We receive lots of criticism around here, and sometimes the chief criticism is that I talk too much about the criticism. Others complain that I am not serious enough, or that I am not funny enough, or that I am the opposite. The complaints I listen to most come from my dad, the source of my real education. As a life-long editor and newspaperman, he knows more about column writing than Bill Clinton knows about cup sizes. Ironically, especially considering the last sentence, one of his chief peeves is when I go for the cheap, easy, dirty joke.
Pop suffers from what he calls cacoëthes corrigendi, which I hope is a real phrase because I’m using it in this column. He says it means “an irresistible urge to correct things.” (I believe I suffer from “cacoëthes frozen pizza” — figure it out). My e-mail box is often filled with catalogs of split infinitives, historical inaccuracies, and other morsels that feed his addiction. But Dad’s biggest complaint about my column — and I’m sure he’ll tell me if I’m wrong — is when I am lazy.
There are two manifestations of laziness he hates most. The first is when I just call someone a name like “jackass.” It’s not that he doesn’t share the sentiment most of the time, it’s just that he thinks that I’m not trying hard enough. The other manifestation of laziness he dislikes is when I say things like, “I don’t have much time today but here goes nothing.…”
Of course, Dad’s right, and not just because, in the words of Irving Kristol, he is the author of my being. The problem is that when you write a daily column you sometimes get writer’s block. Writer’s block is awful. Just look at what it did to Edmund Morris. He’s learning how to say “you want fries with that?” because of his block.
The way to get rid of the blockage is often called “throat clearing,” which is what all of the above was. In fact, you are free to start this column here.
So, with all due apologies to Pops the author of my being…I don’t have much time today. So I thought I’d do something quick and easy, like a survey of government efficiency.
We all know that the government, being the king of all bureaucracies, is brimming with idiocy, arrogance, and mishap. I mean, at our secret conservative headquarters, there are files on governmental buffoonery that date back to ancient Egypt. The “Wages and Price Controls” annex alone is four stories high.
But long serious studies of waste, fraud, and abuse are usually duller than watching My Dinner with André with the mute button on. So instead, I thought I would do a very quick survey about what our government is doing. But how to do that on a tight schedule and without actually doing any work?
What I decided to do was comb through the stories being moved by the Associated Press. They’re all real stories about the important things the U.S. government is doing today.
Let’s start with my favorite. An AP story coming out of Miami reports that HUD has put out a pamphlet for Haitian-Americans. It is written entirely in Jamaican pidgin English, which, of course, is a problem as Haiti is not the place where Jamaicans come from. But the bigger problem is that Jamaican pidgin English, while a venerable patois, is not a written language at all. In writing it’s called “illiterate.” Here is one sentence: “Yuh as a rezedent, ave di rights ahn di rispansabilities to elp mek yuh HUD-asisted owzing ah behta owme fi yuh ahn yuh fambily.”
Translated that reads, “You as a resident have the rights and the responsibilities to help make your HUD-assisted housing a better home for you and your family.” Not a great sentence in English either, but it’s better than the alternative. The pamphlet, entitled “Rezedents Rights and Rispansabilities,” was signed (No, I am not making this up) “Sekretary Andrew M. Cuomo fella.” It was sent to about 700 official HUD offices.
It turns out that HUD outsourced the pamphlet to a private firm and they okayed a pidgin English text. Educated blacks from Jamaica and Haiti aren’t too psyched. While I’m not usually one to leap to my feet to agree with ethnic groups who complain about insensitivity on the part of the government, this is ridiculous. A government document which is literally printed in stoopid and aimed at a specific group is pretty bad.
Then there’s the item about the Chinese and U.S. postal services signing an agreement to improve mail service between the two countries. There’s not much to get mad about there, except for the fact they’ve agreed to “share ideas about new services.” What does this mean? We give them the plans to our self-sticking stamps and they show us how to horde Red Cross CARE packages intended for political prisoners? Sweet. I’d rather see an agreement codifying a world-wide ban keeping those takeout menus out of my building.
There’s also an item about the Consumer Product Safety Commission. They ran a sting on thrift stores across the U.S. It begins, “A spot check of some of the nation’s 9,500 thrift shops suggests that nearly 70 percent of them were selling at least one item that has been recalled, banned, or violates safety standards.” Good Lord, man! You mean this hairdryer from 1962 isn’t up to specs? Who can I sue? These stores sell old junk. “Thrift,” after all, is code (like “previously owned cars”) for old broken stuff and wide-lapel era clothes. Doesn’t everybody know that? Note to readers: If you do not know this already and you think the government is doing important work here, you are probably already in the government.
Oh, yeah, there is one small news story. It appears that the elected leaders of the United States of America — the heirs of Jefferson, Lincoln, Webster, FDR — have come to a major agreement on the budget. After weeks of negotiations, calculations, and personal sacrifice, they might, might, have managed to trim about .38% across the board, (that’s point-three-eight, which amounts to about $1.5 billion) from government-agency spending.
That is if the agreement holds. The president was extremely reluctant to give in on such a deep cut and is still under intense pressure from congressional Democrats. Apparently the Democrats think that agencies like HUD, the Postal Service, and the CPSC can’t afford to lose even a drop of funding; the extremely brave Republicans are holding fast to their principles. They want the .38% cut, according to the Associated Press, “for its political symbolism as a sign of frugality.”