Wednesday, May 6, 2009

An inconvenient gaffe on 60 Minutes -- an editorial

Government is the greatest enemy of clear writing. Government employees strive every day to avoid writing or speaking clearly. That’s because government, as the Father of His Country warned us, is force.* Therefore, government must constantly deceive its subjects about its true intentions and methods.

Government also urges its indirect employees (e.g., lawyers, accountants and other licensed professionals) and its various cheerleaders (e.g., most academics, journalists and entertainers) to avoid clear writing and clear speaking.

This arrangement generally runs smoothly. But once in a great while, some doofus gives the game away by uttering or writing a clear sentence or two. There was a striking example last Sunday (May 3) on 60 Minutes, the weekly news program on CBS.

In a segment called “Amazon Crude,” correspondent Scott Pelley interviewed Steven Donziger (photo above), a New York lawyer who is helping a group of Indians in remote northeastern Ecuador sue Chevron for allegedly polluting the part of the jungle where the Indians live. They are seeking US$27 billion in damages.

Mr. Pelley asked Mr. Donziger, “Texaco [which is now part of Chevron] spent $40 million cleaning up some of these sites. In return for that the Ecuadorian government signed off and said, ‘You’re released of liability.’ How can you have a lawsuit now?”

Mr. Donziger replied, “Well, our clients never released Texaco. And that’s a critical distinction. That was an agreement between the government and Texaco. We were not part of that agreement, and we’re not bound by that agreement.”

Uh-oh. If Mr. Donziger’s “critical distinction” is valid, then laws, regulations and treaties are binding only on the people who sign them.

For example, in the United States, only the people who signed the laws prohibiting possession of marijuana were prohibited from possessing marijuana, and all of those people are now dead. And only the people who signed the Sixteenth Amendment were required to pay individual income tax, and all of them are now dead. And so on.

Needless to say, the U.S. Government will have to quash this lawsuit, or at least tell the press not to cover it, in order to prevent more subjects from thinking these forbidden thoughts.

Many thanks to Stefan Molyneux for spotting Mr. Donziger’s gaffe. Mr. Molyneux is a Canadian philosopher, novelist and blogger, and host of the internationally popular Freedomain Radio podcasts. See his amusing video, “Mainstream Anarchism.”

The Takeaway: If you work directly or indirectly for government, or if you are a cheerleader for government, you must always be wary of clarity. Before you publicly express any clear thought – even a statement of obvious fact – try to anticipate how the subjects may use it against you or your colleagues. As you gain more experience, you will realize that it is safer to avoid all clear expression and to favor murky statements and outright nonsense. Don’t worry about fluency – you’ll become more fluent with practice. And eventually the clear thoughts will plague you less frequently, if at all.

*“Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. Government is force; like fire it is a dangerous servant – and a fearful master.” —George Washington, 1797

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