Tag Archives: retorts

Living in the National Piñata

This is an area where too many of the deer and antelope play, where wild turkeys travel in sullen gangs, and official cautions about bears are not just an academic exercise.

We were at a party a few weeks ago when I happened to pick up a fragment of the conversation just in time to hear a visitor from North Carolina offer the opinion that “the only good thing about New Jersey is Bruce Springsteen.” She was sorry she couldn’t get a ticket to see his show in New York. The nearby host demurred and said something to the effect that “we love him, but there’s more to the state than Bruce.”  I wish I’d been fast enough to have thrown in a little Jersey attitude as well, perhaps the coda: “and we’re prepared to break the legs of anyone who disagrees.”

The comment was a red flag. It seems rude for a party guest to be critical of the host’s state. That’s the job of people who live in it, and we do it well.  It was even more ironic that this was said in a beautiful New Jersey home on it’s “west coast,” near the Delaware River. The house sits in the kinds of woodlands that cover over 40 percent of the Garden State. It’s next to conservation district filled with trees and pastures, and across from a trout stream. Locals swear that Vermont tourism officials once came to this spot to take pictures of “their” countryside. It’s also an area where too many of the deer and antelope play, where wild turkeys travel in sullen gangs, and official cautions about bears are not just an academic exercise. Lovely villages hug the shores of the East’s most impressive “wild and scenic river,” the Middle and Upper portions of the Delaware. Both sides of its wooded banks as scattered with historic inns, including one in Stockton memorialized in the Rogers and Hart standard, “There’s a Small Hotel.”

I won’t run down the list of backward ideas that seem to catch the fancy of many in the Tar Heel State. I will just say that from a Garden State perspective, some of our friends to the south still seem to still be fighting old culture wars, to the detriment of women, gay Americans and Muslims.

Residents here tend to be more forward-looking. People in New Jersey actually vote to increase their taxes to preserve farms and open space.  The corollary is the right to complain about the higher cost of living.  And other supposed bargain states might take note: New Jersey is near the top in the performance of its tax-funded public schools, average household income, residents with advanced degrees, sane gun laws, and standards for the treatment of animals.

As befits a state that still believes in communities and their governments, the geographically compact state has over 500 of municipal bodies . All these big and little school districts, towns and boroughs are expensive to support. But they suggest that many residents are engaged. Live in a small town, and you will be asked to serve a stint on the Planning Board or Shade Tree Commission. Even the state’s bigger cities on it’s east coast seem to be on a roll of newfound civic activism.

I’ve lived in California, Colorado, Great Britain and Pennsylvania, and liked them all.  But New Jersey seems to be the most open to ethnic and religious differences. In a recent flight from Florida to Trenton I was proud of the overcrowded plane with the diversity of a United Nations gathering.

So a word of warning: Please don’t use the Garden State as the national piñata. There is so much more to New Jersey than the Turnpike and Newark/Liberty Airport. And to our friends from the south, be sure there are human assets to claim for your state beyond notable landmarks like the grand Biltmore Estate, the nation’s largest private home. Anyway it’s just possible that one day Bruce may buy the place and move it to Rumson.

A Rebuke that Stuck

James Callaghan The Guardian
      James Callaghan                              The Guardian

Neither poetic nor profound, these dozen words still capture  the exasperation of trying to reach a person whose view of the world cannot accommodate the truth. 

Sometimes a perfect response will stick for a lifetime.  A person captures in a few words all of the intangibles that seem to be in play when an encounter ends with an impasse.  So it was with a former British Prime Minister who spent his share of time facing questions from the opposition in the weekly parliamentary ritual known as Question Time.  Questions to the Prime Minister give members of the opposing party a chance to query the leader of the government they would like to replace.  Policies are challenged.  Priorities are questioned.  That’s the parliamentary system, making the Wednesday session  with questions the high point of Britain’s political week. The meeting of the two party leaders–fueled by an impatient Prime Minister in waiting—is often better than what is running in any given week on Broadway.

And so it was when Prime Minister James Callaghan rose to answer questions from his opposite just two swords length away, each standing in front of separate little podiums known in the House of Commons as Dispatch Boxes.  It was 1976 and the beginning of his three stormy years as leader of the government.  His interrogator at the time was the formidable Margaret Thatcher, who would eventually win the general election when Labour party unity collapsed a few years later.  But in 1976 his Government was ready for all comers.

Callaghan uttered a simple phrase of exasperation that I have never forgotten. Neither poetic nor profound on it own, somehow its dozen words managed to capture the angst that comes when trying to reach people who have locked themselves into a belief that cannot accommodate what you have said.

Better than most, Callaghan understood the impossibility of moving a rock that has no intention of being budged.  I have a hunch his response had  long been a part of his rhetorical repertoire.

After an exasperating exchange over the state of the economy where he was challenged on some basic numbers, these perfect words were spoken in a tone of regret and gentle rebuke.

“I can tell you the truth,” he said, “but I can’t make you accept it.”  

It’s a perfect comeback to other members of the species who cannot free themselves to acknowledge the facts on the ground.

Several reasons make the response apt.  It affirms the speaker’s belief that some statements cannot be negotiated away as mere opinion.  At the same time it judges the intransigence of the listener more in regret than in anger.  And that’s the right note to strike when others in the room need to be reminded that an interlocutor  is incapable of dealing with the obvious.

Perhaps the closest American parallel is in the famous courtroom showdown is in A Few Good Men, Rob Reiner’s 1992 legal drama. Young military attorneys press a career commander played by Jack Nicholson to reveal more of what he knows about the death of a Marine at the Guantanamo base in Cuba.  “I want the truth Colonial Jessup!” demands the young and callow lawyer.  After a few beats the older man works up a full head of steam, and he rages back with the line that defines the film: “You can’t handle the truth!”  Jessup has heard all he can stand from the young Lieutenant whose military experience has been confined to a few months in the Judge Advocate General Corps. “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom.”

The whole scene with its line about handling the truth is a great movie moment.  But Callaghan’s rebuke is the more elegant of the two.  It can be said in a whisper and be just as effective.  It bites more completely with its tone of dismay for the inability of the receiver to accept the world as it is.  If Colonel Jessup’s comment is a chainsaw in full throttle, Callaghan’s words more quietly cut through resistance like an industrial laser.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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