Before I dipped my toe into the fetid waters of the US Congress for last week’s blog posts, I hadn’t realised quite how convoluted the US legislative process could be, and how the whole process was not just bureaucratic and complex but deliberately obscure. The point was brought home by a comment in the previous thread House of Horrors which in turn pointed to a revealing Rolling Stone article about it.
When something is impenetrable and obscure, that is often not because you the reader are stupid or it is at too advanced a level, it is often because the perpetrator of the waffle is trying to hide something. An academic variant, common among people who style themselves as postmodernists, is to surround an argument with clouds of verbiage that disguises the content-free, banal or simply wrong assertions that are being made. Clarity, rationalism and enlightenment go together. As Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s brilliant book, Intellectual Impostures says:
At a time when superstitions, obscurantism and nationalist and religious fanaticism are spreading in many parts of the world – including the ‘developed’ West – it is irresponsible, to say the least, to treat with such casualness what has historically been the principal defence against these follies, namely a rational vision of the world.
The offences of postmodernism against clarity are as nothing compared to the US legislative process, which seems almost designed for the rulers of the House majority to benefit favoured groups such as the rich, and their donors, by hiding provisions in dark corners of the legislation. Legislation is often given a cheesy, sloganising title (like the PATRIOT Act). Or merged with completely irrelevant legislation, like putting Arctic oil drilling in the same bill that enables defence spending. Or packed with what is called ‘pork’ – essentially legalised legislative bribery for representatives’ districts or special interests. Votes on this sort of thing provides source material for mendacious campaign commercials – to object to the Alaska drilling you must risk a sliming by paid ads in the local media claiming you wanted to leave US soldiers to face the dangers of Iraq without Kevlar or boots. No doubt companies with a commercial interest in the Alaska drillng would be keen to fund such commercials. Just go and read the Rolling Stone piece. And also see the luxurious life that can be lived if you are inside the machine, for instance the millionaire lifestyle of Tom DeLay, courtesy of his donors.
Britain still has much to recommend it, in that parliamentary procedures are, while sometimes complicated, at least honest and not as obscure as in the US (or governance of the EU, which also has a clarity problem). It would be a shame if electoral reform, or House of Lords reform, led to a situation where effective decisions could take place in the dark of a partisan special committee meeting at a scarcely advertised time in the bowels of a parliamentary building.
But this is a worry for electoral reformers. Talking in detail about alternative electoral systems arouses some instinctive hackles among the public, who suspect (often with good reason) that every time a public figure dives off into technicalities, someone somewhere is being conned. Many people seem unprepared to trust in a process they can’t understand – but this isn’t a problem in Denmark where the system is of baffling, baroque complexity. Perhaps the Danes have more reason to trust their governing classes.
However, there really are some questions where the answer really isn’t that simple. The reaction of getting bored and turning away often enables insiders or special interests to get away with writing the small print to suit themselves. Opinion research tells us that one of the the only good things about FPTP is that most people feel they understand it. But as the US example shows, FPTP can be an enemy of clarity further along the line. Perhaps people would understand government as a whole more if policies emerged from discussion rather than coming down from a Cabinet whose internal workings are usually off-limits? Just a thought. Reform is anti-waffle – for clarity, fairness and honesty, if not always simplicity. It’s just difficult to find a way of putting it. And before I go all waffly myself, I’ll stop.