“The best measure of a man's honesty isn't his income tax return. It's the zero adjust on his bathroom scale.”
—Arthur C. Clarke“When in doubt, tell the truth.”
—Mark TwainBoy, you stop reporting for three-plus years and suddenly the city seems more fractured than ever—one frustrating tailspin after another. It's funny (strange, not ha ha) how so many of San Diego's woes these days appear biblical in nature—mudslides, wildfires, water burbling up through pock-marked streets on an almost-daily basis. It's enough to make the sanest among us toss in the towel and move on to cheaper pastures.
And that's exactly what's happening, despite the babble coming from groups like the San Diego Association of Governments. Folks are loading up their SUVs and bailing on our fair city. Earlier this year, reports trickled out that for the fourth year in a row, more people fled San Diego County than moved here, suggesting a more appropriate slogan for San Diego: “America's Finest City (To Leave).”
Yet, the SANDAGian prognosticators still predict that by 2030, the county will surge in population by 1 million newbies.
The problem appears obvious: Someone's bullshitting us.
So, here's a New Year's proposal for all our political “leaders”: Give B.S. the heave-ho. Stop working your little heads so hard to come up with palatable ways to tell us the bad news. Stop dodging the hard questions that everyone wants answered. Give this town a good B.S. enema!
Now, dear reader, you might well be mumbling to yourself, “Why didn't I think of this before?” Good question. In fact, à la Dorothy Gale, the answer has always been right in front of you. But perhaps you've been too busy trying to keep your head above treacherous financial waters, tending to your 2.3 kids—or even just too ensconced in your iPod. Maybe you've been too busy spitting venom anonymously through any number of local blogs that welcome exploding verbal diarrhea. Or maybe, you were just plain unaware of the B.S. flying all around you—perhaps you confused it with global warming. Perfectly understandable—the symptoms are surprisingly similar.
You might also be thinking, Huh? Whatcha talkin' about, Mr. Where Ya Been? Look, it's pretty clear. When we last chatted, back in July 2004, Dancing Dick and his yellow-jacketed cohorts were about a year away from slipping out the mayoral door, chins glued to chests, ticking financial time bomb set to “Wait Till I Clear the Building.”
Murphy's departure then led to a political feeding frenzy that eventually spit out party-boy-cum-police-chief Jerry Sanders as our new “strong” leader, who quickly turned over the keys to his new toy to a vast network of retreads—from retired Navy bean counters (whose pocket change can be counted in million-dollar bills) to fellow politicos from the Susan Golding era, otherwise known as The Time That Devoured San Diego's Future. Toss in a few token “real” people, and—shazam!—an administration ready-made for stumbling.
Granted, Sanders smiles a lot more readily than his predecessor (handy for troubling times) and even reads a mean speech. But bold initiatives have given way to baby steps as the mayor positions himself for a possible re-election race against zillionaire rent-a-nurse mogul Steve Francis, who's moved into the coy “Maybe I will, maybe I won't” mode. Even Sanders' former land-use czar, Jim Waring, has been telling anyone who will listen that the mayor's office now rests in the hands of Sanders campaign consultant Tom Shepard.
Francis still apparently worries about a possible ambush run by City Councilmember Donna Frye, San Diego's Queen of Coy. (In the interest of disclosure, I spent a year as Frye's press secretary following my previous stint with CityBeat. It was a bittersweet experience, so I consider it a wash influence-wise.) Even though they well may be San Diego's oddest platonic couple, Francis and Frye have lunch on occasion. At one recent midday encounter, the story goes, Francis tried to get Frye to sign a letter promising she wouldn't run for mayor, which she coyly declined.Which gets us back to the topic at hand. Which is, frankly, nowhere. It seems so much of this city's machinations revolve around bullshit that it's amazing any work gets done that benefits you, Mr. and Ms. General Public.
Long before philosopher Harry Frankfurt gained notoriety in 2005 for his bestseller On Bullshit, a little book hit the shelves written by award-winning author Arthur Herzog titled The B.S. Factor: The Theory and Technique of Faking It in America. In it, he called for a new breed of “radical skeptics” to step up and “clear away the B.S. that is now engulfing our country.” This, mind you, was in 1974.
I decided to check in with Herzog to see if, 34 years later, we're past the tipping point (to borrow a global-warming axiom) on bullshit, whether we've been so thought-polluted (his phrase) that we're beyond saving.
“I think the B.S. today is even thicker today and am doubtful it will go away short of an evolutionary change,” Herzog lamented via e-mail last week.
Still writing two books at a time in his 80s, the native New Yorker admits that “perhaps I watch too much TV, but I'm not optimistic.”
He did offer that he considers himself a “poptimist” (by coincidence the title of a forthcoming book)—“meaning a pessimistic optimist, which I hope I still am.”
I wrote back asking if that didn't suggest some detachment from optimism, far removed from the disco days of “radical skeptics,” but he didn't respond. Apparently, even talking about B.S. gets tiring nowadays.
So, herewith, I vow to take up the mantle to rally all radical skeptics. Join me in an experiment to ferret out the B.S., expose it to light and eliminate it. I can't do this without you, and, honestly, it wouldn't be as much fun doing it on my own.
To pique your interest, I give you classic Herzog, circa 1974: “If it turns out that we are a nation of cheats and crooks, barbarians in business suits, let us at least face the reality. Clearly—whatever else is true of us—Americans are a people deeply, deeply mired in their own rhetoric. To get on solid ground will mean to carry on a nonviolent struggle against deception wherever it appears, in institutions and in people. Even more than clean streets, we need clear heads.” Update: I did finally hear back from the esteemed Mr. Herzog. As his wife explained, Arthur sticks by his faithful electric typewriter, while she handles the e-side. And through her, he sounded a bit more hopeful: 'Maybe I am a skeptical radical.'
Starting this week, Spin Cycle is published every other week. Look for it again on Jan. 16.