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No Lean Land

Our Only President gave a pretty good speech this week—oddly enough, without very many good sound-bite quotables—laying out in some measure our Party’s priorities for the upcoming budget battle. I’ve just got around to reading the thing, and I was struck by one metaphor:

Indeed, to those in my own party, I say that if we truly believe in a progressive vision of our society, we have an obligation to prove that we can afford our commitments. If we believe the government can make a difference in people’s lives, we have the obligation to prove that it works—by making government smarter, and leaner and more effective.

Being in Our Only President’s Party, I’m going to respond to this, or to one part of it: the idea that the government should be lean. Because it seems strange to me that lean is now a good thing.

Of course, for much of the development of our language, leanness was considered a bad thing because it indicated scarcity. It is, in fact, the seven fat cows that indicate plenty and the seven lean that indicate famine. Shakespeare is as happy to mock a skinny man as a fat one, with the added hint that the lean-faced men, the lean raw-boned rascals, the wrinkled, lean old men are not to be trusted. However, while when applied to people leanness is at one end of a spectrum that is bad at both ends and good only in the middle, when applied to land, leanness is the outright opposite of good. Lean land is famine; Famine personified is described as lean. Wadsworth says that civil war leaves a land lean, poor and dismantled of all its fruits and wealth. Lands are lean where rivers do not run, says the proverb. As time goes on, the term is applied to weak and feeble fuel: lean coal doesn’t burn well, lean ore has little yield, lean fuel won’t give much oomph. Lean times, lean seasons, lean souls, lean wits. Leanness is not a good thing.

And, of course, lean meat is tough and tasteless. Yes, it’s better for you than the fatty stuff, and by the early nineteenth century there were people arguing in favor of a diet of lean meat, but even there they acknowledged that the diet was one of ascetic self-restraint. Toward the middle of the twentieth century the idea that lean meat was an unmitigated good thing started to spread. And then, in the eighties, came the idea that a business should be lean. That worked out well.

Look—I don’t want to live in a lean and feeble land, and I don’t want to eat lean and feeble meals, and I don’t want a lean and feeble government. I want to live in a fertile and growing land, I want to eat rich and tasty food, and I want a government that is muscular, healthy, and above all liberal. I don’t want a diet government. I don’t want skim-milk protections and rights. I don’t want a forlorn and ragged safety net. I don’t want an education system that has to be pounded flat before it can be swallowed. I don’t want a transportation system that doesn’t have enough to hold it together.

So I say to the leader of my Party, who happens to be the leader of the free world, that I reject his suggestion that we measure the works of the government by the thinness of our generosity. If we believe the government can make a difference in people’s lives, we can measure that difference in excess, in larding the plates of the poor with richness, in filling the begging bowl until it runs over, in making commitments not because we can afford them but because we must afford them or we cannot live with our lean and hungry selves—and because our generosity of spirit flows out into our fellow men unchecked, the milk of human kindness like fresh cream, the staff of life smeared with schmaltz. I do not want the governing metaphor for my governing body to be that of small-souled, mean-spirited, gaunt-cheeked, hollow-eyed, rake-thin, calorie-counting, watery-souped, withered, wrinkled, and wretched leanness. I want a government with a belly.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Dude. Two thumbs up on this one. Email it to the White House, they need to hear it!!

You don't think OOP is a GR of the TB?


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