Yesterday in “The sum of all fears” I wrote about Rep. Hank Johnson’s questioning of Admiral Robert Willard regarding the Navy’s plans to relocate 8,000 personnel and their families to Guam. Johnson noted at some length that the island is narrow; Johnson reviewed the island’s dimensions from its “widest level” to its “smallest level,” “from shore to shore.”
Johnson observed that the island is only seven miles wide at the “least widest place on the island.” Johnson inquired into the island’s total area given its widest and narrowest dimensions. Admiral Willard helped the congressman. He conceded that Guam is a small island.
Johnson then gave voice to his deep fear regarding the Navy’s plans: “My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated it will tip over and capsize.” Watching the video, one can observe that “the congressman used his hands and the lean of his body to illustrate the Island’s impending list.”
In response to the derision elicited by his concern over the sinking of Guam, Rep. Johnson released a statement yesterday:
“I wasn’t suggesting that the island of Guam would literally tip over I was using a metaphor to say that with the addition of 8,000 Marines and their dependents – an additional 80,000 people during peak construction on the tiny island with a population of 180,000 – could be a tipping point which could adversely affect the island’s fragile ecosystem and could overburden its stressed infrastructure. Having traveled to Guam last year, I saw firsthand how this beautiful – but vulnerable island – could easily become overburdened, and I was simply voicing my concerns that the addition of that many people could tip the delicate balance and do permanent harm to Guam.”
I love a good metaphor or simile as much as any politician. I would hate to think I might have failed to understand that the congressman was speaking figuratively. Looking at the text as a whole, however, I made certain deductions that inclined me to believe he was speaking literally.
The congressman referred to Guam’s widest and “least widest” points. “Least widest” is a term that students of language recognize as perhaps the most awkward possible way of saying “narrowest.”
The congressman cited Guam’s dimensions at the island’s widest and narrowest points “from shore to shore.” Given that Guam is an island, students of language recognize the phrase as an almost comic example of redundancy.
After citing Guam’s dimensions at the island’s widest and narrowest points, the congressman asked Admiral Willard for the island’s area expressed in square miles. Even students of language struggling to recall elementary geography or mathematics probably remember that one cannot compute area from the two cited variables. One ventures the thought that the congressman is not Congress’s brightest bulb, metaphorically speaking.
I concluded that Rep. Johnson was befuddled and that Admiral Willard deserved some kind of decoration for having the presence of mind to respond to his concern about Guam sinking: “We don’t anticipate that happening.” To the point of the congressman’s statement, however, Admiral Willard clearly understood the congressman to be speaking literally.
Reviewing the textual evidence, I think it’s fair to say that Rep. Johnson’s statement is what students of language refer to as “lame,” metaphorically speaking.
UPDATE: Neo-neocon rises in defense of Hank Johnson. She reviews the text, cites some other evidence and concludes that it is a comedy routine. It seems to me that this is one interpretation ruled out by Johnson’s own statement, though Johnson’s statement itself might be part of the joke. And one of my favorite Dartmouth classmates points out that Neo-neocon’s post is, as I suspected and as she points out in the comments, an April Fool’s joke.