No, no, look behind you…

Posted: 15 October 2011 in life, don't talk to me about life

There’s a wonderful opening scene in a third season episode (“The Indians In The Lobby”) of that most essential guide to American politics, The West Wing, wherein C J Cregg, the press secretary in conversation with her boss, The President Of The United States, Josiah Bartlet, has just… well, let the transcript speak for itself:

C.J. : Isn’t Camp David a farm?


C.J. : Oh.

BARTLET : What makes you think it’s a farm?

C.J. : I don’t know, it’s outside…

BARTLET : Farms have things you can grow, and animals.

C.J. : Right.

BARTLET : I want you to learn more about farms.

C.J. : There’s more?


C.J. : Okay. [rolls eyes]

BARTLET : Doesn’t matter. Thanksgiving’s where your family is, and this year my family’s at Camp David. Why, I do not know. Abbey didn’t wanna schlepp to New Hampshire. Schlepping in a 747. It’s not like we were gonna have to carry our own bags or anything, but I do not argue.

Pause. C.J. examines her nails.

BARTLET : Were we talking about something?

C.J. : I don’t know, sir. When I came in here, back in the late ’50s, there was a purpose to it, but then one thing led to another and I blacked out. I mean, I can hang in there with the best of them, sir, but somewhere during the discussion of anise and coriander and the other 15 spices you like to use to baste a turkey, I simply lost consciousness.

BARTLET : [pause] You know that line you’re not supposed to cross with the President?

C.J. : I’m coming up on it?

BARTLET : No-no. Look behind you.

C.J. : Yes, sir.

Ever since seeing that episode, and the glorious performances of Martin Sheen and Alison Janey, I’ve used that final exchange as a reference to when something has already happened, and complaining about it is at best a waste of time, and at worst merely showing everyone your own culpability and stupidity for not realising it.

This week, the Health Secretary, one Andrew Lansley, taking a few moments away from reforming/destroying* The National Health Service (*delete according to your own personal politics) suggested that not only was the entire nation of the United Kingdom obese, but that he was backing a plan to reduce the country’s calorific intake by five billion calories a day.

This has, reasonably understandably, been overtaken in the news headlines by Defence Secretary Liam Fox’s resignation, cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin disposing of official paperwork in a St James’ park bin, and the rugby world cup.

However, that hasn’t stopped some others, including Jamie Oliver, decrying the proposal as daft, naive and just plain stupid.

However, the complaint that simultaneously amuses, irritates and confuses me is that introducing such a policy would mean we’ve become “a nanny state”.

Introducing such a policy would mean we’ve become “a nanny state”?

No, no, look behind you.

Now, I’m not necessarily criticising the concept of a nanny state; I just don’t think that most of those who use the term… well, understand the full implications of what it means.

As a society, we already allow our elected representatives to decide (officially, on our behalf) the behaviour of which parliament and the executive approve, and that of which they disapprove.

And they regularly publish the rules for best societal behaviour.

They’re called “laws”.

The government decide that it’s best to discourage teenage smoking, so they make it a criminal offence for those who sell tobacco to do so to people under eighteen years of age. The government, and parliament, decide that driving while under the influence of alcohol is “a bad thing”, so they criminalise it.

Evading tax is, according to the government, to be discouraged, so they make it a criminal offence. Avoiding tax, according to the government, is a perfectly reasonable way of behaving, so they don’t pass laws forbidding it.

Now, you may agree with or disagree with individual policies of a government, but much as I wrote in yesterday’s blog post, I think that most politicians are just trying to do what they can to improve society, and the prospects of people in this country. And I say that about most, not all, political parties. In fact, one could argue that even the BNP would try to do the same, albeit in their weird, racist, tiny minds, improving society would necessitate the removal of vast swathes of it.

However, leaving aside the genuine loonies, the genuine racists and the genuinely stupid, most politicians and governments do try to implement their own preferred solutions to improving the country. And that requires telling us – the voters and the public – the behaviour of which they approve and that behaviour of which they disapprove.

The nanny state. Or, to put it another way, government doing what it’s supposed to do.

So, think any government policy tips us over into “a nanny state”?

No, no, look behind you. About three hundred and fifty years behind you.

  1. Laudanum says:

    I love that series, and remember that scene well.

    • To my surprise, I thought it was the opening scene to Enemies, an earlier episode. But when I checked, that episode had an almost identical scene featuring Josh, not CJ.

      But it was so similar in tone that I wonder whether they thought of that exchange afterwards and wrote the CJ scene to use it.

  2. Someday I must review that series from start to finish.

    As for lines already crossed…point well taken.

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