Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Guam: The Tipping Timebomb of the Pacific

I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress.”
—John Adams1

The U.S. House of Representatives’ own Hank Johnson of Georgia recently staggered into the spotlight when, while speaking as part of the House Armed Services Committee, he announced his concerns about a possible military buildup on Guam, and its potential negative effects on that island’s stability.

Now, the influx of a large number of troops and their various support services and dependents would be a legitimate concern, if we were talking about potential environmental, economic, and sociological effects on an island as small as Guam—which is, as Johnson put it, only seven miles wide at its “least widest point.”2

Unfortunately, though, it’s not this environmental, economic, and sociological baloney that keeps Rep. Johnson up at night, but rather “[his] fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.” If you’re the last person on Earth to hear about this story,3 see it for yourself below. The payoff starts at about 1:16, and please also note Admiral Robert Willard’s simple, gracefully respectful response, which is worthy of both admiration and praise:

Johnson’s office later released a statement—perhaps best defined as a nimble but ultimately failed salvage operation—claiming that the Representative was speaking metaphorically, that adding so many troops and dependents could bring the island past “a tipping point [that] would adversely affect the island’s fragile ecosystem and overburden its already overstressed infrastructure.”

I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest expert on the English language, but I’m an avid reader with an English degree and a more than passing familiarity with similes, metaphors, and symbolic use of words. And if Hank Johnson was speaking metaphorically about Guam capsizing, I will literally eat my hat.4

Whatever Hank Johnson’s politics are, I don’t care to know them. I don’t know whether his personal life is squeaky-clean and admirable or sordid and abominable, and as long as it doesn’t keep him from doing his job right, I’m not convinced it’s any of my business. What I do care about, though—what I feel is my business—is that he managed to get elected to one of the more exclusive and influential jobs in the country without knowing one of the fundamental differences between an island and a lily pad. That leads be to believe that there have to be other yawning chasms in his knowledge of how the world is put together, and that would affect how well he can do his job.

In case you’re not sure of the difference yourself, we at Bowling in the Dark paid famed director James Cameron $750,000 to create an interactive 3-D visual representation of the most relevant difference. Here is what he sent us:

Don’t get me wrong—I distinctly remember a time in my life where I genuinely believed that islands floated on top of the ocean. I recall thinking that the fundamental difference between Australia and, say, Hawaii or Guam was not its sheer size but that it did reach all the way to the bottom of the ocean, and other islands didn’t. I also remember learning that I was wrong about this—and at the time, I wasn’t a member of Congress. I was in grade school.

It seems fair to admit that there probably isn’t any regulation requiring public servants to know that islands are anchored to the ocean floor—but I figured it was the kind of thing that you just can’t not know, like how to breathe, or what word people use to describe a car.5 For Hank Johnson to be elected and to continue serving with such an apparent and embarrassing gap in his education is not just his failure or the American education system’s failure, but also a failure of voters to impose a reasonable standard on their elected officials.

(Incidentally, it has been suggested that at the time of his statement, Johnson may have been struggling with side effects caused by medication he’d been taking to treat Hepatitis C. However, according to Newsweek, Johnson had finished his treatments by the time of his Guam statement. So it appears that Johnson’s comments were not the result of an altered mental state caused by prescription drugs. We’re very happy about this, not only because we’re glad he’s feeling better, but also because, as the Newsweek article put it, “[we] may now resume mocking his Guam comments” without feeling like we’re mocking a man’s struggles with a very real illness.6)

There’s a saying that “every man rises to the level of his own incompetence,” and as if to illustrate this point, it was recently announced that Representative Hank Johnson not only remains on the House Armed Services Committee (among others), but also has been informed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he’s been added to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. I don’t know a whole lot about the latter committee, but I’m pretty sure that the House Armed Services Committee is a fairly important one. If we’re going to keep giving this guy responsibilities, that’s fine, but shouldn’t we consider awarding him something with a little less impact, like, say, the House Committee on Teddy Bear and Hello Kitty Affairs?

It’s almost certainly unfair to judge people, politicians or otherwise, for only the most colossally stupid things they’ve said at their most profoundly embarrassing moments.7 So I admit that I may be a bit out of line for assuming that Representative Hank Johnson is a dumb guy, simply because he said something really, really stupid that was caught on video. Even smart people make mistakes, some of them very embarrassing, bad, naughty, and/or destructive.

But come on, can you really tell me that a smart person would make this kind of mistake? I don’t believe that. Is it too much to ask the voters in this country—specifically Georgia, in this case—to elect somebody with a basic grasp on how the world is put together? Is it too much to expect that if we’re going to hire people to run this country, wouldn’t it help if they were, you know, smart? God help us all if we continue to elect people just like us. Shouldn’t we be electing people that are smarter than people just like us?

1. I haven’t been able (or even tried) to verify whether John Adams ever actually said or wrote this, but William Daniels said it as Adams in 1776—quite possibly the single best movie musical about the American Revolution made in the 1970s—and that’s good enough for me. Also, my apologies to any Bowling in the Dark readers who are disgraces, lawyers, or both.
2. A crack team of Bowling in the Dark linguists have been working around the clock for weeks to figure out just what this means. Results so far have been inconclusive.
3. In keeping with our theme of being well behind this times, this happened in late March and I’m just now getting around to commenting on it. So when I wrote that this happened “recently,” I’m speaking in cosmic terms, rather than in internet terms.
4. That is, I will literally eat a metaphorical hat. Metaphorically.
5. That word is “car.”
6. And we will. We sincerely wish him many long years of good health, but we just as sincerely hope that his surprising misunderstanding of extremely basic geology doesn’t reflect similar misunderstandings of other subjects important to our elected officials, such as law, physics, geography, math, the Constitution, or the theory of evolution. To name a few.
7. Although this hasn’t stopped folks from doing it to Dan Quayle and Al Gore for years now, even going to far as to give them credit for all sorts of stupid things they’d never said.


  1. When Dan Quayle misspelled "potato" (although to be fair, he was reading it from a card, given to him by the teacher, on which the word was misspelled), he was just crucified for it. It was all over the news, and that was before the internet was in everybody's pocket.

    I feel that wondering if an island is going to tip over if you put too many people on it demonstrates a far higher level of stupidity than misspelling a word, but this news-breaking blog is the first I'd heard of this.