Periscope Depth

can it be the casanova speech therapy that heavily puts the flavor right where it should be?

“Ever sift sand through a screen?” she asked.
The tangential slash of her question shocked his mind into a higher awareness.
– Frank Herbert, Dune

I had about four minutes to go, three blocks from my front door, when the girl in the blue T-shirt and worn clipboard spotted me.

“Hi?” she asked, dropping her last conversation like a hot roll. “Do you have five minutes to save the Earth?”

“Have they paid you yet?” I asked, continuing to walk.

The rehearsed smile vanished. “What? Yeah.”

“Make sure they pay you. I know too many people who worked for them all summer and didn’t get paid.” The effort of pitching my voice and speaking over my shoulder while I continue to walk tightens my throat. If she says anything else I don’t hear it.

It’s an open secret that the same vaguely left political organization, wearing the hat of either Greenpeace, the Sierra Club or MassPIRG, hires students in Boston at dismal wages every summer. They stand them on busy street corners with clipboards and pens and ask them to get donations. No cash, no checks; only credit cards or bank account numbers will do. Income streams, not splashes; that’s what save the environment.

It’s such a well-known feature of the Boston landscape that copycats have sprung up, scamming people out of a few dollars in order to “end racism”.

The students get paid on commission. Most quit early. The ones who do rarely get their checks.

When I see a Greenpeace / Sierra Club / MassPIRG solicitor asking for my time, I keep walking and shout that question over my shoulder. “Have they paid you yet?” No student should have to spend all summer sweating in Boston’s asphalt oven without at least getting what they’re owed. They could cut lawns and see more money. I was a poor student in Boston once; I sympathize.

Here’s the dirty secret, though: even if GP/SC/MaPR didn’t cheat these kids out of a measly $12 an hour, I’d still ask that question. I’m a malcontent like that. I like finding the line or trick or reaction that shakes them out of the routine. Managers drill routines into these poor kids’ heads – “if they say they can’t afford it, say this; if they want to give you cash, say this” – and the most successful ones stick to those routines. I like breaking them out of the patter and forcing them to think on their feet.

And I want to keep at it. I want to find the one thing to say to a Scientologist, handing out fliers for a “free psychological evaluation,” that’ll get him to question what he’s doing. I want the one question that’ll make a defender of the Iraq Civil War sit back and re-evaluate. I look for the pithy remark, the turn of phrase, the unexpected insight. Forget debating; forget yelling. Give me the unorthodox strategy and the left-handed attack.

Per Deirdre McCloskey (though apparently Boudreaux paraphrases her), no one was ever convinced by raw data of a proposition that he did not already hold true. It’s never the brute fact that changes our minds. It’s the image. It’s the new perspective. It’s the weird new angle. It’s the sea of faces on the Washington Mall, or the lone man in front of the tank treads, or the Vietnamese general putting a gun to the prisoner’s head.

Ditch the old arguments. Reframe the debate.

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