On Government Regulation: Precision versus Micromanagement

Some of my better posts originate as rants in Facebook. I write them, post them, then realize that I want them to have a longer shelf life than Facebook offers. This is one of them. I am not one who normally froths at the mouth about government red tape. But sometimes . . .

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Yesterday I drove past a small livestock farm just in time to notice a cow laying itself down in the pasture. It was all by itself—the other cows were elsewhere, all standing up. I know nothing about cows or farming, but this struck me as odd behavior.

When I passed the place again a while later, the cow was just lying there. I thought it might be distressed, maybe ill, so I turned around and drove into the driveway to let someone know, just in case they weren’t already aware. As I did, I saw the farmer making his way into the pasture, and he saw me, and we had a conversation that just . . . well, I guess I can’t say I’m shocked, because I’m beyond being shocked by government lunacy anymore. But angered—yeah, I was angered.

The cow had a broken leg, the farmer told me, and would have to be killed. But she was pregnant, and he hoped to be able to deliver the calf in a couple weeks before doing the deed. He didn’t expect he’d be able to, though. When a cow winds up in that situation, he told me, its kidneys eventually fail. The cow wasn’t as bad off as she looked lying down, he explained; she was simply stretching. But she couldn’t get around—she could only kind of drag herself, and there was nothing the farmer could do for her. So she would have to be killed.

Now, here’s the kicker: The cow couldn’t be butchered. It couldn’t be sold for meat. It couldn’t be parceled up and given to a charity. The farmer couldn’t even butcher the cow for his own family’s use. All that meat, gone to waste because of a government regulation that forbids the butchering of animals in such a condition. “They’re afraid of mad cow disease,” he told me, “so now any cow that lies down like this one can’t be butchered. I know what’s wrong with this cow. She went lame two weeks ago. She’s not diseased. She has a broken leg, that’s all. Other than that, she’s fine.”

The cow could keep a family in meat for a year, the farmer told me. Some needy household would be overjoyed at the prospect. Instead, the cow will be killed and thrown away. Or perhaps the farmer, being more sensible than the government and possessing knowledge specific to the circumstances, will butcher the cow and use it for his own family regardless of some damn-fool law that says he can’t. I hope so.

Understand, I am for government regulation when it’s wisely and ethically applied. We’ve all witnessed a disastrous example, for instance, of what happens when big financial institutions are allowed to call their own shots with nothing in place to hold them accountable. But regulation often needs to take the form not of a blunt instrument but of a precision scalpel, and there is a big difference between a scalpel and micromanagement. When the latter is in force, then wisdom and ethics aren’t what prevail; political expediency, money, and rhetoric do. As a result, the little guys like this farmer, who actually know and care about what they’re doing, get hammered while the big guys like Monsanto get away with hell.

Yet it’s the little guys who generally display a conscience, heart, and common sense and who actually give a rip about their community. It’s the little guys who actually have their sleeves rolled up and their hands in the earth of whatever their occupation may be. This farmer deserves better than having his common sense held hostage by a poorly conceived regulation that wastes resources rather than serves people at the grassroots level.

Okay, rant over.

Two Views on Yourself

I wrote the following a couple days ago as a Facebook post, but I think it deserves better staying power than what that medium provides, so I’m posting it here. Not all of us struggle with the thoughts and feelings expressed below by “Us.” But many of us do, perhaps most of us, though we may cover them up under a veneer so thick that most people, and even we ourselves, can’t see through it to the pain it covers. So don’t dismiss the following lightly just because life happens to be going well for you. And if you do find that “Us” sounds a lot like you, then take this as a voice of hope and faith from a fellow traveler along the twisty back roads of life.

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I was thinking about the difference that often exists between our perspective and God’s, particularly when it comes to seeing ourselves:

Us: I’m a loser.
God: You’re my child and the apple of my eye.

Us: I’m worthless; I have no value.
God: You’re priceless; your value is beyond anything you can imagine.

Us: I am small, powerless, and insignificant.
God: You are far more than you think you are. You have been beaten down with lies so long that it is hard for you to even recognize the truth–but I will help you. The truth is far, far better than you’ve been led to believe.

Us: I’m too broken, shameful, and ugly to be of any use to anyone, let alone God.
God: I turn carbon into diamonds; I uncover pearls of great price buried in the dirt; I shine light out of shattered vessels. Your brokenness is a great asset. Walk with me, and over time I will redeem it and use it to your joy, the blessing of others, and my own deep delight. The worst about you will become the best about you–a treasury of wisdom, grace, and hope for many–if you will travel life with me.

Us: My life is a complete mess.
God: Your life is in transition, a journey of letting go of what was in order to receive what can be if you will walk with me, listen for me, and learn to trust.

These pairings could continue indefinitely, but you get the idea. Maybe you could write some of your own.

The point is this: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow” (Is. 55:8-13 NIV)

Sentence Fragments: Speaking Up for the Verbless Sentence

Reading through my recent post about word usage, I discovered—I know this will shock you—a rather lengthy sentence fragment.

Gracious! Did I write such a thing? Me?

Yes indeed. Right there, shamelessly and in broad daylight, I committed a fragment. I wrote it that way because I liked it that way. The fragment in question followed easily from the preceding sentence, and I liked its effect. So I fragged. If I had it to do all over, I would frag again. Not only so, but I will frag in the future with a conscience unclouded by the strictures of grammar. And to those pedants who take a dim view of my fragging, I have this to say: Phooey.

Masters of the Fragment

Sentence fragments have their uses. Note that word uses. Unquestionably, fragments (also known as crots or verbless sentences) often get misused.¹ When they arise inadvertently, as happens with inexpert writers, the results can be bewildering or just plain awkward. Yet many seasoned writers have incorporated sentence fragments as part of their voice. Dickens did. Hemingway did, and so did Thomas Wolfe, and so does Maya Angelou, all with brilliant effect. Take, for example, this excerpt from Wolfe’s short story “The Face of the War”:

Again, the speed, haste, violence, savage humor and the instant decisiveness of war:—A sweltering noon on one of the great munition piers at Newport News where now the boy is working as material checker. Inside the great shed of the pier, a silent, suffocating heat of one hundred ten degrees, a grimy, mote-filled air, pollenated with the golden dust of oats which feed through a gigantic chute into the pier in an unending river, and which are sacked and piled in tremendous barricades all up and down the length of that enormous shed.

Elsewhere upon the pier, the towering geometries of war munitions: the white hard cleanliness of crated woods containing food and shot provender of every sort—canned goods, meat, beans, dried fruits, and small arms ammunitions—the enormous victualling of life and death fed ceaselessly into the insatiate and receiving maw of distant war.²

You see a primary verb in any of that? There isn’t one. Wolfe was going for effect, not convention, and effect is what he got, blunt, sensory, powerful, even brutal.

Crot Rot and How to Avoid It

Effect is the whole point of using sentence fragments. But not all effects are the same, and not all are desirable. Fragments can, for instance, imbue a few crisp words with extra significance, and that is a fine thing when applied conservatively, but it is off-putting when overdone or used to impart drama when drama isn’t called for.

Josh and Ashley contemplated the candy selection. Butterfinger bars. Baby Ruths. Atomic Fireballs. Red licorice sticks. And more. Lots more. All so tasty. So toothsome. So exquisitely yummy—and yummy was good.

Very good.

Shall I continue? You’d prefer not, wouldn’t you. The staccato of so many fragments piled one on top of another rapidly grows annoying, particularly since the context doesn’t warrant such an approach. All grammatical concerns aside, the result is just plain bad.

There’s a word I use a lot in my posts on writing: judicious. It means that in every aspect of writing—from word choices, to matters of style, to keeping or breaking rules of grammar, and more—a writer should be keenly aware of and intentional about what he or she writes. Judiciousness is often the fulcrum between masterful writing, as in the Thomas Wolfe excerpt above, and mere slovenliness. This is certainly true of sentence fragments, or crots, or verbless sentences, or whatever you wish to call them. Great writers through the centuries have used them deliberately to achieve a calculated impact, while poor writers have committed them unthinkingly, oblivious to the conventions of grammar and the guidance of good taste.

Provided that the style of writing we’re doing allows for fragments, there is no reason why you and I shouldn’t use them. Complete sentences are the default; that’s just common sense. But with that as a given, why shouldn’t we—and why wouldn’t we—take a lesson from the masters and apply it to our own writing?

Judiciously, of course.

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1. For an excellent post on the use of sentence fragments, including links to related articles, see Richard Nordquist, “In Defense of Fragments, Crots, and Verbless Sentences,” About.com, http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/In-Defense-Of-Fragments-Crots-And-Verbless-Sentences.htm.

2. Thomas Wolfe, “The Face of the War,” in From Death to Morning (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935).