I detested William Safire’s politics, yet his “On Language” column used to bring me great joy most Sunday mornings. Case in point: way back in 1998, he gave an insightful play-by-play on how a word we can’t seem to escape from this election season won the race to describe the opposite of ‘opacity.’ According to Safire, if things had gone differently, we might be complaining about Hilary Clinton’s ‘frankness’ or pointing to Donald Trump’s continued refusal to release his tax returns as part of his ‘verifiability’ problem. Other contenders back in the day? Openness. Scrutability. Diaphaneity. Pellucidity. Visibility.
But no, none of those mouthfuls (I mean, diaphaneity? Way too highbrow to morph into the title of a fabulous Jeffrey Tambour Amazon Prime series) triumphed in the end. Instead, ‘transparency’ was anointed the ‘It’ word, way back then. And now, employed incessantly by critics of presidential candidates who don’t tell us what we want them to tell us, or murky groups of neighbors determined to introduce suspicion of a local school board, it’s a mighty fine weapon.
As in: I agree with her policies, and I’ll admit she’s intelligent and well qualified, I just think she should be more transparent. Or — I know California schools are woefully under-funded and the high school needs serious repairs. I just have a problem with the district’s transparency.
The irony of an anonymous group called ‘Piedmont Citizens for Transparency in Schools’ purchasing an ad in this paper is almost too obvious to mention. While the ad contains gross factual errors (more than doubling the impact of H1 on an average homeowner) and dwells upon misleading, irrelevant issues (emphasizing the size of a parcel tax which was resoundingly passed by voters and is separate from and unaffected by H1’s fate), the most offensive element is simply its duplicity, or as some might say, its lack of transparency.
First of all, who is this ‘Piedmont Citizens for Transparency’ anyway? Where’s the transparency in forming an anonymous group? In neglecting to present its argument for a ‘no’ vote either at the League of Women Voters forum or on the actual ballot? In having no web page (or at least not a google-able one) where interested voters can learn more about its logic or respond to the group’s concerns?
And how, when there have been dozens of public forums, site council meetings, school site tours, and open school board meetings as part of a robust and comprehensive, year long Master Planning process; when the (correct) tax implications and full, 78 page Master Facilities Plan is easily accessible online, could any group of concerned citizens charge that there’s been a lack of ‘transparency’?
Despite the name, my hunch is that the secretive-yet-concerned-citizens’ beef doesn’t have much to do with transparency. Rather, it’s pocketbook issues – Can we afford it? Does it make sense? Is it fair? – that deserve careful and serious consideration. But without an opportunity for open, transparent conversation with those who have questions or concerns, it’s hard to give them their due. Which is a tactic I’m imagining lots of us can see right through.