Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Second look at Chance the gardener

Jerry Stratton, December 13, 2013

It is somewhat common in the comments of blogs and newspapers to draw parallels between President Obama’s shrouded past1 and that of Chance the gardener in Being There; between people’s ability to project their own desires on President Obama and the similar ability seen in people’s responses to Chauncey’s gardening metaphors2; and the repetition of things that the President must have known were not true.3

When I first saw the movie I too focused more on people’s reactions to Chance than on Chance himself. But I’ve been having second thoughts about old Chauncey lately. I think he gets a bad rap. His advice was good advice. Had we followed it for this recession, the recession would probably be over by now.

His main problem was that, having been raised in complete isolation, he had no idea how to relate to other people. He didn’t know who to trust or distrust, nor how to lie to get along. And because of his disabilities he knew nothing about anything except gardening.4

But Chance the gardener did have responsibilities and he rose to meet them. He tended his garden regularly and, to all appearances, well.

When his responsibilities increased, he used what he knew, gardening, to guide him. Chauncey actually made more sense than most politicians because his advice, limited though it was, was based on what works in the real world; in his case, what works in nature.

Chance had experience with a real job with real responsibilities. For all his imbecility, Chance had a job that required knowing cause and effect, that required learning to repeat what works and not repeat what fails. His misunderstandings about what was being asked—to the extent they were misunderstandings—produced advice that sounded like clichés mainly because mankind has been using gardening metaphors for as long as we’ve been keeping records. Listeners were able to make sense of these clichés because they do in fact make sense in at least one context, gardening.5

You can compare this to the trite clichés that don’t make any sense anywhere in the real world and that obviously don’t make any sense: the kind of clichés that we usually get from politicians and which are usually meant to burn time until the commercial break.

One of the most quoted scenes from the movie, meant to emphasize Chauncey’s slowness and people’s ability to hear what they want to hear, comes when the President asks him, “Mr. Gardiner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?”

Chance pauses a long time, starts to speak, then pauses again. Finally, he responds:

Chance: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.

President: In the garden.

Chance: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.

President: Spring and summer.

Chance: Yes.

President: Then fall and winter.

Chance: Yes.

Benjamin Rand: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we’re upset by the seasons of our economy.

Chance: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!

That’s not dumb. Dumb is shit like “Life is a state of mind”, something the movie had the President saying, not unrealistically, in the penultimate scene. It’s the kind of crap politicians actually say. The gardener who understands how seasons affect growth is going to be better on the economy than the politician who thinks “life is a state of mind” is worth saying at a funeral.

At the funeral, power-brokers start talking about backing Chauncey for president; if they succeed, he’ll probably make a better president than not, because he didn’t want the job. He never thought he was better than anyone else, never thought that he knew how to run other peoples’ lives. He never lied about what he was going to do or what he wanted to do. All he ever wanted was another garden to tend.

Morton Hull: Do you realize that more people will be watching you tonight, than all those who have seen theater plays in the last forty years?

Chance: Why?

  1. His time overseas and his time in Columbia are not particularly-well documented.

  2. President Obama himself recognized and acknowledged this, for example when he wrote, in The Audacity of Hope, that “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”

  3. “If you like your current insurance, you keep that insurance. Period, end of story.”

    “If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor. Period.”

    “If you have health care, we will reduce costs an average of $2,500 per family per year on premiums.”

  4. I’m speaking of the movie; no idea what Chauncey was like in the book.

  5. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the reasons they sound like clichés is that the audience for this book and movie are more and more removed into an urban environment that doesn’t have to know these things, that isn’t required to face up to them every morning at 5 AM.

  1. <- Catch-22 government
  2. The DITMAC Savior ->