Public Policy And Boiled Frogs

A few weeks ago I was browsing the New Fiction shelves of my favorite local library and stumbled across a book by Glen Beck. My first reaction was to think it had been misplaced. My second was the incredulous declaration, “Glen Beck writes fiction! On purpose!”

The Overton Window is a book about a political theory akin to boiling a frog. Theoretically if you drop a frog in scalding water it will struggle until it escapes or dies. However, if you place it in temperate water it will be content to stay there as you gradually turn up the heat until it is cooked. Paul Overton of the Mackinaw Center for Public Policy defined the theory that came to be known as The Overton Window as a way to achieve a desired political result for any given constituency – even if it is currently outside what the general public will accept.

Picture a yardstick. At each end is an extreme of policy with gradations of each tapering toward the middle. Somewhere, probably toward the middle of that yardstick, is a section of options that are acceptable to the public. That section of acceptable policy is the Overton Window. But what if someone in power determines the best possible policy lies outside the window. It would be political suicide to advocate that policy outright, until the window is shifted to include that option. Paul Overton advocated education as a way to shift the window – but it didn’t take long for other minds to recognize that fear also shifts the window, and quickly.

In Beck’s book a group of behind the scenes power brokers have been gradually shifting and shaping American policy to the point that only one more national tragedy will bring about complete government dependence. It is a chillingly realistic glimpse of how an Orwellian world might come into being. The tension is created when a handful of people learn about the plans for that last big tragedy and do everything with their significantly smaller power to stop it.

Now, I enjoyed The Overton Window, in spite of agreeing in part with The Washington Post critique, “… its literary value (none), or its contribution to the thriller genre (small), or the money it rakes in (considerable)…” It was a fun bit of escapism. But unlike other political thrillers that leave my consciousness almost as soon as I turn the last page, something stuck in my head when I was done with this one. The thought that unnamed powers can manipulate events on a global stage to bring about results that directly affect my life can be paranoid inducing.

All the more so when real life events fall directly into the mold.

Just over a year ago, on Christmas Day 2009, a young Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to blow up an airplane coming into Detroit from The Netherlands. Now, this affected me directly as my home is within the holding pattern of Detroit International Airport. In the summer I sit on my patio and identify jets’ corporate identities by the colors and logos on their tailfins. It is not unthinkable that debris from a successful bombing attempt could have destroyed my life or the lives of people I personally know and love.

The political upshot of the thwarted bombing was the installation of full body scanners and stricter screening measures for civilians flying from airports within the U.S. But it doesn’t address the original problem that someone was able to board somewhere else with explosives in his underwear.

But that was already history when I read the book.

What brought the book back to mind was what was reported by Detroit media last week. “Flight 253 Passengers Claim Accused Nigerian Terrorist Didn’t Act Alone”, reported FOX 2 News in Detroit. A couple returning from vacation witnessed Abdulmutallab being given special treatment despite of his lack of passport, and were a mere six rows behind him when he set the plane on fire. Kurt and Lori Haskell aren’t knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers wearing confederate flag bandanas. They are well educated, well spoken, self employed lawyers who are putting their reputations and livelihoods on the line by going public with information they say has been repeatedly ignored and belittled by the government and mainstream media since the day of the event.

They claim not only did they witness the Underwear Bomber’s kid glove treatment, but also claim he was given a defective bomb by U.S. agents.

It’s not much of a leap from there to full blown conspiracy now, is it?

Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King) once said “Fiction is a lie. Good fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

Really, who needs the Washington Post to praise your books literary value if the results make people think? And Beck himself in his preface says this is the whole point of his book – to cause people to think. Perhaps, now and again, a little paranoia is not a bad thing.