Monday, April 9, 2012

Can this cliche be saved?

Posted By on 04.09.12 at 02:33 PM

Can one cliche serve two masters?
  • Can one cliche serve two masters?
Roger Lowenstein did something right. He composed a long cover story for the April Atlantic that avoided a cliche so obvious that to not use it must have been like consciously not thinking of elephants. The thesis of “The Villain” was that Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke, despite “visceral criticism” from all sides, has threaded the national economy through its greatest crisis since the Depression.

Here’s how the Atlantic introduced the piece. “The left hates him. The right hates him even more. But Ben Bernanke saved the economy—and has navigated masterfully through the most trying of times.”

The immensity of Lowenstein’s accomplishment escaped me until I read a story financial columnist James Stewart wrote about Paul Ryan in the April 7 New York Times. “This week, President Obama called him a social Darwinist,” Stewart began. “The conservative Club for Growth criticized him for wimping out on Medicare and military spending, and Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican, blasted him for not cutting tax rates more deeply.

“I figure Paul D. Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who is head of the House Budget Committee, must be doing something right.”

How did Lowenstein manage to not say that about Bernanke? (Check the comments that follow the article on the Atlantic site and you’ll see that a reader promptly plugged the hole.)

Marveling at Lowenstein's forbearance, I did a Google search to see if “must be doing something right” shows up often enough to deserve to be discussed as a cliche. It does—I'd call it a B-lister with aspirations to reach the top tier. But the search brought a troubling discovery. As it advances it's being debased.

Every cliche has a certain utility—it's shorthand for some larger thought, shaky or banal as that larger thought might be. In this case, the larger thought is the proposition that being attacked from all sides is evidence of even-handedness, perhaps—one might go so far as to say—of brave and Solomonic dispassion. But what I too often found online was the opposite. It was a usage echoing FDR’s famous dismissal of “organized money” in 1936:

“They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

A cliche giving two cheers for impartiality is being twisted out of shape to give three cheers for shoving a stick in the enemy's eye. Like here, for instance:

Viewpoint: Fred Upton must be doing something right to draw so many attacks

Boy, Fred Upton must be doing something right. The election is 18 months away and already he's being bombarded with uber left-wing spin regarding his supposedly weak environmental credentials.

And here:

NYPD must be doing something right; CAIR is up in arms

The New York Police Department has been gathering information on a Muslim Brotherhood group, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) doesn’t seem to like it very much. Good. That means the NYPD is doing something right.

And here:

Dick Schouten must be doing something right.

I don't know about you, but Dick Schouten must be doing something right to get so deeply under the skin of lunatics like Kevin Hoar at the Washington County GOP.

Here's a baroque specimen from England:

We must be doing something right

Well that can be the only conclusion to come to following the publication of one of the nastiest interviews I have ever read about a public figure.You get a good basic idea just from the title,

Nigel Farage: Brimming over with bile and booze

As you can tell, balanced and reasonable from the start. It opens with,

I’m quite relieved that Nigel Farage MEP has only one testicle.

There's no turning back the clock, but something is lost when an exquisitely calibrated fatuity drains out of our discourse in favor of more oafish breast-beating. But here's reason to hope—a while back HuffPo provided an impressive synthesis of old and new:

Obama Must Be Doing Something Right: He's Got The Fundamentalists of the Left and Right Upset

Obama is calling for change, service and reconciliation by we individualistic Americans. That is bad news for culture war, racial war, religious war, secular war, progressive war, conservative war warriors. The fact that the ideological fundamentalists of both the left and the right, of both secular America and religious America, are attacking Obama, and/or correcting him and admonishing him is a good sign that Obama is of indeed the right man for the job of President. He is self-evidently not about helping one side or the other in a divided America "win." He is about America winning.

On the one hand, it's Obama versus fundamentalists of both sides. On the other hand, it's reasonable people like you, me, and Obama against the fundamentalists. An adroit rhetorician shows how to have it both ways, and a way forward is blazed. That the rosy future foreseen in this 2008 essay didn't materialize for ten seconds needn't concern us.

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