The Cliché Community
The June 2, 2008 issue of The Weekly Standard was great for redundant English majors like me.
In “The Cliché Community” Andrew Ferguson writes about the newer cliches that litter journalism, which is, of course, the dominant cliché community. One of the older examples is really a sort of euphemism: issue, which replaces words like difficulty, problem, or failing. I think this must have been an outgrowth (sort of like a wild hair or a wart) of the psyche-speak that proliferated starting with the ‘60s. Problems are so negative, so judgmental. Issue was quickly superseded by challenge, which is even more cheery, and sounds as if you should get at least a bronze medal for it. I don’t see any particular reason for global to have replaced international ~ it sounds geophysical ~ and as for pivot, I’m not sure what it means besides doing a 180 in your politspeak.
In the same issue, Charlotte Allen writes about the 43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies held in Kalamazoo (where I hope that all who wanted them had gals). Even medievalists have been whacked by the magic wand of postmodernism. That is, even the Middle Ages must be interpreted in terms of Marxist theory, and scholars desperate for tenure and a topic that hasn’t already been gone over with a fine-tooth comb come up with specialties such as fecopoetics, also subject to class analysis (i.e. if you have reservations about excremental speech, you’re bourgeois, a common insult* from my bourgeois college days). Sample scholarly paper: “Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics.”
Finally, a review by James Seaton of a couple of books by critic Edmund Wilson:
[Literary critic Lionel Trilling] in defending “the quality in Wordsworth that now makes him unacceptable” ~ Wordsworth’s “concern for the life of humbleness and quiet” ~... notes ruefully that “with us the basis of spiritual prestige is some form of aggressive action.”
On a cheerier note is the motto of a Minnesota high school: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness (much like Superman’s Truth, Justice, and the American Way). But what happened to truth, beauty, and goodness, Dennis Prager asked following his address to their graduating class (June 10, hour 3). Now, art is not about beauty but about interrogating the crap out of society, said a local grad student who wanted to be subsidized for said interrogation; the same goes for truth and goodness. Truth is subverting the dominant paradigm. Beauty is what’s undressed in a hip-hop video. Goodness is self-esteem.
*Another from reader David Rogerson’s list of classic insults:
"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire." ~ Winston Churchill
Peter Feng of the University of Delaware introduced a series of old movies on TCM with an Asian theme. Feng’s job was to point out stereotypes, but I think he himself is more contemporary American than traditional Chinese and possibly missed one or two points. I watched Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936) with Warner Oland (not an Asian) playing Chan. Feng thought the Chan character was obsequious or subservient, but Chan practiced what I always thought were traditional Chinese manners, polite and self-effacing, compared to the more blustery American style, while at the same time being, as Feng said, the smartest person in the room. When number one son made a fool of himself, I don’t think it was because, as Feng thought, one of the assimilating younger generation had to be made a buffoon in the movie; I think it was simply for comic relief, and to give his father more scope to display his patriarchal style.
Feng also commented on Charlie Chan’s “Confucius say” maxims, but one that he quoted was not intended to be Confucian. In the circus movie, Chan says there’s “more than one way to remove skin from cat.” This is a literal translation of “more than one way to skin a cat” by someone who isn’t familiar with “skin” as a verb. As an ESL teacher, I recognize the pattern.
Casting non-Asians to play Charlie Chan (Sydney Toler was another Chan), while Chan’s family were played by Asians, was a peculiar choice, but I don’t think everything, even in 1936, can be interpreted as some form of racism. If racism depends on the perception of the majority audience, I never saw Charlie Chan the way Feng does, even when I watched the movies as a kid.
My Funny Valentine
Every time I hear this terrific old standard, I’m confused by these rhetorical questions:
Is your figure less than Greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
Throw Out the Lifeline
You never know what busy Dave DaBee will come up with. He thought I might have something to offer about a question on the lyrics of an old gospel song, “Throw Out the Lifeline” (is it about temperance or about spiritual sinking in general?). I don’t have an answer, but Ari Herzog seems to have done the research and has a good explanation in that blog. I found several versions of the song on YouTube but I like the Sallie Martin Singers’ rendition best.
Dave also sent a list of imponderables. Here are a few (warning: do not ponder).
||| If you take an Oriental person and spin him around several times, does he become disoriented?
||| Why is a person who plays the piano called a pianist but a person who drives a racing car not called a racist?
||| Why are a wise man and a wise guy opposites?
||| Why do overlook and oversee mean opposite things?
||| Why isn't the number 11 pronounced onety one?
||| If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, models deposed, tree surgeons debarked, and dry cleaners depressed?
||| What hair colour do they put on the driver's licences of bald men?
The Associated Press, by the way, did a story about the uses of the Internet by medical patients (CaringBridge, blogs, etc.) and interviewed our very own Dave. The story appeared early in Foster’s Daily Democrat (Laconia, NY).
Caleb Stone weighed in on the serial comma (Should it be "consume, don't produce, and complain"?) He says no, don't use the comma, just rewrite the sentence so that it makes sense. I agree that's the best solution in this case, but I'm still standing tall for the serial comma.
Last week in the library, I overheard a man on a cell phone say, “Sorry about the noise, I’m in the library.” It was the children’s story hour and the children were not being shushed, of course, and this little library is built on the open-room plan.
Perhaps Obama does have a presidential quality heretofore overlooked by me, as evidenced by this ringing peroration: “On this Memorial Day, as our nation honors its unbroken line of fallen heroes ~ and I see many of them in the audience here today…” Maybe they’re gonna vote too.
Of course, fallen means dead in this context, but what did he mean by unbroken?