We are losing the war on vagueness. Writers, pundits,
and politicians like never before are trotting out
expressions empty of meaning and devoid of substance.
And surprisingly those guiltiest are not the
candidates running for office--they are the columnists
within the commentariat, who actually get paid to
write thoughtful prose and put forth fresh viewpoints.
With the New Year upon us, let's pledge to put a
moratorium in 2008 on a number of worn-out
expressions, old ideas, and empty phrases. Please. In
the words of Jon Stewart: "Stop hurting America."
To wit: One of my favorite foreign policy analysts is
Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. But a recent ad in Newsweek
International quotes him as saying, "The 21st century
will be the century of change." Hmm, Ok, that sounds
pretty smack-on, if a little vague. He goes on, "More
things will change in more places in the next 10 years
than in the previous 100. More countries aren't ready
for this dizzying ride--certainly not the United States
of America." OK, this is one of those throw-away
statements that's difficult to refute, but also
difficult to fact-check. Wow, things are changing,
Fareed? Lemme guess, globalization is bringing the
world closer together, too? Making the economic
playing field, let's see, flatter perhaps?
That's not what I see when I travel abroad. I'm amazed
at how little the world has changed. And to say that
over the next 10 years there will be greater change
than the previous 100 is just inaccurate for the
billions of people living under $2 per day. I was just
in southeastern Turkey where Kurdish schoolchildren
still scavenge buses for loose scraps of food. Come
on, Fareed, you can do better than that.
Or take a recent segment on the Brian Lehrer show.
Prominent thinker Naomi Wolf likens present-day
America to Weimar Germany, which could fall to fascism
pretty easily. Nothing wrong with that logic, but
sadly she trots out (at least four times) one of the
most banal expressions of the past decade to make her
point--America, she says, is at a "tipping point."
Really, Naomi? How neatly summarized and Gladwellian!
The trouble with this kind of vague and clichéd
phrasing is that if America does not tip over, she
will not have to answer for, well, being flat-out
wrong. Most "tipping points" are, in fact, just
political talking points.
Finally, let's please put a moratorium on all mentions
of "supporting the troops"--a favorite standby of
politicians and pundits alike that not only is vague
but also just sounds stupid. Don't get me wrong. Let's
continue to support them, regardless of our views on
the war, but please do so without mentioning them to
score political points or to seize the moral or
patriotic high ground. While we're at it, let's also
retire the word "hero," except where it is truly
warranted (take note CNN). Robert Kaplan, maybe the
worst foreign policy thinker to come along in decades,
scores a double-whammy on this account in a recent
Wall Street Journal op-ed.
He chastises journalists for pitying soldiers and, to
prove his point, describes how little coverage is
given to Medal of Honor winners (he backs this up with
highly sophisticated research: a LexisNexis search of
this subject brings up lower numbers than, say, abuse
at Guantanamo). But by invoking the
troops--specifically the everyday heroic deeds by our
soldiers that go unnoticed in the media--Kaplan is not
really making a point, but just trying to take the
moral high ground from anyone who might disagree with
him by trotting out sappy but pious-sounding phrases
like, "Heroes, according to the ancients, are those
who do great deeds that have a lasting claim to our
Increasingly, most columns or on-air comments read or
sound like bad press releases. Please, those who
publish op-eds on a regular basis, let's retire the
"charm offensives" and cheeky references to
"Goldilocks." Tell it like it is. Otherwise we will
never win the war against vagueness.