Editor’s Note: I got the idea for this article when I noticed how often pundits quote the line, “There are no second acts in American life,” but only use it to show it isn’t true anymore. To me, this is a sure sign a cliché is no longer valid, and should be tossed on the discard pile. Just before I finished this piece, a Canadian co-worker brought up another cliché I wish I’d had time to include: “That was the day America lost its innocence.” This phrase is used whenever we do something awful, like My Lai or Abu Ghraib; however, I’ve got to believe we’ve lost our innocence more times than Heidi Fleiss. After slaughtering the American Indians and hauling millions of Africans across the Atlantic to pick our cotton, I think our hymen has been pretty much broken for centuries.
As we pass the midpoint of 2006, our New Year’s resolutions are long forgotten, but I’d like to get one in early for 2007. Isn’t it about time we put a moratorium on some tired clichés that have passed their prime?
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that there are no second acts in American life, but that was before America abandoned all notions of shame. To witness the Baptist doctrine of deathbed redemption — but without the deathbed — just click your remote on Sunday morning. Conman and ex-con Jim Bakker is back on TV, exposed fake faith healer Peter Popoff is again making money curing the gullible, and self-confessed pornography and prostitution consumer Jimmie Swaggart is once again ranting over the airwaves about what sinners the rest of us are.
Convicted Iran-Contra conspirator Ollie North has his own show on the Fox News Channel and is treated like a sage on the “O’Reilly Factor.” Ex-con and corrupt ex-governor of Connecticut John Rowland is back on the streets, and who wants to bet he won’t emerge as an elder statesman, delivering speeches at $10,000 an hour? Can Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff be far behind?
Evidently, the sleazy are exempt from another overworked cliché: the last acceptable prejudice. Google it on the Internet, and you’ll be hip-deep (I got 22,600 hits in 0.45 second). Smokers, atheists, the obese, Muslims, paparazzi, rednecks, Italians (mafia references) and blondes — any group with more than three members seems to feels itself a solitary target of persecution. Everybody I know is subject to several such biases.
By far, the most-numerous Web references involve Catholic victimization. It’s strange to think that an enormously rich and powerful group with hundreds of millions of adherents finds Catholic bashing so scary that they’ve established the Catholic League to bash anyone who makes fun of them or writes a book (like “The Da Vinci Code”) that they don’t like.
Perhaps their phobic reaction to criticism can be explained by another timeworn cliché: It’s a disease. Ever since alcoholism became a medical condition ― followed by drug abuse, gambling, shopping, eating too much, eating too little (anorexia), throwing up what you eat (bulimia) and the inability to throw stuff away (hoarding) ― the dysfunctional have been enabled to shirk all responsibility for their behaviors.
Other clichés are nonverbal, such as right-wingers’ love affair with the South. The Dixie Red States comprise the only section of the country ever to have actively committed mass treason against the United States, mainly to continue owning fellow human beings as slaves. After more than a century of resisting the idea of civil rights, which the rest of the country had to force down their collective throat, could these “good old boys” at least show enough patriotism to dump the Confederate flag? That clichéd symbol represents “The Cause” that killed more Americans than Nazism, Communism and Islamo-Fascism combined.
Less offensive, but more ubiquitous than the Rebel flag are the colored ribbons plastered everywhere. Originating from a trite Tony Orlando song about a convict who hopes his girlfriend is still waiting for him, yellow ribbons were first displayed for released Vietnam POWs, then for Iran hostages, which was nice. But since then, the ribbons have mutated into a color for every conceivable cause, disease and complaint, from hyperactivity to hypoglycemia to voting rights for Canadian illegal aliens. There are so many subtle hues the human eye can barely tell them apart. How about next year we limit ribbons to county fairs and little blonde girls’ ponytails.
And while we’re at it, can we stop crowing about how much we support our troops. This statement has become so generic it means everything from cheerleading their deployment to whatever foreign hellhole our president deems invasion-worthy to supporting bringing them home immediately from those same hellholes. Mostly it just means slapping another bumper sticker on our cars.
But the most worn-out cliché of all is 9/11 changed everything. Aside from the families of those who died, soldiers at risk overseas, travelers in airport lines, and the politicians and corporations profiting from it, 9/11 has barely affected most Americans at all. Do we consume less gas so fewer petrodollars go to the sponsors of terrorism in Teheran and Riyadh? Have we secured our borders or ports? Are we sacrificing for the war effort?
Are we even willing to pay the bills for the war on terror and its ancillary mission in Iraq? Not if it means giving up our tax cuts. We can’t afford to fund homeland security in New York at the prior year’s level, but our president champions billions in tax relief for oil companies already awash in profits and for those multimillionaires (fewer than 1% of taxpayers) who are subject to the estate tax.
With deficits, terrorism, energy dependence, bird flu, global warming and immigration to worry about, Congress spends its time debating such clichés as the protection of marriage and safeguarding the flag.
There’s one cliché we don’t hear nearly enough: fiddling while Rome burns.
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