In writing, cliches are rightly considered a crime against humanity. But for some reason, they are considered the height of profundity in politics. If I wrote, "I don't agree with what you have to say, but I will defend your right to say it with my life," my editor would slap me across the face with a semi-frozen flounder. But some hack can say the exact same thing on the floor of the Senate and we call him a statesman.
We rarely question cliches. You seldom hear anybody say, "You know, the grass isn't always greener on the other side of the fence. My grass is about as green as it can get." This can make cliched thinking even more dangerous than rigid ideological thinking. We can recognize the perils of ideology, but cliches sail right on by us. This is especially dangerous in wartime. So herewith a few cliches to watch out for.
- "The ends never justify the means." Of course they do, sometimes. It's against the law for me to break down your front door without your permission. But if you're having a heart attack, it's perfectly right for me to kick the door in so I can save your life.
In World War II, our alliance with Stalin's Soviet Union (i.e. the means) was justified by the need to defeat Hitler (the ends). The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s constantly broke the law and disrupted commerce in its effort to overturn Jim Crow. Who would argue that the ends - equal rights for all African-Americans - didn't justify the relatively minor means of illegal sit-ins?
It's not hard to understand that sometimes methods are justified by your goals, if your goals are important enough. The trick in a democracy is to figure out when the goals warrant doing undesirable things and when they don't.
- "Violence never solved anything." Says who? If that's true why do police have guns? Police officers use violence all the time to solve the problem of murderers on killing sprees. Similarly, Congress has just allowed pilots to carry guns, because that might help solve the problem of hijackers in the future.
It's funny: people who like to say "violence never solves anything" also tend to support "peacekeeping" missions to fix problems all over the world. Well, if you look at the pictures of peacekeepers in the newspaper, they're always carrying guns and sometimes even riding tanks. If violence doesn't solve anything, you'd think they be carrying baguettes.
- "If we change our way of life, 'they' will have won." Um, actually this has it exactly backward. If we (ital) don't (ital) change our way of life "they" will win because we will remain unprepared for more attacks.
Somehow, I don't think Osama bin Laden high-fived his partners in crime when he heard that the United States had canceled curbside check-in at airports. When he offered his videotaped statement he didn't declare, "You may return to your families and villages, secure in the knowledge that the Great Satan will never allow silverware at airport Pizza Huts ever again."
- "Security cannot come at the expense of our liberties." What's security supposed to come at the expense of then? Sure, it would be a great world if we could say increased security will come at the expense of PBS, brussels sprouts and shopping carts with wobbly wheels. But the world doesn't work that way.
That doesn't mean we can't be reasonable about deciding what is too high a price to pay in terms of our liberties, but the idea that individual sacrifice of at least a few conveniences isn't on the table is absurd.
-"Give peace a chance." What exactly do the people who say this think we were
doing right up until 8:48 a.m. on Sept. 11? We gave peace a chance and now we're going to give war a shot.
We should remember that the actual lyric from the John Lennon song is, "All we are saying is give peace a chance." Exactly. That is (ital) all (end ital) they are saying, which is about as helpful as saying "give pistachio ice cream a chance." There are no useful suggestions to be found in "give peace a chance" when the other side has dedicated itself to a bloody holy war against American men, women and children.
Now, if someone wants to write a song that goes something like: "All we are saying is give a sustained aerial bombing with coordinated ground assaults a chance" that might be helpful.