The Devil Is In the Paradigm

By RJI on July 21, 2009 0 Comments

by Jon Margolis

Jon Margolis, former chief political reporter for the Chicago Tribune and the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964," lives in northeastern Vermont, where he writes and teaches.

Last week the New England Cable Network ran a story on how much of the federal stimulus money was actually making its way to the cities and towns of the region.

Not much, as it turns out, meaning the regional cable network’s story was legit. Nor was its treatment of the subject all that objectionable. Oh, a little simplistic about the (supposed) relative ineptitude of the feds, as opposed to state and local governments. But that’s an all-American delusion, so let’s give the NECN folks a pass here.

But no comparable charity to correspondent Brian Burnell, who at one point during his report intoned that when it came to federal aid, “the devil is in the details.”

Worse, whoever put the network’s stuff on line decided to use those words as the headline, which read, “Devil Is In the Details with Stimulus money.”

Someone, somewhere, has to put a stop to this, and, no one else having come forward to take the lead, we reluctantly take up the burden ourselves, hoping for no reward but the appreciation of a grateful nation.

There is neither time nor justification for subtlety here, nor for half-way measures. Under the circumstances, draconian policies are in order. Hence the proposed new standard:

Any professional journalist (we can not police the civilian population) who from this moment on uses the term, “the devil is in the details” shall be summarily executed, without being granted the right to confront accusers or cross-examine witnesses. No due process. No mercy. Off with his/her head.

At first glance, this may seem harsh, and to lessen the shock, we will leave open the possibility that the previous paragraph might be interpreted as metaphor, that only professional decapitation is proposed.

If that’s how you want to interpret it, go ahead. Whether that’s the way it was intended we will leave open.

Consider the gravity of the evil, to use the words of the U.S. Supreme Court (Brandenburg v Ohio, 1969).  Every reporter, regardless of his or her medium, is a writer. Writers should not use clichés. “The Devil is…blah blah blah” is not simply a cliché; it is the most banal cliché extant.

Most clichés impede clear thinking; this one impedes thought in its entirety. No, it’s worse than that; it obliterates thought in its entirety. Because it means whatever the person saying it intends it to mean, it means nothing at all. Its use, then, must be banished, the banishment enforced by the strongest of deterrents.

Besides, it’s a misquote. The quote, by now equally meaningless, is “God is in the details.” It is commonly attributed to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), the modernist architect who also gave the world the line, “less is more.” Actually, Mies (as he was commonly called; he was born Maria Ludwig Michael Mies) seems to have filched the idea from Aby Warburg, an art historian, who used the phrase in 1925.

Whether God and the devil can both be in the details , together or separately, we will leave to the architects, the art historians, the theologians and the saloonkeepers. By now, however, the ‘devil’ version has been so worn-out that it should be off-limits for journalists.

Alas, that ‘devil’ cliché is not the only blot on today’s journalism, though it will remain alone in calling for the ultimate penalty (except, of course, for sportswriters and sportscasters who describe a no-hitter as a “no-no;” in their case, extraction of the fingernails should precede summary execution). There are many others, and at least one of them is also a misquote: “The proof is in the pudding.”

It is not. The sugar is in the pudding, and perhaps some custard. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. So said Don Quixote of La Mancha, according to Miguel de Cervantes, too good a writer to misquote. Surely these 400 years later there must be another way to suggest that only the quality of the end product will reveal the efficacy of the process. But the writer who falls back on the old line could at least get the right old line.

So ingrained is the wrong old line, though, that were reporters (and the politicians they quote) to start getting it right, the correction might be called a sea change.

Why not? Almost everything else is called a sea change. It’s difficult these days to read about a mere alteration, variation, shift or modification. No, it’s all a sea change. Unless, of course, it’s a tsunami. All changes must be cataclysmic (to make Page One, at least) and/or fundamental. That’s what a sea change is.

Or is it?

In this case, the cliché-mongers are not getting the words of the original wrong, but they do seem to be confused about their meaning. It was Ariel, the airy spirit of The Tempest, who tells Ferdinand, “Full fathom five, thy father lies/ Of his bones are coral made/Those are pearls that were his eyes/ Nothing of him that doth fade/But suffer a sea-change/ Into something rich and strange…”

Ariel seems to be describing mere physical decomposition, accelerated by salt and moving water, rather than anything resembling today’s definition of a sea change.

That’s OK. Usage evolves. Let the term mean fundamental alteration. This does not require using it every other day. In a column last month, Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post did not use the term. But an editor made it the headline.

In this case, the column was about what’s happening in and to the oceans. So “Sea Change” fit (and no doubt fit its space, too). But in recent weeks, our elite journals have also declared “sea changes,” absent any oceanic connection, in baseball, politics, and business.

Perhaps the next time a reporter or editor is tempted to call something a sea change he/she should, in his/her mind’s eye,,….see change, and call it something else.

Regrettably, there may be no end to the list of overworked words and phrases in the papers and on the air. In the space remaining, I will mention a few, and suggest appropriate retribution for their use:

--The next commentator who proclaims that whoever or whatever “walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck must be a duck, “should have to spend the next day…walking and quacking like a duck. In the company of ducks and their detritus;

--The columnist or anchorperson who says that a politician “can talk the talk but can he walk the walk?” should be prohibited from either walking or talking for 48 hours, during which he/she will have to write an essay explaining what that phrase means so the rest of us might have the foggiest idea.

--“Paradigms” should be abolished. No, it isn’t that patterns, models, or archetypes should no longer exist. It is that writers who type, utter, or scribble the word should…well, OK, they may continue to exist. But the next day, they should be forced to sit in a small room, with bare walls and no furniture save one chair for the miscreant. There they may ponder their sins and figure out what might symbolize them.

Oh, excuse me. We don’t have symbols any more. Nothing is symbolic. Instead, everything is iconic, even (or so said Huffington Post), men’s swimsuit movies.

Don’t ask. But do beware. Soon we shall have iconic paradigms. Or perhaps paradigmatic icons. And you know what’s in them, don’t you?

The Devil.