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The Most Untrue Cliches

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it

This is the ponderous epigraph of many a high school history term paper. And it’s wrong. Like as not, we’re “doomed” to failure not because we forget history but because our leaders perseverate over history and past failings and traumas, and act so as not to repeat them, often with disastrous effects, since real conditions have changed on them. We don’t want “another Vietnam.” We don’t want “another World War I.” Hyper-attentiveness and deference to the past causes as many problems as obliviousness to it, if not more. And, as they say in the stock market, “awareness of past performance is no guarantee of future success.”

There are no second acts in America

Tell that to Bill Clinton!  America is nothing but second… and third…and fourth… acts. That’s the beauty of America. I’ve never understood even the premise of this cliché, in a culture that revels in narratives of sin, downfall, and redemption. From the start we were a country that presented boundless opportunities for people to light out for the territories and reinvent themselves.

Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die today

Go tell this to your financial adviser, and see what he can do with it. Arrive at his office with your stash of cigarettes and a carton of fine Bordeaux that you plan to drink right now, and tell him about the mansion you just rented for the day and put on your Visa that you’ll never have to pay so that you could have a party with everyone that you ever knew, clogging your arteries on foods that you can’t eat if you plan on living past tomorrow, and partying with all the demon lovers that you never should have been with.

See what your financial adviser thinks about this absurd antinomy. This is one of those trite phrases that aspires after a watered down, Zen spa talk about “being in the moment,” and “mindful”—these little drips and drabs of decontextualized spiritualism that substitute for faith and can be conveniently purchased as wee little point-of-sale books at Barnes & Noble.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat

For sheer randonmness, this cliché takes the prize. How many methods are there, and is the 21st-century speaker familiar even with one of them? Whatever larger point the speaker’s trying to make gets lost in the wincing, medieval barbarism of this cliché, as the audience first must try to handle the image of a cat being skinned, and is then asked to imagine multiple techniques for this cruelty, and then must realize that the whole problem at hand is that she’s abiding by an outdated or banal method to vivisect a living creature, when others are available—and finally to see the imaginative creation and embrace of a new technique for skinning and vivisection as a move toward a solution to your PowerPoint presentation or your sales pitch.

There are other fish in the sea

Of course there are, but, as a friend of mine retorts, “I want THIS fish.” This calculating cliché misses the point of human relationships and affections. It substitutes the generic—males and females—for the specific, the lost beloved one. But in what other relationships do we assume that people are casually fungible like this, valuable mostly as members of a generic group and not in their specifics? Would we say this if someone lost their best friend to an argument (“oh well. Plenty more fish where that one came from”) or offer this reductive bromide if a parent had had a serious falling out with a child (“good thing you’ve got other fish-children!”).

This romantically cynical cliché is suggests that any old fish will do—if you just want a McHusband or a McWife, after all, then I guess one fish does as well as another.

All politics are local

When the high school sophomore who put the bromide about being “doomed to repeat history” grows up and enters a Ph.D. program in political science, this will be the cliché that she attempts to prove or disprove in her dissertation. Cliches must be an elegant if annoyingly familiar encapsulation of a visceral truth for them to work. This one is a cliché that’s endlessly contested, and comes inevitably with its cumbersome disclaimers, so it’s a cliché without any of the benefits or elegance of the cliché.

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Attitude Determines Altitude

Oh, dear lord.  The Newtonian-Defying Physics of Positive Thinking strikes again, those bromides about how your circumstances can be credited to or blamed on your mood and your sunny or grumpy disposition.

Actually, altitude is determined by a variety of geometric and trigonometric equations that can be mastered in most high school mathematics classes, but that I’ve now forgotten.

In social terms, “altitude” is determined to a depressingly substantial degree by socioeconomic and other material factors that, while far from sealing our destiny and far from being insurmountable (personal effort and hard work do matter) have nothing to do with attitude. This cliché is another de-politicizing move to substitute serious consideration of success and fortune with subtle, self-blaming malarkey. If only you had a better attitude, you’d be president by now.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

This one takes lovely, sparse but provocative language by Hemingway and traduces it to a chipper little cliche of relentlessly daft optimism. Most likely what doesn’t kill you leaves you with a trick knee and chronic back pain. The language from whence this probably got distilled,  in contrast, is worth remembering:  “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” 


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Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it This is the ponderous epigraph of many a high school history term paper. And it’s wrong. Like as not, we’re “doomed” […]