Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren published an op-ed in the New York Times on Friday about corporate crime. She argues that systematic corporate fraud often goes unpunished not because we lack the laws and resources to address it but because executive-branch appointees running organizations like the Securities and Exchange Commission are simply not aggressive enough. It’s an interesting subject in these Big Short, Bernie Sanders times. But I’m having trouble remembering anything Warren said about it because her column sounds like it was written in 10 minutes using a bag of Progressive Political Rhetoric Clichés that someone left in a closet at the MoveOn office in late 2008.
There are at least 11 political-speech clichés in the 905 words of Warren’s article:
- “Federal agencies caught big companies breaking the law and let them off the hook with barely a slap on the wrist.”
- “Companies paid meager fines.”
- “The failure undermines the foundations of this great country.”
- “A C.E.O. who engineers the theft of billions of dollars.”
- “The Education Management Corporation saddled [students] with huge debts.”
- “EDMC kept right on raking in money.”
- “The government can boot companies out of those programs.”
- “Thousands of Americans were rotting in prison.”
- “Strong leaders have pushed agencies to forge ahead.”
- “To choose who will fight on the front lines.”
I’m obviously not the first person to complain that public speakers overuse some words and phrases. In fact, I just found a few of the words I highlighted from Warren’s column—fighting, forging, and undermining foundations—specifically satirized in a New Yorker article about political clichés published in 1952. As it happens, another piece of criticism from that era—George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”—has the best explanation I’ve seen for why this kind of bad writing happens and why it’s more than just an aesthetic problem:
… modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. … By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.
Novelty is important in writing. The brain ignores what it’s seen or heard before. That’s why writers use new constructions and surprising details—to wake readers up by slapping them in the face like Zachary Quinto slapped the little kid in The Slap, the poorly reviewed 2015 NBC miniseries about a guy who slapped a little kid. Elizabeth Warren didn’t make the mental effort necessary to write about corporate criminality in a surprising or detailed way for the Times on Friday, and in doing so failed to convey her interest in a subject of urgent importance to the readers who might help her do something about it. Her language is an inadvertent signal to ignore her message. You might even say she let us off the hook.