Monday, November 17, 2008

Unmitigated Disaster—Hyperbole and the American Language

After the 7/7 bus bombings in London in 2005, the news media stopped a number of citizens on the streets for their off-the-cuff reactions. I remember one Englishwoman in particular, who, when asked for her reaction to the coordinated attacks on her city’s public transportation system, responded, matter-of-factly, “Well, it is a bit of a bother, now, isn’t it?”

Ah, the British talent for understatement! Fifty-six people dead, including the four perpetrators, and it’s a “bit of a bother”! Her response is all the more refreshing for us Americans, for whom an unsatisfactory experience with a search engine is an “unmitigated disaster.”

Now over seven years later, I dare you to find an American who doesn’t still view the events of 9/11 as the most monumental catastrophe of all time—bigger than the failure of the Banqiao Dam in China in 1975 (which took 9 times as many lives immediately, with another 145,000 dying subsequently of famine and disease), bigger than Hiroshima (where in 1945, 22 times as many people died as in the WTC in 2001), and bigger than the Holocaust (9/11 times about 3,666)*.

Of course, the British stiff upper lip is something of a ridiculous pose, too, most effectively lampooned in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life in a sketch on a British military officer’s sang froid over the fact that his leg’s been bitten off by a tiger (“A tiger? … in Africa?”).

In the United States, however, overstatement or hyperbole is the tendency, and the more tinged with violence, the better (“My boss will KILL me if she ever finds out”).

I suspect this fondness for exaggeration is somehow linked to the tall tales that enriched American folk culture back in the nineteenth century—Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, et al.—which were, in turn, probably inspired by the continent’s wide open spaces in the Plains states and CinemaScope and Technicolor vistas of the West.

Out of this rich crop of fictitious amplification, combined perhaps with immigrant dreams of assimilation and high ideals, came the superheroes—most typically, Superman, an illegal from the planet Krypton who came to embody Truth, Justice, and the American Way, as well as the divided souls of first generation immigrants, half American, half European.

Since then, Americans have produced Super Bowls, Super Tuesdays, supermarkets, super-sized fast food, superhighways, superconducting super colliders, Super Mario Bros., and supermodels. And on and on.

You name it and we have the biggest one (until fairly recently, anyway). And we can get it for you deluxe, jumbo, XXL, ultra, and extreme.

Add to this already rich mix, Madison Avenue—where hype and optimism became profitable as well as entertaining. American braggadocio, irritating to some and charming to others, spun out of equal parts P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Cecil B. DeMille, and Teddy Roosevelt. Now it’s an indelible part of how we communicate.

Today’s joint statement from a reunited Obama and McCain—now with TWICE the Hope and Maverickiness—starts thus:

“At this DEFINING MOMENT IN HISTORY, we believe that Americans of ALL parties want and NEED their leaders to come together and change the bad habits of Washington so that we can SOLVE the common and URGENT CHALLENGES OF OUR TIME. It is in this spirit that we had a productive conversation today about the need to LAUNCH A NEW ERA of reform where we take on government waste and bitter partisanship in Washington in order to RESTORE TRUST in government, and BRING BACK PROSPERITY and opportunity for EVERY hardworking American family."

Fuck qualifiers. They never were particularly inspiring anyway. Say it BIG or keep yer yap shut.

* Taking nothing away from the true tragedy of 9/11, of course, since tragedy cannot be measured in spoonfuls. But American self-absorption and exaggerated self-pity obscure the fact that fewer people died in the World Trade Center than died in the seaborne petroleum fire in the Philippines in 1987 (killing over 4,000), or in the release of 42 metric tons of lethal gas at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984 (killing 8,000 in the first two weeks, and subsequently another 8,000), or in the Great Smog of London in 1952 (killing 4,000 initially, with another 8,000 dying later of complications).

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