Platitudes might be thoughtless, but repeat them enough and both truisms and
lies can change the way people think. Unfortunately, this is not
necessarily for the better.
I try to avoid clichés like the plague but
last week I shared a compilation with Facebook friends. It was a blog posted by
Teju Cole in The New Yorker headed “In place of thought: A New Dictionary of
It was all I could do to stop myself adapting the title
to “New and improved.”
Cole wrote: “In 1913, a compilation of Gustave
Flaubert’s satirical definitions was posthumously published as Le Dictionnaire
des Idées Reçues (“The Dictionary of Received Ideas”). Flaubert hated cliché, a
hatred that expressed itself not only in the pristine prose of Madame Bovary but
also in his letters and notes on the thoughtless platitudes of the day. “The
Dictionary of Received Ideas” is a complaint against automatic thinking. What
galls Flaubert most is the inevitability, given an action, of a certain standard
reaction. We could learn from his impatience: there are too many standard
formulations in our language.
They stand in place of thought, but we
proclaim them each time – due to laziness, prejudice or hypocrisy – as though
they were fresh insight.”
Flaubert’s “Dictionary” inspired Cole to try
something similar, on Twitter. “I think, also, there was the influence of
Ambrose Bierce and his cynical Devil’s Dictionary, Samuel Johnson’s mostly
serious but occasionally coruscating Dictionary of the English Language, and
Gelett Burgess’s now-forgotten send-up of platitudes, Are You a Bromide?” he
wrote. “What the entries in these books have in common, in addition to
compression and wit, is an intolerance of stupidity. As I wrote my modern
cognates, I was struck at how close some of them came to the uninterrogated
platitudes in my own head. Stupidity stalks us all.”
enlightening list starts with:
AFRICA. A country. Poor but happy.
ALMOND. All eyes are almond-shaped.
AMERICAN. With the
prefix all, a blonde.
It goes through the alphabet poking fun at our
stereotypes and stultified thought ending with:
VALUES. “We must do whatever it
takes to preserve our values.” Said as a prelude to destroying
VIRGINITY. An obsession in Iran and in the olive-oil industry. It
can be lost, like a wallet.
YEATS. Author of two
ZIZEK. Observe he’s made some good points, but.
LIST got me thinking (really, not just figuratively). I decided the Middle East
merits a compilation of its own. Every time someone mentions the need for
original thinking to solve the Palestinian- Israeli problem you can rest assured
that the next sentence will contain a cliché like “window of
The window of opportunity permanently threatens to slam
shut but I suspect it might actually be stuck, leaving “room for hope,” at least
for the “cautiously optimistic” on a certain side of the political map or
In the Middle East “America” signifies all that’s good as in
“American kitchen” or “American standard,” unless of course it happens to have
anything to do with US diplomatic policy. There are few things on which Israelis
and Arabs agree: One is that humous is an essential food (preferably dressed
with virgin olive oil); another is that even those Americans who can find
Israel, Syria, Iran and Egypt on a map haven’t got a clue about how this region
Apartheid is an “A” category word that has undergone a
particularly strange metamorphosis. From referring to the South African regime
in which there was such strict segregation people could not even drink at the
same water fountains, in certain circles it has come to exclusively refer to
Israel. Israeli Arab parliamentarians are particularly fond of it. The irony
obviously got lost in translation.
“Confidence-building measure” is
another overworked term. Just whose confidence is built by the release of hosts
of convicted terrorists is questionable, but we have all heard, endlessly, that
“peace is made between enemies, not friends.”
measure has a twin sister: a gesture of goodwill.
Such gestures have come
to include the demand for a “settlement freeze.”
A settlement is a Jewish
community anywhere over the so-called Green Line, the pre-1967 borders. All
settlements are “obstacles to peace.”
If it’s a community where
Palestinians or Beduin live it is not a settlement and not an obstacle to peace,
no matter where it is.
Rawabi, on the outskirts of Ramallah, for example,
is being marketed as “the first Palestinian planned city.” Ma’aleh Adumim and
Ariel cannot be described as cities at all in polite, politically correct
The geographic region comprising the Middle East is itself open
to interpretation, stretching to include Indonesia, but never reaching suburbs
of London, Paris or Stockholm in the other direction.
Middle East is geographically challenging, and nowhere more so than Jerusalem.
It is possibly the only capital city in the world housing the parliament,
supreme court and president’s residence but not officially recognized by those
who know better.
It is also probably the only capital city where the
neighborhoods marked on maps as “East” are mainly found in the North and South.
Most Arab neighborhoods are villages; most Jewish ones are
Gaza, like Jerusalem, is a confusing entity in a class of
its own. You cannot mention Gaza without making a comment about its population
density. To be politically correct (although factually wrong), you might want to
add something about it being a “ghetto” “prison” or “under siege.” It is not
polite to point out that Gaza shares a border with Egypt.
journalists are either Leftists or Rightists. (I’m regularly accused of being
both, proving in my opinion that I’m stuck in the middle.) Israeli politicians
are political animals, or, more precisely, political birds: They can all be
described as either “dovish” or “a hawk.”
Israel is the only country
whose social protests were known as “tent protests.”
This is because had
we called them the Occupy movement, like the rest of the world, the UN would
have been so busy discussing the obstacle to peace that it wouldn’t have had
time to deal with problems like human rights in places like Syria or the nuclear
threat in Iran.
As it is, Israel has taken up so much of the UN’s time
that it hasn’t had a chance to solve the problems anywhere else around the
Feel free to add your own definitions to the list: The difference
between a wall, security barrier or fence is a good starting point. The words
militant and terrorist can also provide a defining experience.
Nation is a term of which we are rightly proud. The country is a hitech wonder.
Nano-technology is President Shimon Peres’s middle name.
can come up with solutions for the most complicated technological challenges;
they just can’t solve the problem of who should be governor of the Bank of
Unlike the citizens of the Start-up Nation, all Palestinians
should be described as poor, regardless of income, education or
All IDF soldiers are Jewish fighters, including the Beduin,
Circassians and Druse.
The “Z” word is Zionist, an epithet one stage
above “settler.” Israeli soldiers are Zionists.
Last week, my faith in
humankind was partially restored with a YouTube video of Israeli troops and a
The hapless hound had somehow got stuck at the top of the
fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border. The soldiers stopped their jeep and one
guy carefully climbed between the barbed wire, reached up, and turned the dog
into an illegal, but welcome, immigrant.
Events like that defy all
standard descriptions but on that positive note, may I take this window of
opportunity to wish all readers a Happy New Year.
The writer is the
editor of The International Jerusalem Post.