“At the end of the day,” declared the minister—or bleated the commentator or droned the expert. . . . But why continue? Phrases like at the end of the day are useful signposts, saying: IGNORE THE FOLLOWING COMMUNICATION.
Other such warning signs include: “the bottom line” and its Italian equivalent in fin dei conti, “it is generally agreed,” and “no one would defend the practice.” When I used to attend conferences, the joke went around that my nom de guerre (like that of Odysseus) was Nobody, because whenever some little professor declared, “Nobody today would defend the Roman father’s right to kill his children” or “Nobody now would oppose women’s suffrage,” that was my cue for doing just that. These expressions are the tell-tale indications, the unconscious tics of people who not only haven’t thought through a subject but positively refuse to think about anything. It was the Republicans’ answer to Jesse Ventura, when he said that red light districts were an idea to consider: Some ideas cannot be considered. Period. What they really meant was that no ideas are ever to be considered.
“At the end of the day” is even more pernicious than most of its rival expressions, because it implies that after considering all the aesthetic nuances and moral textures of a question, all that really matters are the practical consequences in the long run. “In the long run,” quipped John Maynard Keynes, “we’re all dead.” Keynes was only joking, sort of, but “at the end of the day” puts the kibosh on any consideration that goes beyond the bottom line. It rules out argument, eliminates controversy, and kills any original idea becau.se, for all intents and purposes, the real fact of the matter is that all you have to do is run it up the flagpole and see who salutes it.
People cannot live without cliches, and this sort of conversational shorthand can be useful: It functions as the oral equivalent of punctuation marks and paragraph breaks, meaningless in itself, but assisting the flow of communication between human beings who have not really mastered their native tongue. Middle American businessmen would be lost without their stock of wise adages, such as “Beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick” and “What can I do you for?” The first few hundred times, they may even evoke a smile, and eventually they become inaudible.
The conversation-stopping formulas are different. They are designed to stifle dissent, and it is no accident that “at the end of the day” is the signature tune of spineless English bureaucrats. The phrase has taken on a new life in Mr. Clinton’s America, and if one can judge from the current state of political discourse, the silencers are very effective.
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