It’s More Than “The Stroke Of A Pen”

Desperate times do NOT call for desperate metaphors.

As the lawsuits, dramatic late night court orders, and protests coalesced around the country in opposition to President Trump’s executive orders on immigration, I hope you, like me, took heart from the resolve and spirit of the protesters, the generosity of the principled lawyers who rushed to help people whom the orders hurt, the widespread resistance to an assault on the spirit and character of the United States.

As events unfolded, I obsessively hit refresh in my browser, jumping between tabs to catch updates from various outlets. And I was struck by how many of them reported that the president had curtailed rights “with the stroke of a pen.”

There are plenty of things to criticize about the phrase. First, it’s a cliché, and it’s enough to object on that basis alone.

It stands out as unusual for news reportage, even today, in the era of post-blog journalism. There are some places where we expect point of view and colorful literary flourishes. But this was in news reportage, not in news analysis, an editorial, a column, or an op-ed. It was unusual enough to make my ears perk up.

But there’s something something deeper here that bothers me. Rhetorically, “the stroke of a pen” sets up a contrast between how trivially easily it is to issue an order and how life-alteringly hard it is to withstand its consequences. This is meant to cast issuing the order in a very bad light, considering the grossly disproportionate suffering those deeds cause.

I think it fails at this, partly because the cliche—and the cheap sentimentality that attends it—obscures the nature of the office. The president is an executive—it being the Executive branch I suppose the president is the Executive executive. We all laughed at George W. Bush called himself “the decider,” but he wasn’t wrong: The president supplies leadership, takes advice, fields bills or policy proposals, and bestows approval on documents by signing them. This is how it’s supposed to work.

Let me put it another way: Almost everything the president does, good or bad, is “with the stroke of a pen.” The pen isn’t the issue.

More to the point, I think it misplaces focus. Yes, the executive order is inhumane. Yes, I think it’s bad policy. Yes, if reports are to be believed it was an example of mind-bogglingly incompetent management and governance. But focusing on the “stroke of a pen” elides all these legitimate criticisms, and elides to some extent the experience of the people the order affects, and replaces these more nuanced and frankly more damning analysis with a facile, clucking disapproval of the callow ogre and his thoughtless cruelty.

Desperate times don’t call for desperate metaphors. As this story develops, I hope I don’t have to write again about a “‘full-blown’ constitutional crisis” as if an only partially blown one would somehow be OK.

Matthew Wrather started Overthinking It in 2008 with his smartest, funniest friends, and has hosted over 500 hours of podcasts on the site. An LA native, he is an actor and computer programmer, but has worked as a writer, tower bell-ringer, birthday party clown, poet, janitor, and call center manager. He also has a Twitter and a Tumblr.

3 Comments on “It’s More Than “The Stroke Of A Pen””

  1. Jay #

    Since when did Overthinking It start getting political? I thought it was a place for pop culture discussion. Or has that changed?
    Just when I thought I’d gotten away from the exhausting political talk on social media I ran into more here. I’m not American, n even though I am conservative at heart, n I would just like to say even if you do discuss politics, please approach it objectively. Taking sides will turn people off. One of the great things I like about the site was its focus more on exploring subtext rather than generic critique that other geek platforms do. And for the sake of your fans worldwide like me, limit the American politics if you can.
    That being said I like the article

    Reply

    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      Hi, Jay. Thanks for being a reader. One of the things I love about Overthinking It is that the community of overthinkers is truly global. You’re right that we should keep our international audience in mind when planning coverage—I’d actually love to hear more about non-U.S. media and culture.

      I’m tempted to say, “Well actually, this is a post about the rhetoric of newspaper articles,” which I know is a response that a long-time reader like you would appreciate. But I suspect we’ll be hearing more comments like this in the coming months and years, so it’s worth going into a little more depth.

      I tried to address this in my anniversary post, which is one of my favorite things to write every year; the TL;DR version is that “OTI was founded in an era with a different set of cultural assumptions, and the culture has changed around it. We have to figure out how to respond to the new environment, and superficial things may change, but the values are the same: smarter fun together.”

      Right now, I think it’s a mistake to draw a distinction between “culture” and “politics.” For goodness’s sake, the President of the United States is a reality TV star who made a cameo in Home Alone 2 (that’s the film I got my SAG card on, for singing on the soundtrack, so I suppose that Donald Trump and I were colleagues once). His nominee for the Supreme Court was announced in a “prime-time ceremony” reminiscent of an elimination ceremony on The Bachelor. The tools and techniques of media criticism are going to be important in the years to come, and if you look through our past few weeks of posts, we haven’t hesitated to talk about current events. US politics is not our focus—strictly speaking, it’s not even the focus of this article—but we’re not going to shy away if there’s something relevant to discuss. And there will still be plenty of Star Wars. Did you see the slide video?

      Finally, let me consider for a moment the idea of being “objective,” because that’s a conversation-stopping code word one hears a lot these days.

      Let’s talk about Immanuel Kant for a moment. Philosophically, when you’re talking about perception and argumentation, nothing is “objective.” This is reductive, but it’s enough to say that all perception happens from a particular place in the universe, and not from some point of perfect knowledge. If there is a capital-R “Reality” out there, that Reality has to be experienced, and the experience is subject to interpretation. (Kant went further, proposing that the “thing-in-itself” was itself actually a product of subjective human understanding, but let’s leave that for next week’s lecture.)

      But of course people aren’t thinking about that when they say “objective.” In general, they mean “give equal time to different points of view, as though they all have equal merit.” Though this may be widely and uncritically accepted as a standard of fairness for journalists and others, it’s a bad idea, because not all points of view actually do have equal merit. I read this week that in a recent census a fraction of a percent of a certain English town, some five dozen people identified their religion as “Jedi Knight”. I love them, they are my people; but my “objectivity” is not compromised if I don’t give equal time to their point of view.

      Finally, sometimes “objective” is used as a rhetorical cudgel to demand, “Keep your mouth shut about your judgements, because they disagree with mine.” I decline.

      Let me propose that we jettison the idea of objectivity, and replace it with civilized discourse. At least within the four virtual walls of Overthinking It, I hope, we can argue passionately, disagree respectfully, and stay friends at the end of the day.

      Reply

  2. jmasoncooper #

    Dear God, Thank You Matthew Wrather!
    You don’t need support, but I just want to say that your nuance is great.
    Your comment is the epitome of clarity, and directness. It could stand as a perfect example for a college class on writing and rhetoric.
    Another source that offers a similar take on “objectivity” can be found here:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEe5xL4G3Y8
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xT0yRXWo6UU
    Finally I love that this article is about a turn of phrase. I know of few other places that could offer such sweet explanation about such a simple cliche.

    Reply

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