Humpty Dumpty: “At the End of the Day”

“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 is 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 because, for all intents and purposes, the real fact of the matter is that all you have to do is run it up the flag pole and see who salutes it.

People cannot live without clichés, and this sort of conversational shorthand can be useful; they function as the oral equivalent of punctuation marks and paragraph breaks, meaningless in themselves, 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. There is, however, a set of phrases that are even more fatal to rational discourse.  They might be labelled as the appeal to absolute authority.  While most Americans were obediently acting out "The Mask of the Red Death," some unwisely challenged the authority of government to require masks, social distancing, and isolation.  The answer to end all discussion was "Trust the science," which could only be believed by people who know little or nothing about science.

The response was made familiar by Dr. Fauci, a physician who does not appear to have spent much if any time treating patients.  I've thought about creating an internet "meme" (wretched and meaningless word!)  that would display a picture of Fauci in his best Alfred E. Newman pose, with the legend: "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV."

A more obvious anti-rational appeal is of the Fundamentalist variety:  In response to a scientific or ethical or historical argument, the true believer has only to cite an irrelevant passage of Scripture that can be twisted, turned, heated up and forged  into a weapon.  Somewhere in his Institutes, John Calvin imagines someone taking issue with his argument for double predestination.  Who are you, petty mortal, to argue with God?  Even Calvin must have known that Lutheran and Catholic opponents were not arguing with their Creator but with the petty mortal who went by the name of John Calvin.

In the Liberal and Leftist tradition, a similar game is played by appealing to the obvious truth of absurd propositions, as in Jefferson's sublime idiocy:  "We hold these truths to be self-evident," which he follows by one absurdity after another, beginning with, "All men are created equal."  If you ever have the misfortune to chat with academic philosophers, you will hear them make, over and over, the zaniest of statements prefaced, "Surely, we can agree that..."  etc.

In the media and other centers of public degradation, every pronouncement and conversation is peppered with mind-numbers such as "Thinking outside the box," which means the speaker is offering a preposterous and self-serving alternative to common sense, " Flogging a dead horse," which expresses the speakers impatience with anyone who remembers mistakes and criminal acts, " Don't shoot the messenger," an excuse for malicious rudeness."

One of the most effective mind-numbers is the now popular defense of such clichés, e.g. on NPR and on various progressive websites.  You see, the argument goes, such clichés often encapsulate important  attitudes.  Yes, sort of like ethnic stereotypes, which would not exist if they were not representative of a statistical norm.  Oh no, not like that at all, because, "at the end of the day what really counts is that we learn to think outside the box of Christian tradition."

The phrase "At the end of the day" took on a new life in Bill. Clinton’s America, and if one can judge from the current state of political discourse, the silencers have been very effective.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Avatar Vince Cornell says:

    “Listen to the Experts!”
    “That’s not who we are!”
    “Then we have to agree to disagree!”
    One can entertain one’s self when stuck in meetings by playing “stupid cliché Bingo” – that’s much more practical than a drinking game, even when working from home. Nobody needs a hangover by 5 PM.

  2. Avatar Raymond Olson says:

    Just so. And I believe the red light district is still a good idea.

  3. Avatar William Shofner says:

    We’re all in this together.