Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: email@example.com
While reading The New York Times the other day, I was struck by the claim made in a piece on Guantanamo that, when it comes to the political and legal issues swirling around the island prison, "It's impossible to overstate the importance of this debate."
That sounds like special pleading. It especially sounds that way after you go back and look at how often -- and in what contexts -- that phrase is used. Either it unnecessarily hypes something completely unexceptionable -- "Surely it is impossible to overstate the importance of reading," editorialized the Montgomery Advertiser in June -- or it attempts to drum up interest in something that can matter only to a limited number of people.
It's a lazy phrase meant to overwhelm readers into submission. Why make the case that something is crucial when you can simply state that its importance is infinite?
For instance, in a New York Sun review of a DVD package of Busby Berkeley musicals, Gary Giddins draws special attention to the songwriters Harry Warren and Al Dubin. "They are the forgotten men in this series, though it is impossible to overstate the importance of their songs."
I like Giddins' work a lot, so I'd like to give him a pass. But isn't it, in fact, possible to overstate the importance of people that most readers have never heard of?
sMarc Mohan, writing in the (Portland) Oregonian in March about a documentary on musicologist Alan Lomax, similarly claimed, "It's impossible to overstate the importance of his fascinating career on 20th-century music and the larger expansion to include the voices of the poor and dispossessed."
Again, I can be sympathetic to the idea of a critic trying to draw attention to some forgotten hero. But the term is used in just the same manner by marketers. "It's impossible to overstate the value of a World Series of Poker gold bracelet to anyone who takes the game seriously," said event commissioner Jeffrey Pollack of Harrah's Entertainment in a news release.
What was the news release about? Get this -- they've redesigned that self-same bracelet. If it's so unspeakably valuable, why tinker with it?
What does that have to do with the price of tea in China, as my grandmother used to say.
Maybe we should all know more about international trade, or late, lamented songwriters. But there are some things that only an aficionado, or a local, could care about, which is when the pleading becomes amusing.
The Manchester Evening News recently quoted "the Moss Lane chief" as saying, "It's impossible to overstate the importance of our next five fixtures." What is a fixture? What sport is this guy even talking about? Why didn't the Evening News do a follow-up to let us know the earth-shattering outcome of these fixtures?
Well, there are many, many more examples. But I stopped looking after I circled my way back to The New York Times and came across a March story on the pressures of private preschool admissions.
Amanda Uhry, the owner of Manhattan Private School Advisors, "a consulting firm for parents," told the paper "it was almost impossible to overstate the importance of the essay. 'The first way of separating the wheat from the chaff is to get rid of these essays in which the parents couldn't be bothered to write a decent essay or take this whole process seriously. It is your calling card. It is your entree.'"
As anyone in the Times' demographic knows, it truly is impossible to overstate the importance of getting your children into the right preschool.
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.