Column Date 2006-11-05

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Have you noticed that words become shorter at election time? Vocabularies shrink; long sentences all but disappear.

Nobody dares to say anything complicated before election day: “The voters won’t understand,” the political consultants and advertising people say.

So they reduce everything to short words and simple-minded phrases: he’ll raise taxes, she’ll let illegal aliens in, he voted against families, she’s in favor of oil spills, he cheated on his taxes, she’s helping our enemies, he’s in bed with big business, etc.

They call it K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

And it seems to work, at least when it comes to selling us politicians (and beer and hemorrhoid relief).

But it seems to me that K.I.S.S. destroys the important things in life – little things like truth and beauty, for instance.

Take Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address. It begins: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation...”

Talk about complicated! Any political consultant worth his salt would immediately revise it to read: “87 years ago, America was started.”

See how simple? How understandable? How accessible to the common man?

And how devoid of the poetry that moved the nation to share the President’s vision.

Then there’s the American classic, “Charlotte’s Web,” by E. B. White. This, you may recall, is the story of Wilbur the pig, whose life is saved by Charlotte, an enterprising and literate spider who weaves wonderful words about the pig in her web.

Here’s what White wrote in the last chapter:

“Life in the barn was very was the best place to be, thought Wilbur. This warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.”

If this was published today, after our K.I.S.S. pundits got their hands on it, it would probably read:

“Wilbur liked living in the barn.”

(And, of course, they’d never allow Charlotte to weave the word “RADIANT” into her web, to describe Wilbur. These days, they’d insist that she weave “AWESOME.COM,” which would link directly to the website of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Pigs.)

Then there’s the news. Using long sentences and complex thoughts about the Iraq war would remind us that the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds have been murdering each other for generations, that most people there have a tribal not a national identity, and that Iraq wasn’t even a country until the British arbitrarily decided to create it.

Instead, we get nothing but short words and simple thoughts to explain the situation: “Mission accomplished,” “Stay the course,” and “We’ve brought democracy to Iraq.” K.I.S.S.

Short words, when you think about it, usually give us a ‘cliff-notes’ version of reality, stripped of grace and beauty.

So whenever somebody argues in favor of simplifying the world, tells you to “Keep It Simple, Stupid,” just remember that the Stupid they’re referring to is you.

©2006 Peter Tannen