All this talk of cliffs leaves me on edge


OPINION:The end of the world never comes at a convenient time.

It never comes, for instance, when you’re sitting in front of a blank computer screen trying to think of a column. But the end is nigh, according to ancient Mayans and Washington mandarins. We have reached the quivering moment of truth that Jon Stewart calls “Cliffpocalypsemageddonacaust”.

However the Mayan prediction and the fiscal cliff work out in the next few days, I hope we are talking about the end of talking about the end. It’s tedious to always be suspended in midair, like Wile E Coyote or Thelma and Louise. The attempts by some to continually whirl the whole American population into a state of apocalyptic excitement are exhausting.

We have enough real cliffhangers – Will Carrie and Brody descend into craziness together or go to a movie and chill, going zero dark flirty at “Zero Dark Thirty?” Will RGIII’s knee buckle against Cleveland on Sunday? – without creating fake ones.

There’s a new American trend in hysteria. Everything now is in italics, punctuated by exclamation points!!! As entertaining as Carrie Mathison’s bouts of hysteria have been in Homeland stirring up hysteria in real life, whether to draw clicks, eyeballs or votes, is not a good idea.

Cliff dwellers may think that facing the guillotine focuses the mind. But the cliff metaphor is so overused it makes me want to walk off one. Don’t even mention Cliff Clavin, Cliff Huxtable, Cliff Robertson, Jimmy Cliff or Heathcliff (either on the moors, in Cliffs Notes or in the funny papers.)

If your Christmas presents don’t come from Amazon in time, you’re going over the gift cliff. If your boyfriend bails, you’re going over the romance cliff. If he comes back, you could be going over the marriage cliff.

Journalists now have to add an extra coup de grace (“Fiscal cliff crash”) or double metaphor (“Clock is ticking for fiscal cliff”) or raffish cartoons to juice things up. The cover of the Economist features Uncle Sam waving a Jack Daniels bottle, with the Statue of Liberty, wearing cool shades and smoking a doobie, plunging into the Grand Canyon in a red, white and blue Thunderbird with the license plate “Debt 1.”

Other metaphors have been suggested: “fiscal obstacle course”, “debt bomb”, “austerity bomb”. But we’re stuck in the year of cliffian thinking. There are cliffians who predict dire consequences if a deal is not reached and anti-cliffians. But no matter if you’re into Keynes, Krugmania or Ayn Ryanism, looking at things as a cliff is not the most constructive way to live. It’s sheer madness. Apocalypse is a very bad place in which to think clearly about anything.

There are people in both parties who have wanted to keep everything on a war footing for years, a Manichaean battle between good and evil, right and wrong. Every election brings more insanity, hyperbole and demagoguery.

But scaring people is generally not a good way to get people to understand things. It’s like the colour-coded warnings for terrorist attacks that lost all meaning amid the fear mongering.

Especially in emergencies you need calm people who don’t think the world is going to end.

Lincoln wasn’t cliffy. As the new Steven Spielberg movie shows, Lincoln had a goal and pursued it methodically through various means, some shady. He wasn’t interested in hysteria. It had no political use for him.

The BBC examined the etymology of the phrase of the moment. Lexicographer Ben Zimmer discovered that an 1893 editorial in The Chicago Tribune warned: “The free silver shriekers are striving to tumble the United States over the same fiscal precipice.”

Zimmer traced the first use of “fiscal cliff” to the property section of the New York Times in 1957, in an article about people overextending their finances to buy their first home. Ben Bernanke imprinted the term on the public consciousness last February, pointing ominously toward January 1st. But Derek Thompson, business editor at the Atlantic, told the BBC that if you had to go topographical, a slope or a hill was more accurate.

“You talk about a cliff, it’s extremely sudden and the second you step off the edge you plunge to your death,” he said, adding: “we’re not going to fall off anything.” Language is important, he said, because it can provoke a panicky rather than a smart deal. He suggested that a more apt metaphor might be dieting after bingeing, as in “fiscal fast.”

“There will be a short, sharp recession . . . then the economy is going to grow,” he said.

The really bad news is that, even if we survive this abyss, there are more coming, with the debt ceiling cliff and the spending Bill cliff dead ahead. Once you start with the cliffs, you can fall into cliffinity, with endless cliff riffs on the horizon.

Cliff talk is not cool talk.

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