It’s traditional around this time of year to nominate “words of the year“, whether they’re particularly incisive ways of expressing nettlesome concepts or particularly hideous ways of obfuscating bloody realities. I would like to contribute to this fine custom by nominating a candidate for the most inane phrase of the last twenty years:

GETTING THINGS DONE

These three words, in their various permutations, are a mainstay of what passes for a political discourse in the US. Politicians tell us that it’s time to put aside “partisanship” so that we can roll up our sleeves and “get things done”. The media praise those sleeve-rolling politicians as “pragmatists who get things done”. Any time someone raises a principled objection to a policy – say, a multibillion-dollar giveaway to insurance companies – they’re lectured for letting “ideology” get in the way of “getting things done”. There is now even a “movement”, known as No Labels, that presents itself as being about getting things done. “Getting things done”, it seems, is the political class’ equivalent of nirvana, a sublime state of being to which many aspire, but few attain.

Now, politicians wouldn’t say this, speechwriters wouldn’t write it, and pundits wouldn’t praise it unless there was some indication that a significant number of people are inspired by the very notion of “getting things done”.

At this point, a rather obvious question comes up: Do these people really exist? Has our moribund society actually gone so far around the bend that people can be whipped into ecstasy by the mere notion of “doing stuff”? Apparently, there must be. Focus groups are there for a reason.

This raises some even more disturbing questions, such as why? What exactly is the mindset that allows a person to be impressed by this? To me, it brings to mind a condemned man whose executioners are arguing about whether to use the guillotine or the gas chamber: “Enough! Just get it over with!” Judging from the population’s inert response to a government that promised “change” intensifying the most criminal policies of the government they’d just overwhelmingly rejected at the polls, I think this image is probably pretty close to the truth: “Look, guys, I know you’re going to stuff me, and I don’t care anymore. I’m used to it. I’ll even stuff myself. Anything! Just so long as you shut the hell up about it!”

Personally, I seem to be immune to the “getting things done” fever. Call it a mental defect, but my first response when I hear something talk about “getting things done” is: “What things?” and “To whom?”

“Things” is a rather broad category, after all. It applies, essentially, to everything in the universe. There are things that I’d like to see get done, and things I think we should probably give a miss. You wouldn’t, I fancy, be willing to eat a “soup with things in it” (at least not without ascertaining the whereabouts and wellbeing of the neighbours’ pets, and the neighbours themselves).

The maddening non-specificity of “getting things done” raises another question as well: Why not just tell us what things they’re talking about? Why be vague rather than painting a picture? Why not just say, for instance:

‘I’m going to roll up my sleeves and give more of your money to the top 0.5%, and then I’m going to sign an executive order that says I can execute any one of you on a whim if I believe that you’re harming US interests. And then I’m going to make you a captive market for the health insurance companies that 4% of you consider “generally honest and trustworthy”, spend hundreds of billions of dollars destroying other people’s countries, and cut what’s left of your social safety net because we can’t afford it if we’re also going to spend your great grandchildren’s money on a trillion-dollar gift to the banks that kicked you out of your home and raised your credit card interest rate to 90%. And wait till I tell you what I’m going to do after lunch…’

On second thought, I suppose “getting things done” is not without its merits.