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    Dangling from the Parallel Bars
    by Rhetorix

    November 30, 2002

    Since you are knowledgeable readers, you have read Josh Chafetz' "The Immutable Laws of Maureen Dowd". Mr. Chafetz decries Ms Dowd's formulaic writing as once amusing, but now spiteful and boring.

    (if you haven't read the column, it is found at: The Weekly Standard. If you go there now and return promptly, I will retain my high opinion of you.)

    One of Mr. Chafetz' complaints (Immutable Law #3) is that Ms. Dowd leans too heavily on parallelism to make or score her points. For those of you who refused to click on the above link:

    "THE THIRD IMMUTABLE LAW OF DOWD: It is better to be cute than coherent. Along these lines, Dowd's favorite rhetorical device is parallelism. For example, from her June 12 column: 'The Islamic enemy strums on our nerves to hurt our economy and get power. The American president strums on our nerves to help his popularity and retain power.' And from August 18: '[Bush Sr.]'s proudest legacy, after all, was painstakingly stitching together a global coalition to stand up for the principle that one country cannot simply invade another without provocation. Now the son may blow off the coalition so he can invade another country without provocation.' Her phrasing is so cute that the outrageous moral equivalence she's drawing almost slips by unnoticed: She just compared the president of the United States to the September 11 terrorists and to Saddam Hussein."

    Is Ms Dowd perpetrating parallelism? Yes. As it is written in Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style":

    "15. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form. This principle, that of parallel construction, requires that expressions of similar content and function should be outwardly similar. The likeness of form enables the reader to recognize more readily the likeness of content and function. Familiar instances from the Bible are the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the petitions of the Lord's Prayer." ( http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk5.html#15 )

    Isocolon, the rhetorical device of phrases that are of equal length and that correspond in structure, also describes the first of Chafetz' examples. Classic isocolon would use the same number of syllables in both clauses; Ms Dowd would have had to edit three syllables from the second clause to match this lofty standard.

    The second example, I am sad to say, is more a tangle of words than a parallel construction. It is ungainly - too little in the too-brief second clause matches the first clause, let alone that 'after all'. It is unbalanced - isocolon requires equal structure. It is most definitely 'cute' - I can picture Ms Dowd smiling fondly at this mess when deletion and rework would have produced writing less precious and more clear.

    These are, of course, examples chosen by someone who is not a fan of Ms Dowd's writing. Is she truly trapped by Immutable Rule #3? A check of her past three columns finds these:

    "Frantic to be hip, eager to stay young, we are robbing our children of their toys."

    "What happens when Rebel Without a Cause becomes Rebel With Applause?"
    (both 25 Nov. 2002, 'The Boomer Crooner')

    "It must rankle bin Laden to see Bush striding the globe as Top Gun, a suddenly unstoppable cowboy who soared in the midterm elections by threatening the evildoer his father easily defeated and eclipsing the evildoer who transformed his presidency."

    "Saddam uses the mantle of Islam only when it suits the cult of Saddam. The Iraqi despot - unfazed by the Islamic ban on graven images -- is too busy putting up pictures of himself, writing his name on the bricks used to rebuild the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and trying to dominate cable as a world leader to do his part helping Osama with his Islam jihad."
    (both 21 Nov. 2002, 'Is Osama pea-green?')

    "...Saudi Arabia -- where everyone I met bitterly complained that America is warring against Islam and shafting the Palestinians."

    "...the [Saudi] royals -- jetting off to Europe, buying bigger houses and cars, and spending less time on family..."
    (both 18 Nov. 2002, 'Driving while female in Saudi Arabia')

    Yes, Ms Dowd likes parallelism. She should beware, for there are perils inherent in the reliance on a single device. It can be used against the author in parody or criticism or it can cripple the author, limiting her skill with other tools and techniques until she can perform only on the parallel bars. Perhaps, as Mr. Chafetz argues, this trap already has caught Ms Dowd.

    On the question of whether Ms Dowd is an unbalanced blatherskite: www.lyinginponds.com, created in the belief that partisanship prevents fair consideration of an issue's merits and faults and which rates columnists on their lack of bias, notes that Ms Dowd denigrated the Democrats or praised the Republicans 164 times and that she denigrated the Republicans or praised the Democrats 479 times in her past eighty-nine columns. Although she is not the most biased of columnists, it appears that Ms Dowd's partisanship and cack-handed rhetoric does not lead anyone to think outside the party line.

    Maureen Dowd writes for the New York Times, which holds the copyrights on her columns.

    © 2002 Tocqevillian Magazine