Faint Praise

July-August 2000

In late May we received a direct-mail piece from Crisis, an orthodox Catholic magazine, asking us to subscribe (we already do, but never mind that). As is normal for such pieces, it contains “puffs” (or endorsements) from several well-known people. The most prominent puff, which was printed three separate times inside the direct-mail packet, is from Russell Shaw, who says: “Crisis is little short of indispensable for people who need to understand what’s really happening in the Church and in the world.”

Never before have we stumbled over a puff, but we did this time. You see, if something is “little short of indispensable,” it’s not really indispensable, which means it’s literally dispensable. This doesn’t cut it in the world of puffs.

Perhaps, however, Shaw was laudably attempting to avoid the hyperbole that one often associates with puffs, as seen, for example, in U.S. Senator Rick Santorum’s puff: “Crisis is the most influential and important Catholic magazine in America today.” Perhaps Shaw would have wanted to temper Santorum’s puff by rephrasing it this way: “Crisis is a highly influential and enormously important American Catholic magazine.” That certainly cuts it. Influence and importance come in degrees and allow for calibration. But indispensability doesn’t. Either something is indispensable for a particular purpose or it’s not.

Shaw is known for his understated manner of expression, but it got the better of him — and Crisis — when he said “little short of indispensable.” There’s an undertow to that understatement which undermines. If we may attempt to improve on Shaw’s endorsement, we’d say: For people who need to understand what’s really happening in the Church and in the world, Crisis is indispensable, period. (And, in our opinion, that’s not hyperbole.)

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New Oxford Notes: July-August 2000

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