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Will you look at that? 

In idle moments, a friend of mine composes sentences that summarize entire cultures. For example, he's decided the essence of the German soul is expressed in the statement, "Your papers are not in order." That one, I'll admit, is a little biased.

It's not as if Germany has a monopoly on paperwork. If we eliminated useless paperwork in our own country, a third of all jobs would disappear. It takes a lot of personnel hours to ensure that other peoples' papers are in order.

But summing up a culture in a single sentence has its uses. The national and local scene has made a lot more sense to me ever since I stumbled on our sentence: "Will you look at that?"

It conveys the endless variety of American life. You can imagine it in any accent--Texas, New Jersey, Virginia Tidewater--expressing almost any emotion: anger, disapproval, lust. Why do people watch the Miss America Pageant? Why does the average 9-year-old like dinosaurs? What explains the success of "Cops"?

It's all about "will you look at that?"

The N.C. State Fair is a perennial monument to "will you look at that?"

When Richard Vinroot cites budget figures to attack state spending, he's saying, in effect, "will you take a look at that?"

Or take the candidate's goals in the presidential debates. Gore had to avoid seeming a know-it-all. Bush had to speak in complete sentences and not drool. Their common goal: to head off the wrong kind of "will you look at that?"

"Will you look at that?" is a tool for shoring up group mentalities. It's a demand that someone support your reaction. Share your outrage or disgust or obsession. In spire of the punctuation, it's not a question.

The next time someone says, "Will you look at that?" (or something like it), consider, for the sake of variety, responding with a real question, such as "Why are you looking at that?"

The drawback is it might lead to other questions. Why is government spending so unpopular, given that most of us use government services like schools and roads? Why is a major party fielding a candidate less articulate than the average 9-year-old?

The other drawback is it'll make things more difficult for me. Without my sentence to fall back on, I'll be back at square one figuring out what's going on. But my perspective, as my friends like to remind me, is a little biased.

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