If you follow stories about COVID-19 (and who doesn’t?), you have heard the pandemic rendered in terms of war. China declared a grassroots people’s war on COVID-19 in mid-February, mandating the use of high-tech surveillance measures to track the movements of the public. On March 3, South Korean President Moon Jae-in declared war on the novel coronavirus. He called for a general emergency response, including emergency quarantine measures. It is a war on an unseen enemy—an epic battle that like other wars is hellacious. It sickens and kills but also infects people with fear, hatred, and prejudice. This “China” virus, as the American President insists on calling it, conjures up the mid-19th century specter of an unclean, uncivilized “yellow peril.” (more…)
In the middle of September, Bill-the-mail-carrier delivered a package containing an old pamphlet and an accompanying note from my brother saying he thought I might find it “a fun fast read.” The pamphlet likely belonged to our deceased mother. She could have picked it up on a visit to the Oregon coast with her historically-minded brother and sister-in-law. The whole family, including my brother and me, is Oregon born.
There is something atavistic about this pamphlet. It manifests a recurring ancestral outlook, the cultural DNA of white settlers, the origin myth gone ironically nativistic in today’s battle of white indwellers against immigrants of color.
“The Heroes of Battle Rock” is what Kenneth Burke calls a representative anecdote “in a bad sense.” Its implications for human relations are anything but positive. It is reductive in its “motivational calculus” and thus simplistic, polarizing, and combative in the attitude it conveys toward non-whites, which would not be a matter of so much concern if it were atypical and strictly historical. (more…)
A distinction between figurative and literal analogies is sometimes made by teachers of rhetoric, but we are better served to think of analogy as an intersection of the figurative and literal from which a healing insight might emerge. The telling of a fanciful story can help to refigure a perilous reality to which we have become inured. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” is just such a story when it is read as a figurative analogy to a troubled actuality. (more…)
Edgar Allan Poe’s haunting story of “William Wilson” (published in 1839 in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine) is a semi-autobiographical tale of conscience worth invoking in the midst of our present political struggles. It is a ghostly story of conquering one’s alter ego, of the demoralizing consequence of slaying the second, better self. It is told as a cautionary tale, the redemptive purport of which comes from reflecting on the consequences of one’s own avarice rather than projecting blame outward.
The bane of unacknowledged greed, lust, and ambition, which is at the heart of Poe’s tale, can be extended beyond the individual to implicate a nation. Indeed, William Wilson’s struggle with his doppelgänger might serve well as a parable for collective contemplation. Understanding his moral demise should prompt us to reclaim the spirit of the nation. (more…)
You have heard it said before. I’ve said it myself. As a colleague recently grumbled: “The bar is low. All I want is a return to the rule of law.”
Indeed, the bar is set low for the 2020 presidential election if it means Democrats should nominate the person most likely to defeat Trump, that candidates competing for the nomination should do no harm to one another in the primaries, and that they and their supporters should rally behind the Party’s eventual nominee on the assumption that winning the election will return the nation to the status quo ante.
Is a reset enough? Is restoring the state of affairs as it existed before Trump’s presidency the right goal and the likeliest way to win the election? (more…)
In these hyperbolic times, we should pause occasionally to reflect on the casual use of dangerous language. President Trump’s choice of the word “obliteration” in the present context of tensions with Iran is a case in point. It is a term fraught with deadly implications, especially in the midst of a heated dispute between adversaries. That, by itself, is worrisome, even if it were an isolated instance of inflammatory language. The fact that it is characteristic of this president is all the more disquieting. “Obliteration” reflects an ingrained pattern—the rhetorical mannerism of his volatile disposition. Beyond that, it invokes a cultural fantasy of nuclear extermination. (more…)
We’ve all seen video clips in recent news reports showing the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group (with a B52 bomber task force) dispatched to Iran for the purpose of sending a message. It is an unsettling sight. As a worried friend said to me last Tuesday morning, “I hope Trump doesn’t get us into a war with Iran.”
Yes, this is a worrisome development, not just because a war with Iran could happen on purpose (with war hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo wielding influence within an unstable administration), but also because it could happen accidentally. The game the President is playing is commonly called Chicken. (more…)
I am among the apparent majority of American voters opposed to Donald Trump’s election and re-election. The majority wasn’t big enough in 2016 and may be too small in 2020 to overcome the negative effects of indirect election, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and foreign interference. As a citizen of a decidedly red state, I register my vote in full knowledge that it will not count in the final tally, since the presidential candidate with the most popular votes in Indiana, even if just a plurality, receives all eleven of the state’s electoral votes. Winner-takes-all rather than proportional allocation is the case in 48 of the 50 states, red or blue, big or small. It allows a candidate who loses the popular vote to win the office. If the electoral college was supposed to prevent the selection of a manifestly unqualified candidate, recent experience suggests that choosing the winner directly by popular vote might serve the country as well or even better. (more…)
Note: This essay first appeared in Public Seminar, April 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
In early April, Washington Post’s adversarial columnist Dana Milibank dubbed Bernie Sanders “the Donald Trump of the left,” noting perfunctorily at the end of his column that his wife, Anna Greenberg, “works for John Hickenlooper, a Democratic presidential candidate.” One can assume that Milibank is entering the fray over whom to select to run on the Democratic Party ticket.
As the Democratic Party struggles to work through internal differences, including how far left is too far to defeat Donald Trump, a robust debate can be productive and even contribute to coalition building. Yet the chance of a constructive outcome decreases to the degree that caricature substitutes for characterization and, in the present case, populism is mistaken for demagoguery. (more…)
Like a ghost, the metaphors embedded in war talk go largely unnoticed. They are a specter haunting our speech and thought, just below the threshold of awareness. Calling attention to them can reveal an unexamined pretext for continuing to fight an interminable war.
Ghostly metaphors do not call attention to themselves as figures of speech. They operate furtively as though they are just ordinary words conveying literal meaning. With guard down, we allow them to shape the message and form our thoughts. When we draw on the literalized language of accounting to think about military matters, for example, we reason figuratively, drawing a tacit analogy between conducting business and fighting wars. (more…)