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How many so-called 'wars' must we fight?

A Metaphorical Quandary



Back when the War on Terrorism was still a thing, some politicos and intellectuals dismissed the term as a metaphor. "The war on terrorism is a metaphor, not a real policy," wrote the French foreign policy scholar Olivier Roy in his 2004 book Globalized Islam. Former U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said the same thing; "'The war on terror' is like saying 'the war on poverty.' It's just a metaphor." Likewise the late Gore Vidal: "The war on terrorism is a metaphor," he once grumbled, "and terrorism is an abstract noun; it's like a war on dandruff." (The quip was characteristically stupid: dandruff isn't an abstract noun.)

I never cared much for the argument. Sure, "terror" or "terrorism" wasn't an entity against which a nation could wage war, but unlike the definitely metaphorical war on poverty, the war on terrorism involved bullets and assassinations and invasions — pretty literal war-like things. Even so, and despite their schoolboyish quibbling, I sympathized with the frustration of Messrs. Roy, Holbrooke, and Vidal. When you object strongly to a government policy, you object even more strongly when the policy's proponents describe it with a metaphor or give it a metaphorical name. Every time advocates of the 2009 stimulus bill argued that $787 billion spent by the federal government would "jump-start the economy," I winced. The economy is not a car with a dead battery, I wanted to say, and the U.S. Treasury cannot "jump-start" it by making more money.

Lately municipalities have come up with an ingenious plan to jump-start local economies. The idea is this: Construct, or buy, an industrial building and allow favored startup companies to use it at no cost for a certain period. The city or county council gets credit for envisioning a cutting-edge "economic development" plan, and the startup companies get a piece of corporate welfare. Unless you happen to think your local councilmen were born to be venture capitalists, it's a preposterous idea. Invariably these buildings are almost always called "job incubators." Jobs are good, right? And so who can object to something that "incubates" jobs? No one, right? Wrong. There's me.

Wondering what it is about bogus metaphorical descriptions that exasperates me, I took down a few books on literary theory. One of them was The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936) by the English critic I.A. Richards. Echoing Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Richards rejected the idea that a metaphor is simply a comparison between two things. A powerful metaphor, he argued, does not leave our perception of reality unaltered; two words or ideas interact and "superimpose" some new meaning on the world as we see it. And that's just it: Metaphors possess a certain coercive power to change our thinking, and it requires additional effort to reject those changes as unreal.

When it concerns government policies with metaphorical names, there's more going on here than lawmakers simply giving their bills peremptory titles — think of the Patriot Act or the Violence Against Women Act or the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. Sure, opponents of these bills may rightly object to being classified as unpatriotic or as advocates of violence against women or as opponents of full employment, but it's easy to discern the cheapness of the titles. No one is fooled by them.

It's much harder, for me anyway, to object to legislation called the No Child Left Behind Act. Something about the title's metaphorical power makes me think that, without it, some poor child would be left behind. It seems almost beside the point that the program, as it now is, actually bribes states into turning their educational systems into standardized test factories.

Similarly, who can object to the U.S. Education Department's Race to the Top grant program: The top is a nice place to be, isn't it, and it must be a good thing for young people to race to get to it. And surely there can be little wrong with the federal early childhood education program called Head Start. After all, if your toddler were in a race — whether to "the top" or somewhere else — wouldn't you want to give him or her a head start? The brilliantly clever metaphor makes it hard, at least for a moment, to believe that the program may not do any such thing.

All of which is why I know encourage the men and women on Capital Hill to draft a bill banning the use of metaphors in all government initiatives — wars included, if it suits you.

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