Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Never metaphor I didn't like

NPR's Ari Shapiro thought he was the little kid at the Emperor's fashion show:

Typically the White House briefing room is a reserved place, where people wait their turn to speak. It was not my turn to speak.
But I couldn't help it.
"You see it as a ransom, but it's a metaphor that doesn't serve our purposes," I protested to Carney. "We're trying to be accurate in our description of what's going on."
Finally, I tried to sum up what we'd learned so far.
"You said we need to see whether they're serious about putting the matches and gasoline aside. You've also said they want to keep a nuclear weapon in their back pocket. So, is keeping the nuclear weapon in the back pocket the same as putting the matches and gasoline aside? Or, even better, can we stop talking matches and gasoline and nuclear weapons and start talking about what's actually happening?"
The thing is, no. There is no question that the language of our political discourse is at least as corrupt as it was in George Orwell's 1946 (if you've never read this brief essay read it now, it is far more important than anything going online today) and perhaps far worse—a catacomb for dead metaphors crawling with worms and choking with bone-dust. But it really isn't Jay Carney's job to sweep it out. To the contrary! It is his job to tell us what is going on in the White House without saying it, or to allow for a minimum of two different interpretations, a task for which the dead metaphor is ideally suited. It is the reporter's job to interpret it, including making up your own damn metaphor when you need one. Are you a writer or what? If you want the spox to supply you with the metaphors that "serve our purposes", you should have gone to secretarial school instead of J-school. Does secretarial school exist any more?

In the present case, the broad message Carney needs to present is actually very simple, and well understood by all the participants (including Shapiro, I would hope), but contradictory, or "paradoxical" to use the (incorrect) term the White House press corps would prefer: that it is an essential part of the president's negotiating strategy that he not negotiate. This is a very old political approach, going back I'm sure to the Spring and Autumn period in China, but you really can't expect Carney to stand before the gaggle and say something along the lines of, "The president stands firm in refusing to negotiate except to the extent that saying that is a form of negotiation." So he hauls out the rhetorical matches and gasoline instead.

In the case of the "ransom", it's not even a metaphor: according to Merriam Webster,

Full Definition of RANSOM

:  a consideration paid or demanded for the release of someone or something from captivity
:  the act of ransoming
Speaker Boehner literally, not figuratively, holds the ability of the United States government to function under his control, and refuses to release it unless he gets—well, some kind of consideration, anyway, he hasn't quite made up his mind.
Still from The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

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