Today I continue Part 2 of my analysis of metaphors in a brilliant new article about facts and opinions in the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine by Kurt Andersen. (Mr. Andersen, by the way, will be a guest on the Bill Maher show this coming Friday.) This time I will analyze the conceptual metaphors of vision, objects, clothing, balance and gravity, science, buildings, movement and literary references.
Since we experience the world through our five senses, it is not surprising that we find metaphors of vision in many articles on politics. Andersen claims that being sane or insane is not a binary choice; rather we are on a spectrum somewhere between the two extremes, as if we are on a light spectrum representing all colors. Seeing reality clearly is very important. Metaphorically, not seeing clearly is referred to as blurring the lines, as if our vision is failing. In an unusual metaphor, Andersen also refers to these unclear lines as if they are obscured by smog on a city skyline.
Example: “Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational.”
blur the lines
Example: “Today, each of us is freer than ever to custom-make reality, to believe whatever and pretend to be whoever we wish. Which makes all the lines between actual and fictional blur and disappear more easily. Truth in general becomes flexible, personal, subjective.”
Example: “The intellectuals’ new outlook was as much a product as a cause of the smog of subjectivity that now hung thick over the whole American mindscape. After the ’60s, truth was relative, criticizing was equal to victimizing, individual liberty became absolute, and everyone was permitted to believe or disbelieve whatever they wished.”
One of the most confusing types of metaphors to explain is the type in which an abstract concept is treated as if it is a physical object. In yet another way to describe people with crazy behavior is to say that they are untethered from reality. The word tether originally meant a rope to secure an animal on a farm. Later it was also used to describe a line used to secure a blimp to its mooring. In any case, someone who is untethered from reality is clearly disconnected from a position of safety or control. We also describe unusual or illegal behavior as if it is an object that can be hidden from view. Thus we have the metaphorical phrase of a cover up. Social events or services can also be described as having an upside or a downside as if we are looking at an object from a certain point of view. In an unusual metaphor, Andersen describes the contours of reality as if it is a round object with a particular shape to be studied. Finally, another strange but common way to describe crazy behavior is to say that people are loopy, as if their body is in the form of metal loops that never quite line up to a complete circle.
Example: “When did America become untethered from reality?”
Example: “The infiltration by the FBI and intelligence agencies of left-wing groups was then being revealed, and the Watergate break-in and its cover-up were an actual criminal conspiracy.”
Example: “Particularly for a people with our history and propensities, the downside of the Internet seems at least as profound as the upside.”
contours of reality
Example: “Today I disagree about political issues with friends and relatives to my right, but we agree on the essential contours of reality.”
Example: “Another way the GOP got loopy was by overdoing libertarianism.”
It is always interesting to see metaphors of clothing in popular English writing. One common way of describing people whose behavior is well outside social norms is to say they are on the fringe of society. There is even a common phrase of the lunatic fringe to describe these people. The term fringe originally meant the decorative hem or border of a piece of clothing. Spatially, normal people are in the middle of the article of clothing, while people with unusual behavior are on the fringe. Similarly, intact clothing is considered normal while clothing with fraying or unraveling threads is considered abnormal. Thus, people can be described as unraveling as if they are threads on an old shirt.
Example: “The old fringes have been folded into the new center. The irrational has become respectable and often unstoppable.”
Example: “I wonder whether it’s only America’s destiny, exceptional as ever, to unravel in this way.”
Balance and Gravity
As humans, we are well aware of our sense of balance. Otherwise we would not be able to walk or even stand up straight. Thus, it is not surprising that we have conceptual metaphors based on the idea of balance. In Andersen’s article we find the concept applied to both mental and political stability in the United States. He speaks of the balance, seesawing, tipping and the center of gravity.
Example: “For most of our history, the impulses existed in a rough balance, a dynamic equilibrium between fantasy and reality, mania and moderation, credulity and skepticism.”
Example: “We still seemed to be in the midst of the normal cyclical seesawing of American politics. In the ’90s, the right achieved two of its wildest dreams: The Soviet Union and international communism collapsed; and, as violent crime radically declined, law and order was restored.”
center of gravity
Example: “The party’s ideological center of gravity swerved way to the right of Rove and all the Bushes, finally knocking them and their clubmates aside. What had been the party’s fantastical fringe became its middle.”
Example: “I really can imagine, for the first time in my life, that America has permanently tipped into irreversible decline, heading deeper into Fantasyland.”
Although less common than other metaphors seen here, our experience with science lessons in high school or college allows us to use metaphors of scientific tools or phenomenon. For example, a crucible is a small porcelain pot used for melting materials in a lab. Metaphorically, a crucible is a social situation in which great changes are happening. In biology, cell walls are not totally closed; rather they are permeable, meaning fluids can pass through the cell membranes. Metaphorically, borders between opposing ideas can also be permeable instead of fixed. In science, substances that are poisonous to plants, animals or humans are considered toxic. We use this same term to describe any event or situation that is harmful to the people involved. Scientists are sometimes engineers who create new inventions or design new projects. Metaphorically, we can speak of people engineering political situations to their advantage. Finally, Andersen includes a wonderful scientific metaphor (grammatically a simile) that compares the Christian dominance of right-wing politicians as the chemical change of phase from liquid to gas!
Example: “Treating real life as fantasy and vice versa, and taking preposterous ideas seriously, is not unique to Americans. But we are the global crucible and epicenter.”
Example: “The borders between fiction and nonfiction are permeable, maybe nonexistent. The delusions of the insane, superstitions, and magical thinking? Any of those may be as legitimate as the supposed truths contrived by Western reason and science.”
Example: “Those earnest beliefs planted more seeds for the extravagant American conspiracy thinking that by the turn of the century would be rampant and seriously toxic.”
Example: “I doubt the GOP elite deliberately engineered the synergies between the economic and religious sides of their contemporary coalition. But as the incomes of middle- and working-class people flatlined, Republicans pooh-poohed rising economic inequality and insecurity.”
Example: “The Christian takeover happened gradually, but then quickly in the end, like a phase change from liquid to gas. In 2008, three-quarters of the major GOP presidential candidates said they believed in evolution, but in 2012 it was down to a third, and then in 2016, just one did.”
As I have demonstrated many times in this blog, the concept of buildings is used to create very common metaphors in politics. In a very specific metaphor concerning door hinges, a door cannot swing open or closed properly unless it is correctly hinged to the doorframe. Metaphorically, someone who is unhinged is considered crazy as if they are not properly attached to reality. More commonly, the idea of old buildings that are crumbling or need to be torn down is used metaphorically to describe the changing of social ideas or political institutions.
Example: “Left-wingers weren’t the only ones who became unhinged. Officials at the FBI, the CIA, and military intelligence agencies, as well as in urban police departments, convinced themselves that peaceful antiwar protesters and campus lefties in general were dangerous militants.”
Example: “The distinction between opinion and fact was crumbling on many fronts.”
Example: “The problem is that Republicans have purposefully torn down the validating institutions,” the political journalist Josh Barro, a Republican until 2016, wrote last year. “They have convinced voters that the media cannot be trusted; they have gotten them used to ignoring inconvenient facts about policy; and they have abolished standards of discourse.”
We also have experience traveling in or driving vehicles such as cars or boats. A boat without power or a rudder will be out of control and drift with the current of a river or ocean. Metaphorically, any gradual movement that does not seem to be controlled may be described as a drift. A car or truck out of control may go off course or careen off the road. Metaphorically, any process that seems to be out of control may be described as careening instead of going in a straight line. A vehicle with a lot of power and zoom along at a high speed, while one that runs out of gas may sputter out and stop moving. Processes observed over a long time may also be described as zooming or sputtering out. Other vehicles with a great deal of mass, such as freight trains, may have trouble stopping after traveling at a high rate of speed because of its momentum. Metaphorically, a process that seems to have a great deal of success may be described as having unstoppable momentum.
Example: “But our drift toward credulity, toward doing our own thing, toward denying facts and having an altogether uncertain grip on reality, has overwhelmed our other exceptional national traits and turned us into a less developed country.”
Example: “As the Vietnam War escalated and careened, antirationalism flowered.”
zoom, sputter out
Example: “As the pioneer vehicle, the John Birch Society zoomed along and then sputtered out, but its fantastical paradigm and belligerent temperament has endured in other forms and under other brand names.”
Example: “The idea that progress has some kind of unstoppable momentum, as if powered by a Newtonian law, was always a very American belief.”
In rare cases, we can find metaphors based on famous books or movies. Once in a while, we find people comparing strange behavior to the antics of the characters in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In that story, Alice transforms herself by looking in a mirror and gets lost by chasing a rabbit down a hole. Metaphorically, passing through the looking glass or going down the rabbit hole are indicative of going into a fantasy instead of staying in reality. In a second example from the book and movie, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy puts her faith in a magical wizard behind a curtain. However, she accidentally finds out that the wizard is simply an ordinary man. Metaphorically, a person who is not who people think he or she is may be described as the Wizard of Oz coming out from behind the curtain.
through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole
Example: “We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.”
Example: “Karl Rove was stone-cold cynical, the Wizard of Oz’s evil twin coming out from behind the curtain for a candid chat shortly before he won a second term for George W. Bush, about how ‘judicious study of discernible reality [is] … not the way the world really works anymore.’”
As one can see, there is a great variety of metaphors we can use to describe the changing belief systems in people, and how those belief systems influence voting decisions. Kurt Andersen’s excellent article reveals the complexity of our English language usage of both common and unique metaphors. Thanks for reading!