One of the most common metaphors one hears in the news today is the idea of draining the swamp. During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump pledged that, if he were elected, he would drain the swamp, meaning that he would fire all of the politicians in Washington D.C. who were negative influences on the government. No one was exactly sure what he meant, but many us assumed that he was referring to career politicians, lobbyists, and those too closely connected to Wall Street and large corporations.
This phrase is not new in politics. Originally it was derived from the physical draining of the water in a swamp where mosquitos were breeding and causing malaria or other diseases. In 1983, Ronald Reagan called for draining the swamp of bureaucrats in Washington D.C. while in 2006, Nancy Pelosi wanted to drain the swamp of Republican politicians in the U.S. government. Many other colorful examples can be found in a wonderful summary here.
Despite Donald Trump’s promise to rid the government of career politicians and lobbyists, he has so far named five millionaires and billionaires to his cabinet, including Steven Mnuchin, a Goldman Sachs executive as Secretary of the Treasury, billionaire businessman Wilbur Ross as Secretary of Commerce, billionaire Republican supporter Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation.
While many Republicans are applauding these recent choices due to their business experience, other conservatives are not so supportive. In a recent interview, conservative radio host Mark Levin complained, “This is not Trump draining the swamp. This is the swamp draining Trump.”
Democratic Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren was even more blunt in an address two weeks ago. “Trump is not draining the swamp, nope. He’s inviting the biggest, ugliest swamp monsters in the front door, and he’s turning them loose on our government and our economy.”
Many of the cabinet choices require Senate confirmation so these candidates are not officially hired quite yet. In the meantime, we will see if President-elect Trump continues to appoint Washington and Wall Street insiders to this cabinet.
We have several other metaphors based on swamps, marshes and bogs. Here are a few examples for your reading pleasure.
Many areas of the earth are covered in a mixture of water and soil in areas known as swamps, bogs, marshes or wetlands. Some of these terms are used metaphorically to indicate the difficulty in getting out of complicated situations. In one case, we say we are swamped with work if we cannot keep up with all the tasks that we are required to do at a certain time.
Example: In July 2011, President Obama asked Americans to call their members of Congress if they wanted to make a suggestion on how to reduce the national deficit. As a result, the phones of many Senators and Congresspersons were swamped with calls for several days.
A bog is a type of marsh, a large area covered in water that is difficult to cross. In a similar sense, a person who cannot make good progress in a situation may be described as being bogged down.
Example: Much to the dismay of American voters, progress in Congress is often bogged down by disagreements between Democrats and Republicans.
A mire is another word for bog or swamp. Metaphorically, a person who is mired in something cannot make progress in a certain situation.
Example: American politics is commonly mired in ideological differences between liberals and conservatives.
A quagmire is another old world meaning a bog or marsh. In common terms, a quagmire is any difficult situation that is almost impossible to get out of.
Example: After the difficulties during the War in Vietnam, many Americans felt in 2003 that the War in Iraq would be another quagmire that would cost millions of dollars and many lives.
Quicksand is an especially dangerous mixture of water and sand that traps a person. The more one moves to get out, the more trapped one becomes. People die every year from being trapped in quicksand. Metaphorically, quicksand refers to any situation that looks safe but is actually a trap or a dangerous situation that one cannot escape from easily.
Example: During the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa that sprang up in 2011, most Americans were against any military involvement in those areas claiming it would be quicksand for our troops.
To me it seems pretty sad that our government is described both as a swamp of evil creatures and as a place where we cannot easily escape with our lives. One can only hope that the new Trump administration somehow makes improvements in the effectiveness of our government working for the American people.
Today I would like to share the link to an important blog post by George Lakoff on Donald Trump, simply entitled, “Why Trump?” As my faithful readers may remember, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote the groundbreaking book, Metaphors We Live By, in 1980 which inspired my research into metaphors. After decades of brilliant research in linguistics and cognition, Lakoff turned his attention to the language of politics. He wrote another landmark book called Don’t Think of an Elephant in 2004 (rev. in 2014) in which he described the differences in the thinking of liberal and conservative politicians. In his recent blog post, he builds on his previous work to explain the rise of Donald Trump. The key tenet of his Elephant book is that most people think about government in conceptual metaphors. To quote a section of his recent blog post this week,
“…we tend to understand the nation metaphorically in family terms: We have founding fathers. We send our sons and daughters to war. We have homeland security. The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative).”
Lakoff extends his theory to explain the views of the conservatives.
“The strict father logic extends further. The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality (the strict father version), and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be (and traditionally has been) a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate. The hierarchy is: God above Man, Man above Nature, The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak), The Rich above the Poor, Employers above Employees, Adults above Children, Western culture above other cultures, Our Country above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: Men above women, Whites above Nonwhites, Christians above nonChristians, Straights above Gays.”
I can’t summarize the rest of the blog post to do it justice. You will have to read the rest of the article to see Lakoff’s brilliant analysis of Donald Trump. It is a bit long but well worth the effort. It is the most insightful analysis of conservative politics you will ever read. You can access the blog post here.
If you are interested, I have a list of books by Lakoff and Johnson, together and separately, in my Bibliography page on this blog. Lakoff, of course, has links to his other books and blog posts on his website. Please check them out if you have time. Comments are welcome!
Hello! Happy 4th of July! Today I will depart from my usual description of metaphors to first talk a little bit about the history of our Independence Day. I am not an expert on American history by any means, but I teach quite a bit of history to my students as they prepare to pass their high school equivalency exams. Here are five questions I ask my students. How well do you know American history?
July 4, 1776 is the day our founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence. When was it written in relation to the Revolutionary War? It was:
a) before the war
b) during the war
c) after the war
2. When was the U.S. Constitution written?
The famous phrase, “all men are created equal” is in:
a) the Declaration of Independence
b) the U.S. Constitution
c) the Bill of Rights
d) all of the above
When did George Washington, our first president, begin his first term?
The Bill of Rights was written:
a) to fix the mistakes of the Constitution
b) to codify additional rights for U.S. citizens
c) to expand the legacy of the founding fathers
d) all of the above
America is the greatest country ever! True or False?
B. I remember thinking when I was younger that we must have declared independence after we had won the Revolutionary War against the British. On the contrary, we declared our independence only about a year after the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. It was a pretty brave thing to do given the fact that the signers of the Declaration most certainly would have been hanged by the British if the colonists had lost the war. The fighting lasted until the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 but the war was not officially over until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.
C. The Constitution was not written until 1787. Prior to that, the country was governed through a loose assemblage of laws in each of the colonies directed by the Continental Congress.
A. The phrase “all men are created equal” is part of the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution although it is in the latter document that most laws and rights are spelled out.
D. George Washington did not start his presidency until 1789. It took two more years after the Constitution was written before elections were held for the first president.
B. The Constitution was amended within two years of its creation with the writing of the Bill of Rights in 1789, and has been amended a total of 27 times since then. It gave additional rights to U.S. citizens not specified in the Constitution.
To be discussed later…
Why do I bother mentioning these obscure facts? Studying how language is used in politics, it is not hard to notice the contradictions among words and actions in our history and current events. For one thing, I believe we take the notion of independence for granted. Isn’t it sad that we have to talk about independence at all? A country fighting for independence means that another country has taken over its governments, its laws and its people. Why is this taken as commonplace?
While the Colonial Americans were frustrated with the British government for its tax laws and other unfair governmental treatment, they really had it easy. In many regions of Africa, workers were basically enslaved for most of their lives to do the work exploiting their country’s natural resources for the benefit of the colonial governments back in Europe. Workers in the Belgian Congo had their hands chopped off if they did not pick enough cotton to the liking of King Leopold back in Belgium. People in India starved to death as the British forced them to grow crops that were sent back to England. Under apartheid, South African workers worked and died in horrendous conditions of diamond mines, the profits of which went to a few rich white government officials.
As I have mentioned before, I served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa back in the 1980s. At that time, most African countries had achieved independence only two decades before, and they were struggling under cruel dictatorships that had replaced the cruel colonial governments. They are still recovering from the legacy of greed and exploitation from the colonial era.
The irony is, of course, that while the colonial Americans were fighting for their independence, the writers of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were slave owners. The most brilliant political minds of the 18th century created our government, and yet no one noticed that the slaves were “created equal” but not treated equally? It seems incomprehensible to us today. About 100 years later, the Southern states started a civil war to preserve their rights to own slaves. It took a civil war for an open-minded President Lincoln to write the Emancipation Proclamation. But that was not the end of the discrimination against African-Americans. It took a massive civil rights movement in the 1960s to right many of those wrongs in this country. And it was only a few weeks ago that the Confederate battle flag was taken down at public buildings, and that happened only after a horrific tragedy at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Other “less equal” Americans did not fare much better. Native Americans were treated with respect by the first few presidents, especially Thomas Jefferson. Only a few decades later, discrimination against native peoples began in earnest. In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson forced the Native Americans of the Southeast states to march the “Trail of Tears” hundreds of miles to reservations in Oklahoma while he and his friends stole their land, their houses, and the gold found in the area. When I was a kid in the 1960s I loved watching the popular Western movies and TV shows in which those “Indian savages” were killed off with abandon in every battle scene, and I rooted for the cowboys. Most Americans thought nothing of it. Native Americans have only recently been treated with any manner of respect by the American government. It seems that the independence we celebrate today was not for all Americans equally.
The other point is that the American government was not created overnight. Despite the contradictions described above, the model of government created in the Constitution is considered one of the best in the world. The Bill of Rights and the other 17 amendments, furthermore, provide civil rights in a manner many countries fall far short of. America is still a young country, a mere 239 years old today, while England, for example, just had its 800th birthday judging by the date of the Magna Carta of June 12, 1215 while China can date its history back about 4000 years. Maybe it will take us a while to get things right. In the meantime, however, the foundations of our celebrated democracy are slipping away. More and more of the government seems to be controlled by corporations, given the number of lobbyists in Congress and the Citizens United Supreme Court decision which allows unlimited donations to people running for office, to the point that our government looks more like an oligarchy than a democracy.
And yet, I was reminded of the greatness of the United States just the other night. I awoke about 2 a.m. and realized that our power was off. The house was dark, all the clocks were off, the air conditioning was quiet, and the ceiling fan had stopped spinning. I was not surprised the power had gone off. We have had two straight weeks of temperatures over 100 degrees. Everyone in town has been running their air conditioning non-stop. My wife and I opened the windows to let some cool air in. A wonderful night breeze swept through the house as moonlight flooded the room. I also noticed an odd spotlight across the street. Even at that early hour, the local power company had teams on the street fixing the power. A rumbling diesel truck was parked nearby as a worker was looking over the power lines on our street. Within a half hour, the power was back on.
I never take our utilities for granted. While in the Peace Corps, I lived for two years without electricity or running water. During my first dry season, the local well went dry and I barely had enough water to use for bathing, washing dishes or even to drink. Turning on a tap and have potable water pour out is a luxury millions of people around the world do not enjoy. Having electricity available 24/7 is another luxury. In some countries, brownouts or blackouts are common. Power outages may last hours, days or weeks. And spotlights and rumbling trucks on our streets in the middle of the night simply mean that someone is fixing our utilities. In other countries, it may mean a death squad is coming to get your family.
Despite our failures in the past, the United States has excellent technological resources, infrastructure (although definitely aging), and communications, among other 21st century benefits. We also have great freedoms – we can live and work wherever we like, worship as we choose, speak and write whatever we like, etc., all freedoms citizens in many other countries do not enjoy.
So is the United States the greatest country ever? If you listen to conservative talk radio and television news shows, you might be persuaded that it is. Certainly, we have our good points. In addition to our mistreatment of minorities described above, we also have the greatest income inequality, the highest poverty rates, the highest incarceration rates, the highest healthcare costs, and some of the lowest rates for reading, math and science scores compared to the rest of the industrialized world, just to name a few shortcomings. Clearly we still have some work to do before we can be considered the greatest country ever.
So as we celebrate our independence today, keep in mind our checkered past and the hope that all Americans can truly be independent some day. And let’s not forget our service men and women over the last 239 years who have fought and died to preserve our way of life here in these United States.
Back to the reasons for writing this blog, what do metaphors have to do with the 4th of July? Here are a few examples of metaphors based on revolutions and preparing for war.
Wars can be started for many different reasons. One way is when people revolt against their government. In common terms, people can revolt against any group of people or organization. In politics, a party can revolt against its own members or another party in office.
Example: In 2008, some conservatives revolted against the Republican Party and started their own Tea Party.
As with a revolt, people may fight against their own government. These people may be called insurgents. In politics, people who want to have different policies or programs than their own parties or government may also be called insurgents.
Example: In 2010, some insurgent Democrats voted with Republicans on key bills in Congress.
To prevent a war from beginning, countries sometimes create an alliance or truce so that they do not fight each other. If tensions arise between the two countries, there may be an uneasy truce. In politics, two parties may also have an uneasy alliance while working on a difficult national issue.
Example: After the 2008 economic crisis, Barack Obama made an uneasy truce with the Wall Street bankers who caused the crisis but needed help to keep the economy from getting any worse.
Military forces often set up an encampment or camp to prepare for battle. In politics, a group of campaign workers or strategists may be called a camp.
Example: In the 2012 Republican primary campaigns, the Mitt Romney camp traded criticisms with the Newt Gingrich camp.
Historically, when an army took control of a city or town, the local people often had to pay a tax or tribute to the new government. Later the phrase came to mean a paying a compliment to a person or group for what they have achieved.
Example: When Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president of the United States, he paidtribute to civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. for opening doors for him.
A bulwark is a wall made of thick wood as part of a fortification of a city. In modern times, the word bulwark is used metaphorically to mean something that provides defense against a verbal or ideological attack.
Example: Some conservative politicians use their Christian faith as a bulwark against laws that condone abortions.
Historically, the money needed to finance a war on the battlefield was kept in a large chest that traveled with the commanding officers. Metaphorically, the phrase war chest now indicates the amount of money that a candidate has to finance his or her election campaign.
Example: Although John McCain had a large war chest when he ran for president in 2008, he did not win the election.
An arsenal is the total quantity of weapons a military possesses. In politics, candidates can have an arsenal of complaints or attacks against their opponents.
Example: In the 2012 Republican primary, critics of New Gingrich launched an arsenal of attacks against his past record as former Speaker of the House.
armed with ideas
When a soldier carries a weapon, we can say that he or she is armed. Metaphorically, a person can also be armed with ideas to be used in an argument.
Example: In a presidential debate, candidates must be armed with many ideas they can use to explain their policies and answer the moderators’ questions.
Ammunition is the quantity of bullets used in a gun. Ammunition can also metaphorically indicate ideas or facts to fight against someone in an argument.
Example: A candidate in an election must not make a factual mistake in a speech. This mistake can be used as ammunition against him or her by opponents in future debates.
Hello! Sorry for my delayed posts the past couple weeks. This is the end of the quarter at my college. I have been swamped with lesson plans and committee meetings, mired in tests and grading and behind on my paperwork. I have also been trying to keep up with my family obligations and stay on top of paying bills and other household chores. — Isn’t it amazing how many metaphors we use in every day speech?
Back to the blog, I would like to offer a belated analysis of President Obama’s speech on immigration a few weeks ago. At first glance, it may seem that there were not many political metaphors in the speech. However, there were quite a few metaphors that reveal how politicians – and most Americans – think about immigration issues and government policies in general. All of the quotations today are from the speech itself. Italics are mine. You can read the entire speech here at:
President Obama took pains to describe how immigrants felt if they did not yet have green cards or their citizenship. Whether or not they came here illegally or had been born to illegal immigrant parents, these immigrants were described as being locked in containers or trapped in cages. Here are a few examples:
In a common hunting metaphor, one way to capture and kill a wild animal is to set a trap for it. A person can leave a trap baited with food, and when the animal enters the cage to eat the food, the animal is trapped. In common terms, when someone is caught in a trap, he or she is not able to exit from a situation. In terms of the immigration debate, President Obama refers to immigrants not being trapped by their past, but who can create a new future for themselves. The implication is that illegal immigrants in the U.S. today are indeed trapped by their circumstances.
Example: “For more than 200 years, our tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world has given us a tremendous advantage over other nations. It’s kept us youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial. It has shaped our character as a people with limitless possibilities – people not trapped by our past, but able to remake ourselves as we choose.”
When a container is filled with solid or liquid materials, it is a common experience to see these materials coming out of the container when it is used. To say something or someone is coming out, it indicates that it or they are being released from a confining situation.
Example: “…students who bravely come out as undocumented in hopes they could make a difference in a country they love.”
come out of the shadows
A shadow is caused by something or someone blocking sunlight. In English the word shadow can have two meanings. For one, someone in another person’s shadow is trying to be as good as that person who came before him or her. Secondly, someone working in the shadows is thought to be doing something bad or illegal. To say that someone is coming out of the shadows implies the person has been doing something immoral or illegal. President Obama used this expression in several different ways.
Example: In describing the immigration activist Astrid Silva, “…she mostly lived in the shadows – until her grandmother, who visited every year from Mexico, passed away, and she couldn’t travel to the funeral without risk of being found out and deported.”
Example: “And undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities see little option but to remain in the shadows…”
Example: After describing the benefits of his new executive order: “…you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”
Social situations are sometimes described metaphorically as fabric as if they are part of a piece of cloth. While fabric can be used as clothing which can be a strong, protective covering, it can also be something that is weak and can be torn or ripped apart. Metaphorically we see all of these conditions described in political situations.
Clothing is made out of material or fabric. The concept of fabric can also be used to describe something very broad that is held together by many threads running in different directions.
Example: “I know that some worry immigration will change the very fabric of who we are, or take our jobs, or stick it to middle-class families at a time when they already feel like they’ve gotten the raw end of the deal for over a decade.”
Example: “And undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities see little option but to remain in the shadows, or risk their families being torn apart.”
ripping children from their parents
Example: “Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms? Or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?”
Houses and Machines
We commonly describe the creation of something abstract as if it is something physical we are building. This usage can apply literally to buildings, machines or any physical object, while metaphorically the verb to build can apply to any abstract process or social relationship.
Example: “First, we’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings, and speed the return of those who do cross over.” [Note the use of the river metaphor here stem the flow, discussed in an earlier post.]
Fragile objects and machines can be described as broken if they are no longer intact or do not function properly. Once a machine is broken, someone must make the effort to fix it. President Obama described our immigration program as being broken and needing to be fixed.
Example: “But today, our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it.”
Example: “When I took office, I committed to fixing this broken immigration system.”
Example: “I worked with Congress on a comprehensive fix, and last year, 68 Democrats, Republicans, and Independents came together to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate.”
Games and Rules
play by the rules
Whenever a game is played, the participants must agree to set of rules to avoid arguments and controversies during the game. Anyone who cheats or does not follow the rules is not respected and usually not asked to play the game after that point. In politics, candidates, government officials and businesses must play by the rules of their particular state or government with respect for the other people involved. In discussions of immigration, people from other countries must play by the rules in order to obtain citizenship.
Example: “Families who enter our country the right way and play by the rules watch others flout the rules.”
Just as in the concept of playing by the rules in a game, we can also describe being right or straight in one’s behavior. This common metaphor is derived from our experiences with shapes and lines. When a line is drawn directly from one point to another, we say that the line is straight. Describing something that is straight implies that it is true, clear and direct. The word right also has its origins in describing a straight line. President Obama often referred to proper behavior by illegal immigrants is by being straight or right with the law while referring to honest behavior as simply being straight as well.
Example: “And let’s be honest – tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you.”
Example: “You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”
Example: “Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?”
pathway to citizenship
A path is a small, narrow road. Metaphorically, we speak of a path as being a process or a way to achieve a goal. There is also a similar term pathway that is yet another word indicating a manner of doing something. The process of becoming an American citizen is often described as being a pathway to citizenship.
Example: “I worked with Congress on a comprehensive fix, and last year, 68 Democrats, Republicans, and Independents came together to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate. It wasn’t perfect. It was a compromise, but it reflected common sense. It would have doubled the number of border patrol agents, while giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship if they paid a fine, started paying their taxes, and went to the back of the line.”
In summary, even though there were not many metaphors in President Obama’s speech on immigration, there were a few examples that reveal how we think about these important issues. Most of us know that illegal immigrants are living in the shadows while liberals and conservatives seem to disagree on whether or not they should come out of the shadows and become citizens or if they should be deported. We also compare our immigration system to a broken machine that needs to be fixed as if it is an old car engine. But to fix this machine the immigrants must play by the rules as if it is a football game, and be right with the law as if they are walking on a straight line. If the immigrants succeed they can be on a pathway or journey to becoming American citizens.
Most of us believe that immigrants, whether legal or illegal, add a valuable amount of diversity and hard work to the fabric of our economy and our society. My own ancestors come from Ireland, France and Sweden. I think most of us – unless we are Native Americans – can trace our heritage back to other countries. Let us celebrate our diversity!
Next time: Metaphors of Physical Forces in Economics