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The Tyranny of Metaphor

Posted by Josh Rothman  October 26, 2010 08:57 AM

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The presidential historian Robert Dallek has an article in the November issue of Foreign Policy which is already making the rounds. In "The Tyranny of Metaphor," Dallek argues that there are "three historical myths that have led American presidents astray" over the past century: the myths (or metaphors) of universalism, appeasement, and militarized containment. Presidents and voters resort to these metaphors to make sense of a complicated world, and get confused in the process.

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Dallek uses the word "metaphor" in a loose but illuminating way. In language, a metaphor happens when two unlike things are connected with one another, so that their commonality is exposed or asserted. For example, if I say that "life is a journey," I mean that these two unlike things have some qualities in common (a beginning, an ending, a duration, companions, and so on) - but I also assert that life has some journey-like qualities that it might not actually have, like a purpose.

Dallek's idea is that we think metaphorically, and therefore irrationally, about our foreign policy. Just as we might think of life in terms of a journey, we keep thinking of every foreign war in terms of the American story of immigration and inclusion: we have a universalist belief that "inside every foreigner [is] an American waiting to emerge." Similarly, we approach every confrontation in terms of the story of appeasement, and tell ourselves that avoiding unnecessary war is "a return to the failed passivity of the 1930s." And we respond to acts of aggression by reaching back to the metaphor of containment - the idea that aggression must be 'contained' by equal and opposite force.

Whenever we do this, we use stories, rather than facts, to justify our actions. For example, Dallek writes, George H. W. Bush wasn't really right in comparing Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait to Hitler's aggression before World War II, or being sensible when he justified American intervention by saying that "[a]ppeasement does not work. " The metaphor of appeasement didn't quite fit the facts. Yet over and over again, presidential thinking has been guided by these metaphors. How, Dallek asks, can they be overthrown?

The problem isn't just that these metaphors are seductive in themselves - it's that they are now the stock-in-trade of political and policy argument. It's not enough for one person (Obama, for instance) to see through these metaphors; the whole political system has to become disenchanted with them too. Dallek's somewhat pessimistic conclusion is that,

[N]o matter how conscious Obama is of the perils of history's traps, he faces no small challenge in convincing political opponents to relinquish the outworn foreign-policy clich├ęs that have been of such questionable service to America's well-being. As Germany's Otto von Bismarck is said to have observed more than 100 years ago, great statesmen have the ability to hear, before anyone else, the distant hoofbeats of the horse of history. More often than not, however, it is the accepted wisdoms -- or the wrong lessons of history altogether -- that govern the thinking of publics and the behavior of their leaders.

It's hard to say how much power metaphors and stories have over our thinking as individuals. Linguists, psychologists, novelists, and literary scholars argue about this all the time. The linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson made the case, in their classic book Metaphors We Live By, that our thinking is "fundamentally metaphorical in nature"; the psychologist Steven Pinker has mounted a counterargument, citiing Lakoff's "faith in the power of euphemism."

Dallek's argument, though, isn't really about the way that metaphors help or hinder our individual thoughts. It's about the way that they shape and direct the collective conversation. Every group has its own, potentially delusional way of talking and thinking about itself and the world, and talking, especially, happens by means of metaphors and stories. (A great example: the French doctrine of the offensive in the First World War). Dallek is one of the select group of historians who have been invited to dinner with the President - but there will have to be many more dinner-table conversations across the country if, to use Dallek's own metaphor, the tyranny of metaphor is going to be overthrown.

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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