....LMB: "Metaphoric Smithereens"....

February 24, 2003

I've been thinking a lot about metaphors in political discussion because they're being used so often to try to discredit anti-war activists at the moment. Of course, no metaphor holds up under intense scrutiny, but some of them don't even hold up to a second glance. So, it's time for me to kick some metaphors in the nuts.

The first I keep hearing is the Appeasement Metaphor. It is usually said in a haughty nasal tone, like "These protesters remind me a bit of Neville Chamberlain before World War II." The implication being that protesters are being "soft" on Saddam Hussein the way that England and France were "soft" on Adolf Hitler. Therefore we anti-war activists are responsible for the Holocaust or WWII or something.

This metaphor falls apart in so many ways.

Let's look at the scenarios.

In the 1930s, Germany had violated many aspects of the Treaty of Versailles, their WWI surrender agreement. They had built a huge, technologically- advanced army and taken over/merged with Austria. In 1938, Adolf Hitler demanded that Germany be given the Sudetenland, big chunk of Czechoslovakia. If Germany got this land, they would stop their efforts for expansion. If they didn't.... In order to prevent war, Britain and France agreed to give the Sudetenland to Germany (Czechoslovakia had no say in the matter). Britain and France cheered that they had achieved peace, and then Hitler conquered the rest of Czechoslovakia. With 60+ years of searing 20-20 hindsight, it is commonly agreed that Appeasement was one of the stupidest foreign policy moves ever. Because all of us 21st century folks know that you shouldn't trust Hitler, Britain and France of the 1930s should also have known not to trust Hitler.

In 1980, Saddm Hussein tried to take over Iran, and after nearly a decade, failed. In 1990, Saddam Hussein took over Kuwait, and then was forcefully routed and kicked out by a U.S.-led international force. Iraq was then bombed and embargoed for over a decade. Iraq may have violated some aspects of its own surrender treaty, and the U.S. argues that therefore Iraq should be invaded and Saddam Hussein should be removed from power. In this scenario, "appeasement" is to disagree that Iraq should be invaded, or prefer that weapons inspectors continue to scour Iraq for "weapons of mass destruction" and find evidence of these alleged treaty violations.

Probably the biggest differences here are 1) Germany demanded land; Iraq has not demanded anything of anyone, and 2) 1930s Germany was a military juggernaut; 2003 Iraq is a frail shell of its 1991 military self, which was easily routed even then.

The analogy also assumes that things would've been much different, much better, if Germany had not been appeased. But would they? The implication is that WWII could have been avoided if only there had been no appeasement. But no one knows what would've happened. Maybe Germany would have been repelled. Maybe they would have easily destroyed their two unprepared rivals. Hard to say.

So how does Iraq figure in? If we refuse to attack Iraq, will it conquer or seek to conquer all of the region? In its current military state, that seems unlikely.

The next analogy is one that popped up in my memory lately. Right before the U.S. war on Afghanistan began (the 2001 one), there was a joke being passed around by pro-war folks. It went something like "when you see someone protesting, go up to them and punch them in the face. When they punch you back, smile and say that's what the U.S. is doing, fighting back when necessary." I admit, this pissed me off, the whole smug "they're just hypocrites who don't know what they're talking about" thing. I also didn't like the idea of strangers punching me in the face as part of some alleged object lesson (I tend to oppose most Jake-face-punching policies).

Now, the problem with this metaphor is degree. I've thought an awful lot about force, power and violence since 9-11, both figuratively and literally. When you take any action, the more force you use, the more likely you are to cause unintended damage. For example, cutting someone with a scalpel during a surgery is a reasonable application of violence, because of its limited use and its precision. But when you use more force, like cutting them with a hatchet or chainsaw, you are causing huge amounts of unintended damage. This is one of the reasons that modern warfare is so catastrophic: modern armies try to achieve surgical goals with hatchets.

It reminds me of the 1999 war against Serbia. The idea was to protect the Albanian Kosovars from attack by the Serbians. To achieve this goal, U.S. planes dropped bombs from tens of thousands of feet in the air. At the time, I argued that if the U.S. really cared about achieving this goal, they should send ground troops in to physically prevent such attacks, either by getting in the way or attacking the attackers. Much less physical force would have been used, with much less destruction.

Which is why this analogy falls apart. A fist is a much more precise instrument of physical force than is a cluster bomb or a daisy-cutter. And frankly, I would whole-heartedly support an elite team of U.S. forces springing into action in Iraq, punching every evil-doer in sight until Iraq was disarmed and/or until Saddam Hussein was overthrown. It's when you start using high-powered explosives and depleted uranium shells in areas highly populated with innocent folks that I take up opposition.

And finally, we have Bush's explanation for why 11 million peace protesters don't make a difference: "Size of protest, it's like deciding, 'Well I'm going to decide policy based up on a focus group'. The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon the security - in this case - security of the people."

Actually, this could lead to an interesting debate about the role of leaders in a democratic republic: do the people elect a leader and then respect that leader's judgement, or do they elect a representative who they expect to respond to their wishes while in office? We see Bush's stance on the issue, he's a "you've elected me, now I do my thing" man.

But Bush's comment is bizarre because "size of crowd" is more or less what American democracy (actually, America is a republic, not a democracy. But when you call it "American republicanism," people get confused). The number of people who show up at the ballot box IS the democracy.

And you have to see that there's a difference between a small group of 5-15 people in a quasi-office setting answering questions because they are bored or because someone offered them money, and tens of thousands of people sometimes travelling extreme distances to march around in 10 DEGREE NEW YORK WEATHER of their own free will to express their strongly-held opinions.

Bush's comment is also amusing because I'm sure the Bush administration makes extensive use of focus groups, at least during election campaigns.

In conclusion, metaphors are stupid. Thank you.

Posted by Jake at 10:52 PM

> We see Bush's stance on the issue, he's a "you've elected me, now I do my thing" man.

That's just the thing... he didn't have a majority (except in the Supreme Court) when he was "elected"... so he certainly doesn't feel like he needs one to go along with him now. Ironically, a majority of Americans seem to be okay with that. My head hurts.

Posted by: mjb at February 25, 2003 01:38 AM

A minor quibble. You write: "1930s Germany was a military juggernaut." Well, that depends upon which part of the 1930s you mean. By 1939, German's military unquestionably was Europe's strongest, but that was a very recent accomplishment for the Wehrmacht. As recently as 1936, when Germany reoccupied the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles treaty, a determined military effort by the French (with or without British help) likely would have chased the Germans back. It is not implausible to suggest that the Nazi government would have fallen as a result.

Posted by: Lex at February 26, 2003 02:29 PM

Metaphors aren't true? You mean pot smokers and SUV users aren't terrorists? Well, I'll be snookered!

Posted by: Eric at February 27, 2003 09:28 AM

for no reason i can figure, i've read a lot lately about chamberlain, particularly the new idea that he didn't have any choice but to appease hitler, given the relative size of armies, and the fact that there is really very little that england could have done.

moreover, chamberlain's 'appeasement' happened in 1938, at which time Hitler had already vastly increased the size of his armies.

history blames the whole mess on chamberlain, forgetting that France's Daladier and Czechoslovakia's Benes also were appeasers.

going further than this, the sudetens WERE germans just 20 years prior, and the secession did have a good deal of popular support in the region.

all in all, the hitler metaphor really has nothing to do with the current situation in iraq. you're right, jake.

Posted by: jeremy at February 27, 2003 10:35 AM

Another thing that Chamberlain's critics fail to grasp is that he had _two_ evil dictators to worry about. Who was to say that while the British and French were battling it out with the Nazis on the Rhine, the Soviets would not help themselves to Poland, the Baltic States and even Eastern Germany?

This split in Europe was bad enough in 1945, but in 1938 it would have been catastrophic as the American isolationists were at the height of their power and the atom bomb was still years away.

Is saving the six million Jews worth allowing the Communists to conquer almost all of Europe?

Posted by: George at July 12, 2004 11:32 AM
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Media News

November 16, 2004

Tales of Media Woe

Senate May Ram Copyright Bill- one of the most depressing stories of the day that didn't involve death or bombs. It's the music and movie industries' wet dream. It criminalizes peer-to-peer software makers, allows the government to file civil lawsuits on behalf of these media industries, and eliminates fair use. Fair use is the idea that I can use a snippet of a copyrighted work for educational, political, or satirical purposes, without getting permission from the copyright-holder first.

And most tellingly, the bill legalizes technology that would automatically skip over "obejctionable content" (i.e. sex and violence) in a DVD, but bans devices that would automatically skip over commericals. This is a blatant, blatant, blatant gift to the movie industry. Fuck the movie industry, fuck the music industry, fuck the Senate.

Music industry aims to send in radio cops- the recording industry says that you're not allowed to record songs off the radio, be it real radio or internet radio. And now they're working on preventing you from recording songs off internet radio through a mixture of law and technological repression (although I imagine their techno-fixes will get hacked pretty quickly).

The shocking truth about the FCC: Censorship by the tyranny of the few- blogger Jeff Jarvis discovers that the recent $1.2 million FCC fine against a sex scene in Fox's "Married By America" TV show was not levied because hundreds of people wrote the FCC and complained. It was not because 159 people wrote in and complained (which is the FCC's current rationale). No, thanks to Jarvis' FOIA request, we find that only 23 people (of the show's several million viewers) wrote in and complained. On top of that, he finds that 21 of those letters were just copy-and-paste email jobs that some people attached their names to. Jarvis then spins this a bit by saying that "only 3" people actually wrote letters to the FCC, which is misleading but technically true. So somewhere between 3 and 23 angry people can determine what you can't see on television. Good to know.

Reuters Union Considers Striking Over Layoffs- will a strike by such a major newswire service impact the rest of the world's media?

Pentagon Starts Work On War Internet- the US military is talking about the creation of a global, wireless, satellite-aided computer network for use in battle. I think I saw a movie about this once...

Conservative host returns to the air after week suspension for using racial slur- Houston radio talk show host (and somtime Rush Limbaugh substitute) Mark Belling referred to Mexican-Americans as "wetbacks" on his show. He was suspended for a couple of weeks, and then submitted a written apology for the racial slur to a local newspaper. But he seems to be using the slur and its surrounding controversy to boost his conservative cred with his listeners.

Stay Tuned for Nudes- Cleveland TV news anchor Sharon Reed aired a story about artist Spencer Tunick, who uses large numbers of naked volunteers in his installations and photographs. The news report will be unique in that it will not blur or black-out the usual naughty bits. The story will air late at night, when it's allegedly okay with the FCC if you broadcast "indecent" material. The author of this article doesn't seem to notice that Reed first claims that this report is a publicity stunt, but then claims it's a protest against FCC repression. I'd like to think it's the latter, but I'm not that much of a sucker.

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Mission: Mongolia

Jake's first attempt at homemade Mongolican barbecue:


What went right: correctly guessing several key seasonings- lemon, ginger, soy, garlic, chili.

What went wrong: still missing some ingredients, and possibly had one wrong, rice vinegar. Way too much lemon and chili.

Result: not entirely edible.

Plan for future: try to get people at Great Khan's restaurant to tell me what's in the damn sauce.

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