Monday, March 22, 2010

Epic Simile (Fail): Political Rhetoric and the Health Care Blanket

I am both a literary and a political junkie, forever trolling the internets for rhetorical gems from both genres. When political rhetoric bares its ugly head, especially when this past weekend's health care "debate" reached its highest pitch, this dual citizenship of the word can provoke something akin to an itch or rough patch that flares on the skin. I hope I've mixed enough metaphors in that sentence to vaccinate you, fair reader, against the rhetorical ills that are to come in this post. I don't know that poetry can kill a man, as Stevens claimed, but a bad metaphor can surely sicken you, even as the good metaphor can boost one's immune system. So first let me share some of the healthy stuff from the internet, a "Sample: Epic Simile" that comes off the teaching page of a Dr. L. Kip Wheeler at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee. The professor asks students to "note the clever inversions between land-creatures and sea-creatures" in this simile from Homer's The Odyssey, as translated in 1963 by Robert Fitzgerald:

"During his meditation, a heavy surge was taking him, in fact, straight on the rocks. He [would have] been flayed there, and his bones broken, had not grey-eyed Athena instructed him: he gripped a rock-ledge with both hands in passing and held on, groaning as the surge went by, to keep clear of its breaking. Then the backwash hit him, ripping him under and far out. An octopus, when you drag one from his chamber, comes up with suckers full of tiny stones: Odysseus left the skin of his great hands torn on the rock-ledge as the wave submerged him. And now at last Odysseus would have perished, battered inhumanly, but he had the gift of self-possession from grey-eyed Athena."

There were very few uses of figurative language in Sunday's debate on the House floor. Mostly there were references to "this flawed bill" on the part of Republicans and many allusions to fear: constituents, we were told, are "deeply afraid" of this bill, therefore it must be voted down. John Boehner's speech was possessed of a kind of counter-poetry, replete with repetitions of "no," up to "No you can't" after he asked if members had read the bill. But its counter-poetics was one of plain speech, lacking figure.

Ironically, its repetitions more resembled those of President Obama's speech to the Democratic caucus on March 20th than they did the figurative blanket that soon follows, though Obama's rhetoric of fear tropes the Republicans': "Do it for them. Do it for people who are really scared right now through no fault of their own, who've played by the rules, who've done all the right things, and have suddenly found out that because of an accident, because of an ailment, they're about to lose their house . . ." His repetitions of "this is a tough vote" are pragmatic, while his call to Lincoln's language is poetic (both in Lincoln's wording and in the way Obama weaves it through his speech): "I am not bound to win, but I'm bound to be true. I'm not bound to succeed, but I'm bound to live up to what light I have." The legislation is less scary, according to this argument, than would be the failure to pass it.

It was left to Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia to add the figurative fireworks during Sunday's debate. You can see her speech here:

Capito's epic simile starts with a blanket. She knows that her listeners will think of blankets as a comfort. But her blanket is not benign because it covers us all (like insurance, come to think of it). If health care legislation is a blanket, then it has been woven by strong arms that make deals; if the blanket was meant to comfort, it is in places too short and in others too long; if its meant to cover the huddled masses, then they discover that it is actually a "wall" between them and their doctor (the government as a smothering mother, in other words); if the blanket is made of fabric, it is a fabric with holes in it; the promised patches made of the flowery fabric of promises (those that will not be fulfilled). She then moves out to the children who are playing outside, little knowing that they will pay for this legislation when they are older. The drapery of legislation ends up mixed with the deaf ear of the government, which refuses to listen to the heartbeat of America.

At this point, I want out from under the blanket of her rhetoric. When, inspired by Rep. Capito's speech, I google "rhetoric as blanket," I am rewarded with a blog post from this weekend about Barack Obama's alleged need to use a teleprompter (something he did not do on Saturday before the Democrats). The simile here is "Barack Obama is like Linus," needing a security blanket. Of course the blanket is blue:

"President Barack Obama is a lot like Linus Van Pelt. The President is a perplexing contradiction in terms. Obama, like Linus, is said to be exceedingly intelligent and full of potential. A Linus-type philosopher/theologian Obama preaches the gospel of social hope and change. Linus quoted Scripture, while Obama tends to reference statements similar to those spoken by theorist Karl Marx.

Yet while verbally exuding confidence, both Obama and Linus are a paradox. Both flaunt self-perceived intellect while diametrically exhibiting a predilection to insecurity. Linus rarely appears without a blanket tossed over one shoulder, and Barack refuses to leave Pennsylvania Avenue without the teleprompter packed in the presidential U-Haul©."

Leave aside the teleprompter ad hominem swipe, and you find buried under this blanket the notion that "the gospel of social hope and change" is connected (somehow) to his "insecurity" in speaking. The security blanket he carries with him, either his gospel or his teleprompter, covers over a profound lack of security. So the security blanket reflects (if a blanket can be said to reflect) blanket assumptions on the part of Obama, blanket statements, the blanketing ideology of, say, Karl Marx. Communism is, after all, the biggest blanket of them all.

George Lakoff has famously described the opposing metaphorical fields of liberal and conservatives. Liberals use metaphors of typically feminine "nurturance," while conservatives those of the "strict father." Strict fathers do not hand out blankets; it's mothers who do. Their blankets aim to nurture but they either smother or fail altogether to cover the children we are, according to the conservative reading of the liberal metaphor.

Interestingly, there's a blanket hidden in Obama's speech of Saturday, which also has holes in it. "And now we've got middle class Americans, don't have Medicare, don't have Medicaid, watching the employer-based system fray along the edges or being caught in terrible situations. And the question is, are we going to be true to them?" Being true to our citizens is tantamount to mending a fraying cloth. It's women's work, like much of what Democrats (and Richard Nixon) have tried, and failed, to do over the past 60 years.

So, when the House of Representatives voted as a body yesterday, they all had in mind (conscious or un-) the figure of the blanket. They had to ask if they wanted to be under a blanket or outside it, if they wanted a protective or a smothering blanket. The word itself was not a blanket, for it meant so many things. For some, the blanket was oppressive, ill-sewn, smothering; for others, the blanket was fraying, but necessary. This time the menders won, by the barest of threads. But as the Republicans might say, a win is a win. The Democrats sewed it up.


Anonymous said...

They're only true to DEMselves; otherwise they'd foreclose on the Obamavilla at 1600 Pennsylvania, and evict him for having reneged upon his PROMISE of single-payer provision upon voter delivery of majorities in both congressional houses And (HIS) presidency!

susan said...

I don't recall his ever having made such a promise.