Sometimes the First Amendment can be aggravating. Ten years of legislating dissuades me from allowing legislators to tell adults what to write or say. But then I read about our soft Middle Eastern underbelly being menaced by a radical Shiite dagger. Or I am threatened by the spectacle of Central American dominoes hurtling through our window of vulnerability. And I fantasize about how pleasant it would be to ban all metaphors from political discussions.
Metaphors can be fun. My favorite budget debate on the House floor was the one in 1982 when an anguished Republican insisted that the Democrats "stop milking this dead horse." (In a spirit of conciliation, one Democrat advised him in return "not to carry all his spilt milk in one basket.") But few metaphor users can meet this standard.
People claim they use metaphors to advance understanding, by explaining complex or obscure phenomena in terms of simple and familiar ones. They don't. What they usually do is to become so enamored of a simplistic figure of speech that they substitute it for reality, and consequently discuss issues in a distorted and mechanistic fashion.
Foreign policy is especially vulnerable to this displacement of complex reality by metaphoric simple-mindedness. Physical shapes of countries lead otherwise sensible people to discuss international events in the terms 10- year-olds use when assembling geographic jigsaw puzzles.
Take soft underbellies. People who worry about being attacked from the south, or who would like to attack other people from their south, tend to be "underbelly" fetishists. Winston Churchill drove Allied war planners to distraction 40 years ago by opposing a cross-channel invasion in favor of a Mediterranean attack on the "Axis" soft underbelly. Finally, someone seems to have gotten across the point that southern France is, in fact, no softer than northern France. Crocodiles and turtles have hard backs and soft underbellies. Countries do not. They have northern and southern borders, neither of which is necessarily more vulnerable than the other.
But the fact that it is distinctly unhelpful does not prevent this metaphor from remaining in use. A recent Post story quoted an Indonesian general as justifying an attack on Timor as necessary to stave off "a Marxist threat to our soft underbelly." I understand why Indonesians shudder at the thought of a bristly-bearded Karl Marx approaching their underbellies. But this has nothing to do with oppressing East Timor.
Another physical metaphor popular in foreign affairs is the country-as-weapon. I have grown up being told that Korea is essential to our security because it is pointed like a dagger at the back of Japan. First of all, I doubt very much that countries have fronts or backs. And if Japan does have a back, it seems unduly ethnocentric for us to decide that it is the part nearest Asia. But metaphor-mongers understand the value of making them graphic. Underbellies must always be soft, and threats always aimed at one's rear, except of course, when they are aimed at one's heart (see box).
The popular current variant of the "they're coming up behind us" metaphor is the one which warns of the Marxist danger in our Central American back yard. Confirming the suspicion of Central Americans that we regard them as not just an appendage, but as a rear appendage, hardly seems the best way to inspire their confidence in our intentions. But it apparently sounds more ominous to conjure up Castroites and Sandinistas capturing our back yard than it would be to warn of them infesting our lawn, or infiltrating our side porch.
To return to Korea, it is relevant that Korea is near Japan. It is wholly irrelevant that it is roughly dagger shaped. Unless levitation is far more advanced in the East than I realize, the danger of Korea's being stuck into Japan seems negligible.
This does not mean that we should ignore Korea, nor cease our effort to protect it from any invasion from its north. It does not mean that because of its shape, people have greatly overrated its threat to Japan. Historically of course, the threat has been the other way-- from Japan to Korea. And as to Korea's use as a communist weapon against Japan, given communist control of all of China, the extra threat Korea presents would not have been seen as significant if that country were round or flat instead of lumpily pointed.
Speaking of lumpiness, recently there has been division in the metaphor camp about how best to describe Korea. William Manchester's biography of MacArthur refers to it as a "lumpy phallus." In the Victorian era, deciding whether Korea was a dagger or a phallus would have meant determining whether Japan preferred death to dishonor. In our time, it probably means we will soon be told about the prophylactic role assigned to the Seventh Fleet.
And then of course we have the dominoes. It is undeniable that events in one country can have a profound effect on its neighbors. It is demonstrably untrue that the "fall" of any one nation automatically or even probably means the "fall" of all of its neighbors. (Apparently, countries, unlike dominoes, can fall in several directions at once.) Either the automaticity of the domino theory is wrong, or Thailand and Malaysia have been secretly communist since the late '70s. Incidentally, the domino theory is at its most impressive when it describes the impact of an island nation on its neighbors across the water. Presumably this variant is the domino wave effect.
Domestic policy also suffers from metaphor distortion by people who tire of complexity. A popular argument against the need for concern about the distribution of our national income is the argument that a rising tide lifts all boats. This means that an increase in the overall GNP will make everyone better off, so that government need not concern itself with how particular segments fare.
As many Republicans like to point out, one of the first to use this metaphor was John Kennedy, who said a number of profound and useful things. This was not one of them. People are not boats. The economy is not a tide. And an increase in GNP may occur in a way that leaves some people no better off than they were, while others find their condition worsening. It would be possible to combat this metaphor on its own terms by pointing out that a rising tide is not great news to people who are on tiptoes in the water. It would be better to stop using it, and to recognize that concern for economic equity requires a good deal more than simply pumping up the GNP.
Then we have the comforting metaphor that suggests that government can be made efficient as easily as a sponge is made drier. This one assumes that government spending consists of two elements of different consistencies: socially useful, or hard spending; and socially wasteful, or soft spending. Thus you can make government efficient by simply compressing the whole, so that the softer substance--fat, water or something less pleasant--is squeezed out, leaving a mass of hard stuff--bone, muscle, etc., behind.
This is often the justification for across-the- board cuts in government programs. Unfortunately, the metaphor is dead wrong. There is little correlation between the social usefulness of programs and their ability to survive massive cutbacks. To meet the metaphor on its own terms, what is socially soft is often politically hard, and vice versa. Squeeze the budget like a sponge and you may well victimize poor children while wealthy farmers remain unscathed. The hard way to cut out wasteful spending is to identify it, and work to get the political support necessary to remove it. It's much easier to pretend by use of a convenient metaphor that simply reducing the total will automatically leave a more efficient mass behind.
Fortunatel ty, for all my discomfort, the First Amendment endures. I am resigned to continuing to live my life among camels putting their noses into tents; lawyers sliding down slippery slopes; and cancers spreading in unlikely ways across the landscape or on what is known as the body politic. But the next time I hear a colleague on the Foreign Affairs Committee ask "Is this a dagger which I see before me?", I think I will say, "No, Congressman, it's Korea."