Friday, June 19, 2015

The Metaphors We Kill For

NBC News reporter Kasie Hunt and South Carolina senior senator Lindsey Graham, 6/14/15
Earlier this week, third-term US senator and declared Presidential hopeful Lindsey Graham (R-SC) took NBC News political reporter Kasie Hunt out shooting skeet. During the extended photo op, with cameras running, Senator Graham identified one clay pigeon as “Bernie Sanders,” Vermont senator and current second-place runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination. After calling pull, Graham shot the pigeon, smirked at its shattered remains, and sneered: “Sorry about that, Bernie.”

Four days later, Graham hurried to Charleston, South Carolina, site of the high-profile and heartbreaking mass shooting at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In the best “kissing hands and shaking babies” tradition, Graham got photogenically tearful over nine unnecessary deaths caused by one race-baiting domestic terrorist (whose name and face I won’t lower myself to reproduce here). Graham seemed unaware that this terrorist had literally done what Graham himself only joked about doing.

Though occasional left-wing blogs expressed predictable outrage over Graham’s clay pigeon stunt, only somebody very partisan and immune to psychology would think Graham literally meant to shoot Senator Sanders. We’ve all punched pillows or chucked rocks while screaming against somebody who’s pissed us off. Well-respected politicians, including Democrats like President Obama and former Texas Governor Ann Richards, have used guns as props for news cameras for years.

However, the accumulation of metaphoric violence surely amounts to something. Besides using firearms as shorthand for political “stopping power,” American politicians are particularly fond of war language. President Nixon first used the term “War On Drugs” in 1971, meaning that at this writing, America has battled a panoply of inanimate substances for forty-four years. The Wars of the Roses, by contrast, lasted only thirty-two years.

America has variously declared war on terror, poverty, and spending. Jimmy Carter declared “the moral equivalent of war” on energy waste. The same year Nixon declared war on drugs, he signed legislation empowering massive spending on cancer research, which advocates consider the opening salvos of the War On Cancer. Which makes me wonder: if chemo sickens a cancer patient to death, which side receives credit for the kill?

This abstraction of war has created very non-metaphorical violence. Some has been official and enjoyed (if that’s the word) lawful approval from American authority systems. Though Congress has exercised its constitutional prerogative to formally declare war only five times in American history, presidents have used their commander-in-chief authority to exercise numerous undeclared wars, first on rebellious hicks, then on Indians, then various peoples worldwide.

The years while America has prosecuted its War On Terror, that is, war against a method of unsanctioned non-state combat, have seen marked increases in civilian violence. According to FBI statistics, “mass shootings,” defined as shootings having four or more fatalities, now happen roughly once every two weeks. They’ve become banal. Only when fatalities reach exceptional levels, like in Aurora, Colorado, or have exceptional circumstances, like in a church, do they even make headlines.

President Lyndon Johnson declared War On Crime in 1965, and pundits have drawn direct lines connecting that declaration and the Ferguson, Missouri, PD suppressing street protests with tanks. But I say the patterns exist even further. George Washington mustered militia to suppress poor farmers during the Whiskey Rebellion only two years after the Constitution was ratified; this blend of taxes and violence presaged mass farm foreclosures in the 1980s.

Atlantic Monthly journalist Robert Kaplan has written that, during peacetime, Oval Office policies probably matter to ordinary Americans less than the policies of the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. That, Kaplan says, explains why presidents (he meant Bill Clinton) engage overseas adventures so readily. But Clinton’s invasion of Haiti, and bombings in Iraq, Kenya, Sudan, and Kosovo all had limited time horizons. They barely qualify as war.

Meanwhile, metaphorical wars declared by presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Carter continue unabated two and three generations later. Succeeding presidents use failures to justify doubling down on bankrupt policies. Science, politics, and history have demonstrated that war metaphors haven’t defeated drugs. However, the metaphorical domestic war has directly bankrolled Mexico’s current civil war (see Johann Hari). Thus metaphorical war translates directly into literal war, prosecuted at two nations’ ongoing expense.

Only fools would suggest Senator Graham’s metaphorical shooting of Senator Sanders literally caused the Charleston church shootings. But it’s impossible to miss the correlation between accumulating layers of metaphorical violence in American discourse, and Americans’ escalating recourse to literal violence. We’ve become a “shoot first” nation, both in political discourse and domestic affairs. And somebody needs to be first in agreeing to de-escalate the language.

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