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Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Waterboarding Your Metaphors For Fun and Profit

I hate terrible metaphors, which is to say that I don't mind metaphors, and they can even be objects of true beauty, but when they're bad they can wreck the world. (No hyperbole intended.)

Have you ever heard "Cut off the head and the snake will die?" This is a metaphor. It's not a sound military tactic. It's just something somebody said. It was probably somebody famous, like Tactitus or someone (although my extensive internet "research" only traces it as far back as 1952's El Zapata) and now people take it at face value. "Ah, yes, all you have to do is kill the head gangster or whatever, and the whole organization collapses."

Now, I'm not saying that this is NEVER the case. When Alexander the Great died his empire went to shit. Ditto Genghis Khan. But al-Qaeda's still around, isn't it? The country didn't just fall to shit when Kennedy got assassinated either.

Here's my point: when you talk in metaphors, you frame the conversation in your metaphor, which is inevitably less complex than the real-world situation. (Otherwise, why would you need to use the metaphor in the first place?) But once you have the situation couched in metaphors, nobody can really accept that you're oversimplifying the matter. They expect the counter-argument to RESPOND TO THE METAPHOR.

Remember when all the news pundits were talking about playing "Whac-a-Mole" in the Middle East a few months back? Every time you kill a terrorist another one pops up somewhere else and blah-bitty-blah. Nobody would answer this assertion in terms of "Well, that's a stupid oversimplification. Here's what the situation really consists of:" and then lay it all out. No. They answered THE METAPHOR. Like, "Oh, yeah, it is like that, but we're just going to have to figure out a way to unplug the machine" or something. Or sometimes they even just use a different metaphor, i.e., "It's a hydra, and the only way to burn their neck stumps is with the fire of cutting off their finances."

I'm flabbergasted by how often this works. And it seems to happen all the time on TV. The host posits some question, balled up in a metaphor, and then the guest either nods and goes "Yup" or he tries to explain how it's not that simple and then the host shakes his head and acts like the guest is dodging the question.

Like I said, I'm not inherently against metaphors, but I am against these tortured metaphors that just stretch our national conversation into nonsensical shapes. The reason I bring this up, the one that's really bothering me lately, is this metaphor that's come into common parlance that the federal government needs to balance its finances just like a family balancing its checkbook.


This comparison is wrong on like, 16 different levels, but I will give you this: it's very potent. It strikes at what people think about themselves, like, "Yeah, yeah, I have to be responsible with money, why can't the gummint be responsible with MY money?" And that sentiment is valid, but this metaphor is complete bullshit. It stands up to no scrutiny at all.

Ok, so the federal budget could be compared to an extremely complicated family budget, I guess. But that's about the extent of the usefulness of this comparison. It just occurred to me that this might be easier as a list, so I'll just do that.

1.) Who are Mom and Dad in this analogy? Presumably one person pays the bills in your household. Possibly it's a decision making process between two people, with almost no gap between them about the household goals. (Mom and Dad may differ about whether Junior has to go to private school or not, but they both agree he'll need an education.) So there may be discussion, maybe even a heated discussion but there won't be any filibustering and neither Mom nor Dad is worried about losing their position in the household. In the government, you might make the argument that congress (read: 535 people with differing agendas) makes the financial decisions. But, in fact, it's a fight between the three branches of government, the American voters, corporate lobbyists, pressure from foreign governments, etc., etc.

2.) A family's source of income is more or less fixed. Mom and Dad may both work, and kids may work summer jobs to pay for some of their expenses, and there may be a pension or social security or something involved. But barring someone losing a job or getting a raise, you know your income will always be X, and you simply have to divide X amongst your bills. If I try to follow the "government as a household" analogy, then the voters are your boss, but you can tell your boss that you're getting a raise anytime you want (i.e. a tax increase,) that is, assuming Mom and Dad can agree that they want to ask their boss for a raise, which they won't.

3.) A family consists of something on the scale of 2-10 people. I kind of feel funny pointing this out. But let's be frank about this. Taking care of 300 million people is geometrically more complicated than taking care of a family. In a family you can have at most, what, ten differing viewpoints? And probably in 99% of circumstances, you will never have that. I can see a kid getting angry that he didn't get a car, or Dad getting angry that he has to pay for college instead of going to the bar. But it's not the same as having blocs of millions of people who can suddenly decide that Mom and Dad aren't even in charge any more. Which leads into...

4.) In a family, the income earner is pretty much in charge. I mean, what are your options? Let's say you're in a single income household, where Mom earns all the money. Dad can't force her to buy shit. If she wants to give him a $20 a week allowance, that's what he gets. I mean, Child and Youth Services can pretty much ensure that you keep a roof over your kids heads and food in their bellies, but other than that no one can really tell the income earner what to do with his or her money. If Mom wants to blow all of her money on a Carribean vacation instead of a new toolshed, barring cajoling and fighting, that's what she's fucking doing. In the federal government there are laws, statutes, voter pressure, all kinds of things telling you exactly what and who you HAVE TO spend your money on.

5.) If a family makes a poor decision, it can only have so much impact. I'm not saying there aren't financial decisions that a parent can make that won't have disastrous consequences on the family. You could make a bad investment and lose your house. You could gamble everything away in Vegas. You could spend all your money on booze instead of diapers. You could end up in jail, divorced, or have your kids taken away. But assuming that happens, again, we're talking about somewhere between 2-10 people who are affected. 5 people walking around with their life in shambles is a shame, but it's not the end of the world. As we've seen lately, the federal government makes a decision and it affects 300 million people, and world markets, and in fact it COULD be the end of the world.

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