Thursday, October 29, 2015

on the dangers of metaphor

Former U. S. Congressmember Barney Frank takes on metaphor:
As a civil libertarian, I would make few exceptions to the right to free speech. But I admit I’d be tempted to ban the use of metaphors in the discussion of public policy. Metaphors more often distort discussion than improve it. For example, countries are not dominoes; they do not lurch into their neighbors and knock them over if their regime changes. The Reaganite claim that a “rising tide lifts all boats” was also very harmful. People are not boats, and increases in GDP are not a tide that rises uniformly. To fight the metaphor on its own simplistic terms, if you are too poor to afford a boat and are standing on tiptoes in the water, the rising tide can go up your nose. Or, in real terms, the fact that some — even most — people become wealthier may have adverse consequences on those who do not share in the prosperity. In the case of housing, the economic advances that made downtowns more desirable places to live threatened to submerge the existing residents, not float them. It took the government to ensure that good news in the private sector — sharply improved property values — did not become very bad news for low-income people who would have been driven out of their homes.

Metaphors are dangerous. They seem to be basic to the way people think. Yet, as Barney Frank illustrates, metaphors “often distort” reality.

Fighting back against a metaphor can be tricky. You don’t want to do what people do reflexively — you don’t want to argue on the metaphor’s own terms. Barney Frank knows this but can’t help himself. He is clever enough to be able to turn the “rising tide” metaphor from one of benign floating to the danger of drowning. This sort of turn can win an argument. But if you find yourself arguing over metaphor, you are leaving reality behind. That’s not good. And I say that as a poet. Who loves metaphor, especially outrageous metaphor.

“Countries are not dominoes.” We are not talking about boats and tides; we are talking about people and whether they have enough to survive.

It is neither possible (nor desirable) to ban metaphor. But watch out for it, and when you see it, be ready to cut it off at the knees.

source: Frank: a life in politics from the Great Society to same-sex marriage by Barney Frank
2015. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

“all this straight support”

In the 1970s Barney Frank was a closeted state legislator in Massachusetts. He knew he was gay; he’d sought political office knowing he was gay and knowing he would hide it. But, even if he didn’t feel he could be elected as an out gay man, Barney Frank resolved not only never to do anything to harm gay people but to be a forthright advocate once in office.

Says Barney Frank:
I was delighted when the activist Steve Endean was elected to the board of one of the leading liberal organizations in the country, Americans for Democratic Action, as its first openly gay member in 1974. … [When I] confide[d] to him that I was also gay — one of the very first times I admitted this to anyone[, h]is reaction at first disappointed me … ‘Shit,’ he said, ‘you’re the third sponsor of a state gay rights bill to come out to me this year. Here I’ve been bragging about all this straight support we have, but it turns out to be mostly from closet cases!’”

Most hets don’t really think about gays. To them the treatment of gay people doesn’t much matter. Not until the gay rights movement did most hets even realize they counted gay people among their acquaintances. This is not to say the average het isn’t deeply complicit in the policing of gender norms nor the expectation that the people around them behave in a manner that doesn’t challenge what they’ve been led to take for granted.

But the people with passion for a subject usually have a stake in it. The most egregious homophobes are typically battling their own proclivities, demanding society help them to suppress the behavior (even the thoughts) they are sure are unacceptable, sinful, horrifying. The most passionate seekers of justice want to be able to take advantage of the freedoms they see their peers flaunting.

It is certainly true that people without same sex attraction can advocate for equal treatment or demand what they see as immoral be punished accordingly. But it’s exceedingly rare to find people fighting with real passion merely out of principle. This is a truism. Everybody knows it. There are always going to be exceptions. But the person passionately advocating for or against something knows everyone else will, with good reason, at least suspect them of a more than academic interest. It’s long been known among gay people that the most excitable homophobes are queer inside. This assumption has only recently, however, become more general in the body public. Used to be shouting as the nastiest hater was great camouflage. Used to be nobody would think the biggest opponent to fairness would be crying out for that unfairness to be applied to self. That seems so weird.

It’s long been assumed that those most committed to gay freedom want that freedom for themselves, of course. Only natural. That’s why it took courage to push for a good thing that most people considered bad.

One of the unexpected advantages of the gay movement has been this disengagement by the majority. It’s been easy for the majority to agree to keep the gays down because it’s always been so, why change, things are okay as they are, who cares. Yet once gay people started pushing, change came quickly. Het legislators listened to reasonable arguments and figured, well, no skin off my nose, why not, and the first gay rights legislation was enacted.

Change ran into the roadblock of the hulking closets of those who had invested huge amounts of resources in self-denial and hiding. You don’t just abandon bad investments. You defend them, you put more energy into them. Thus the gay movement has, in a sense, been an internal battle. Convention has long favored the status quo and pushback to change was easily mounted.

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled for marriage equality the undoing of that decision will take more work, it seems, than there is passion for. Convention hasn’t overturned completely. Justice is never assured. But the complacency of the majority, the indifference of most hets to gay matters, can be an advantage. Who cares, no skin off my nose. why change, things are okay as they are.

source: Frank: a life in politics from the Great Society to same-sex marriage by Barney Frank
2015. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

“the door is open a crack”

Every night Mike would go swimming in a lake. Some nights he swam out as far as he could. “I kept going. It got colder and colder. And I’d just lie in the lake. And I was trying, it’s really clear now, I was trying to drown. … Ever since, I’ve never felt as tethered to this place as other people do. Everything seems like a long, improbable afterlife.

“What happened on that lake showed me that there’s a door,” he said. “And the door is open a crack. And you can feel it. You can just die. You see? Once you accept that, it brings clarity. You want to do something in the world? Be willing to throw your life away.”

This sort of narrative, the one where the speaker has a new insight into mortality, is common to survivors of dangerous diseases and almost-fatal accidents. You feel immortal, you never seriously consider that you’re going to die, until something beyond your control seizes your attention and turns it toward what, after all, will happen to all of us.

There you are staring into the deathly unknown. You achieve perspective. I’m alive now, you say. If there are things I want to do, people I want to be with, I have to get to it while I’m alive because Death.

Suicide doesn’t lead to this narrative. Not usually. Unlike accident and disease, the killer is not an other, not a foreign agent on the attack. Suicide is a decision we make for ourselves. Suicides are often reviled or, at least, pitied, so piping up about how failing at your suicide made you a more courageous person is, yes, a difficult story to get people to listen to. You face skepticism. You really had to go that far? Didn’t you think what it would do to your loved ones? Arguments. Not the nodding agreement the cancer survivor sees, not the relieved sympathy given the person pulled from the wreck of the flaming mini van.

When one looks at Depression as an often-fatal illness (suicide being Depression’s conclusion), rather than as a character flaw (cowardice! indifference to the suffering of others!), then one will be more open to the insight narrative. Depression itself might be seen as the foreign agent, a medical version of demonic possession, something one can lose a battle to. But does Depression have a hand that can loosen a lid on a bottle of barbiturates? Can Depression buy a gun at a gun show and bullets and load the gun’s chambers?

What are we doing when we know what we’re doing?

The quote’s concluding sentence reminds me of another narrative, a narrative about principle, about sacrifice. In order to live an authentic life, there has to be something for which you are willing to die. Give me liberty or give me death — that sort of thing. Or maybe, I would give my life to save hers. This has been called “altruistic suicide” and has been seen as utterly different from the suicide Mike talks about. The soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies is devoted to life not death, right?

Is Mike entitled to use the narrative of the altruistic suicide? You want to do something in the world? Don’t kill yourself. Unless that’s what gets it done.

source: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
2015. Riverhead Books / Penguin, New York.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

“We couldn’t. It was too hard.”

In an interview with music magazine Mojo Bernard Sumner, guitarist for Joy Division and lead singer for New Order, is asked about his recently released autobiography and how Sumner felt about “revisiting your memories of Joy Division and Ian [Curtis, JD lead singer]?”

What was different about us was that we really didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know how to write songs, therefore we wrote songs in different ways. Most bands learned by copying other bands’ records. We couldn’t. It was too hard. So we learned to play by not being able to play.

A common bit of advice for novice artists (painters, musicians, poets, etc.) is how you’re first to get down the received forms, copy the masters, right? Once you can make a competent sonnet or can produce a life-like drawing, you are free to (allowed to?) go off in experimental, strange, abstract, incompetent-seeming directions. But first you need that base in the conventional.

The Sumner quote reminds me of something similar I read about Gertrude Stein. Supposedly Stein tried to write conventionally, failed at it, then went off in those strange, abstract, incompetent-seeming directions for which she became famous, and sometimes even read.

There are a lot of ways to go about it, really. The Bad Thing is to prescribe the One Right Way and believe what you’re saying is Good.

source: Mojo issue 262, September 2015