The metaphor spill

Sam Smith – The establishment is struggling to gain metaphorical control over the BP oil spill. It feels entitled to control metaphors just as much as it does oil drilling policy and doesn’t it like when the non-establishment comes up with its own. Thus Chris Matthews goes berserk when anyone refers to the present government as a “regime” and others get hysterical when someone calls something ‘fascistic” or “Nazi-like.” Curiously, these are the same establishment people who regularly refer to critics as “conspiracy theorists” or “wing nuts.”

As a writer, I like metaphors even if I’m never quite sure when they stop and similes pick up. I don’t even mind people who dislike metaphors, such as Jack Nicholson, who said once, “People who speak in metaphors should shampoo my crotch.”

But what I don’t like is the elite using bad metaphors. For example, even Eugene Robinson, in an otherwise fine column on the oil crisis, fell for the “war” image, arguing, along with Obama and many others, that we need to treat the BP spill as we would a military battle.

In fact, wars are carried out in the name of virtue but almost inevitably leave both sides in worst shape than when they started. Wars destroy the environment, kill large numbers of people, and take decades to recover from. The last thing we need in the Gulf right now is a war.

A happier allusion would be to a serious medical operation. The first task is to get the patient in good enough shape so that long term recovery can take place. And, along the way, you want to avoid something called iatrogenic medicine, where the cure does the patient harm.

This is, in many ways, the opposite of a war, and a far better way to think about the oil spill.

Unfortunately, our political and media elite are infatuated with the military – even if they were never part of it. And for men in power, the metaphor has a comforting masculine ring to it. (Having you ever wondered why there is not a psychiatric term for those who become sexually aroused at the thought of sending others to their death in battle?)

If, in fact, we were to send our military into the Gulf like we sent it into Iraq, things would soon be ten times worse than they are right now.

And you may not need a metaphor at all. After all, the BP disaster is what we will be using as a metaphor in endless commentaries and political campaigns well into the future.

As for me, when I see stories about the disaster, it reminds me of that great oil spill back in April 2010. Remember that one? Sadly, it looks like there’s a metaphor that will hold up for some time yet.

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