Martin: Policy Metaphors

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And now we turn to our Sunday Essay. With all the recent talk of the
"fiscal cliff" and the "sequester", writer and educator Mike Martin has
been thinking about how language, and especially metaphors, shape the
way we see things.

(Martin) In Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare’s
young heroine offers up this famous line, "A rose by any other name
would smell as sweet." This line is so well known that we often don’t
even bother to finish it, and the aphorism is so succinct and concrete
that its truth would seem to be irrefutable. The only thing is, Juliet’s
nice phrase is totally wrong.

Since we think with words, and
since words have baggage – whether by their symbolism, association,
recent past, or even the sound of their syllables – the way we conceive
of things is forever subject to the words we use. In politics, this is
especially true, and politicians sometimes rival poets in their use of
metaphor. During the Cold War, for example, Churchill’s "Iron Curtain"
was a terrific metaphor for the Soviet Bloc, but the nickname "Star
Wars" probably didn’t help Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

you still agree with Juliet, consider the difference between the words "
bailout", "rescue package", and "stimulus". Each can be used to
describe the same lump of cash, which will smell sweeter, or not,
depending on the word you elect to use. If you’re still not convinced,
consider whether "entitlements" for aid to the poor and elderly, or
"castle doctrine" for justifiable homicide are really neutral terms for
what they represent.

Many public policy words start out good,
but then sour over time. For example, "welfare" used to mean "to be
well", but nowadays it’s acquired a certain taint, as in "welfare queen"
or "corporate welfare". Another example, "euthanasia", comes from the
Greek for "happy death", but the word sounds weird, so eventually it
became "physician-assisted suicide", and, at present, many prefer the
expression "death with dignity" to describe the same thing.

education policy debates, polling has consistently found that a majority
of Americans oppose "vouchers", in other words, for families to use
public funds to send their children to private schools. Maybe the word
"voucher" too closely evokes a free car wash coupon or a coffee shop
punch card, but for whatever reason, proponents are now using the word
"scholarship" instead. That word sounds happy and important, like
winning a big prize, but it doesn’t totally make sense when you consider
that you shouldn’t need one to go to public school. After all, by law,
public education is free in the U.S.

Of course, two very scary
metaphors in the public discourse right now are " fiscal cliff" and
"sequester". Having just missed going over the cliff – picture a sweaty,
panting Indiana Jones – we breathed a sigh of relief to find ourselves
in "sequestration", a word that used to mean to "quarantine" or to
"impound". Since this is clearly a bad word, both political parties
claim the other invented it… and the spending cuts it represents.

Watergate, the informant known as "Deep Throat" told Bob Woodward to
"follow the money". That’s probably still true. But informed citizens
will want to follow the policy metaphors too.

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