Quote: “Partly by happenstance, the case brought the metaphor of terrorism as a war into an American courtroom.” Reporter Adam Liptak on Attorney General nominee Michael B. Mukasey, in the New York Times.
Figure of Speech: metaphor, the sleight-of-tongue trope.
Figaro has been thinking a lot about tropes lately, partly because he loves them, and partly because they’re bollixing this country to a fare-thee-well. Tropes are figures that make us see things differently. They’re essential to humans’ understanding of the world, and it’s no exaggeration to say that civilization would be impossible without them. But tropes can turn evil when we take them literally. Rhetoric recognizes four big ones:
Metaphor. This trope transforms something into something else. Life is a bowl of cherries. I’m getting out of the rat race. Few people would mistake their lives for fruit and competitive rodents, but some metaphors are harder to distinguish from reality. Take the war on terror. Some people prefer disease to war as their metaphor of choice: Terror is a cancer in society. That’s a great metaphor, and even a useful one — until you take it literally. Mistaking terrorism for a medical ailment leads us down weird curative paths. But terrorism isn’t war, either. Americans’ first instinct in time of war is to sic the armed forces against the enemy, bomb the hell out of it, then give the loser a consolation prize of billions in restoration funds. But how do we do that against terrorists? When we take the war metaphor seriously, it’s hard to resist declaring another country a “terrorist state.” That gives us something to bomb and restore — an army to attack and defeat, a dictator to depose, and an economy to prop up. Iraq fit the metaphorical description perfectly. And so, before we had finished clearing out the actual nest of terrorists in Afghanistan, we attacked a metaphor.
Irony. Ah, irony. It says one thing while meaning the opposite. Oh, great, another assignment — thanks a million. Figaro loves irony with unironic ardor. As his book says (chapter 19, “The Mother in Law Ruse” ), you can use irony as a code to bring a group together. Irony is especially cool when you and your posse are in a crowd of people who don’t get it. Only you few have the secret trope decoder ring!
But what if your group lacks the decoder? Jon Stewart’s TV show is the number-one source of news for Americans under age 25. Yet Stewart is a comedian posing as a journalist. He’s on the Comedy Channel, for crying out loud. So the rising generation of citizens keeps current with a daily dose of irony. Figaro is just thrilled with what that portends for our republic.
Synecdoche (sin-EC-doe-kee). This scale-changing trope takes a part of something and makes it represent the whole, or it takes a species and makes it stand for the whole genus. (It works the other way around, too.) All hands on deck. I am the law. The welfare mother. The synecdoche turns sour when it makes a single individual represents an entire class of citizens. The Pentagon tried to make Jessica Lynch stand for all brave soldiers with a story about her that was mostly untrue. Yes, the real problem is here is lying, not figures. But the synecdoche can lead to a fallacy: one anecdote does not a reality make.
Metonymy (meh-TON-o-mee). The trickiest of tropes, the metonymy takes a quality or aspect of something and makes it stand for the whole shebang. The White House. The Crown. Bluehairs. It’s the stem cell of figures; take the rhetorical DNA from a thatch of dyed hair, and ZAP! A whole gang of elderly women! While bluehairs might not appreciate the label, it’s hard to see the metonymy as something evil (unless you’re trying to pronounce it).
As with the other tropes, however, beware of following the metonymy off a figurative cliff. Take money in politics, for instance. Without thinking, we make dollars represent a whole host of political baddies — special-interest donors, crooked fundraisers, elected officials forced into fulltime fundraising. Whole campaigns hinge on who raises the most.
But money doesn’t actually buy elections; Figaro, at least, has yet to be handed a check before he enters a polling booth. Money buys advertising, not votes, and then we citizens do the rest. Through the magic of tropes, money transmogrifies from a fistful of Benjamins (that’s a metonymy too!) into an electorate drooling mindlessly at its collective TV set (synecdoche!). Which explains why campaign finance “reform” fails to reform politics.
And you thought figures were just figures.