Article on political metaphors and imagery
Influential right wing leaders like Sarah Palin “routinely drop words like ‘tyranny’ and ‘socialism,’" writes Matt Bai in a New York Times article, “A Turning Point in the Discourse, but in Which Direction?” Bai points out that these politicians talks this way "as if blind to the idea that Americans legitimately faced with either enemy would almost certainly take up arms.” Bai quotes other right wingers talking about “domestic enemies” who deserve the “firing line.” They speculate, “I hope we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies.” They run ads with politicians marked with crosshairs and where George Washington responds to Obama with, “Gather your armies.”
Bai draws attention to how “much of the message among Republicans last year, as they sought to exploit the Tea Party phenomenon, centered — like the Tea Party moniker itself — on [the] imagery of armed revolution.” Bai points out that “It’s not that such leaders are necessarily trying to incite violence or hysteria; in fact, they’re not. It’s more that (…) they seem to lose their hold on the power of words.” The problem, rather, is “the dominant imagery of the moment — a portrayal of 21st-century Washington as being like 18th-century Lexington and Concord, an occupied country on the verge of armed rebellion.”
The armed rebellion metaphor which Matt Bai discussed is part of the US right’s structure of feeling. The marxist writer Raymond Williams wrote about what he called a “structure of feeling” made through a combination of people’s conscious efforts and unconscious activity. Williams used this concept to analyze common qualities in the everyday experiences of life in specific places and times. A structure of feeling is a set of outlooks, perceptions, and common impulses that people share. Structures of feeling tend to differ across different generations and groups of people. They are intimately bound up with the value system and world-view of a group and are often have as some of their core components imagery, metaphor, style, and narrative.
The common use of armed rebellion metaphors among the political right in the US is an example of how use of metaphors helps give shape to and express a structure of feeling. The right is not so much a single group as it is a space where different groups and individuals encounter each other. The right’s structure of feeling is part of the architecture of the space in which rightwing groups and individuals encounter each other. The armed rebellion metaphor is a retaining wall in that architecture. Many people on the right differ with each other. Metaphors like that of armed rebellion help them to have a common vocabulary with which to identify common values they share and with which to spread those values. The invocation of images from the U.S. war of independence is particularly important in how many in the right paint themselves. The right’s metaphors also help bring in new people who connect with the right’s structure of feeling. Their structure of feeling is dynamic, though, with tensions in it.
The imagery is not in anyone’s control. The imagery is a sort of vehicle that people are vying for control over. Most political terms are like this, and imagery is even more so. To illustrate my point about political terms, I’ll use some debates I recently read about the term “democratic centralism.”
In a 1920 article, Lenin wrote about what he called “the democratic centralism” of some of his opponents, “Comrades Sapronov, Maximovsky and Osinsky.” Unlike his own version of democratic centralism, he said that theirs “is muddled! Such things cannot be tolerated. Such things drag us back theoretically.” He lists as an example “They say that democratic centralism consists not only in the All-Russia Central Executive Committee ruling; but in the All-Russia Central Executive Committee ruling through the local organisations.” In another article he talked about a document signed by a group calling themselves “A group of comrades standing for democratic centralism.” He called this article “not so much historical as hysterical,” “confusion and disintegration,” and “syndicalism.”
The historical specifics are not important for my purposes here. The point is that the group Lenin opposed called themselves democratic centralists who were standing up for democratic centralism. Lenin also believed in what he understood to be democratic centralism. This was one of those arguments that people on the left are probably all familiar with. “You’re not *really* a democratic centralist, you just call yourself one! I know what real democratic centralism is, it’s my version of democratic centralism.” Kind of like “you’re not *really* an anarchist, even though you use that term to talk about yourself.” These kinds of arguments happen in part because political terms are fields of ideological conflict between interested actors.
The vision and values and the core terms of the American right are also fields of ideological conflict. The right is a meeting place between people with different perspectives and goals. Among the ways to sort the people meeting there, we can put them into two basic types. There are people with right ideas that are still considered somewhat within bounds of the political mainstream in the United States – such as, deport all undocumented immigrants – and people with right ideas that are currently out of bounds within the political mainstream in the United States – such as, execute any woman who has an abortion.
I suspect that there are at least two types of struggles going on in the right. One is a battle of ideas, about what people ought to do and what views they should hold. Another is a battle of culture, over the border of the mainstream. That is, there is a struggle to redefine the line between very right but within bounds and very right and out of bounds. The patriotic color that the right gives itself is an important piece of this over legitimacy struggle; it matters that the images invoked come from a history of the United States that is currently acceptable in the American mainstream. These are also images of people pushed too far, provoked into action. (I would like to strongly recommend a work of historical fiction, Manituana, by Wu Ming. The novel depicts the true story of early American appropriation of Indian lands during the war with Britain over American political independence.)
In mapping the changing right-ward boundary of acceptable political discussion in the U.S. we should pay particular attention to institutions that straddle the boundary between the publicly acceptable right and the crazy right. These border positions are places where that boundary gets blurred and where influence passes from the crazy right to the publicly acceptable right. We should also pay attention to the ways institutions try to move from beyond the bounds of acceptability to these border positions. (I don’t know as much about any of this as I would like to. My sense is that there is much to be learned about all of this from the work done by Three Way Fight, Arizona’s Repeal Coalition, the Center for New Community, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.)
The image of armed rebellion by patriots provoked by tyrants helps create the space for the right to have their battle of ideas. The conflicts involved in debating positions and making decisions can have a corrosive effect something like centrifugal force – the tendency to fly off out of the movement, a somewhat internal pressure for groups and movements to come apart at the seams.
The right’s structure of feeling and its armed rebellion imagery help it formulate and express values that are a counter-tendency to the centrifugal force of its internal divisions and debates. That is, the structure of feeling provides a centripetal force, a force “by which bodies are drawn or impelled, or in any way tend, towards a point as to a center,” which here doesn’t mean the political center in terms of left or right but means remaining within the same movement to some extent.
It also helps in the struggle over where the mainstream stops and the illegitimate right begins. The rhetoric of armed conflict is a common vocabulary among different people but it doesn’t always mean the same thing. The imagery and vocabulary of armed conflict is useful for everyone on the right. Some people mean that vocabulary in a sincere way. Others only use it rhetorically. None of these metaphors are in any one person or group’s control. Even when a single group plays a leading role, even when everyone agrees on the meaning of political imagery, the metaphors can still get out of hand. Sometimes groups or movements can get caught up in their own imagery. I’ll illustrate this point with a long quotation from an essay called “Spectres of Müntzer at Sunrise” by Wu Ming. (The essay is available
online in four parts. One, two, three, and four.)
Wu Ming is a collective of Italian authors with ties to the left and social movements. They were particularly active in the preparation for the Genoa protests. They write in “Spectres of Müntzer at Sunrise” about the creation of a shared imagery of siege. Activists increasingly described global capitalism and global elites “as a castle besieged by a manifold army of peasants. That metaphor recurs in several texts and speeches. Sometimes it’s explicit, very often it’s only implied, but it’s there.” This imagery was partly the result of a structure of feeling on the Italian left and at the same time that imagery helped to strengthen this structure of feeling.
Wu Ming list several factors in the creation of the siege metaphor:
“1. The summits were invariably held at fenced-in, heavily militarized areas (sometimes called ‘red zones’), which conjured up images of a regime under siege by protesters. Demonstrations took the form of ‘blockades’: the more the power wanted to keep the people out and away, the more the people forced the powerful to meet in ridiculously over-fortified garrisons. Metaphorically speaking, they closed
themselves into castles.
2. The movement had a firmly held (and loudly stated) ecological stance, and the struggle against Genetically Modified Organisms was diffuse, especially in Europe. In France, José Bové’s Confederation Paysanne [Peasant Confederation] was very active in destroying GMO crops and trashing McDonald’s restaurants.
3. The popularity of the Zapatistas – a rural, peasant movement – was reaching ever new heights among activists in Europe and North America.
4. The movement’s World Forum repeatedly took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a country where a radical peasant movement – the Movimento Sem Terra – was active and widespread.
Although it was inspiring and effective, the metaphor was a misrepresentation. There was no real siege going on, as you can’t besiege a power that’s everywhere and whose main manifestation is a constant flow of electrons from stock exchange to stock exchange. That misrepresentation would prove fatal in Genoa. We were mistaking the power’s formal ceremonies for the power itself. We were making the same mistake Müntzer and the German peasants had made. We had chosen one battleground and a supposed field-day. We were all heading to Frankenhausen.”
(Frankenhausen is a reference to a battle in 1525 when government forces brutally crushed a German peasant uprising.)
Wu Ming describe how a social movement created an image without planning to do so, an image of global elites living in castles and of the people of the world besieging those castles. The metaphor had a powerful mobilizing effect. At the same time, the movement got tangled up in the metaphor’s web. No one person or group made the image, and no one could unmake it or steer it. Even noticing the metaphor clearly – understanding that it was a metaphor, rather than reality – was difficult at the time. The siege metaphor was tied in with other practices beyond vocabulary and imagery, of course. The siege metaphor was part of the over-all inertia of social movements at the time. Their structure of feeling was dynamic and energetic in a way that gave social movements forward momentum. (People who were around in that era might remember the slogan “we are winning!”) Momentum makes it hard to steer, though. Their momentum, including the siege metaphor, carried the movements forward into the Genoa protests, which Wu Ming describe as a terrible defeat which they weren’t prepared, on which they should have been, and could have been if activists had been paying more attention.
Just as the Italian left in the first part of 2001 got caught up in metaphor of storming the castle, the American right is caught up in the metaphor of armed revolution. Just as the siege metaphor was useful for the left, the armed revolution metaphor is powerful and useful now for the right. The imagery makes the present make sense to people. The imagery draws moral lines. It places the believers on side of the good guys who have been wronged. The good guys, in true Hollywood fashion, Just…Can’t… Take it… Anymore. The good guys are up against some bad guys who can be beaten, and who deserve to be beaten, and who have terrible, terrible plans in store if they are not beaten… These metaphors feel really good, even intoxicating. They help mobilize and energize people. Like the Italian social movements of 2000 and 2001, the US right is dynamic and energetic, with forward momentum.