My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.—Forrest Gump
Gump never ran for public office — a smart move on his part. If he had, the opposing party would have put up a campaign ad insulting both his intelligence and yours. It probably would have gone something like this:
"Forrest Gump says the people of his district are nothing but lumps of congealed caramel and chocolate wrapped in cellophane. Who does Forrest Gump think he is? Call Gump now and tell him you're more than just a brainless confection in a cardboard box."
Gump was using a simile — something countless people do every day to illustrate a point. People used to understand how similes, analogies and other figures of speech work. Increasingly, however, they don't — or, sometimes, pretend they don't in order to whip up outrage.
This happened recently in Virginia, when liberals blasted Ken Cuccinelli for equating immigration policy with exterminating vermin — or even for equating immigrants with rats. Cuccinelli is an immigration hawk and a rhetorical rock-thrower, but did he actually say something that outrageous?
No. The Washington Post — a newspaper nobody would accuse of going soft on Republicans, let alone Cuccinelli — explained why not. A while back the GOP gubernatorial nominee awkwardly poked fun at a District of Columbia policy under which, he said, "pest control people . . . aren't allowed to kill . . . rats. They have to relocate the rats and not only that . . . they cannot break up the families of the rats. . . . It is worse than our immigration policy — you can't break up rat families. . . . It's unbelievable."
Cuccinelli is wrong on immigration policy (and wrong about the details of the D.C. rule, by the way), but his point should be clear: Government shows even more solicitude to rats than it does to undocumented immigrants, which is silly. Why is it silly? Because everyone knows rats are far inferior to humans. The comparison rests on that difference. To suggest Cuccinelli was drawing an equivalency, therefore, not only misses his point but gets it exactly backward.
Another example occurred at Virginia Commonwealth University last year, while the nation was debating Obamacare's contraception mandate. VCU held a panel discussion, during which one of the mandate's opponents said forcing Catholic institutions to provide birth control was like forcing a Jewish deli to serve ham sandwiches: It violated religious freedom unnecessarily, since the product in question is easily obtainable elsewhere.
You can argue the point, but another panelist (a professor, no less) chose not to. Instead, she accused the previous speaker of saying women were nothing but meat sandwiches. This not only misses the point entirely. It gets the analogy wrong not once, but twice: Nothing was being called a sandwich at all — and even if something had been, that something was contraception, not women.
The first speaker feebly objected that he had not called women sandwiches. "Yes you did!" bellowed a number of students in the audience. So much for higher education.
Analogies admittedly need some unpacking. Yet to those seeking an excuse for outrage, even simple comparisons are often too complex. Several days ago the conservative blogosphere erupted in fury because "Liberal Rep. Alan Grayson Compares Republicans to Dog Poop." Well, yes and no: In a floor speech, the Florida Democrat ran down a list of things that, according to a recent poll, were more popular than Congress — including witches, hemorrhoids and doggy doo-doo. Funny stuff — and nonpartisan to boot. Yet inside the right-wing echo chamber Grayson was calling everyone in the GOP a piece of dung.
On Fox News Insider, we are told that "Joe Biden Compares Republicans to 'Squealing Pigs.'" The vice president didn't say Republicans were pigs, though that was Fox's obvious implication; he said that's what their complaints about Wall Street regulation sounded like.
The conservative site The Blaze highlighted a clip in which "Former Bush Chief Strategist Compares Conservatives to the Flintstones." This, apparently, was supposed to elicit knee-jerk indignation. Others were furious that MSNBC's Rachel "Maddow Compares Republicans to Weasels on Angel Dust." She used that splendid image to depict how viciously party leaders were tearing one another apart.
Even light-hearted commentary becomes grist for the synthetic-outrage mill. When Rep. Jan Schakowsy fired up the Democratic troops by playing theme music from "Star Wars," this became: "Schakowsky Compares Republicans to Genocidal Stormtroopers!"
Democrats play the game, too. Last December, Republican Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho said Democrats "need more revenues. You know, Democrats are like bank robbers. You don't have the money in the 2 percent — the money is in the 100 percent. They want to raise taxes on everyone."
Labrador was alluding to the well-known story about bank robber Willie Sutton: When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton is supposed to have replied, "Because that's where the money is." Labrador was suggesting Democrats will not be content to tax the richest 2 percent of Americans, because they do not have enough money to fund everything Democrats want — so Democrats will go where the money is, and tax everybody. Within a picosecond, this became "Labrador Compares Democrats to Bank Robbers!" which really meant: "Watch This Republican Jerk says Democrats Like You Are Criminals. Grrr!"
Politics, wrote Orwell in "Politics and the English Language," is "a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia," and the decline of language "must ultimately have political . . . causes." It would be too much to say politics today is killing off the analogy. But the analogy lies bleeding on the ground, and politics is giving it another hard stomp.
Some day soon, an English professor will read an essay explaining that the Roman general Coriolanus must have been a farmer, because he is described as going forth to battle "like to a harvest-man that's task'd to mow." When the good professor flings himself out the window, as he almost surely will when that moment comes, he will know whom and what he has to thank.
This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.