At every point in the loom, sovereigns were thrusting in their shuttles, carrying the strand of a son or a daughter, and these, whizzing back and forth, were the artificial fabric that created as many conflicting claims and hostilities as it did bonds.

–  Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

The fabric of society was once a fairly common expression, conveying the idea that the whole is something different from (and greater than) the sum of its parts – as with a soup or a Jaguar XKE or a well-told story. As pictured by the metaphor, a society gets its unity from an interlocking of crisscross strands, individuals each pursuing their own course of life.

Revisiting the metaphor, Tuchman reminds us that weaving has to be done at regular angles, in a pattern that makes sense, or the result is a tangle. The royal families of medieval England and France were marrying off their children to Danes, Germans, Spaniards, Italians, and Hungarians in catch-as-catch-can strategies to gain territory, alliances, or claims to thrones. The result was the Hundred Years War.

In the 20th century, a morass of alliances, secret agreements, and royal interconnections turned the Serbian independence movement into the hairball known as World War I.

Photo: Adapted by Karl Stull


America has been looking for a better mistress, and now Nixon has discovered China.

– Nguyen Thieu, president of South Vietnam, 1965–1975

For Americans, the top metaphors of the Vietnam War were falling dominoes and the light at the end of the tunnel. We were there because we had to be, not because we wanted to. Our concerns were strategic, practical, strictly unromantic. Yet we did think of ourselves as the good guys, doing a good deed despite considerable sacrifice.

So it comes as a shock that the president of the democracy we saw ourselves as defending saw us, the United States, NOT as a knight in shining armor but as a rich old man infatuated with an exotic beauty on the cheatin’ side of town. Of course, Thieu had grown to manhood in a country that was colonized – by France, no less, the European capital of the woman on the side. It must have seemed to him that the way of the world was for the strong to use the weak as they pleased. As he saw it, France and then the US were pleased to use Vietnam as an overseas resort for forbidden appetites.

Was Thieu wrong? The facts of history are verifiable as facts. Their meaning is subject to interpretation, often a matter of which end of the metaphorical stick you were on.

Photo: Woman opium smoker in French Indochina (1915) via William Black/Pinterest

How bad are the mosquitos?

Apparently they were very bad in India and Burma during the colonial era. In a dark tribute to “Malaria” (1906) by Adela Cory Nicolson (pseudonym Laurence Hope), the mosquitoes formed clouds as they traveled, and they grazed like cattle on sleepless British administrators:

Clouds of mosquitoes, gauzy in the heat,
Rise [on] spangled wings aloft and far away,
Making thin music, strident and faint,
From golden eve to silver break of day.
The baffled sleeper hears th’ incessant whine
Through his tormented dreams, and finds no rest.
The thirsty insects use his blood for wine,
Probe his blue veins and pasture on his breast.

They were so bad, according V.C. Scott O’Connor, that British officials were driven to desperate measures in domestic furnishing: “In some houses, there is a special room, a kind of inner citadel and last refuge, which is wholly of iron gauze, and within it, the master of the house sits like a vanquished lion in a cage” (The Silken East: A Record of Life and Travels in Burma, 1904).

Photo: Zoohistorian/Wikimedia Commons

Dustbin of history

The “dustbin of history” metaphor – does it mean history has a trashcan or history is a trashcan?

In My Time, and What I’ve Done with It (1874), humorist F.C. Burnand took the “is a trashcan” view, noting that few of us have time to “sift the rubbish of the dustbin of History on the chance of discovering the diamond of Truth.” In other words, everything that isn’t today – be it diamond or dross – is history. And history, as Henry Ford famously said, “is bunk.”

Four decades after Burnand (the earliest “dustbin of history” in a search of Google Books), Russia was having its 1776-like moment, and Leon Trotsky said to the Mensheviks who walked out of the 1917 Congress of Soviets: “Go to the place where you belong from now on – the dustbin of history!”

As a Communist, Trotsky had a special regard for history. History is the arena in which the inevitable rise of labor is played out. In addition, history is the enduring record of decisive events. History is like a museum where the diamonds are on display and the rubbish is in a metal can out back.

How galling it must have been to the Soviets when Ronald Reagan threw the metaphor back in their faces, predicting in a speech before the British House of Commons in 1982: “freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history.”

Photo: NY Department of Street Cleaning, circa 1900;

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“Politics are very much like war. We may even have to use poison gas at times.”

— Winston Churchill

Churchill was joking, holding forth at a dinner with the king and top military commanders, including Eisenhower and Montgomery (February 3, 1944, diary of Field Marshal Alan Brooke). The joke at first blush is that politics and war are both must-win situations, making it necessary at times to resort to evil tactics. However, all the men at the table knew D-Day was coming and after the war there would be Nuremberg trials. So the joke on second thought is that generals have to be careful about resorting to evil tactics, unlike politicians.

The similarities between politics and war are less important than the dissimilarities. As Churchill remarked on another occasion, “In war, you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times.”

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