The principal figure is Minerva, with her spear and Gorgon shield, typical of the manner in which California was born, full grown…

– Bayard Taylor, describing the California state seal, in Eldorado: Or, Adventures in the Path of Empire (1860)

CaliforniaSeal

Just as Minerva had no childhood, but sprang full-grown from the forehead of Jupiter, so California skipped the territorial stage of development and joined the Union immediately upon application, with a voter-approved state constitution already in hand.

The Jupiter from whose forehead California statehood sprang was General Bennet C. Riley, who in April 1849 became commander of the Military Department of Upper California (including today’s Nevada and Arizona). Riley had responsibility for law and order in the region but not nearly enough troops, as the Gold Rush boosted the California census from around 10,000 to a quarter-million in two years. Most of the new arrivals were adult males with pickaxes, guns, and a dream of quick riches. There was a corresponding rise in frustration, desperation, soured hopes, and lawlessness. California needed governments, courts, and sworn police officers in a hurry.

General Riley issued a proclamation for a constitutional convention, held in September 1849 in Monterey. In ordinary circumstances, it would be Congress that would invite a territory to draft a consitution. Seeing gridlock on Capitol Hill, where the priority was balancing the number of free states versus slave states, Riley acted on his own authority. In Roman mythology, Minerva is the armed goddess of wisdom.

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The wall has become a metaphor for border security.

– Senator Lindsay Graham, CBS News video at the White House (December 30, 2018)

Many people, especially in Congress, were unsure about how literally to take President Trump’s vision of a “big, beautiful wall.” Confusion of this kind is addressed in Gulliver’s Travels, when Gulliver visits Lagado. In that city, he meets innovative thinkers at work on language reform. Their idea is that words only get in the way of communication.

…since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discourse on (III.5).

Want to talk about french fries? You pull some french fries out of your backpack and show them to your interlocutor. If you are talking about a wall…

if a man’s business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged in proportion to carry a greater bundle of things upon his back, unless he can afford one or two strong servants to attend him.

The system works best when people do their conversing at home, where the parlor “is full of all things ready at hand.”

Gulliver remarks that a thing-based language has the advantage of being universal. No need for translators, because there can be no uncertainty about what the other fellow has in mind.

This was not the first occasion on which I had encountered those outbreaks of stupidity, hatred and credulousness, which social groups secrete like pus when they begin to be short of space.

– Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)

As an anthropologist, Levi-Strauss understood the underlying causes of friction between ethnic groups. As a Jew in France in 1941, he understood it was high time to get out of Europe. When a majority group feels deprived, minorities soon feel the pressure. Accusations, outrageous stories, and fear mongering spread like a rash across all zones of contact.

Migrants fleeing Europe – respectable citizens, who yesterday would have been welcomed as tourists – were treated as quasi-prisoners by border police, coming and going, at every port along the way. (Recall the opening of Casablanca, tracing complicated routes from Europe to Africa.) Even Levi-Strauss, a professor invited to teach at Columbia University, was detained at a camp in Puerto Rico for weeks and questioned by the FBI. They thought he might be a German spy. Stupidity, hatred, credulousness.

Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.

– John McCain, on CNN’s State of the Union (March 16, 2014)

Often a metaphor asks you to see a thing as greater than the sum of its parts. Ronald Reagan called America “a city on a hill,” an example visible to all the world. McCain’s metaphor takes Russia in the other direction, reducing it to less than the sum of its parts, comparing it to a roadside operation run by swindlers.

Obviously, the homeland of Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, and Andrei Sakharov has more to offer the world than oil and gas. McCain was making a point about the current regime: i.e., that sanctions against individuals are effective when a government is run by gangsters.

When enemies of the U.S. look for a metaphor that reduces us to our worst traits, what do they come up with? Soviet-era propaganda featured bankers with top hats and bloated bellies (less lovable versions of the figure in Monopoly). They hit closer to home when showing the Statue of Liberty in chains or hanging her head in shame.

Islamic militants refer to the Crusader – a figure we see as an ideal, the knight in white with a red cross. The militants see him as a gangster masquerading as a pilgrim.

Behold the dread Mount Shasta, where it stands, / Imperial amidst the lesser heights, and like / Some mighty, unimpassioned mind, companionless / And cold.

– John Rollin Ridge, “Mt. Shasta, Seen from a Distance” (1850)

“Unimpassioned mind” is an unusual way to describe a mountain. Mountains are often lofty, pure, mighty, noble, or regal, but it’s rare to find one with awareness.

It’s not a kindly awareness. It is solitary, cold, and far-removed from human concerns.

No human breath has dimmed the icy mirror which
It holds unto the moon and stars and sov’reign sun.

Mt. Shasta sees and is seen. Wearing a crown of snow upon its brow, it gazes down upon the valleys and streams of the Golden State, down upon the sea and the lesser mountains. Parents and children sense its divinity. Even the cattle driver:

Oft will rein his charger in the plain, and drink
Into his inmost soul the calm sublimity…

Toward the close of this 76-line poem, Mt. Shasta becomes a symbol for the rule of law, sorely needed in Gold Rush California, where vigilantes did much of the policing. The legal system Ridge has in mind is, like Shasta, devoid of human passion – so much so that:

e’en pity’s tears shall on
Its summit freeze; to warm it, e’en the sunlight
Of deep sympathy shall fail…

Ridge’s belief in a clear, pure, cold legal system – one that would by its impartiality right the wrongs of the past and elevate humankind to a more principled way of life – seems heroic, and quixotic, when you learn he was a Cherokee who accepted American culture and was committed to racial assimilation. It may be that “Mt. Shasta” gives us a glimpse into the mind of a modern counterpart, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Biographical note: At age 12, Ridge witnessed the murder of his father, a signer of the Trail of Tears treaty. His mother, who was white, a schoolteacher’s daughter who married for love, saw to it that Ridge received a good education. Despite his belief in assimilation as the way forward, Ridge knew very well that American society was not blind to race.

Coming to California in 1850, Ridge tried mining but soon turned to journalism, and he wrote California’s first novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, about a young Mexican who tries the American Way but is turned to crime by American prejudice. The story is notable for the hero’s ability to walk unrecognized among the townspeople who feared the very mention of his name, and for the cold cruelties inflicted by his followers, especially Three Fingered Jack. Ridge lived in Grass Valley, 200 miles from Mt. Shasta, and died there of brain fever at age 40.

Find the full text of the poem at https://ualrexhibits.org/tribalwriters/artifacts/Poems-of-John-Rollin-Ridge.html#MountShasta

Inflation is already “baked into the cake.”

– Tim McMahon, InflationData.com, July 14, 2006

The “baked into the cake” metaphor seems to have gotten started in the early 2000s, first among stock-market bloggers and then political talking heads. The question is: are things being dissolved into the cake batter, like sugar, flour, and baking powder? Or is there a prize being suspended in the middle, like the trinket in a king cake? If so, the “prize” is often an unwelcome consequence.

Inflation is a good thing in conventional (non-metaphorical) baking. Gas bubbles trapped in the batter give cake its air-filled texture, so it springs back when pressed lightly. But inflation is bad in financial markets. Money that is light and airy buys less than money that is heavy and dense like gold.

Either way, the sense of the expression is you are stuck with your cake as is. You not only have it, you are going to have to eat it too.

C’mon, it’s like a zipper!

– I-80 motorist to merging traffic

On a crowded freeway, when two lanes of traffic must narrow down to one, the cars may come together like the teeth of a zipper – two sides taking turns to open and fill spaces efficiently. The “teeth” are not like chomping teeth but like the teeth in the gears of a well-designed machine, such as a pocket watch.

But sometimes the traffic gets jammed, as zippers sometimes jam. Jamming occurs in traffic when some of the drivers see themselves as racehorses rather than gears, jockeying for position in a crowded field where one will come out ahead and the others…well, they’re losers. Clearly, putting racehorses together with gear teeth results in a mishmash, something like a log-jam, in which the benefits of competition and cooperation are both lost. It is bad to mix metaphors.

The word log-jam entered American speech by 1885 (or 1851), and registered in the national imagination as an image of colossal system breakdown by 1907, when the Springfield Weekly Republican reported that a legislative log-jam had at last been cleared in Congress. Traffic jam became a word around 1917. The zipper came to market in 1925 as a closure for boots, a quick and easy alternative to too many buttons.

Photo: Karl Stull