California intensifies race to slow coronavirus’ spread

LA Times (February 29, 2020)

 

In this page-one headline, California is in a race with the coronavirus, but the competitors are not running side by side toward a finish line. The virus is running in all directions at once, like ants from an anthill. Or rats from a cruise ship.

In this application, “race” means go faster, get ahead of the spilled milk, and make it go slower. The moment for containing the threat with a finger in the dike has passed. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It’s no use shutting the barn door.

Instead our best hope is to interfere with the contagion and slow its progress: curbing, hedging, or hemmimg it in. Bogging it down. Or entangling, detouring, short-circuiting, or derailing it. In a literal race, all of these tactics would be cheating.

“It’s a race” might be the most common metaphor in journalism. It has the universality of “life is a journey,” juiced up with spectator interest: who will win? That question always gets attention among wolves, rats, elephant seals, and humans – species with males competing to be alpha.

Photo: Montana Public Radio, https://www.mtpr.org/post/blm-hearing-wild-horse-management-planned-billings

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At night such a fire is weird and beautiful,…one sees the tongues of flame as they leap and dance…and, if the wind is high, blowing forward advance guards and pickets of sparks and flakes of burning grass.

– Norman Garstin, “In C-P-Railia,” The Art Journal (vol 54, 1892)

Fire is dazzling, dangerous, out of control at times. It’s hard to understand what fire is, compared to a substance such as water or even wind, as observed in a dust storm. Fire is visibly active, but what is it doing? Flames leap as if driven by spirits, make mad gestures like dancers in a frenzy. Flames are sometimes forked and darting, like a snake’s tongue (ancient enemy in the Bible).

In fire, Garstin sees the main body of an army crossing the prairie (domain of the Central Pacific Railroad). It hurls sparks forward, advancing at breathtaking speed. This ability to spread rapidly gave rise to “catch fire” as a marketing metaphor. In the 1960s, surfing caught fire, mini-skirts caught fire, Tiny Tim caught fire.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, catching fire gave way to “going viral.” In 2020, the year of coronavirus, we have reason to reconsider “viral” as a metaphor for success.

Illustration: “Chicago in Flames – The Rush for Lives Over Randolph Street Bridge” by John R. Chapin in Harper’s Weekly (1871) via Wikimedia Commons

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He casually put his knee on a human being’s neck for nine minutes as he died like a zebra in the clutch of a lion’s jaw.

– Michael Santiago Render (Killer Mike), May 30, 2020, on the torture-murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police

In ancient Rome, lions symbolized the natural right of the powerful to dominate the powerless. The donkey seems to ask, “Does it have to be this way?” The lion, king of beasts, takes no notice of the question. Mosaic from Tunisia (AD 150–200), Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades (CA); courtesy Getty Open Content Program.

In the Roman Empire, the lion was a symbol of the natural right of the powerful to dominate the powerless. Later, the British Empire adopted the lion as its emblem. Today, The Lion King is a Broadway show.

Where the ancients saw a comparison

lion : other animals = Romans : other peoples

Render’s metaphor draws a line that separates humans from animals. The line is empathy. Video of the nine-minute death on a Minneapolis street shows a strangely calm, animal indifference to the suffering of another. Lack of concern for whether or not a pinned prey is dead yet will be all too familiar to viewers of Wild Kingdom.

The role of zebra is not easy for a man to accept, much less deliberately adopt. Nevertheless, submission is the survival tactic taught by black parents to boys coming of age. A moment of unmanning is put on a microscope slide in lyrics from “Early,” Run the Jewels 2 (2014):

Please don’t lock me up in front of my kids
And in front of my wife, man, I ain’t got a gun or a knife
You do this and you ruin my life
And I apologize if it seems like I got out of line, sir
’Cause I respect the badge and the gun
And I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away
Right in front of my beautiful son

Submission may or may not be enough, depending on the situation and officer. Some police come to the job with a “hunt-and-capture-prey mentality,” Render said in a Billboard op-ed in 2014. These are “thrill-seeking cops.” Their drive, in President Trump’s phrase, is to “dominate the streets.”

Reference
“Killer Mike on the Problems Underlying the Chaos in Ferguson,” Billboard (Aug 19, 2014). https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/6221865/op-ed-killer-mike-on-the-problems-underlying-the-chaos-in-ferguson)

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But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.

– Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy (1990)

If it’s like a tsunami, then justice is rare, an exceptional event. It comes after a sudden, earthquake-like downfall of tyranny – as in the French Revolution or the arrest of Harvey Weinstein. Wrongs of the past are swept away all at once. Or that is the hope.

To make hope and history rhyme – so that a dream of justice becomes historical fact – there has to be a huge accumulation of pain and anger. Nothing less will move an ocean of inertia. And the wave, once it rises, must reach the shore. Most uprisings sink back into the sea.

In early 2011, known for a while as the Arab Spring, a wave swept across North Africa. It began with the despair of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-seller in Tunis who set himself on fire in protest after callous persecution by a petty official. His story spread fast, stirring sympathy and outrage. People massed in public squares; governments fell. In Tunisia at least, a working democracy emerged and held on. Everywhere else, there was only wreckage and retaliation – still going on in Syria.

A tsunami leaves a terrible mess behind. There is no wiping the slate clean.

Progress, if not justice, is possible, and it may seem to come out of the blue. Harry Truman integrated the US military in 1948 with the stroke of a pen (Executive Order 9981). Oprah Winfrey won instant acceptance in American homes when her show premiered in 1986 – not as a picture-perfect “Julia” or one of the comical “Jeffersons” but as herself, talking about matters great and small that she personally cared about and that her audience of mostly white women also cared about. Barack Obama won presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, as if the country’s need for a wise leader were the only issue that mattered.

Postscript: A wave of protest against racial injustice swept across America in May-June 2020, after the torture-murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It remains to be seen whether history written in the next few months will at last fulfill the long-held hopes of millions of oppressed Americans – so that hope and history rhyme.

Photo: Trail up from the beach at Patrick’s Point State Park (California); Karl Stull

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Like trying to drink water from a fire hose

– D. E. Rogers, “Some Musings on Medical Education” (1982)

Too much, too fast: the water is liquid but might as well be solid. It is undrinkable.

Water in a less energetic state represents knowledge in Norse mythology when Odin drinks from Mimir’s well. In British history, the scholar-king James I was said “to drink indeed of the true Fountain of Learning” (Wm Sanderson, Compleat History…, 1656).

Many teachers have noted that knowledge-water can’t just be poured in:

It would be wonderful if our guardian angel could open a sort of trap-door in our head and pour in even a small part of the knowledge…
The Liguorian magazine (1951)

The strangest of all knowledge-drinking metaphors was developed by Robert Browning in Aristophanes’ Apology (1875), based on an ancient Greek party game called kottabos. In Browning’s kottabos, you are inside a rolling ball that has two holes: one hole is called High and Right and the other Low and Wrong. Wine dribbles in through the holes as the ball turns, and if you position yourself to drink only from High and Right, then you are like Euripides. If you drink regardless of where the wine comes from, you are like Aristophanes and can:

…drink knowledge, wine-drenched every turn,
Equally favored by their opposites.
Little and Bad exist, are natural:
Then let me know them, and be twice as great
As he who only knows one phase of life!

Ordinary kottabos is simpler, requiring only that you toss your almost-empty goblet across the room at a target that does ding!

Image: Young man playing kottabos. Red-figure kylix, ca. 510 BC. Ancient Agora Museum in Athens, via Wikipedia

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I want a new drug, one that won’t spill, / One that don’t cost too much / Or come in a pill.

– Huey Lewis, “I Want a New Drug” (1984)

From the long list of effects Huey does not want, it’s clear he doesn’t actually want a drug. What he wants is to “feel like I feel when I’m with you.” So this is a love song, an upside-down update of a Shakespearean sonnet. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Naw, that’s been done. Shall I compare thee to feel-good drugs (of which I have no personal knowledge but have heard about from others)?

Love is often compared to a temporary madness – as if it were caused by a psychotropic drug. That is the satire enacted in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when a few herbal eyedrops make Titania infatuated with a village idiot – and not just any village idiot but a village idiot with a donkey head.

In “Love Potion # 9” (The Clovers, 1959), a folk-pharmacologist mixes an elixir that smells like turpentine, looks like india ink, and produces cognitive and emotional disturbances:

I didn’t know if it was day or night.
I started kissing everything in sight.

Technical note: In the Huey Lewis song, “drug” is understood to be a metaphor only because of a simile (“like I feel when I’m with you”). It’s a curious combo: a metaphorical charge with a simile igniter.

Illustration: Library of Congress

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Remember what the dormouse said: feed your head.

– Grace Slick, “White Rabbit” (1967)

The idea that knowledge is something you can eat like food goes back to the Garden of Eden, with the stipulation that some knowledge is better left on the Tree. In 1741, Isaac Watts insisted there was no merit in reading all day long, because food was worthless without proper digestion.

As a Man may be eating all Day, and for want of Digestion is never nourish’d; so these endless Readers may cram themselves in vain with intellectual Food, and without real Improvement of their Minds, for want of digesting it by proper Reflections. (Improvement of the Mind)

For most of us, digestion comes automatically after eating, no conscious effort required. So Watts may be right about the need for proper Reflections, but his comparison is “hard to swallow.” (See the index, Meta-failed images, for familiar expressions that seem to make sense but don’t.)

The idea that wisdom could be ingested conveniently in pill form took hold in the 20th century – when vitamins, antibiotics, and The Pill offered “better living through chemistry.” Aldous Huxley described instant access to enlightenment through mescaline (The Doors of Perception, 1954), and a few years later pop radio was celebrating the extraordinary mental experiences available through sublegal pharmacy: “One pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small.” Grace Slick’s lyrics drew on imagery from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which included a cake with “Eat Me” spelled out in currants on top. But it was Slick, not the Dormouse, who advised feeding your head.

Photo: Adapted from Wikipedia

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I am not part of whatever drug deal Rudy and Mulvaney are cooking up.

– John Bolton to Fiona Hill (July 10, 2019)

In the most quoted metaphor from President Trump’s impeachment, John Bolton compared the dirt-for-aid trade to a street crime. Not white collar crime. Not mafia crime. Not a federal crime – which the Office of Management and Budget eventually decided did occur.

The thing about a drug deal is the parties can’t trust each other. The buyer is crazed with need. The seller is utterly lacking in humanity, and possibly short on business ethics. It’s a recipe for suspicion, betrayal, and violence. Thus in the 1990s “drug deal gone wrong” became a byword for street crimes that would never be solved but were no mystery.

In Bolton’s view, the Rudy Giuliani/Rick Mulvaney “drug deal” could go wrong in a hundred foreseeable ways. Making the same point in a further metaphor, Bolton said, “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” It remains to be seen whether the grenade will explode. Giuliani might be a dud.

Illustration: From a Thomas Nast cartoon (1872), via Wikimedia

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Like two balls in a nutsack.

Breaking Bad, “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” (Season 1, episode 6)

“We’re close” is what Skinny Pete means to say. He and Tuco hang together all the time.

A G-rated script might have said “like two peas in a pod,” an expression that sounds as old as the Appalachian hills but is first noted in 1924 (Bartlett J. Whiting, Modern Proverbs and Provervial Sayings, per Google Books). On the other hand, “nuts” meaning testicles is sesquicentennial – soldiers’ slang from the American Civil War (OED).

Soldiers, like sailors, are segregated from polite society for long periods and have opportunities to formulate and field-test new varieties of colorful language. To “curse like a sailor” is to practice the art of profanity with imagery, elaborations, and sustained vehemence no landlubber can match. The international drug trade, established in the 1700s by the British commercial fleet, is yet another seminal source of uber-exuberant English.

Photo: Wikipedia

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You’re like a beautiful, deep, still lake in the middle of a concrete world.

– Popular girl to Norman Bates, Bates Motel (season 1, episode 1)

The popular girl who befriends the new boy Norman doesn’t realize that in the depths of the beautiful, still lake, there lurks a Creature from the Black Lagoon.

But her metaphor is apt. High school is a world of hard surfaces, and kids who don’t fit can get scraped up pretty badly. Norman is an exception, naturally himself, a sweet boy making no effort to appear hipper, richer, cooler than he is. His naivete triggers dangerous feelings in the girls and women who encounter Norman. They want to mother him.

Only Norma Bates is allowed to mother Norman.

The mothering in Bates Motel is romantic but screeches to a halt, arms windmilling, at the cliff’s edge of sexuality (lest the beast come up from the bottom of the lake). Tensions between romantic and sexual feelings – the writers and actors continually draw and re-draw the line – give the show its energy,and frequent hilarity. Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates is a 1930s-style madcap comedienne in the role of hardest-working, worst mom ever.

Photo: Cradle Mountain (St. Clair National Park, Tasmania) by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikipedia

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