Trent Lott and George Lakoff live in very different worlds. But they both understand the power of a good metaphor.
Lott, the canny politician, knows that the public likes complicated policies best when they are reduced to snappy soundbites. The more complex and controversial the policy, the more compelling the word picture has to be. So when the Republicans set out to foist a complex, controversial policy on the American people — getting Senate confirmation for every federal judge George W. Bush nominates by denying the Democrats the right to filibuster — Lott came up with snappiest, most vivid soundbite he could find: “the nuclear option.”
In recent weeks, Republicans have tried to quash that metaphor. They now realize it’s an embarrassing mistake that does their cause more harm than good. But it’s too late.
As Lakoff has taught us, every metaphor has a life of its own. A good metaphor is not just a random, meaningless turn of phrase. It’s a lens that can show us deeper truths. Once people see the truth, they won’t let the metaphor that revealed it go away. Though Republican PR firms are now spending millions to get us to dub the attack on the filibuster “the constitutional option,” their money is wasted. Everyone will still call it “the nuclear option.”
And with good reason. No other term captures so perfectly the magnitude of the destruction GOP senators plan to wreak on our governmental system of checks and balances. For two centuries, the right to filibuster has protected the minority from majority efforts to run roughshod over the Senate. If the Republicans get their way, the majority would, for the first time, be able to stop debate and force a vote as soon as they know they have enough votes to win. The minority would lose their only real bargaining chip for forcing compromise.
Trent Lott knew how much was at stake when he named it “the nuclear option.” The public knows how much is at stake, too. That’s one reason the metaphor won’t go away.
But there is another. Metaphors show us new truths by bringing pieces of our experience together in unexpected ways, provoking or uncovering previously unsuspected connections. In this case, it’s no coincidence when we hear Republicans talking about a “nuclear option.” The literal nuclear option that the Pentagon still keeps at the ready and the metaphorical one being prepared in the Senate have a lot more in common than just words.
Are Judges a More Serious Threat than Al Qaeda?
The people who want to nuke their political opponents are the same ones who gave us Ronald Reagan’s huge nuclear buildup, two decades of massive funding for a Star Wars anti-missile shield, two wars in Iraq, and so many other excesses of militarism. On America’s political right wing, politics and life itself are acts of war. It’s go-for-the-jugular, take-no-prisoners, winner-take-all. Nuclear weapons have always been a consummate symbol of the conservatives’ insistence on absolute victory and absolute control.
Of course, the name of the enemy changes from time to time. For most of the nuclear age, it was the “international communist conspiracy.” Though the nuclear option was created on the Democrats’ watch in the post-Hiroshima world of the 1940s, it was conservative icons like General Douglas MacArthur and Strategic Air Command head Curtis LeMay who were most eager to reach for it. Even the “moderate” Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower secretly claimed that he would use atomic bombs to end the Korean War if the communists didn’t settle on his terms. Yet Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers focused more on “reds” in Washington and Hollywood than in Moscow and Beijing.
A half-century later, the world seen from the far right looks much the same. For many, “the terrorists” have replaced “the communists” as the great global peril. Yet for a sizeable faction of social and religious conservatives, the real danger lurks not in far-away terrorist camps, but right here at home — in our courtrooms. “Federal judges are a more serious threat to America than Al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 terrorists,” the Rev. Pat Robertson said recently. With all their well-known decisions supporting “secular humanism” over traditional religious values, he claimed, judges “are destroying the fabric that holds our nation together.” Even moderately conservative judges can look like part of a vast conspiracy to undermine all the “family values,” which seem (though this is surely illusion) to give life stability.
For Robertson and his followers, we’re in a crisis of apocalyptic proportions. According to Christian right guru Donald Wildmon, for instance, if the Senate does not abolish the filibuster, judges will go on “forcing their liberal agenda on every American.” Then “we can forget democracy.” It’s “a critical moment in the history of our nation,” warned Focus on the Family’s James Dobson — which makes a weapon of apocalyptic magnitude an appropriate way to go, metaphorically speaking.
Rick Scarborough, chair of the Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration, summed up the social conservatives’ attack on the filibuster this way: ‘It’s about a temporal versus eternal value system.” Not surprisingly, such right-wingers want the law interpreted solely in light of their own eternal value system. And they’re perfectly ready to use any means necessary — even “the nuclear option — to make it so. Precisely because absolute values are at stake, they have no hesitation about invoking the absolute weapon. They are in no mood to compromise, any more than they would compromise with communists or with the devil. People who disagree with them are not merely wrong, they are evil; and the only way they can imagine dealing with evil is to annihilate it, to nuke it.
Of course, they feel pretty much the same about “terrorists,” even though they give judges a somewhat higher targeting priority. The war on terror and the war on secular humanism are, for them, merely two different fronts in an even larger war in which the enemy is any kind of social change that challenges the absolute rule of their traditional moral certainties.
The Neoconservative Option
In war, you take your allies where you can find them. In the current Republican coalition of the willing, the predominantly Protestant Christian right shares a political bed with the Roman Catholic right and a small but powerful group of Republicans, many of whom have deep Jewish roots: the neoconservatives.
Neocons share with the religious right a fear of changing social values. With today’s neocons so focused on global affairs, it’s easy to forget that their movement began as a reaction against the radical domestic trends of the 1960s. It embraced anticommunism (and the literal nuclear option) largely as a way to move the U.S. back toward traditional values on the home front.
“Everything is now permitted,” the neocons’ godfather, Irving Kristol, once lamented. “The inference is that one has a right to satisfy one’s appetites without delay.” And that, he warned, was “a prescription for moral anarchy, which is exactly what we are now experiencing.” Robertson, Dobson, and Wildmon could hardly have said it more clearly, or agreed more heartily on the nature of America’s most essential problem.
They would agree just as heartily with the neocons on another point — that the solution is moral fortitude. What the country needs is a will strong enough to resist the temptation of temporal values and ready to make the necessary sacrifices to live by the eternal verities. In the right-wing world, where absolute good vies constantly with absolute evil and every human will is part of the battlefield, only a total subjugation of evil can create an orderly, virtuous life. That, in turn, requires us to follow the moral dictates of a higher authority, rather than our own personal desires. This is what Lakoff has taught us to call the Stern Father model. It’s the Stern Father who threatens to unleash the nuclear option.
But how can Americans summon up the strength to live by the moral absolutes of our stern fathers? That’s where the partners in the GOP coalition part ways. For the religious right, such strength can come only from the Bible and (most would say) a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. For the neocons, faith is optional. They generally applaud religion as one rich source of traditional moral authority, but they don’t consider it the only one. Tradition (as long as it’s the tradition of “western civilization”) can serve just as well. “Our Father, who art in heaven,” is sufficient, but not necessary.
However, the neocons still need a stern father. Since they can’t insist that we find him in heaven, they would have us look for him in the city where the literal nuclear option has its home: Washington, DC — or, to be exact, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as well as across the Potomac at the Pentagon. That makes the neocons even more demanding, if possible, than the Christian right. They’re not content to insist on absolute righteousness in American social behavior. They want absolute American control over the whole world. That’s the only way they can imagine making the planet strong enough to resist the uncertainties of changing temporal values (and changing political rulers).
In the name of their fantasy version of moral stability, the neocons brandish the nuclear option on the international stage, just as they did in the era of Ronald Reagan. They consider nukes the ultimate weapon of intimidation, and they know that intimidation won’t work if you aren’t perfectly willing to carry out your threats. The obliteration of (evil) people is their chosen metaphor for the obliteration of moral evil. It’s how a neocon shows that he (or, very occasionally, she) is strong.
The Coalition of the Frightened
The “nuclear option,” then, is the perfect metaphor for a GOP dominated by a coalition of the religious right and the neocons, urged on by and funded by the military-industrial complex. The same Senate Republicans who would pander to the religious right by nuking the filibuster also want to rebuild and expand the nation’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, gear up for a new round of nuclear testing, and free the U.S. from all restrictions on nuclear armament. The “nuclear option” metaphor makes the connections easy to see.
It’s just as easy to see why the Bush administration has been so eager to send John Bolton to the U.N. Bolton is an ardent advocate of arms control — for other nations. He wants to control, or preferably just stop, the development of nukes in other lands, so that the U.S. can more easily use its nuclear preeminence to control the world. The administration hoped to have Bolton in place at the U.N. in time for the conference reviewing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that opened in New York at the beginning of May. Though it hasn’t worked out that way, the U.S. delegation is still doing everything it can to impose restrictions on others, while removing the Treaty’s faint hint of a restriction on the U.S. nuclear option.
Although it’s only coincidence that the “nuclear option” showdown in the Senate is coming in the same month as the NPT review, there’s poetic justice in it. It throws a bright spotlight on the links between Republican domestic and foreign policies. The GOP is caught in a fateful web woven from the religious, neocon, and military-corporate right. That web gets its tensile strength from its millions of supporters, who yearn for absolute certainties in an age when they no longer seem possible.
We can go on forever bemoaning the power of these millions and debating whether it is on the rise or the wane. Eventually, though, we have to confront the deep fear that drives them to embrace the nuclear option. They are genuinely frightened by a world that feels like its spinning out of control. Unable to cope with dizzying changes they can’t fully grasp, but which leave so many feeling cheated of a better life, they simply want to annihilate the forces of change. It’s fear of an unpredictable, uncontrollable future that breeds the violence. If you can’t beat ’em, they say, then nuke ’em.
The fear won’t go away any time soon; nor will the people who express it through all sorts of apocalyptic metaphors, including “the nuclear option.” Somehow, those of us who believe in choosing our own moral values have to learn to talk to and live with our compatriots who need universal, absolute values in order to survive. Figuring out that “somehow” may be the great American challenge of the 21st century.
Meanwhile, though, we do have to remove the nuclear option, in all its forms, from those frightened right-wing hands.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea, and is currently working on Monsters to Destroy, a book about religion and the war on terror in the Bush administration. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2005 Ira Chernus
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]