When metaphors go wrong: America and Dirty Harry

As I’ve written before, the strange malady that afflicts the writing of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman — snappy but empty phrases, mixed or incomplete metaphors, clunky constructions that probably sounded better as an iPhone voice memo — seems to be contagious. And it’s a kind of writing that confuses more than it enlightens.

He's even scarier in Italian.

Today’s World Politics Review (a must-read source these days) has an interesting but fractured column by Tom Barnett, formerly of my estimable institution here on the Narragansett Bay. Barnett claims, in a flurry of pop-culture and historical references, that America is like Clint Eastwood’s iconic  police inspector, “Dirty Harry” Callahan, when economic times are tough. Or something.

He writes:

President Barack Obama has presented himself as the ender of wars. Moreover, where the preceding administration went heavy with its military power, the Obama administration goes laparoscopically light. And as if to culminate a quarter-century trend of U.S. military interventions that have all somehow devolved into manhunts of some sort, America now simply skips the intervention and gets straight to hunting down and killing bad guys.

We stand our ground, as it were, on a global scale. Give us the wrong gesture, look, attitude or perceived intention, and wham! One of ours might kill one of yours — in a heartbeat. You just never know.

If that sounds like the resurrection of the “Dirty Harry” mindset, it has a lot to do with our still-tough economic times. As a nation and society, we have a long and persistent history of adopting a decidedly illiberal attitude when income growth lags. Jostled by hard times, we feel little remorse about dispatching those who transgress, trespass, threaten or terrorize us.

So that’s Trayvon Martin, high-tech surgery, the Florida “stand your ground” law, Dirty Harry, and — I think — The Untouchables.

As Marisa Tomei’s character said in My Cousin Vinny (see, I can do it too): “There’s more!”

Part of what made Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of a righteously renegade police officer — in über-liberal San Francisco of all places — so powerfully attractive was the equally unsettling atmosphere of the 1970s…

Leave me out of this metaphor or I'll kill you.

For most pundits, the super-agent character of Jack Bauer in the series “24” remains the iconic expression of America’s post-Sept. 11 zeitgeist, primarily for his willingness to torture. But the show’s storylines were always necessarily blown up to fantastic proportions — a day to find and defuse a nuclear bomb, for instance — to justify Bauer’s edgy antics.

In truth, the vast bulk of America’s now decade-long globalized war on terrorists unfolds in the weeds, where our tough men and our killing machines track down their bad men across globalization’s many still-untamed frontiers. Yes, we’ve upgraded the technology, but this is still Gen. Crook hunting down Geronimo in 1880s America’s southwest territories.

Anyway, it goes on like that. (“We swoop into globalization’s ghettos, and after we air out the equivalent of the crack dealer, we get the hell out of Dodge…This is Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn rule…” And General Crook? Oy.)

Barnett’s film history is a little shaky; Dirty Harry was actually written in 1970 and filmed in 1971, so the story is more a reaction to the turmoil of the 1960s than it was to the America of the 1970s, which technically hadn’t arrived yet.

Summer of Love, my ass.

But Barnett, like most observers over the past 40 years, is right that the movie was a reaction to a sense that things were out of control in America, with Inspector Harry Callahan as a symbol of muscular order in the midst of social chaos. (Critics were less kind: they called it “fascist.”)

But Barnett is wrong to tie American interventionism to tough economic times. In fact, he’s got it completely backward.

Historically, Americans tend to be more comfortable flexing their country’s considerable international muscle when times are good, not when things are tight.

During the Cold War, the most ambitious American opposition to the USSR took place when the economy was expanding, not stagnant, a pattern noted by historian John Gaddis in one of his earliest books, Strategies of Containment.

The correlation, both during and after the Cold War, is hard to miss. Ronald Reagan’s more aggressive stances against Soviet involvement in the Third World took place during the post-1982 expansio. Bill Clinton’s multiple uses of force occurred during the boom of the 1990s. George W. Bush couldn’t control when 9/11 happened, but he had plenty of say over the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which took place when unemployment was under 6%.

The statue of national liberator Bill Clinton in Kosovo. (No, I'm not kidding.)

Unfortunately, this is what happens when writers fall in love with a metaphor. (“The world is hot, crowded, and flat.” So’s your writing, Mr. Friedman.) The metaphor writes itself, and makes for a great story, even if the story is wrong.

Placing “America” and “Dirty Harry” next to each other in a title — like I did in this post — is tempting, and easy, and attractive. But it’s also too seductive, and leads to conclusions like this one, at the end of Barnett’s piece:

But no matter how the message is delivered, and despite the fact that Obama’s stone-cold killer instinct has been sufficiently laundered by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, audiences the world over hear it the same way: America, even in this moment of intense self-doubt, stands its ground. And when the White House says “all options are on the table,” that really means that only one option is being added.

We have become an “open carry” superpower, proudly brandishing our weapons and sickeningly enjoying the subtle fear it factors into every confrontation, every negotiation and every conversation.

No one who’s read more than a page of this blog will ever mistake me for a fan of the style of the Administration’s foreign policy, even if I agree (surprisingly) with a lot of its substance. So I’ll try not to be misunderstood when I say:

What the hell could that mean?

Remember Nobel Peace laureate and inventive writer Rigoberta Menchu? No? Just as well; the committee probably doesn't want to, either.

First, no one remembers Obama’s Nobel, and the President’s supporters don’t exactly tout it, either. (Note to the Peace Prize committee: You jumped the shark a long time ago.)

But more important, I must be reading different newspapers than Barnett, because last I checked, GOP nominee Mitt Romney — he is the nominee, get over it — has been repeatedly castigating Obama for being overly apologetic and prissy about America’s role in the world.

In fact, the Republicans have made significant hay over Obama “leading from behind” in Libya, his inability to stop Syria’s butchery, and his apparent indifference to the Iranians giving us the finger repeatedly over their nuclear program. (Well, “the finger” in the diplomatic sense. I’m not above abusing a metaphor here and there either.)

Governor Romney’s main thrust in foreign policy has been to argue, in effect, that no one’s afraid of America anymore because of Obama, and even accusing the President of “appeasement.” Some of that criticism is fair, some not, but it’s the main narrative among the President’s opponents for a reason: they didn’t settle on it by accident.

"Hey, you know how elections can be." "Uh...not really, no."

And “subtle fear?” If only. Just today, the President was overheard on a hot mic asking Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for “space” on missile defense until after the 2012 elections. (Will politicians never learn to check that microphone? Bush got stung doing the same thing talking to Tony Blair some years ago.)

Asking the Russian president to understand America’s electoral complications isn’t in the same ballpark as asking “Do you feel lucky, punk.” (Or to steal a line from Pulp Fiction, it’s not the same ballpark, it ain’t the same league, “it ain’t even the same [****] sport.”)

Romney understandably seized the moment during a stop in San Diego this morning:

“When the president of the United States is speaking with the leader of Russia, saying he can be more flexible after the election, that is an alarming and troubling development. This is no time for our president to be pulling his punches with the American people – and not telling us what he’s intending to do with regards to our missile defense system, with regards to our military might and with regards to our commitment to Israel and with regard to our absolute conviction that Iran must have a nuclear weapon.”

"Okay, I've got one for ya: So these two presidents walk into a bar in Seoul..."

[A Romney aide later said that the candidate misspoke, and meant that Iran must not have a nuclear weapon.]

Whether you agree or disagree with the former Massachusetts governor, it’s something of an odd criticism to castigate Obama for being a swaggerer, since it’s not a criticism even his most dedicated opponent is making. (It’s also not an argument seen very often outside of the President’s increasingly disappointed progressive base.)

America is not exactly on an ass-kicking rampage under Barack Obama. But once that Dirty Harry/Florida shooter metaphor gets rolling, the rest of it is irresistible, if wrong.  A lesson here for writers and foreign policy analysts alike: don’t get carried away with images and metaphors. (I say this as someone who is addicted to semi-colons and more than once has been caught huffing his own overly cute paragraphs, similes, and constructions. Like just now.)

The world’s a complicated place, and one Tom Friedman obfuscating it at a time is enough. Or as Harry Callahan would say:  “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

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  1. “that Iran must have a nuclear weapon”? Does Dopey mean “now” or does he mean that hopefully it will have one in the future?

    Either way this is just getting sadder;

  2. Apparently, the candidate’s aide said he meant must not have a nuclear weapon; I’ve linked to the New York Times mention of the correction above.

  3. I think that if it comes down to it, Iran will get its “Do you feel lucky today” moment, although as to metaphors of international relations, the most important one is the difference in ending between Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, if none of it is exactly Thucydides. People seem to like word games though, probably due to us becoming vidiots drawing all sorts of associations in a way that probably goes overboard sometimes as to the difference between metaphor and reality.