Benching sports metaphors

Figures of speech are not just ornamentation.  They can shape the way we think about what they express.  Dana Milbank, annoyed with the way Barack Obama  keeps saying everything is a “game-changer,” points out how the use of sports metaphors in discussing politics and government today is distorting the way we think about them.

From  Dana Milbank: Governing is no game – The Washington Post:

Is it too late in the game to challenge Obama’s use of this sports metaphor to respond to Syria? The very real possibility that the Bashar al-Assad regime is about to use nerve agents to kill tens of thousands of people is not a “game.”

Game-changer — which has made its way from sports to business to politics and now to diplomacy — has replaced the “red line,” a term more easily understood by rogue regimes thinking of defying the United States. Game-change is a lazy reference, but that’s only part of the problem.

The term is one data point in the larger trend toward viewing government as a sporting contest, a series of games won and lost. In the perpetual battle to put a “W” in the column of the R’s (in the red jerseys) or the D’s (in blue), the sports talk helps the political class to forget the real human consequences to their games.

Obama and others in his administration have used the term in reference to food marketing standards (“truly a game-changer,” said the first lady), the JOBS Act (“a potential game-changer,” said the president), AmeriCorps, childhood-obesity prevention, Title IX, digital tutors, natural gas from shale, the Internet, the Independent Medicare Advisory Council, conversations about immigration, rail improvements, cyberspace research and foreign-aid standards. . . .

In the current fight over budget cuts, Washington seems to be suffering a late onset of March Madness. Journalists provide color commentary while Democrats and Republicans compete on the field. Some headlines from recent weeks:

Sequestration: GOP wins.”

Why Republicans won’t win a sequester showdown.”

The sequester: A long-term win for the GOP.”

Republicans are losing the sequestration battle.”

Republicans win a round.”

What Republicans have to lose in the sequestration.”

The Democrats have lost on sequestration.”

GOP losing sequester blame game.”. . .

For [those affected by the sequester] and for the people of Syria awaiting a sarin gas attack from the sky, what happens in Washington isn’t an athletic contest. Let’s level the playing field for them, and put a red line around the whole notion that governing is a game.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    Aw c’mon – they’re just metaphors. (Shrill sound of whistle, yellow flag hits ground.). Five yard penalty for unsportspersonlike conduct.

  • SKPeterson

    I prefer cooking metaphors for politics, like “they’ve cooked up a new bill in the House” or “more servings of pork, please!” or that old stand-by, “crafting legislation is like making sausage.”


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