One of the most fascinating recurring features on Kottke.org, an eclectic compendium of the best writing, thinking, and imagining on the Internet, is one where the site’s author posts strange and evocative photos and videos — a horse pulling an automobile like a carriage, a man on the open water atop an upside-down wooden table with an outboard motor, Darth Vader ringing the opening bell on Wall Street with the tagline “This is a metaphor for something.”
Faced with the utter strangeness of the TSA flap (a controversy that has been covered to the point of exhaustion in its particulars), all I can think is: This is must be a metaphor for something.
The human brain is designed to see metaphors. Robert Sapolsky points out in an illuminating New York Times blog that humans have an innate skill with metaphor. It’s not something we are taught, but something we recognize almost by instinct.
For the Tea Party and many on the right, the TSA metaphor is easy to spot. The government, and its grubby, sticky fingers, grabbing what it shouldn’t — the entire situation is ripe for satire. An indignant “Hands off!” is an easy response, but it’s only part of the right one.
The TSA imbroglio itself is only part of the story. The constant clash between personal liberty and the need for security is certainly an apt subject for national debate. But that’s not what this seems to be about. Instead, it seems more about the utter and festering impatience of the American people with their government.
The Dickensian security bureaucracy is yet another villain in the tragic farce that is our relationship with our governmental and venerable private institutions. One by one they’ve let us down, falling to scandal, corruption, lack of relevance, and a long list of other woes. This is an age of frustration. Trust is out, and we all want to do it ourselves.
Though we have little trust in our old institutions, there is still a relentless energy in America. That’s why another metaphor, the ever-present zombie apocalypse most recently adapted in AMC’s new television series The Walking Dead, is less timely. Though zombies appear in the popular mind at moments of national stress, this iteration of the zombie craze doesn’t capture the national mood like those of the 1970s, when zombies were the ravening avatars of consumerism in a world of scarcity. Now, zombies are simply a diversion, with far less to say about our national self-image.
America is, as David Brooks recently wrote, a nation with much to be optimistic about. We are still poised at the crossroads of a worldwide information economy. This is still a magnet for the world’s brightest minds. We still have an unrivaled zest for entrepreneurship. We still do great things, even if our government doesn’t.
The image of millions of Americans waiting in line, impatient, and ill tempered; distracted by their technologies and media; poked and prodded by external forces; safer, arguably, but less free; ready to burst with frustration; traveling all over the country and world — this is a metaphor for something.
So is this: Some of these same Americans on those moving sidewalks you see at the airports, passing the bureaucracy at each gate, surging past the jostling crowd like it’s standing still.
Reach Will at firstname.lastname@example.org