A very interesting subject came up in the comments of last week’s post and, strange to say given that I’ve been writing about the Devouring Mother for more than two years now, I hadn’t fully appreciated the depth to which the State-as-Parent and State-as-Family metaphors go. I’ve been focusing primarily on the psychological aspects but it’s almost certain that these metaphors (I would call them archetypes) are more fundamental.
I would have guessed that the State-as-Parent metaphor was a universal and, yet, as we will see shortly, that is not true since it seems to be absent from language used by the Romans and Greeks. Novel metaphors can always be created spontaneously and when that happens we are usually conscious that a metaphor is being used. But when a metaphor is really fundamental, it gets solidified into the semantic structure of a language. At that point we become unconscious of it and can only retrieve the metaphor through what amounts to linguistic archaelogy.
The State-as-Parent metaphor is one that has become solidified into our language. But it comes to us not from the words we use to describe our political institutions, almost all of which are from Latin. Rather, it comes from the words we use for religious institutions. Those come from Greek and the Judeo-Christian tradition.
A relatively recent example of the State-as-Parent metaphor that caught my attention is this stand-up bit by Dave Chappelle about Trump (the part containing the metaphor starts around the 1 minute mark). I’m normally a huge fan of Chappelle but the jokes here don’t work for me.
One reason the jokes don’t work is that the Trump presidency was itself a comedy. I mean this in a technical sense. The technical definition of a comedy is a protagonist who wins in spite of, or even because of, their flaws. There can be no doubt that Trump is flawed. Like any good comedy, the Trump presidential campaign did not hide his flaws but brought them out into the open for all to see. They became a key part of the story.
Who can forget the “grab ’em by the p***y” plot twist in the last weeks of the campaign? In technical screenwriting language, that’s called the High Tower Surprise. It’s when all seems lost for the hero. But all was not lost for Trump. He went on to win anyway. That’s why the story is a comedy.
An unspoken rule of comedy is that it should never “punch down”. A comedic story never makes fun of the protagonist who is, by definition, the weaker party. Rather, it makes fun of the antagonist, who is the stronger party. The protagonist wins in spite of their flaws. The antagonist loses despite being better positioned.
For this reason, a common feature in any comedy is that the antagonist behaves like a bumbling fool. It doesn’t matter that they are powerful, rich or even intelligent people. In fact, the comedy can work better when the antagonist is all of those things and yet screws it up anyway. That’s exactly the role that Hilary Clinton played in the Trump presidential comedy. She was the bumbling antagonist of the story who had everything going for her and lost anyway. The fact that she was pretending to be infinitely virtuous and intelligent just adds to the comedy.
For these reasons, it’s almost impossible to make any good jokes about the Trump presidency because doing so would count as “punching down”. That’s the technical problem with Chappelle’s Trump jokes. But there’s another big problem with it and this one relates to the aforementioned State-as-Parent metaphor.
One of Chappelle’s jokes invokes the metaphor explicitly. He likens Trump telling the public the truth about how bad things are with the government to his own family situation. Just like Chappelle wouldn’t tell his son that he’s struggling to pay the rent, neither should Trump tell the American public any bad news about the state of the government. The underlying logic is that parents lie to their children, therefore presidents should lie to the public. This is the State-as-Parent metaphor in its purest form.
There’s two things that struck me as strange about this joke and its use of the metaphor.
The first one relates to Dave Chappelle himself. Stand-up comedy is one of the few remaining genuine meritocracies in our society. The only way to get to the top of stand-up comedy is by being awesome and the only way to get awesome is to spend years working on your craft playing crappy gigs in dingy comedy joints in front of a handful of people. You don’t get to the top of stand-up comedy unless you are a dedicated, disciplined adult. Why would a dedicated, disciplined, highly-accomplished adult think the government needed to lie to them as if they were a child?
But the bigger problem is that Dave Chappelle is an American and so is the audience who laugh along to the joke. Last time I checked, America was supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave. Does a free and brave people need to be lied to by its government?
If ever there was a country where the State-as-Parent metaphor should not work, it should be the USA. The US declared its independence and fought a war against its “father” King George III. But of course, there has always been a huge paradox in the founding of the United States. The very men who fought for independence from the tyrannical “father”, King George III, immediately became the founding “fathers”. The US replaced one State-as-Parent metaphor with another one.
To shed some light on this paradox, I’d like to indulge my love of etymology. Let’s do a survey of some of the main words we use in relation to political matters.
Here is a list of the most prominent words we use to denote political leaders:
Boss, master, lord, monarch, emperor, magistrate, consul, sovereign, potentate, ruler, leader, governor, primate, chief, president.
Almost of all of these words come from Latin and they all had roughly the same meaning in that language which we can summarise under the concepts: supremacy, control, rule. These words literally denote a person who is in control, in command and has authority. That person can be a fool, a traitor or a tyrant, and many famous names throughout history were exactly that. But the words themselves simply mean a person who holds a position of power.
Similarly, our words which denote a political grouping such as public, republic, community and state also come from Latin and literally mean a grouping of people with no wider connotations.
“Tribe” is also from Latin where it had a non-metaphorical connotation. Rome was divided into tribes for the purposes of taxation and military conscription (from whence comes “tribune” and tribunal). This was a purely administrative matter. However, the word tribe was later used for the Biblical tribes of Israel where it took on connotations related to family since the tribes of Israel were the descendants of Jacob, hence the patriarchal connotation.
Then there is the “senate”. Senate comes from the Latin senex meaning old man. The founder of Rome, Romulus, created a senate of 100 men. I suppose we would call them “wise men” since that is the connotation. “King” also has a connotation of wisdom and age. Different translations of the Bible have either three wise men or three kings visiting baby Jesus, for example.
From this short survey, we can see that Roman political terminology was seemingly completely devoid of the State-as-Parent and State-as-Family metaphor. The Romans referred to their leaders in a very literal fashion. Here is a person-who-leads.
There is one Latin word that has a family connotation, although whether it was ever used in Roman political life is a question I couldn’t find a quick answer to. The word “nation” comes from the Latin nationem and relates to birth and therefore ancestry and lineage. It is very similar to the word “clan” which is Gaelic for family. The word “king” is related to “kin” and hence also must have had a family connotation once upon a time.
(Incidentally, the word “family” is from the Latin familia which referred to the domestic household in general including blood relations and servants/slaves).
It is not from the Roman tradition but from the Judeo-Christian tradition that we see the family and parental metaphors in full flight.
The church fathers are the patriarchs which is Greek for father. Patria meant “family”. The big one, of course, is “Pope” which comes from “papa” meaning father. Christianity has parental/familial metaphors built into the heart of the theology. The Pope is the “father” and the church is the “mother”. The first two items of the trinity are Father and Son.
In the Old Testament, man’s relationship to God is one of master-servant. In the New Testament, it’s Father-Son. St Paul’s letter to the Galatians succinctly summarises this change:
Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba Father.” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
We could fill up a whole book with more examples but this is enough to see the pattern. Western culture’s parental/family metaphor come not from the Roman and Greek political tradition but from the Judeo-Christian tradition. For most of Roman history, these were separate but they got mixed together late in the Roman Empire when Christianity became the state church. That mixture then gave birth to Faustian (European) civilisation and we are the inheritors of the linguistic metaphors summarised above.
The early Faustian civilisation was literally created by the Popes (fathers). The Pope was himself the mediator with God. There had been no need for a Pope in the earlier days of Rome since the king or emperor already filled that role.
Romulus was said to be the product of divine conception between the god, Mars, and the virgin, Ilia (sound like a familiar story?) Accordingly, he was already a mediator with the gods and was both king and head of the church, as were the subsequent rulers who followed him. There was no need for a Pope, since the king was already divine.
In the early days of the Faustian, the Pope took it upon himself to confer divine blessing on the various northern kings who probably had no idea what the point was. That’s why the Reformation would later happen in the north. The “barbarian” northerners were finally strong enough to throw off the foreign practices that made no sense to them.
Given this history, it’s no surprise then that parental metaphors were present in the rhetoric used at the time of the US independence movement. The US had significant protestant and puritan populations and these had explicitly rejected the Pope and therefore the earthly religious “father”. They were about to do the same thing to another “father figure”.
At the same time, the Enlightenment thinkers of that era were also rejecting the familial and parental aspects of religion. Consider the opening lines of Immanuel Kant’s essay What is Enlightenment:
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage [childhood]…Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor.
For Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers, man has wilfully remained a child and now is the time for us all to become adults. The US declaration of independence was motivated by the same spirit. Independence from what? From the “external guidance” of King George III who was portrayed as the tyrannical father who would not allow the colonists their freedom.
The historian, Kenneth Lynn, summed up the situation this way:
The men who broke with Britain in 1776 had been prepared by their upbringings to make a successful separation from their parents and to face with equanimity the prospect of living independently. The psychologically painful experience of overthrowing the father figure of George III and of breaking the historical connection between the colonies and the imperial parens partriae was led by colonists who had not been tyrannised over by their own fathers, and who in fact were accustomed to thinking of parental authority as a guarantor of filial freedom and self-realisation.
Note that this analysis also implies the State-as-Parent metaphor. People raised by their parents to be independent will demand political independence too.
Given all this background and given the example of the founding “fathers” who really did demand their freedom and won it in battle too, how did the USA end up where it is today with a seemingly large proportion of the population that not only expects the government to lie to them but thinks that the government needs to lie to them in order to run the country properly? How did the State-as-Parent metaphor make a comeback? How did the US government become the Devouring Mother?
One reason is implied in Lynn’s analysis. If the founding fathers had been raised by their parents to be independent individuals and this is what motivated them to also demand political independence from the state, we can hypothesise that the opposite holds true today. Parents no longer raise their children to be independent, therefore the children do not demand political independence from the state. On the contrary, they demand that the state take care of them.
Of course, unlike in the days of the founding fathers, in the modern word the state itself plays a huge role in raising children through the education system. Can it really be a surprise that state-based education is going to educate children in just such a way to ensure that they will acquiesce to the needs of the state? And here is another paradox because the Enlightenment thinkers were obsessed with “education”.
As Kant noted: childhood is comfortable. How does one break the child out of its addiction to the comfort of the family? The anthropological literature shows us rites of passage that seem expressly designed to achieve just that outcome. In Australian aboriginal culture, for example, a young boy was literally (but mostly symbolically) torn from the arms of his mother and carried off for initiation with the men. He leaves as a child and returns as an adult. In between are a series of rites designed to break any lingering addiction to comfort.
Enlightenment thinkers wanted to replace religious rites with “education”. This education was supposed to develop the faculty of reason and that was supposed to be the thing that produced “grown-ups”. Is that really true? If laziness, cowardice and addiction to comfort are the problems, how does a scholarly education address the issue?
Modern education is designed to produce scholars, mandarins and bureaucrats. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Society needs such people, albeit in far smaller numbers than what we now produce. The problem is that there’s nothing in the life of a scholar, mandarin or bureaucrat that requires the development of courage or hard work. On the contrary, such people tend to lead lives of relative ease and are liable to fall into the trap of laziness and comfort.
Therefore, education as conducted in modern society is almost designed not to produce the enlightenment that Kant talked about. If it did, we would already be enlightened, since we are the most educated society in history. Instead, we live in a time where hysteria reigns. That’s one reason for the failure of the Enlightenment ideals.
A second arises when we look at the more practical uses of reason such as displayed by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was the ultimate do-it-yourself man. He built his own house, made his own furniture and even made his own reading glasses. But, as has been pointed out numerous times, he only had the time to do that due to his land holdings and the slaves who worked those holdings. Even then, he was in debt up to his eyeballs. The self-sufficiency ethic that Kenneth Lynn talked about was always problematic even among its finest practitioners.
As if these problems weren’t enough, industrial capitalism appeared on the scene. Kant’s enemies of Enlightenment were comfort, laziness and cowardice. Industrial capitalism was always designed to produce comfort. The romantics who argued against the bourgeois ethic did so on exactly the grounds that it was all about comfort, security and moral pretentiousness. It produced people who were fat, lazy and far too contented with themselves.
At first it produced comfort only for the bourgeoisie. In the 20th century, the comfort was rolled out to almost everybody in the West. Modern democracy, which began as a genuine movement aimed at wielding political power for the majority, morphed into little more than a giant exercise in pork barrelling as the State promised to deliver goodies in exchange for votes. Society became entirely predicated on material comfort.
The Enlightenment thinkers had assumed a continuation of the frugality and temperance that was natural to the time before industrial capitalism. They probably never imagined a world such as the one we live in but they could have predicated the consequences. I’m sure Kant would have known that showering down material excess on a population would not produce enlightened individuals able and willing to use the faculties of reason. It would produce spoiled brats.
So, we substituted one form of keeping people as children for another form. The Church kept its “children” in line by preaching a dour life of material scarcity with the threat of eternal punishment. Turns out it’s just as easy to keep people under control by promising that they can have whatever they want as long as they do what they’re told. As Kant said, it is comfortable to be a child.