There are two great issues now before the country -- the reform of health care, and the future of America's involvement in Afghanistan. The discussions of both are being confused and distorted by metaphors that badly represent the realities of the issues.
[A curious aside. Some years ago, Susie and I took a Dalmatian cruise that started in Athens. We were standing on a street corner in downtown Athens, idly watching traffic go by, when I noticed a panel truck attempting to back out of a driveway into the flow of traffic. I can read the Greek alphabet, but not the Greek language, so I spelled out what was written on the side of the truck. It was "Metaphoros." With a start, I realized that in Greek, "metaphoros" means "moving." It was a moving van. A metaphor is a literary trope that moves one meaning to another. "Metaphor" is a metaphor! Isn't that neat?]
In the discussion of health care, the dangerous metaphor is "a machine with many moving parts." In the Afghanistan discussion, and the discussion of many other foreign policy issues as well, the metaphor is "nation building." Both metaphors are totally inappropriate, and conceal rather than reveal the nature of the issues. [Another even more widespread and dangerous metaphor is "problem," which implies the existence of a "solution,"but let us leave that to one side for the moment.]
The characterization of the extremely complex health care reform proposals as "machines with many moving parts" is intended to compare them to Rube Goldberg machines [an obscure reference for you younger readers -- Google it] or old fashioned timepieces in which a mechanical complex of wheels and gears and springs and pointers whirrs and turns and uncoils and makes ticking noises, producing a display that tells the time, or --in the case of a typical Rube Goldberg machine -- delivers a biscuit to a pet dog. The clear implication of the metaphor is that if any one thing goes wrong -- a cog slips, a spring uncoils too soon, a gear fails to mesh -- the entire machine will come to a halt and jam up. But the complicated health care reform proposals are not like this at all. They are assemblages of proposed changes to a very large number of institutional arrangements involving the pricing of health insurance, the reimbursement of doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers for services, the imposition or removal or alteration of taxes, and hundreds of other things. The proposals are lengthy and complex because health care in America is vast and complex, absorbing up to 15% of the nation's annual gross domestic product. If one or several provisions of one of the proposals fails to produce the intended changes, or produces unintended consequences, there is no reason at all to suppose that that will jam up the other components of the proposal or result in a systemic failure of the entire undertaking. And yet, bolstered by the false metaphor, Republican opponents of reform have made precisely that claim in the past few days.
The metaphor of "nation building" is much, much more dangerous. The implication of the metaphor is that bringing a modern viable nation state into existence is a problem in "social engineering" [another totally illegitimate metaphor.] The Manhattan Project [the World War II effort to make the first atomic bomb] was an engineering problem. All of the basic science was well known among the world's leading nuclear physicists, and what remained was to solve a series of very difficult engineering problems so as to be able to produce the explosive nuclear fission chain reaction that theory said would occur under the right conditions. The effort to send a manned capasule to the surface of the moon was also an engineering problem. Once again, the theoretical science was quite well known -- so well known that writers like Jules Verne were able to anticipate the space flight in their fictions by more than a century. But there is no such thing as "building a nation." The emergence of modern nation-states, now only four centuries or so old, has been a complicated historical succession of events much studied by historians, economists, political scientists, and anthropologists. I am not aware of a single case in which one nation state has actually created another viable nation state through deliberate, intentional state action. The closest examples, I suppose, are the artificial creation of states by imperial powers in Africa and the Middle East through the imposition of boundaries and the setting up of puppet regimes. Much of the present turmoil in the world is the aftermath of these misbegotten schemes. The question facing us in Afghanistan is not whether we are willing to expend the resources and suffer the casualties that would be required to build a successful Afghani nation. The question we face is whether, since that is an impossible and even meaningless project, we can find any national interest that will justify the expenditure of resources and lives. My own view is that the answer is No. But quite apart from what one thinks about that real question, we must all stop talking as though one possible, albeit expensive. option, is to engage in "nation-building."