Is Something Understood Metaphorically Always Preferable to and More Palatable than Its Literal Alternative? (Or, Could the King of America Abolish Teachers’ Lounges?)

Earlier today, I did a post on very clever political messaging from the Kasich presidential campaign. I closed that post with this observation: “Whatever limitations he may have as a speaker or as a campaigner, he has managed to offset them with a great deal of political experience and political savvy.”

In this post, I would like to address the introductory, dependent clause in that sentence.

In early July, as Governor Kasich was about the announce the launch of his presidential campaign, Stephen Koff, the Washington Bureau Chief for the Ohio Media Group, wrote a piece published on Cleveland.com titled “John Kasich Addresses the Jerk Characterization.” The article opens:

“John Kasich has been called “brash” and “a jerk.” He’s direct, willing to insult at times and unwilling to suffer those he views as fools. It’s a trait Ohioans know and largely accept, and the second-term governor balances it with occasional glimpses of humility and even, sometimes, an apology.

“But as Kasich takes the national stage in preparation for an expected presidential run, his brashness comes up time and again. So how does he respond to that? How will he deal with that going forward in a campaign?

“Asked during a news conference Tuesday while he was in Washington, D.C., to hold private political meetings, Kasich answered by first talking about his record of accomplishment and his reelection.

“But he also said his upbringing in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, explains some of what people see.

“’We’re pretty direct where we come from,’ he said.

“And he said the country is ready for a leader who tells it straight.”

[Koff’s complete article is available at: http://www.cleveland.com/open/index.ssf/2015/07/john_kasich_addresses_the_jerk.htl]

This week, Governor Kasich’s shoot-from-the-hip style of off-the-cuff comment was very much on display in a remark that he made about teachers. Here is how Tom LoBianco reported on Governor Kasich’s remarks and the resulting controversy for CNN:

“While lighting into teachers unions Wednesday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he would ban teachers’ lounges if he had the chance.

“’If I were not president, but if I were King of America, I would abolish all teacher’s lounges, where they sit together and worry about ‘woe is us,’ Kasich said at an education conference in New Hampshire sponsored by education group The Seventy-Four and The American Federation for Children. The comment drew a few laughs from the crowd, which is spending the day hearing from Republican presidential candidates.

“Kasich is known for being blunt and direct, but earlier in his talk, he noted some times where he had worked with the teacher’s unions in Ohio before.

“Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said that the governor didn’t mean literally replacing teachers’ lounges in schools and said he using a metaphor.

“’He thinks teachers have far more support in their communities than they sometimes give themselves credit for and they shouldn’t pay attention to the small number of pot-stirrers in their ranks who try to leverage problems for political gain,’ Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said in a statement. ‘Anyone thinking he was making a comment on buildings or school architecture or space usage might need to look up the word ‘metaphor” in a dictionary.’

“The Seventy-Four is a non-profit, non-partisan group founded by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown. The American Federation for Children was started by Republican donor Betsy DeVos. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were scheduled to speak later in the day. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke earlier.”

[The CNN article is available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/08/19/politics/john-kasich-teachers-lounges-ban.]

So, Rob Nichols clearly recognized that the statement made by the governor was problematic and his damage control was to describe it as “metaphorical.” And then, so that there would be no freelance speculation about what the metaphor might mean, he explained it—ostensibly for the benefit for anyone who does not understand what the word “metaphor” means.

Well, I find the explanation as troubling as, if not more troubling than, the literal statement. There could be all sorts of reasons for eliminating teachers’ lounges, but the explanation offered by Rob Nichols very clearly indicates that the main reason would be to prevent teachers who are political or union activists from communicating their views to their colleagues. In effect, such activism is viewed as inappropriate, and teachers unions are viewed as something that ought not to have a visible presence in our schools—not even in the teachers’ lounges or among the teachers whom the unions represent.

But perhaps in the wake of Senate Bill 5 and the recurring, subsequent efforts to eliminate faculty union rights in Ohio, I am over-reacting to the statement—have an exaggerated sense of the anti-union sentiments being expressed. Perhaps, it is only some metaphorical musing on what a preferable circumstance it would be if teachers could focus more exclusively on teaching and did not need to be so vigilent about protecting their collective bargaining rights.

Perhaps Governor Kasich was also speaking metaphorically when he made the following statement while informally campaigning in New Hampshire several months ago:

“The problem in the universities, Kasich said, is tenure, ‘which, by the way, I don’t know if that’s a 17th or 18th Century philosophy, but the rules of tenure in my opinion create the disincentive for people to be risk­takers.’ Tenure puts a premium on academic publishing over innovation and then protects the status quo rather than rewarding risk takers, Kasich said.” [The article by Stephen Koff from which this quotation is taken is available at: http://www.cleveland.com/open/index.ssf/2015/04/john_kasich_on_ohios_status-qu.html.]

The broader but little acknowledged irony is that when Governor Kasich was narrowly elected over the incumbent Ted Strickland in 2010, his margin of victory may have been provided by substantial majorities in the votes cast by teachers.

But people smart enough to teach at all levels are also smart enough to protect the erosion of professional standards, of their own professional standing, and of their own economic self-interest.

The vote to repeal Senate Bill 5 reflected a broad political awareness of the issues at stake. Governor Kasich has repeatedly said that he learned from that political experience.

I suppose that if the anti-labor rhetoric has gone from being intended literally to being intended metaphorically, that is a good thing. But if the line between the literal and the metaphoric is sometimes ambiguous in literary studies, it is all the more ambiguous in politics.

The currency says “In God We Trust.” But it does not say anything about metaphors.

 

P.S. I find it odd that the comment about abolishing teachers’ lounges seems to have attracted so much attention that the “if I were King of America” comment was not taken out of context and endlessly parsed for its controversial possibilities.

If nothing else, it seems almost bathetically out of proportion with any issue related to teachers’ lounges. (If Rob Nichols should read this, I am fairly certain that I do not need to define “bathos” to him.)

 

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