#892: A Primer on Metaphors (Or Don’t Put Lawn Jockeys on the Reader)

February 21st, 2018

I’m not here to talk about the racism. Better men than I have that covered.

I’m not here to talk about bullying in media, or about liberals who use people of color as proof of purchase for ideology.

I’m not here to join the chorus of thinkpieces saying the Chicago Reader’s cover using a lawn jockey to symbolize black voters is really about this and that is really about that. This is really about what Adeshina Emmanuel said it was about — racism both overt and covert, a decision-making process that put a bully in command and the media’s desire for black men’s voices so long as the black men say what they’re expected. I have no words to add to that.

My sole purpose in this non-thinkpiece thinkpiece is to remind Chicago writers how to use a metaphor.

Metaphors and satire are tricky beasts, but an easy fix for stuck writers. How better to get people to care about your issue than by drawing comparison to things people already care about? Half your work is done.

When the Reader’s recently and rightly ousted executive editor Mark Konkol wanted his package on J.B. Pritzker to have more emotional impact, he stole the emotional impact of a racist symbol. The Chicago Tribune’s Kristen McQueary did the same thing a few years ago, stealing the emotional impact of the thousands of deaths Hurricane Katrina wrought to sparkle up an otherwise lackluster observation that corruption is bad.

The math is that if A = B and B sort of equals C in a way that’s enough for a quick-hit op ed in the local news, A = C.

It can be handled beautifully. “Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real,” Nelson Algren wrote about the city of Chicago. “Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, ’till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice,” Jonathan Swift wrote in a surprisingly touching essay about eating babies.

But it can be screaming contests of who can elevate what to which, who can raise the stakes the highest the fastest with a ding ding ding You Won the Prize!!! bell for the person to scream “IT’S LIKE HITLER” first.

A metaphor should clarify. It should illustrate a nuance or thought that would be lost in a mere repetition of fact. It can be silly or cruel, ugly or ridiculous. But if it doesn’t add insight, it’s a needless word. As the good book says, omit it.

Be clear about what you’re saying in a metaphor, particularly one based on real events with real human suffering attached. There was no particular woman who had her face cracked, no actual babies Swift was ready to salt and fricassee. But people did die in Katrina and the Holocaust. Jockey statues depicting black men as subhuman servants still dot lawns today.

Writers of Chicago, if you do feel a need to poach others’ suffering to prop up a lackluster thinkpiece, at least get the messaging right. In the artist’s own words describing Konkol’s vision, “As a Democrat, Pritzker indeed needs the black vote, and he puts all his weight on it in a most disrespectful manner.” In the illustration, what Pritzker is putting his weight on is a cartoon lawn jockey. He’s not leaning particularly disrespectfully. He’s leaning on a thing that’s not worthy of respect.

If the intent was to reveal racism, it did. But when an editor brainstorming a symbol for black voters arrives at imagery of servitude, degradation and stereotype, the racism revealed wasn’t J.B. Pritzker’s.

McQueary’s tepid response to poaching the emotional weight of Katrina deaths carried similar problems.

“And I am horrified and sickened at how that column was read to mean I would be gunning for actual death and destruction,” she wrote.

No one thought you were calling for the skies to darken, McQueary. They were horrified and sickened that you would use human death to score points toward your pet issue.

A metaphor can intensify, but its sole purpose cannot be to intensify. That’s just swearing with imagery. Konkol’s editor’s note about the conversation on race he wanted the Pritzker package to spur said “Hell, it should hurt, like a punch in the gut.” That’s the very reason it should have been avoided.

If you punch someone, the human response isn’t to consider whether your argument is logically compelling. Convincing people your argument is logically compelling is the exact point of an article.

People who are punched double over, then they fight back.

Adeshina Emmanuel did fight back. He fought back with logic and reason, compelling arguments and, yes, metaphor.

“When I look at that cover it feels like I’m that red-lipped lawn jockey and Konkol is the powerful white man on my back,” he wrote, tossing off in 24 painful, beautiful words the nuance and power a editor lost his job for trying to mimic.

Konkol is gone, by the way, fired in the wake of his first and only issue. His legacy will be that cover. He’ll be back in Chicago media someday, I’m sure.

When he does pop up at some digital-only, subscription-based community aggregator model with a GoFundMe no one drops by, I just hope he’ll have learned the final, main and to an extent only lesson on metaphor:

You can’t punch hard enough to make a bad idea good.

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You are currently reading #892: A Primer on Metaphors (Or Don’t Put Lawn Jockeys on the Reader) by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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