Dispatches from the cliff

As the clock ticks inexorably toward year’s end, some are focused on an interpretation of the Mayan calendar that predicts the end of the world on December 21st (a pastor at my own church jokingly requested that any Christmas presents coming his way be delivered early this year.) In Russia, sales are brisk for “end of the world survival kits.”

Meanwhile, an equally apocalyptic mood is washing over our nation’s capital, as legislators, lobbyists and lay persons struggle with what is being described, over and over, as a “fiscal cliff.”

If, in fact, the situation is as dire as it is being portrayed in many quarters, it is understandable that the widespread suffering that drastic spending cuts would bring becomes secondary to averting a wholesale disaster. But, as the Rev. Peter Laarman, executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, pointed out in a guest column for Religion Dispatches Magazine, it’s the same cast of characters that see “entitlement cuts” as the solution to every economic challenge that have now attached themselves to this latest economic “emergency.” Just as they did with things like the debt ceiling last year, it’s in their interest to create widespread panic:

…just a word about the Next Big Thing: the coming lame duck session and the “fiscal cliff” and the prospect of a not-so-grand bargain in which Democrats will yield yet more ground to Pete Peterson’s baleful ”austerity for you but not for me” proposals. The immensely powerful Peterson machine pushes a dishonest, cunning narrative that has entranced far too many Democrats and that wages vicious war on workers by other means—by paring away all forms of social insurance and by punishing older workers and unionized workers for the sin of still having defined benefit pension plans. Theirs is a program that increasingly normalizes the gross imbalance between wage income and rentier income in the United States.

Read more here

In the Huffingon Post, distinguished thinker, author, and professor of cognitive science and linguistics George Lakoff writes insightfully about the inherent power of “fiscal cliff” language:

Writers on economics have been talking since the election about why the “fiscal cliff” metaphor is misleading. Alternative metaphors have been offered like the fiscal hill, fiscal curb, and fiscal showdown, as if one metaphor could easily be replaced by another that makes more sense of the real situation. But none of the alternatives has stuck, nor has the fiscal cliff metaphor been abandoned. Why? Why do some metaphors have far more staying power than others, even when they give a misleading picture of a crucial national issue?

The reason has to do with the way that metaphorical thought and language work in the brain. From a cognitive linguistics perspective, “fiscal cliff” is not a simple metaphor bringing “fiscal” together with “cliff.” It is instead a linguistic metaphor that is understood via a highly integrated cascade of other deeper and more general conceptual metaphors.

Read more here

We’re working on getting both of these thought leaders on this week’s State of Belief Radio program. In the meantime, their articles are important reading. Because mainstream media reports are, as always, obsessed with the minutiae of the political wrangling around this topic – and are missing both the likely motivations behind the messaging, and the reasons the messaging has such inherent power over our psyches.

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