It may seem a strange, or even a tasteless, thing to find a link between the tragedy of the Arizona shooting and the comparatively prosaic issue of the preparations now underway for selling off the Royal Mail to private companies. The link is not, obviously enough, to be found in the literal contents of these two utterly disparate events, separated as much by geographical and political distance as by the gap between tragedy and bureaucracy. Yet for all that, there is strange thread of connection. For central to both is the emphasis that is being laid on metaphors and symbols, and I think it may be instructive to delve a little deeper into how these conceptual ideas are being used to frame, explain, and to distract attention from, the realities they represent.
On this side of the pond, in the run up to legislation enabling the sell-off, much angst has been endured by those for whom the principal issue seems to be that of whether those who will own the Royal Mail in the future will keep, or dispense with, the image of the monarch on their stamps. To the relief of the angst-ridden the original constraint, which was merely that Buckingham Palace would be able to veto any royal image on future stamps of which they did not approve, has been substantially beefed up, and prospective purchasers will now be legally bound to retain the monarch’s image on stamps. This post is not about the debate between monarchists and republicans, and I make no contribution to that debate, nor imply approbation or otherwise, when I note merely that the constitutional purpose of the monarchy is to provide some kind of way of defining national unity over and above the divisions of politics or of commerce. Whilst the Royal Mail remained a public body, owned by us all, and whose purpose was less about making ends meet but more about guaranteeing to all citizens their equal access to a national means of communicating with one another, then the symbolism of calling it the Royal Mail, and reinforcing that with the unifying image of the monarch, made perfect sense. This was no service created for the enrichment of its providers, but for the benefit of the people. Her Majesty’s mail, not the government’s, still less the proprietors’.
But now we have a hollow and ridiculous victory for the symbol, for the metaphor, even as its meaning is destroyed and emptied of content. Whether you agree with the privatisation or not, once the service has been privatised, it cannot with any meaning be called the Royal Mail, nor does it make any sense for the service’s stamps to bear the royal image. We cling to the form, and discard the content. When that happens, symbols and metaphors become not only demeaned, but positively dangerous, for they focus on the wrong thing. We are comforted, but the comfort is delusory because it is no longer real.
What has this to do with the appalling shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and the wanton killing of six others, including a nine year-old child? It is this. Immediately the shooting became common knowledge, the political left and right in America and around the world became locked into claim and counter-claim about the political significance of the event, and the focus for this unhappy struggle was another symbol, another metaphor. Sarah Palin’s Facebook page had for some time boasted a graphic of the states in which members of Congress who had supported President Obama’s health care reforms were represented as targets in a rifle sight, the cross-hairs of which implied that gunning them down was the best way of punishing them. It is obvious to me that even in the crazy political world of right-wing, tea-party America, this was a metaphor, and not a literal suggestion. But it shows with terrifying poignancy the power of symbols and of metaphors, and how we mess with them at our peril. Protest as she has done, Sarah Palin cannot evade the simple fact that to her, and to her political philosophy, the image of gunning down opposition comes as naturally as despatching an Alaskan moose.
And here we have the extraordinary, complementary, symmetrically opposite dangers of the metaphors of royal heads on British stamps and rifle sights in American politics. In Britain, the metaphor has been emptied of content, rendered meaningless and misplaced: in America the metaphor has moved with appalling inevitability into the literal world, been made powerful, and confirmed in its wickedness. Never use such symbols lightly. Whether in their corruption, or in their reinforcement, they are not to be bandied about as if they were merely, only, figures of speech. They are much, much more powerful than that.