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Open Up and Say Aaaahhhh: Deploying the Metaphor of Political Health

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It is distressing how little critical reflection takes place at the popular level about the state of American democratic politics.
John Brady

Issue #39, September 1998

While collecting my thoughts for the Bad Subjects health issue, two recent magazine covers caught my attention. The first was a New York Times Magazine cover notable both for its stark image and sensationalist headline. Against a white background, it featured a hand in an off-white latex surgical glove, with the headline, "Superbugs: the Bacteria Antibiotics Can't Kill." Playing to popular culture's fascination with infectious diseases, the article inside reported on the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria and the threat they represent to public health. The second notable cover was from the August issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Featuring a collage of economic, social and political imagery -- maps, planes, factories -- the cover was most remarkable for its headline which read: "Where America Sheds Its Skin: Up and Down the Pacific Coast the First Multicultural Civilization is Taking Form." The accompanying article by Robert D. Kaplan, a hybrid of a travelogue and pop-sociological study, detailed the demographic, economic and political changes occurring along the West Coast of the continent. Along the way it duly noted the location of some of the trendier eateries in LA, Portland and Vancouver.

What strikes me about these covers is the different notions of the body and health they both employ. With its focus on disease, bacteria and medication, the Times Magazine cover calls to mind the physical body and physical health. The Monthly's cover also invokes the physical body. The "skin" in this magazine's headline refers to human skin and its color: Kaplan argues that a multicultural civilization is developing on the Pacific Coast and that skin color is progressively losing its significance as a determining factor in the life chances and life choices of individuals. But skin in this instance also has another, metaphorical meaning. In his article, Kaplan argues that the social and economic changes along the Pacific Coast are undermining the primacy of the nation, especially in the American case, as the locus of citizens' political identity. The skin being shed in this instance is America's national skin. In using skin as a metaphor for the bonds of national feeling Kaplan calls to mind another type of body: the body politic.

Why all of this talk of physical bodies, physical health and bodies politic? I am interested in these different notions of the body and health in relation to US political culture. It is noteworthy, and to my mind, distressing, how little critical reflection takes place at the popular level about the state of American democratic politics. Take, for example, our latest political obsession: the Presidential sex and perjury scandal. Simultaneously voyeuristic and moralistic, the discussion of the 'scandal' has focused almost exclusively on the details and supposed immorality of the sexual encounters. Cast to the side has been any reflection regarding what the nature of this popular discussion signifies about US politics. What does it say about how we conduct our political affairs, for example, that public debate has been taken up with the private action of individuals to the point of neglecting more pressing issues of common concern? Sadly, this and other 'democratic' questions have been absent amidst all of the popular drooling and hand wringing.

Debate about such democratic questions is overdue. While it is true that, sex and perjury scandals aside, we find ourselves in a relatively stable and peaceful period, pressing issues for American democracy remain present. Shouldn't there, for example, be some popular reflection regarding the significance, for US democracy, of the recent campaigns against homosexuals, immigrants and other minorities? These campaigns have not only fostered America's racist and ethnocentric traditions, through their hatemongering they have also poisoned public discourse and worked to exclude minorities from full participation in US politics. To take another example, there certainly should be more debate about the privatization of public institutions like schools and the commercialization of public spaces like parks, streets and public squares. After all, these institutions and spaces are important sites of political socialization and political action, and their colonization by private interests represents to my mind a loss of valuable political resources.

Any debate about the general state of democratic politics in America demands a broad perspective, one that concentrates less on the actions of one politician and more on the inter-relationships between political actors and their institutions. This is why I find the metaphor of the body politic interesting. As a political metaphor it directs our attention to the collection of citizens as a group and not just to one politician or institution. It encourages a perspective on politics that focuses on the 'whole' and not just on the separate parts.

Yet, it is just this connotation of 'wholeness' that makes the body politic a dangerous political metaphor. To imagine the political community as a single body symbolically bestows on this community an integrity and boundedness it does not possess in reality. The borders of the political community are always porous, never impermeable. This is especially true in our age of mass migration and enhanced capital flow. The body politic metaphor thus blinds us to certain political realities. What is more, in implying that the community is an organism, the metaphor risks 'biologizing' politics, that is, it makes politics seem to be a natural process like, say, breathing. But politics isn't a natural process. It is characterized by struggle and conflict, but also communication as individuals interact with each other and the institutions that shape their lives. Finally, the body politics metaphor often gives rise to a rhetoric of disease and corruption in which political problems are cast as afflictions of the citizen body. And all too often the majority identifies minority groups as the source of corruption and thus justifies its hostility and violence towards these groups. Just witness the recent resurgence of homophobic rhetoric on the Right and connection it establishes between social corruption, disease and homosexuality.

If the body politic metaphor seems unsuitable as a rhetorical tool to facilitate some critical reflection on US democratic politics, what about the related concept of political health? It is possible, I think, to separate this metaphor from that of the body politic and avoid the unsavory implications of figuring the demos as a body. After all, in economics we speak about the economic health of a society without having to rely on the idea of society as an economic body. Similarly, instead of analyzing the health of the body politic, we would analyze, say, the health of the political system or political society. In this way, it would be possible to retain a broad focus of systemic political issues without deploying the unsavory rhetoric of the body politic

Open Wide The metaphor of health facilitates such a broad perspective in a number of ways. First, in reaching judgments about the health of an individual or a society we can't take just one factor into consideration, but need to look at a larger number of factors. Again, take the example of economic health. When we measure the economic health of a nation, we look at a whole host of indicators and not just at, say, the unemployment rate. Assessing the health of something also necessitates making connections and establishing a balance between factors. For example, if your diet is poor, this can adversely affect your health, just as the loss of public space saps the vitality of debate and political participation, key elements of any democracy. Concerns about health resonate throughout popular culture, as evidenced by the New York Times Magazine cover and article. Thus movements employing the metaphor in a critical debate could tap into this general fascination with health and thus grab attention for the larger issue of the political health of US democracy.

In the end, I am interested not only in spurring a general discussion about democracy, but also a leftist, anti-capitalist position in such a debate. How might the metaphor of political health be deployed to advance a leftist position in the public discussion about democracy? To answer this question and by way of conclusion, I would like to turn once more to Kaplan's article.

Surveying the west coast of Canada and the United States, Kaplan sees the emergence of a multicultural civilization. Politically, this nascent civilization is dominated not by a centralized federal government, but by a number of 'polycentric urban confederations.' These city-states combine traditional cities and suburbs into 'urban pods.' In Kaplan's eyes, it is Orange County that best exemplifies this new political trend. Economically, this civilization is post-national and post-industrial. It is tightly tied to the global economy and its economic motor force is the high-tech and service industries. Economically prosperous, the region is dominated by an upwardly mobile, highly educated middle class. Finally in the cultural realm, this emergent civilization is marked by dense cross cultural and cross racial ties. Kaplan notes: "Orange County is now what Johnson County and other suburban pods I visited in the midwest could become: a multiracial world trade center linked to overseas cities by direct flights..."(42).

Of course, this emerging civilization is not without its faults. Kaplan notes in passing the social fragmentation resulting from increased affluence, the retreat of the newly prosperous behind the walls of gated communities and the removal of the poor and homeless from commercial public spaces in the new urban pods. But what Kaplan really seems to worry about is a loss of values, specifically political values like patriotism, loyalty and civic virtue. In a civilization in which individuals define themselves and their ties to others primarily in economic terms, Kaplan wonders, is there room left from communal affection, for allegiance to a common good?

Kaplan's lament is a familiar; one hears it quite a lot these days. Conservatives, in a well-known example, bemoan the loss of family values and see in this loss nothing less than the harbinger of Western Civilization's collapse. Liberals don't fret so much about families. Instead they share concerns similar to Kaplan's and bemoan, for example, the loss of community and civic values generally.

But is the loss of values really the problem? Or does the threat to the political health of societies like the United States lie elsewhere, namely in the expansion of post-welfare state, neo-liberal capitalism?

This expansion is politically unhealthy in a myriad of ways. For example, the great disparities of wealth produced by this latest version of capitalism undermine the material capabilities of people to participate in democratic politics. What is more, the alienation and isolation resulting from deindustrialization, economic restructuring and the crass materialism of the present period erode the resources of solidarity necessary for successful political action. Concentrating on the supposed loss of values -- family, civic or otherwise -- is a convenient way to avoid these significant threat to the political health of American society. Not the erosion of values, but the incessant drive to maximize profits is the political pathology of our age. In the end, this is the diagnosis the left needs to offer.

John Brady is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at UCB. He can be reached at

Copyright © 1998 by John Brady. All rights reserved.

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