The art of the political analogy

The political analogy, which when used correctly, can crush an opponents’ argument with one slick, sharp, well-timed mo


    We’re constantly bombarded with political analogies from government spokespersons, activists, academics and analysts that it has been a great challenge keeping up. Add to that those analogies that become culturally embedded in our thinking, depending on where we stand on an issue I was curious whether we are left more informed as a result, or less informed?

    Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges couldn’t see the point of the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, and when asked to describe it, claimed it was a case of "two bald men arguing over a comb."

    While trying to understand the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the relationship between the military and the government in Turkey in our film "The Father of the Turks" we came across retired Lt. Gen. Oktar Ataman. He informed us that when his son was young he had bought him a train set, but the little boy always set the speed too high and often the train derailed. It was up to him, the father, to put the train back on track, and that was what the army had to do in Turkey from time to time. "Coup d'état" has never sounded more well-meaning.

    Maged Reda Boutros, who often appears on our screens defending the Egyptian government, explained the extension of Egypt’s 30 year emergency law to me in equally paternalistic terms, this time he was the child: “When I was a boy my father placed iron bars outside my window. I was angry because this violated my divine rights but it was only when I grew up that I realised the wisdom of the bars, that he was doing this to protect me.” Presumably the 80 million Egyptians just have to grow up to understand that it was all for their good.

    Staying with Africa, and from north to south, where violent xenophobic attacks in South Africa against fellow Africans, mainly underpinned by economic woes, was described to me by one academic in these terms: “When you get fired from your job, it’s difficult to attack your boss, or the company, but much easier to go back home and beat up your wife."

    Father-son, husband-wife - I wonder what Freud would think about us keeping many of our analogies in the family?

    South Africa also appears prominently in the (since we’re on the family theme) mother of all war of words, analogy-wise, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Illegal Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land have fragmented the West Bank into numerous, discontinuous cantons that resemble South Africa’s former "Bantustans", or black-only homelands.

    The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement uses “Bantustan" often, and refers to the 4-decade long Israeli occupation of Palestinian land as “Apartheid".

    In defending the war on Gaza days after it launched in December 2008, former Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, turned to the rhetorical analogy by asking me: “What would the people of Doha, Qatar, do if their neighbour was bombing them and firing thousands of rockets at them? They wouldn’t send them bouquets of flowers..."

    It’s a pity the analogy couldn’t have maximum effect, at least not when I had to remind him that Qatar hasn’t militarily occupied any of its neighbours, including controlling their ports, airspace and borders.

    Mustafa Barghouti, Ali Abunimah and other Palestinian activists have recently favoured the pizza analogy. “Two sides are negotiating over a pizza but one side, the Israelis keep eating the pizza!” A strong indication that Italy needs to play a stronger role in EU mediation attempts at resolving the conflict, since the Quartet has failed.

    When the Quartet named former British PM Tony Blair as its envoy to bring peace to the Middle-East, Abdel-Bari Atwan of Al-Quds Al-Arabi said this was like putting “the fox in charge of the henhouse.”

    Wikileaks’ Julian Assange has equated the campaign against him as similar to persecution against the Jews.

    “All sorts of abusive statements were made against the Jewish people in the 1950s and before. I’m not the Jewish people, but the people who believe in freedom of speech and accountability (are in the same position).”


    Back to Africa - there’s an exchange that I’m still trying to understand, amid the odd spasm of laughter that intrudes, from over 3 years ago. I was moderating a debate that included Siraj Uldeen Hamid from Sudan’s Foreign Ministry and Abdel Wahid Al-Nur, the head of the SLM Darfur rebel movement. Hamid mentioned that Al-Nur was “mixed up” in his demands of the state, and that he was “putting the cart before the horse” with his conditions for resuming dialogue.

    Al-Nur responded: “Siraj Uldeen Hamid is talking of carts and horses, that is eighteenth century, nowadays we have Ferrari, which is quicker, with the engine at the back, but let us get back to speaking clearly about the problem...”

    Speaking clearly indeed.

    Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, pizzas and trains, Ferraris and henhouses.

    The political analogy, which when used correctly, can crush an opponents’ argument with one slick, sharp, well-timed motion - or it can make you look quite silly.

    I’ve been privileged to hear a medley of these over the years, and some are fascinating, some disturbing, some jaw-dropping and a few just downright weird.

    What do you think about political analogies? Has it become an art form? Do they muddy the waters of understanding, or illuminate the mysteries of international relations? Are there any analogies that you’d like to share? Send them via your comments below.

    For my own analogical twist to a quip from former Indian cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu:  I think political analogies are like miniskirts - what they reveal is suggestive, what they hide is essential.




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