Cancer Compared, This Time, To The Islamic State

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Last week, President Obama spoke to the nation in a prime time address about the administration's strategy for confronting the growing terrorist menace known alternately as ISIS, ISIL, and the Islamic State.

Naturally, some hailed his speech and others criticized it. This isn't about the speech or about politics, this is about one line in his speech. This line opens the final paragraph before his peroration.

The president said,

It will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL.

An easy metaphor for the president's speech writers. All things considered, it's also a pretty good one.

Metaphorically Perfect

Cancer makes for an easy metaphor, if not always entirely appropriate. Rhetorical speech has a point; to mediate the known and unknown. To familiarize the unfamiliar with a concept by relating it to something so broad-based as to make the connection inevitable.

The reality of cancer is that, as a disease, it lends itself quite well to literary devices. Its malignant characteristic is so perfectly diabolical and diametrically opposed to life—by way of rapid violence it devours all in its way until there's nothing left, killing itself—and that cancer cells achieve what so many of us claim to want—immortality- brings so much more irony into the picture. Consider- some cancer cells seem to have an indefinite life span. The true story of Henrietta Lacks is case in point: she died half a century ago but her tumor lives on to this day, and in fact is technically as big or bigger than the Empire State Building (read the book).

In itself, cancer's pathology is so perfectly literary that if you made it up you would be criticized for your lack of imagination.

When Good Writers Get Better

It's true that when good writers gets a hold of cancer, it can elevate their writing. This is true throughout Siddhartha Mukherjee's "The Emperor of All Maladies", but where it is especially notable is in Sherwin Nuland's classic book "How We Die." His metaphor for cancer is that of an unruly teenage mob that wantonly pillages every cell in the body.

Nuland explains how, before the microscope, cancer was seen as a silent killer, stealthily going about its business; but with the microscope came the revelation:

Cancer, far from being a clandestine foe, is in fact berserk with the malicious exuberance of killing. The disease pursues a continuous, uninhibited, circumferential, barn-burning expedition of destructiveness, in which it heeds no rules, follows no command, and explodes all resistance in a homicidal riot of devastation … [cancer cells] are the juvenile delinquents of cellular society.

He goes on like this for several pages. As a physician and a human being—and as someone who lost family members to cancer—I'm sure he despised the disease.

As a writer, he clearly enjoys it. He's not alone. The metaphor of this insidious, creeping, malignant, unstoppable killer-within is either too seductive or too easy for some writers to ignore.

Rhetorical Diseases

Yet when you start to put other diseases in its place-- even diseases that are unfamiliar-- the use of the scourge of humankind currently afflicting millions worldwide and leaving emotional scars in hundreds of millions more, seems somewhat inappropriate.

Granted, we commonly use medical conditions for metaphors. Anemic, obese, anorexic, arthritic, come to mind.

So does mentally retarded. When I was growing up this was the de facto choice when looking for a word to describe someone the speaker regarded to be an idiot. It lingers (recall it slipping from the president's mouth on The Tonight Show to describe his bowling skills) but is inappropriate today.

When I served as an intern for the Bill Clinton administration, it was the fall of 1994 and the Democrats got demolished in midterm elections. Al Gore, speaking off the cuff, said that anyone who voted for Newt Gingrich 'must have an extra chromosome.'

Meaning, must have Down Syndrome. Be retarded. Must be as stupid as someone with Down Syndrome.

Gore took the heat for that one.

But are these really the same thing, saying somebody is retarded, or that their effort was 'anemic', that a team played like they were 'old and arthritic', that a bureaucracy is 'obese with red tape', and that a terror organization that is beheading people on camera is a 'cancer'?

Probably not, once you start exploring the genome, or looking for the philosophical roots of disease, and you begin taking all this apart.

However, when Obama's speech writers used that metaphor, I was reminded of what Susan Sontag wrote about the use of cancer as a metaphor:

The people who have [cancer] are hardly helped by hearing their disease's name constantly being dropped as the epitome of evil.

For me this is reason enough not to use it.

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