Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why "Village" is the Wrong Metaphor

For some time now, Digby has used the "Village" metaphor to describe the collective known as the Washington Press Corps, a metaphor that ultimately comes from a Sally Quinn piece quoting David Gergen from almost a decade ago in which she defended the world she and her colleagues lived and worked in from the Evil That Was Clinton. Gergen supplied the memorable quote:

"We have our own set of village rules," says David Gergen, editor at large at U.S. News & World Report, who worked for both the Reagan and Clinton White House. "Sex did not violate those rules. The deep and searing violation took place when he not only lied to the country, but co-opted his friends and lied to them. That is one on which people choke.

"We all live together, we have a sense of community, there's a small-town quality here. We all understand we do certain things, we make certain compromises. But when you have gone over the line, you won't bring others into it. That is a cardinal rule of the village. You don't foul the nest."

Quinn and Gergen were serious -- it was about SEX after all -- and Digby is overtly satiric in using the metaphor to describe a rotten to the core press corp in DC. And the Village metaphor has spread throughout the blogosphere to describe these decrepit media functionaries (no longer describing a place but merely the denizens thereof).

I have objected and tangled with Digby more than once over her devotion to this metaphor -- it is now pretty much universal in the so-called lefty blogosphere -- because I believe that it is a grossly inaccurate and potentially self-defeating metaphor.

A "Village" has certain -- generally positive -- evocations for most people, and artists have made whole careers out of depicting village values, characters and ways of life. Gergen himself was using the metaphor in a positive way to describe how closely and intimately linked the Washington Press Corps was with one another and with their all-important sources and how the insider linkages are fundamental to the operations of the "Village."

Digby and most of the rest of the so-called lefty blogosphere of course consider the incestuousness and clannishness of the Washington Press Corps and their sources to be a very negative thing, and so their use of the "Village" to describe the same thing David Gergen did is meant as a satiric jab, with a highly negative connotation.

The problem is, despite its universality, it doesn't work.

It doesn't work in part because it doesn't describe reality. Gergen, in other words, was wrong, even deliberately deceptive, in trying to put a positive gloss or spin on the incestuousness of Washington and its many layers of courtiers, eunuchs and functionaries by calling it a "Village."

It's a "Village" in somewhat the way Marie Antoinette's Petit Hameau was.

In other words, a subdivision of a Palace like Versailles.

And the Washington Press Corps is a bunch of powdered and perfumed, bewigged and panniered courtiers.

The Palace metaphor was even Digby's preferred metaphor, one that is used very effectively by Paul Rosenberg, but she says she shifted to the Village metaphor after reading Quinn's piece in the Washington Post all those years ago and hasn't been able to let go of it.

Sally Quinn -- and David Gergen -- rules her world. Which is silly.

And yet, once the Village metaphor was adopted by Digby it became the standard on the lefty blogs within weeks or months.

Only a few of us hold out for the old fashioned Palace metaphor, which I believe is a far more accurate and telling descriptive of the nature of DC courtier media and "source" incestuousness.

And there's another thing, I think a more important thing than being accurately descriptive with ones metaphors: The Palace Media and its layers of sources, it's go-to eunuchs, functionaries, and gossips, is something that most people can come to revile. Indeed, rebel against. A "Village" metaphor short-circuits the rebellion before it begins and transforms the natural revulsion at the goings on of the Palace and its retainers -- especially when exposed as being as bloodthirsty and corrupt as they truly are -- into a sort of tittery joke. A "Village" metaphor makes them and their evil seem quaint, charming, cute.

And that won't do. It just won't do. How can you do anything about something you think is so 'darling?'

Whereas Storming the Winter Palace has more than a little evocative and powerful meaning.

You see?

Ain't nothin' quaint or cute about it.

You want cute? I gotchur cute right here:


  1. I agree completely, Ché, that "Village" is the wrong metaphor.

    I don't read many blogs—usually Glenn Greenwald's, TPM, Think Progress, not even Daily Kos.

    When I first read "Village" on Digby's blog, I couldn't make out what the metaphor was supposed to mean. I didn't think "charming" or "quaint"—I thought of some place conjured up (for me) by some phrase like "he returned to his village"—small, traditional, ancestral. So the metaphor made no sense to me. Its use actually compromises Digby's writing. Even now, every time I read it, I have to make an effort to keep in mind what it refers to, what it's supposed to mean. Any metaphor that requires that amount of "work" is not the right metaphor, I'd say.

    And you're precisely right—David Gergen's entirely serious use of "Village" is kind of an exercise in deliberate misframing—e.g.,"We all live together, we have a sense of community, there's a small-town quality here." (Arguably, if you're talking about co-opting and lying to your friends and, thereby violating some "rules" (norms, I'd say), "Village" is perhaps not the worst metaphor.) But what I get really is an in-groupness and phony leveling, sort of like how the fabulously wealthy would (and maybe still do) refer to their mansions as "cottages," which I doubt Gergen intended.

    Still, "Village" doesn't at all get at the multi-layered, obsequious, incestuous, self-centered, out-of-touch fin-de-lÁncien-Régime quality conveyed immediately by "Versailles." As Paul Rosenberg said, "The thing explains itself."

  2. Thanks.

    Of course it is a minor peeve in the vast scheme of things. Yet as you say, when you have to work to figure out what the dambed metaphor is supposed to mean, there's a problem.

    It's one of those "in-crowd" things, I guess.

    (bows deeply, left leg forward, foot turned at just the proper angle. ;-)

  3. ché- this was right on. I have been confused about that metaphor,also, figuring, well, I'm not part of the lefty blogging cognoscenti, so what do I know. I DO understand the Palace Elite, though. The "Palace" is much more appropriate, and besides, that is how those schmucks see themselves anyway. No way do they consider themselves part of a "village" rabble. No way.

    We need to get your metaphor out there.

  4. This has to be one of the best posts I've read. Well said. That "village" bullshit infuriates me. We need a Bastille Day of our own but we have to find a cute name for it. The framing is everything. :)

    Excellent post.

  5. I was wondering about the Village metaphor too. Having previously seen Potemkin Village referred to I thought that was the type of village being described:

    Something that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance: "the Potemkin village of this country's borrowed prosperity" Lewis H. Lapham.


    [After Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, who had elaborate fake villages constructed for Catherine the Great's tours of the Ukraine and the Crimea.]