Flipping the Bird

Michael Metzger

“Fiscal cliff” is the wrong metaphor.

There are good metaphors and bad metaphors. “Fiscal cliff” isn’t a good one. It doesn’t capture reality. For instance, it doesn’t depict how Congress has, to date, tried to cut the national debt. The better metaphor might be flipping the bird.

“Fiscal cliff” is popular shorthand to describe the dilemma the U.S. government will face at the end of 2012. That’s when the draconian terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 are scheduled to go into effect. “Fiscal cliff” is a bad metaphor however, since the odds are Congress will find a way to circumvent it, kicking the can further down the road (an apt metaphor, by the way). It ignores the root of the problem, which is flipping the bird.

In the 4th century B.C., Aristophanes wrote of giving someone the middle finger. The Greeks rarely did it, as it was considered rude. By the 19th century, the middle digit was called “the bird.” By the 20th, “flipping the bird” had become commonplace, a cultural icon for defiance and contempt (google: celebrities flipping the bird). What happened between Aristophanes and Ashton Kutcher? The Enlightenment.

Roughly 300 years old, the Enlightenment is associated with the idea that reason rather than institutions is the source and basis of all authority. It is said to have begun with the printing press, invented by Gutenberg in 1450. As people gained access to books, some questioned whether we require the assistance of institutions to sort out right and wrong. This question was furthered in 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses. At the Diet of Worms, he appealed to individual conscience as the final arbiter of truth.

Many European Christians took Luther seriously. In France, they were known as Huguenots. For most of the 17th century, the Huguenots enjoyed a degree of liberties, even though Louis XIV ruled France in close alliance with the Catholic Church. In 1685, he did away with virtually all of these rights. The Huguenots were forced to choose between converting to Catholicism or fleeing France. Enlightenment thinkers found this troubling. They raised more questions regarding the basis on which the institutions of state founded their authority. Enlightenment thinkers deemed individual reason was authoritative. This fostered an attitude of flipping the bird at institutions.

At first, flipping the bird felt freeing (the French thought so). But it upended how healthy societies had long operated – relying on roundtables. The idea was we get closer and closer to the truth by relying on a never-ending cycle, starting with metaphors, then making stuff, reviewing our work, and making adjustments. In King Arthur’s Court, Merlin provided metaphors. The king and his knights took them seriously and acted on them, making things. A court jester reviewed the work, noting blind spots, ambiguities, and paradoxes. The roundtable came full circle by looking to the sage for refinements.

What the ancients didn’t know is that Merlin and court jesters performed the functions of the human brain’s right hemisphere. Neuroimaging reveals that it is only in the right hemisphere that we think in metaphor. It is only in the right that we see ambiguity and paradox. Religious leaders once filled these two seats, as religion means to rebind. Priests and prophets bound left-hemisphere leaders to reality, acting as sage and devil’s advocate. They were institutional authorities. In flipping the bird at institutional authority, the Enlightenment excised these two seats, cutting out half the roundtable.

Half a roundtable is a whole lie. For instance, it is only in the left hemisphere that we think in words. This is why Congress entertains endless conversations that lack any meaningful connection to reality. Take “fiscal cliff.” It’s merely wordsmithing. America’s founders, wary of the Enlightenment, had a solution. They created a system of checks and balances, with the Senate acting as wise sage, the saucer that cools the hot tea of the House. Today, most Senators seem to act as left-brain as House Reps. The Budget Control Act of 2011 is Example A. Unable to craft a collaborative agreement; it instead makes uniform, across-the-board cuts – a very left-hemisphere response.

Neuroimaging reveals that it is only in the right hemisphere that we think collaboration. The left thinks competition. The good news is Simpson-Bowles seems to be a right-hemisphere solution. Named after co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles (a former Republican Senator and Clinton Chief of Staff, respectively), the commission was created in 2010 after President Obama sought to identify strategies to cut the national debt. The bad news is that Congress, as well as the President, effectively flipped the bird at it’s proposals. Now that the election is over, Simpson-Bowles might be taken seriously.

We might also see the problem of collusive capitalism taken seriously. Crony capitalism is a subset, whereby those on top take care of each other at shareholder expense (google: “golden parachutes”). Collusive capitalism is where corporations create a competitive advantage through the cooperation of regulators or politicians (google: “earmarks”). Or they increase the potential for profit through government subsidies or regulations (e.g., ethanol used to fuel cars and low-interest mortgages for people who are unlikely to pay them back). Charles Murray writes how “collusive capitalism has become visible to the public and increasingly defines capitalism in the public mind.”1 He’s right.

Describing Congress as corrupt and capitalism as collusive does define reality. Solving this problem requires imagining what is lurking behind the scenes – the Enlightenment. Imagination requires metaphor. Flipping the bird pictures the plague of the Enlightenment. And it points out the best way forward – completing the roundtable.

1 Charles Murray, “Why Capitalism Has an Image Problem,” The Wall Street Journal, July 28, 2012, C1.


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  1. Mike,

    Much appreciate the continued challenge to subconscious assumptions.

    How is it that American Founders were wary of the Enlightenment when they “flipped the bird” to the Crown in order to form a more perfect union based on “We, the ‘Individual’ People”? Seems almost the height of Enlightenment thinking.

    I would have imaged Luther less of an example of Enlightenment-thinking than the American Founders in that his desire was to restore the institution of the Catholic church, until he was excommunicated by the Pope.

  2. Gerard:

    I think you have one part backwards. The American founders were not flipping the bird at anyone. They were wary of Enlightenment thinkers who flipped the bird at institutional authority.

    You are right about Luther. He predates the Enlightenment and desired to restore the Roman Catholic Church.

  3. I guess you could say that I’m catching up on my reading (Nov 27)…Gerard makes a good point, if the institution in question is the Crown. Isn’t it the French monarchy the institution in question for the Huguenots? And aren’t we fooling ourselves when we imagine that any institution in question cannot suffer being flipped the bird because it’s simply there as an institution, as if it were never preceded by another entity or institution? The right hemisphere might be bright enough to suggest “disbanding” the institution – what’s the difference between that and overthrow? I don’t mind thinking or saying that individual thinking is indeed authoritative. If the authorities cooked me for thinking/acting treasonously, so be it. But I am cooked as the master of my ship, the captain of my soul. I submit to you that only when we realize that our individual thinking is indeed authoritative can we function properly to submit ourselves to an institution – otherwise we are mere cogs of The Machine. An institution is only as strong as the self-aware strengths of each individual contributor. Otherwise, you have no identity, you are merely a disposable tool of the institution.

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