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Of Borders and Metaphors

How the U.S. handles the U.S.-Mexican border will say much about its character as a nation.

April 17, 2021

The 1918 “Spanish flu” that killed between 20-100 million people worldwide was so named because Spain was not a participant power in the ongoing First World War.

A bit of history

Other western nations, who were part of that war, shied away from reporting the human cost of the epidemic for military reasons.

Concerned that enemy governments would use the numbers of flu-casualties to their advantage, countries sharply curtailed the freedom of the press. Newspapers were mute on the subject.

Freedom of the press, in historical perspective

Spanish newspapers, however, reported openly on the flu — including the fact that the Spanish king himself had been infected. As a result, the rest of the world dubbed the affliction “the Spanish flu.”

Freedom of the press was, in fact, the right most frequently included in the 600 constitutions written between 1776 and 1850. This underscores how integral this was seen to good governance.

Fast forward to current times

With this past as prologue, we can move a century forward. The presses — and the blame-shifting mechanisms — rolled freely in the United States as Donald Trump in his last year in office dubbed the corona virus the “China virus” and the “Wuhan virus.”

Predictably enough, Trump’s rhetoric resonated with his supporters. It set off a shameful spate of violent attacks on Asian Americans — fellow U.S. citizens — by those willing to take Trump’s cues.

The practice of identifying dreaded diseases with groups of people or entire nations for political purposes, evident with the Spanish flu, was once again on grim display.

Disease as political metaphor

Metaphors have traditionally been used by societies as an instrument to explain frightening diseases to themselves.

A metaphor is a word or phrase used to describe or refer to something that has no connection to it in reality. Susan Sontag defined metaphors as “giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.”

As a cancer patient herself, Sonntag arrived at an important conclusion. She regarded the use of metaphors by societies to deal with illnesses as harmful and demeaning to patients.

She cited cancer and AIDS as the 20th century afflictions, and tuberculosis as the 19th century affliction most given to metaphorical usage. This practice continues and is, in most instances, as insidious as ever.

South of the border down Mexico way

The current rhetoric in the United States links COVID 19 and the threat it poses to its southern border. This is the border across which migrants are attempting to flee poverty, violence and, yes, COVID.

But it is dubious reasoning to ignore the former two reasons and associate only COVID with the migrants.

Mr. Trump’s MAGA crowd, always quick to jump the gun (literally and metaphorically), conflates the situation at the border with the threat of the spread of COVID. Their current modus operandi appears to be: “We may be out of power, but we can still scare people!”

More meanness from South Carolina’s “leadership”

A politician who not only deploys dubious reasoning, but is mean as well, is Senator Lindsey Graham, the senior senator from South Carolina.

Graham is currently so pitiful because, as Donald Trump’s self-appointed former closest political buddy, he can no longer brag about playing golf with the President of the United States.

Neither can he present himself as a gen-u-wine (in South Carolinian parlance) power broker.

When others go high, Graham goes low

Most recently, in an affront against science, responsibility and public health, Senator Graham attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Fauci is a world-renowned and respected infectious disease expert who valiantly tried to serve President Trump and who is now serving President Biden as the chief advisor on the pandemic.

Nastiness as operating principle

Suggesting that the doctor should go to the border to witness the “super-spreader event” occurring down there, Senator Graham claimed that migrants were being “detained ‘on top of each other’ and ‘dumped off in Texas.’”

His imagery served only one purpose: To incite Americans to fear the influx of people from Central America, i.e. the COVID-bearing invading hordes.

Kamala Harris’s task is hard enough already

Meanwhile, Vice President Kamala Harris is working tirelessly, calling Latin American leaders, receiving briefings and reading papers, to devise a humane and sensible policy for the United States to institute.

When there’s a tough job to be done, give it to a woman. President Biden knows that.

Harris seems guided, correctly, by the idea that as one of the world’s richest countries, the United States has the chance to set an example of how to deal safely, humanely and astutely with a major problem that numerous countries face today.

Not just the U.S.

Lest anyone think that these kinds of refugee blame games are exclusively a U.S.-phenomenon, there are plenty of examples to the contrary.

China is concerned about Myanmar — a country it shares a border with and which is in considerable political turmoil.

In recent years, the EU has been facing its own migrant problems caused by wars in Afghanistan and Syria. And in the long term, the EU faces an influx of economic migrants from Africa due to hunger and environmental threats.

For goodness’ sake, drop the linguistic acrobatics

In keeping with Susan Sonntag’s reasoning, it is clear that the corruption of language and illogical conflations are obfuscating and harmful.

One would want like to put to Lindsey Graham the same question posed by attorney Joseph Welch to an earlier master inflamer, Joe McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Will South Carolina’s voters have the decency?

All things have an expiration date. Given Graham’s disturbing and entirely decency-free record ever since the day that his senatorial partner, John McCain, died, the decent world must hope for his quick expiration through the ballot box.

It’s not impossible. The demographics of South Carolina are changing to be younger, browner and blacker.


In the meantime, one can only hope that more and more Americans recognize the need for science-based facts and for intellectual honesty to prevail in U.S. politics.

One thing is for sure: The Trump-induced echoes of MAGA meanness won’t help strengthen the United States one bit.


The 1918 “Spanish flu” – the influenza that killed millions of people worldwide – was so named because Spain was not a participant power in World War I.

Freedom of the press was the most frequently included right in the 600-odd constitutions written between 1776 and 1850.

Susan Sonntag concluded that the use of metaphors by societies to designate illnesses is demeaning to patients.

The current use of metaphor in the US conflates COVID with the southern border, as migrants attempt to flee poverty, violence, and COVID.

The US has the chance to provide the world an example of how to deal humanely and smartly – with a problem that numerous countries face today.