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Michael Winship: Lipstick On Polar Bears

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

Lipstick On Polar Bears
By Michael Winship

Where would politicians be without the Titanic? As metaphors go, it’s far more majestic than putting lipstick on pigs or pit bulls.

Farmyard bacon and junkyard dogs may come and go but in the world of political rhetoric the Titanic sails on. The most famous shipwreck in modern history is the mother of all metaphors. Just last week, at a rally in Tampa, Florida, Hillary Clinton declared, “Anybody who believes that the Republicans, whoever they are, can fix the mess they created probably believes that the iceberg could have saved the Titanic.”

A political cartoon shows the President at the helm, yelling, “I’m king of the world!” as the mighty vessel plows into bergs labeled “Deficits,” “Unemployment” and “Foreign Policy.” Democratic strategist Paul Begala writes, “Selling the old Bush line in this economy would be like trying to sell tickets for the return trip on the Titanic after it sank.”

And, of course, there are infinite variations on the notion of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or buying new ones, as metaphor for wasting time on a trivial task as disaster looms – an especially apt image when it comes to politics, Congress or virtually any government agency. Heckuva job, skipper.

When it’s functioning well, government is often referred to as a ship of state (See Longfellow: “Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State! Sail on, O Union, strong and great!”), so when it veers perilously off course, comparing it to the well-known leviathan that slipped beneath the waves nearly one hundred years is a logical skip of the stone. Titanic is an iconic symbol of hubris, a manmade behemoth built in defiance and brought low by a random natural phenomenon. “God Himself could not sink this ship,” sneers the villain in the James Cameron movie and at that point, even if for some unlikely reason you weren’t aware of the outcome, you know for sure that this is not going to end well.

Humankind’s ability to help bring calamity down upon itself is what makes Titanic such a powerful image, especially as we face the growing immutability of what we’re doing to our planet. Despite being distracted by the current campaign’s side trips into sludge and triviality, with Karl Rove simultaneously telling Fox News the attacks have gone too far, but that the non-partisan, fact-check organizations that challenge falsehoods can’t be trusted(!), we would do well to consider that the icebergs are still out there, rhetorically, and, in the case of Sarah Palin, very much for real.

In her new position as princess regent of the Republican Party, the vice presidential candidate has had to do some fancy skating, finding herself – with a team of Republican coaches at her ear -- positioning herself on many issues for the very first time and altering some of her existing views to more closely mirror those of her running mate.

Climate change, for example. In her interview with ABC News’ Charles Gibson Palin said, “Man’s activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming,” although last December she was quoted by the Alaska newspaper the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner saying, “I’m not an Al Gore, doom-and-gloom environmentalist blaming the changes in our climate on human activity.”

Her partial conversion along the road from St. Paul comes not a moment too soon, as a big chunk of the entire Arctic region appears to be melting, perhaps endangering the McCain/Palin campaign’s boast that Palin is governor of the largest state in the union. An Associated Press article noted late last month, that, “Federal wildlife monitors spotted nine polar bears in one day swimming in open ocean off Alaska’s northwest coast, and environmental groups say the event is a strong signal that diminished sea ice brought on by warming has put U.S. bears at risk of drowning or dying from effects of fatigue.”

Palin is not the polar bear’s friend – in May, when U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne declared the charismatic megafauna a threatened species, the governor announced she would sue the Federal government and said state officials backed her belief that global warming was not affecting the bear population. Recently released e-mails from those same scientists actually said the opposite.

“She and other Alaska elected officials fear a listing will cripple oil and gas development in prime polar bear habitat off the state's northern and northwestern coasts,” the Associated Press reported. “…Polar bears are well-managed and their population has dramatically increased over 30 years as a result of conservation, she said.”

Secretary Kempthorne disagreed and the figures back him up. A US Geological Survey study predicted Alaskan polar bears could be extinct by 2050, which is important because the bears are an indicator species – what happens to them is relevant to the entire food chain. And it tells us a lot about how quickly sea ice – which the bears use as platforms on which to live and hunt seals – is disappearing.

According to the AP, “Summer sea ice last year shrunk to a record low, about 1.65 million square miles in September, nearly 40% less than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000 and most climate modelers predict a continued downward spiral, possibly with an Arctic Ocean that's ice free during summer months by 2030 or sooner.” In fact, the British newspaper THE INDEPENDENT reported August 31, “Open water now stretches all the way round the Arctic, making it possible for the first time in human history to circumnavigate the North Pole… the most important geographical landmark to date to signal the unexpectedly rapid progress of global warming.”

The resulting opening of Arctic sea lanes creates a morass of issues that will affect American foreign and energy policy for years, and which neither campaign is significantly addressing. As noted in this column a couple of years ago, “Melting of the Arctic icecap would create a sea five times the size of the Mediterranean and shorten global shipping routes by thousands of miles.” The impact on maritime trade and commercial fishing thus will be enormous, not to mention the new availability of natural resources worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Eight nations are fighting over territorial rights to the Arctic seabed – including not only Russia, the United States and Canada but also Norway and Denmark.

But among the many disastrous side effects is that south Florida, the Marshall Islands and half of Bangladesh will be underwater. The UN estimates that by decade’s end around 50 million people will become environmental refugees. Because of global warming, we’ll find ourselves in a manmade, hubristic mess of, um, Titanic proportions.

So here’s the lipstick part: Maybe there won’t be as many icebergs.


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Michael Winship: Lipstick on Polar Bears: PLEASE make sure every senior/junior reporter/newshouse gets a copy of this article. Please make sure Barack Obama reads this article so maybe he can halt any journalist using such spin before it is in print. Truth! That's all we want!

Jolly Jim: The Miller Analogies Test has long been used to screen literalists like yourself from graduate school. I disagree: It can be entertaining and ironic to have a conversation with the HAL 9000. Sorry, I know you missed my comparative point.

I really dislike metaphors - they are so confusing - just like politicians words ( and some columnists ) - one never knows what it truly means. They just don’t get to the crux of the issue in a timely manor.


I liked the Titanic metaphor that you used in this posting. I have maintained an interest in the Titanic for quite some time now. I too often cite the Titanic for use in metaphors about America.

For instance, let us substitute the Titanic with the United States. On the Titanic, and other luxury liners coming to America, most of the revenues came from hard working steerage passengers. That is why they packed so many of them in the ship. This is very similar to hard working Americans footing the bills through our taxes. Hubris and incompetence sank that ship. Hubris represented the arrogant notion that she was "unsinkable". We often regard the U.S. as "unconquerable", i.e. the richest and most powerful nation on the face of the Earth. Incompetence ensued due to general and gross negligence. Few people even discuss the fact that on the night the Titanic struck that iceberg that the lookout was without binoculars. "When there is no vision the people will perish".

Obsolete regulations failed to keep up with the growth of luxury lines back in the days of the Titanic. So safety regulations failed to mandate enough life boats to accommodate all of the passengers. Ironic isn't it how we find that during our current financial crisis that only the rich and powerful have insured themselves against the turmoil? Yet millions of people are left to go begging for assistance once our financial system has left them broke and homeless.

The disaster in Iraq can be likened to the Titanic disaster. Who pays the price in Iraq for that war? Young and working people pay the price for our government's misdeeds. Who paid the heaviest price on that fateful night in 1912? Mainly poor, third class passengers due to the lack of lifeboats and the hideous class rules that survive to this day paid the highest price. Rich passengers survived the disaster disproportionately greater than any other passengers on that ship. Do we see any investment bankers or short sellers going to jail right now? No.

So just as the Titanic steamed full speed ahead into "uncharted" ice packs so does our economy and our republic along with it.

The fodder makes for great headlines. But of course that is what we have been fed for years, headlines without substance. Then millions of citizens are left to wonder what happened and why they have to pay for it. Meanwhile the sane voices in the economic and political sectors of our country are left screaming to a deafened and dumbed down population of Americans left to pay the tab.

Dear Mr. Winship,

Change is not enough to right a sunkinship.


They call for change, the presidential candidates of today. Give me your spare change. They beg for change like the panhandlers of our city streets so that they can bring the change America needs they claim.
But will change right a broken Democracy; will change right a sinking ship?
Will changing skippers keep us afloat any longer?
Will bailing out our sunken financial institutions so rotted away by their own greed change anything?
Will change balance an environment on a planet so over-burdened by the weight of ourselves, mankind?
Will change bring mankind such needed self-control?
Will the promised change in healthcare insurance reform, make us any healthier?
Is our health truly an insurance problem or is it rather up to our own selves, how healthy we will be?
Will change right the wrongs of wars?
Will change give us back our liberty, our freedom, so removed proportionally by the growth of government itself?
Education needs change?
Don’t our children simply need the truth?
Justice needs change, or is it only equality that it so desperately in need?
Change they say?
Is it the time for change or to change, or is it time to build a new Democracy, a new America with the great lessons we have already learne?.
Isn’t it time to start over again, and build a new government this time, stronger and better than before?
Isn’t it time to start anew, while we still can?
I won’t vote for change my fellow countrymen and woman, but I will vote for anew.


Michael: You have given us useful facts and context in this excellent analytical editorial. Please use your same skills and insight to explain the global economic crisis sometime. Maybe the Hindenburg, actually a fascist gas bag, would provide the appropriate metaphorical vehicle. (As you may know, home loans to low waged Ahmeerikans have been a scapegoat explanation, while speculation in risk trading, currency trading and derivatives have not been sufficiently examined. Most of the iceberg remains below the water, so to speak.)

David Eddy: Did you realize that the flood myth is shared by many ancient and current religions pre-dating Christianity and Judaism by centuries. Undoubtedly, there were some catastrophic regional floods, but no geological evidence for one global event. I appreciate though your hope for new beginnings after a "Deluge"
and hope our successors, whatever religions or ethnicities they may be, will be able to steward a whole and complete array of animals and plants into that better future. (Creation is all one thing.)

Hillary must believe that Senators Kennedy, Kerry, McGovern, Biden, Edwards, etc., chose to support a junior senator over HER because of.....Gee! Let's see. Why did they support HIM? SHE just would not make a good-ole-BOY...naw..SHE doesn't think that 'cause SHE is a PARTY GIRL.

Why does Blii Clinton have an office in Harlem? What did the Clintons ever do for the black community? Less than Obama by over 95%.

Let's see...the DNP said Fla. Dem.'s votes could not count because the Republicans changed the date for the nomination-election! How does one checkmate oneself? Have to ask Howard Dean, a leader of the DUMBest DEMOCRATICS ever! They should not be allowed to the run Party, much less our nation!

Why is this election even close?!?

Why does no national media expose Ralph Nader for what he is? Wait I think I know..He has been fore-telling of our current delimia for decades, and that is old news.

Billy Bob, Florida where the DNC now wants us to vote for them!

“We’ll find ourselves in a man made, hubristic mess of, um, Titanic proportions”
I think we are already in a “man made... mess”! We are being told:
“Bush: Economy Is Strong Enough To Handle Wall Street Turmoil”!
A person would have never known the financial market and the economy is in
“MELTDOWN” - Depression until we were assured!
The status quo is bailing out institutions of their “choice”, and allowing institution that
handle small investors finances, pension funds to file for bankruptcy.
The Economy Is Strong Enough To Handle only lipstick on a “sweet lips”!

Titanic no Noah’s Ark

There was a ship built by Noah,
It was built to survive a flood.
There was a ship built by Noah,
The ship was planned by God above.
Noah listened to God and did what he was told
This is a story that is very old.
The rains came and the ship began to float.

Noah’s family and the animals were all aboard.
Forty days, forty nights the sturdy ship it tossed about.
Forty days and forty nights the sturdy ship tossed about.
When the rain was over and the sun came out.
All were saved to start a new life.
They all got out and walked about.
All were safe to start a new life.

There was a ship the Titanic, built to never sink.
The ship was planned by the best of ship builders.
They had no concern for what the price.
Built to stay afloat no matter what was meant to be.
On its maiden voyage it hit some ice.
The ship soon began to sink to the bottom of the sea.
It sank to the bottom of the sea.

You have heard the story of Noah; Noah and the Ark.
Noah listened to God and built himself an Ark.
You have heard the story of Titanic, built never to sink.
They listened to men who thought they knew it all.
The ship was long and tall but it never saw land again.
The ship sank down, down, down to the bottom of the sea.
God has a plan for you and me; that is plain to see.
David C. Eddy

Well said, thank you.

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