A key point of my book, Language Intelligence, is that the figures of speech are powerful because they are so memorable. The great Bards like Homer developed tricks to remember epic poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Greeks codified these memory tricks — metaphor, irony, various forms of repetition, and so on — into rhetoric.
On the PBS News Hour last week, I pointed out that many people had warned climate change would inevitably lead to a storm surge that flooded Manhattan. Ray Suarez then asked if people could hear that message and act on it before seeing the devastation with their own eyes. I used a favorite metaphor:
People warned [before] Katrina that New Orleans needed to be able to withstand a Category 5. They didn’t design the levees to withstand it and we see what happened. Now we see the same thing with Sandy. I think the hope has to be that Sandy isn’t short for Cassandra and that it’s another warning that we ignore.
People now have seen that you can in fact have the worst-case scenario, which was a flooding of Lower Manhattan.
And I think any city along the Eastern Seaboard has to ask themselves, what would happen if Hurricane Sandy hit us?
Cassandra famously had the gift of prophecy together with the curse of not being believed, with archetypally tragic results:
While Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy (she warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, the death of Agamemnon, and her own demise), she was unable to do anything to forestall these tragedies since they did not believe her.
It has become a classic metaphor in the climate arena (though sometimes misused — see “Memo to WashPost, George Will: Cassandra was right“). Indeed, to extend the metaphor, carbon dioxide is the army of destruction hiding in the “gift” of fossil fuels.
Sandy/Cassandra utilizes multiple figures — a metaphor, an allusion, and repetition — which is no doubt why PBS picked it up for its own headline on the story:
Is Sandy a ‘Cassandra’? How Cities Should Prepare for Future Natural Disasters
Watch the segment:
Watch How Cities Should Prepare for Future Natural Disasters on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.
I should note that the Sandy/Cassandra meme started with a piece in the Nation by the great writer Mark Hertsgaard , “Hurricane Sandy as Greek Tragedy“:
Sandy is short for Cassandra, the Greek mythological figure who epitomizes tragedy…. That is the essence of this tragedy: to know that a given course of action will lead to disaster but to pursue it nevertheless.
And so it has been with America’s response to climate change. For more than twenty years, scientists and others have been warning that global warming, if left unaddressed, would bring a catastrophic increase in extreme weather—summers like that of 2012, when the United States endured the hottest July on record and the worst drought in fifty years, mega-storms like the one now punishing the East Coast….
But scientists’ warnings have been by and large ignored—at least within the corridors of power in Washington. As in the myth of Cassandra, today it remains unclear whether even the latest catastrophe—the devastation of America’s greatest city, its center of commerce, finance and, tellingly, the news media—will cause the nation to wake up and take serious action.
There is one particular group of people who understand the need to ‘wake up’ but who have fallen asleep themselves — see my February 2009 post, Steven Chu on climate change: “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”
It’s time for this Administration to wake up.
For more on headline writing, the figures of speech, and being memorable, you can buy Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga in paperback here, Kindle here.