Once and for all with the frogs

Now that varied components of the online world are bearing down on the boiled-frog problem (Glenn Beck; Andrew Sullivan; Kevin Drum; the ever-useful Linguistics Log etc), here is the state of play:

1) Consensus that real frogs don't actually do what the cliche (and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and countless others) say they do. Consensus unfortunately has not reached the otherwise- beyond-reproach Tom Toles of the WaPo, whose cartoon today is:
TolesFrog.gif

2) Consensus that one kind of frog actually does behave this way: these are frogs with their brains removed. Details here. Thanks to Michael Jones for the science on this one, and congrats to Joe Romm for putting the revised image to use.

3) Consensus that the metaphor itself is useful. See here and here.

4) Allegations that there are no substitutes. OK, here's one, as mentioned early this year: the "cat lady" litterbox problem. You have cats in the house (I speak as a cat fan*) and you don't notice the mounting smell. Then someone walks in the door, involuntarily steps back, and says, "My God! What is that reek?" Here is the classic formulation, as laid out by Don Rose here, regarding the Gov. Blago scandal:

"Out of towners often ask me how it is that folks in Chicago and Illinois put up with all the hanky and panky that goes on in our political snakepits.

"I tell them about my cat litter box.

"Currently I have two cats--once I had nine. In any case, I used to think I kept their potty clean and odor free. Then, every so often someone would come to the door, sniff the air and whisper in confidence, "I think your cat box needs changing."

"They were right, of course. They came from cat-free environments and could sense a drop of urine at 30 paces, while I had grown so desensitized to the aroma that my schnozz would tell me I was romping through a fresh pine forest."

And I bet we could even work in some slippery-slope reasoning here!

So, to answer Kevin Drum's question: we don't cling to the frog story, even knowing it's false, because there is no possible other illustration from the realm of shared human experience that would illustrate progressive desensitization. The litterbox problem is one that is actually true -- and I bet a million times more people have experienced it than have actually seen a boiled frog. There's some other psycho/linguistic reason why the boiled frog story has caught on. But for the moment, this is my candidate for a new image: the reeking kitty-litter box. If someone has a better candidate, great.

___

*On the cat-fancier theme: to demonstrate that I am a friend of all animals involved in these image controversies, the hapless frogs as well as the reeking cats, herewith a photo of the now quite elderly Mike the Cat, in his prime. He has been in loving adopted care, since our departure for China. Then and now, no odor came from his litterbox -- according to us.

MikeonCouch.JPG


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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