Brian Williams Is Right: War Is Beautiful, And We Are Fascinated By It

Brian Williams has offended many with his invocation of the ‘beauty’ of the weapons fired into Syria on Thursday. But he is right: war and its weapons are beautiful, and we are surrounded by them; we succumb all to easily to their embrace, to the clarion call of war, precisely because we find them beautiful. As I noted in a post about the phenomenon of Israelis pulling up lawn chairs to watch the bombardment of Gaza in 2014:

We love seeing things go boom and pow. And when non-combatant can’t watch the real thing, they watch movies, or read books, or take part in reenactments.  When ‘shock and awe’ went live in March 2003, I do not doubt television ratings went through the roof just like many Iraqi limbs did. If the US were to–for whatever reason–start bombing a neighboring country visible from the US (perhaps Russia, visible from Alaska?), I don’t doubt there would be crowds of eager spectators, perched on vantage viewing points on the border.

Those who cheer their armies and air forces and navies on to war, who are happy to let politicians pull the trigger for them and send others’ sons and daughters and husbands and wives and fathers and mothers to war, they would happily tune their channel to the military version of CNN…and watch live war action, twenty-four hours a day. If they could, they would watch the action in slow motion replay….They would sit down with popcorn and cheer on their heroes. And boo the villains.

War makes for excellent visual material. There are lots of very beautiful explosions–the various chemicals used in bombs produce flames and smoke of many different colors; the rising of smoke conjures up mental visions of nature’s clouds and mist and fog; bombed-out landscapes have their own twisted and haunting beauty to them; viewed from a distance, even the bodies of the dead can have a grotesque, eerie quality to them.

Or, in a post on John Forbes’ ‘Love Poem’:

we were spectators and consumers of [the Iraq war]; we watched its images as entertainment, divorced from the brute reality of what the tangible realizations of those armaments on the ground were; we were given a ‘video game’ and we remained content with it. The lovelorn narrator of this poem has come to find in this spectacle consolations not available elsewhere in more amorous pastures; in this regard, he differs only mildly from all those who find in the fantasies of war a compensatory substitution for the failures, absences, and losses of daily life….War’s images are beautiful and evocative; so are its sounds–think of the awe-inspiring aural and auditory spectacle the lighting of a jet’s afterburner provides, for instance. These sights and sounds beguile us; they take us away from the aching gaps in our lives. We grew up  on a diet of war comics and war heroes; now, as adults, the play continues. Elsewhere, its realities still hidden from us. We amuse ourselves by memorizing, in awed tones of voice, the impressive technical specifications of the gleaming armaments that do so much damage to flesh and bone, to life and limb, to hope and aspiration; we look forward to these toys being used for more than just play.

Or, in wondering about the political consistency of Christopher Hitchens’ views:

[W]hy would a ‘fervent’ opponent of state-sanctioned murder be an ‘avid’ supporter or war, another form, one might say, of state-sanctioned murder?

The answer may…be found in the kind of fascination war exerted over Hitchens. He did not think of it as merely an instrument of politics, one wielded to bring about very specific political objectives. Rather, it held him in a kind of aesthetically inflected thrall: he found it beautiful, stirring, exciting.  Many, like Hitchens, are entranced by the beautiful images that war furnishes for our imagination; evidence for this claim can be found in the large number of coffee-table books that purport to be illustrated histories of war. These images need not be just those of exploding munitions and ruined buildings; war utilizes weaponry and men, and photographic and artistic depictions of these, utilized and engaged in combat (or waiting to be) are among our most iconic representations. Gleaming aircraft, sleek, water-plowing  battleships, smoothly recoiling guns, men (and now women) in svelte uniforms, buttoned up, hard and unforgiving. It’s hard to resist the appeal of these. War provides many visual horrors, of course, but these are all too often swamped by the aforementioned cavalcade.  (I’m leaving aside for now, the enduring place that war holds in our imagination as a zone for the establishment of masculine credentials and brotherhood.)

There is a caveat, of course:

From a distance. That’s the rub. War is always good from a distance. You can’t see the fine detail of the mangled limbs, the oozing entrails. And you can’t smell it. But pan out just far enough and it all looks good. Even pretty. The kind of stuff you’d want to watch in company. After a good meal.

When Brian Williams offered his views on the sight of cruise missiles being fired into a dark night he was articulating a sensibility which lies deep in the nation’s spirit–“the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air”; he was merely articulating what many others felt. I say ‘we’ above again and again, because I do not think we can simply condemn Williams and leave ourselves out of the picture.

Drones And The Beautiful World They Reveal

Over the past year or so, I have, on multiple occasions, sat down with my toddler daughter to enjoy BBC’s epic nature documentary series Planet Earth. Narrated by the incomparable David Attenborough, it offers up hour-long packages of visual delight in stunning high-definition: giant waterfalls, towering mountains and icebergs, gigantic flocks of birds, roaring volcanoes and river rapids, deep canyons, majestic creatures of all kinds; the eye-candy is plentiful, and it is dished out in large portions. While watching it, I’ve been moved to remark that my co-viewing of it in the company of my daughter–and sensing her delight as we do so–has been one of the highlights of my parental responsibilities.

Filming a documentary like Planet Earth, the most expensive ever, takes time and money and technical aid. The featurettes for the various episodes explain how they were filmed: sometimes using a cinebulle, sometimes “the Heligimbal, a powerful, gyro-stabilised camera mounted beneath a helicopter.” Now comes news that Planet Earth II, the second installment of the series will deploy even more advanced technology:

The BBC…has not only shot the whole thing in UHD, but it also used the latest camera stabilisation, remote recording, and aerial drone technology, too.

The use of drones should make perfectly good sense. Drones can be commandeered into remote and difficult to access territories and zones with great ease and precision; they can be made to wait for the perfect shot for long periods of time; they can generate huge amounts of visual image data which can then be sorted through to select the best images; without a doubt, their usage will result in the previously hidden–and beautiful–coming to light. Perhaps they will descend into the craters of volcanoes; perhaps they will hover above herds of animals, tracking their every move to record and reveal the mysteries of migration; perhaps they will enable closer looks at the dynamics of waterfalls and whirlpools; perhaps they will fly amidst flocks of birds.

Their use will remind us once again of the mixed blessings of technology. Drones can be used for surveillance, for privacy invasions, for the violations of human rights; they can be used to conduct warfare from on high, sending down deadly munitions directed at civilians; they can also be used to reveal the beauties of this world in a manner that reminds us, yet again, that our planet is a beautiful place, one worth preserving for the sake of future generations. Technology facilitates the exploitation of nature but also, hopefully, its conservation and sensible stewardship thanks to the beauties of the images brought back to us by the drones we use. The use of drones in Planet Earth II may refine our aesthetic sensibilities further: many of our aesthetic superlatives are drawn from nature, but that entity’s contours will now be revealed in ever greater detail, with more aspects brought front and center. And so, as we have never stopped noticing, even as technology makes the world more understandable, it reveals its ever greater mysteries.  Technology may make the world mundane, quantify it all the better to tame it, but it may also reveal facets of the world we may have been previously blind to, rendering some sensibilities duller and yet others more acute.

An Unforgettable Image, Appropriately Contextualized

In the summer of 1992, I traveled to India to visit my family: my mother, my brother, his wife (my sister-in-law), and my little, then barely six months old nephew. The monsoon lay around the corner, promising mixed relief from the brutal heat of the North Indian plains; the humidity would still oppress, but evenings and nights promised to be cooler. My days at my brother’s air force base passed quickly: morning teas with my mother, playing with my nephew, indulgent afternoon beers, a lazy nap, then a long walk with my mother through the leafy, broad-avenued cantonment, and finally, at night, an old Indian favorite, several whiskies with club soda to accompany a hearty meal. It remains, to date, the most treasured of my many trips back ‘home’ since migrating to the US in 1987. Much was to change after that trip; those few weeks marked the end of an era of sorts.

Among the many pleasantly nostalgic vignettes of that trip that I can summon up quite effortlessly in my mind’s eye, one particular afternoon stands out clearly. That day, my mother and I returned to my brother’s residence on base from a brief train trip to meet some family in Central India. On arriving, my brother asked if we had had lunch, and on hearing we had not, suggested we get some take-out from the local market. My ears perked up, and I suggested we sample the wares of a local shop, which specialized in making the North Indian snack called kachori; this establishment’s products were known far and wide for their lip-smacking taste, and every daily batch produced by the cooks sold out in a few minutes. My brother looked at the time, saw it was just about that hour when the kachoris were to go on sale, and suggested we bust a move if we wanted to get lucky. I complied. We scored, picking up two dozen of the savory, spicy snacks. A dozen were to be consumed that afternoon itself; the remaining would have to bide their time till the evening. On the way back, I suggested to my brother that it would be a shame to not wash down our meal with a cold beer. He agreed, and we stopped off at a local shop to pick up a few three-quarter-litre bottles.

As we rode home on my brother’s motorbike, we noticed an unusually powerful afternoon monsoon shower brewing: grey rainclouds coalesced rapidly into gigantic black thunderheads building and lifting ominously as the winds picked up and little dust devils began dancing by the roadside. We arrived home, placed the food on the dining table to be sorted out into plates, opened our chilled bottles of beer, and stepped out into the lawn to watch the show being put on for our pleasure. As I drank the beer, its cold wetness in my gullet bringing relief from the heat, I felt exhilarated; the buzz was kicking in. All was well; I was at home with those I loved, beauty was all around me, good food awaited.

As we watched the storm brewing, my sister-in-law, a painter and artist, standing next to me, spoke softly: ‘Look at that; my most favorite vision of all, white birds flying with the black rainclouds as backdrop.’ I looked up; there they were, ivory-white wings silhouetted against the now-almost-ebony-black clouds, a stark and stunning contrast. It was, without doubt, one of the most startling and striking visions I had ever had of nature; it remains so to this day. And I knew, even at that instant, that my assessment of the beauty of the image presented to me, was directly and immediately affected by my placement (an air force base my father had flown out of many years ago), my company–those I missed so acutely once I had crossed the black water, my sense of belonging in a space that felt familiar, the love I could feel around me (and perhaps the beer too.) Without those accompaniments, I would not have seen what I did.

Note: In The Analyst and the Mystic: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Religion and Mysticism, his psychoanalytic study of the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sudhir Kakar writes:

The artistic streak in Ramakrishna was strongly developed, and it seems appropriate that his first ecstasy was evoked by the welling up of aesthetic emotion; an episode of ‘nature’ mysticism, it was the consequence of an aesthetically transcendent feeling: “I was following a narrow path between the rice fields. I raised my eyes to the sky as I munched my rice. I saw a great black cloud spreading rapidly till it covered the heavens. Suddenly at the edge of the cloud a flight of snow white cranes passed over my head. The contrast was so beautiful that my spirit wandered far away. I lost consciousness and fell to the ground. The puffed rice was scattered. Somebody picked me up and carried me home in his arms. An access [sic] of joy and emotion overcame me….This was the first time I was seized with ecstasy.”

 

 

Thank God, Caitlyn Jenner ‘Looks Great’

The first transgender public figure whom I ‘encountered’ was Renée Richards–thanks to her landmark legal victory in the New York Supreme Court over the United States Tennis Association, which had denied her entry into the 1976 US Open, on the grounds of  their supposed ‘women-born-women’ policy. (Richards–formerly Richard Raskind–had undergone sex reassignment surgery in 1975.) Shortly after I read about her in a sports magazine, I heard what would become a seemingly constant refrain in most of the superficial responses to transgender persons: “I feel sorry for him. He was a sissy man, now he’s an ugly woman.” Later, in conversations about transgender men, it would be slightly modified to, “I feel sorry for her. She was an ugly, manly woman, and now she’s a sissy man.”

Part of the problem, it seemed, with transgender persons was that they were ‘just plain ugly.’ They weren’t ‘attractive men’; they weren’t ‘attractive women.’ That was the biggest sin of all. If only they could be more ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome,’ then all would be good. If only they could somehow be made to cleave to conventional notions of beauty and attractiveness, if only they could so dramatically transform themselves that no traces of their older self would survive, into thin, sexy women or perhaps brawny, hunky men, the stuff of pin-ups, then perhaps the rest of the world would be able to bring themselves to pardon their otherwise unpardonable attempt to determine their chosen identity for themselves.

Caitlyn Jenner has–thanks to her  elevated public profile–struck an important blow for transgender rights; she has sparked a broad, diverse, conversation about transgender persons and their place in our society. She seems to have been ‘accepted’ by many, though, of course, there were those too, who wrote refrains that were almost exact reprises of the reactions I had heard directed at Richards all those years ago.

But Caitlyn Jenner ‘entered’ our lives on a Vanity Fair cover. Shot by Anne Leibovitz. She looks glamorous and sexy; she has benefited from the attentions of an expert photographer, backed up by a small army of make-up persons, lighting assistants, and perhaps even personal trainers. We might imagine that someone, on not knowing anything at all about Bruce Jenner, might say, “Hey, that’s a mighty attractive sixty-six year old woman.” And a common reaction, indeed, to Caitlyn was that “she looks great!”

Phew. What a relief. Imagine if she didn’t ‘look great.’ Would the ‘freakshow’ conversation start all over again? Of course, it would. We are obsessed with appearances.

There are many, many transgender people who will not be able to ‘transform’ themselves in the way Caitlyn has. (I have no idea what Caitlyn looks like away from the camera lens.) They will not be offered good lighting, touch-ups, a glamorous outfit, and the attentions of those who know how to make us look good. They’ll just look like any ordinary person might. They won’t have public relations help; they won’t have access to sympathetic writers who can help them bring their stories to life. Hopefully, some of the kindness and tolerance on display in the reactions to Caitlyn’s ‘debut’ will be sent their way too.

Praising One Partner, Dissing The Other

Sometimes, on Facebook, an innocent will post a photograph of himself and his female partner, and be greeted with a slew of admiring comments and ‘likes’. These will often be things like ‘you guys look great together’ or ‘fabulous couple!’ Sometimes there are  comments about the wife or girlfriend’s looks: ‘X is beautiful’ or ‘X is so lovely.’ And sometimes, some comments make the same point while taking a dig at their male friend: ‘Dude, she is so above your pay grade’ or ‘you are batting well above your average here’. Or something like that. These are all friendly enough, I suppose, but I must admit to feeling a little uncomfortable about the last cluster. (Perhaps people make these kinds of remarks in face-to-face settings as well, but this behavior is more easily and often observed on social media.)

The folks making that last kind of remark are indulging, of course, in some good-natured joshing: man, you really lucked out. This commentary–which women also direct at their male friends–is a sub-species of that special way that men have of expressing affection for each other wherein they call each other vaguely derogatory names as a sign of affection. Still, I wonder, don’t these kinds of comments also ‘good-naturedly’ tell the woman she is slumming it with her partner? You know: Hey, you’re being charitable here, dispensing your favors to our ‘plain’ friend? That she could have, you know, done better? Are the folks making this kind of joke, one directed at their male friends, also as comfortable making this kind of implied remark about the woman? (Note: this kind of commentary is almost never directed at women by their female friends. No one ever, as far as I can tell, tells a woman that she has really gotten lucky by ‘snagging’ such a hottie who is so clearly deserving of someone better looking than her.) I know the folks making this kind of remark are complimenting the woman’s looks–but in an odd sort of way, really, because they also seem to be suggesting she has lost out in the ‘looks stakes.’ Despite being blessed with an abundance of good looks. So not only is she unlucky, but she also lacks judgment.

I wonder if the discomfort that I’m expressing has as its root, an acute discomfort at the idea that people ‘snag’ or ‘catch’ partners, that there is some ‘physical matching’ involved between people, so that folks with similar rankings on our scale of aesthetic appreciation should be paired off with each other, and that thus, a ‘mismatch’ in looks is notable. In a way. I get that physical attraction has a great deal to do with the initial expression of romantic interest but still, we know enough about what makes relationships work to know that there is a great deal beyond the initial ‘flush.’ Most of which has to do with our complex personalities and the way our partner addresses our most felt needs. Which only emerge, more often than not, once the initial stage of courtship is over, and are rarely known to those outside the intimate circle partners create for each other.

I don’t mean to be a pedant here, or a killjoy. I’m just curious about whether the folks who talk like this have thought about some of the possible implications of their seemingly innocent remarks.

Note: On reading a draft of this post, my wife remarked:

I feel like you touch on but don’t explicitly say something that seems the most problematic about such comments. I think the reason that the same thing would not be said to a woman is because society believes a woman’s looks to be the most important thing about her whereas they are only a minor component of a man’s overall status. You can insult a man’s looks without insulting a man, but you can’t do the same to a woman.

She’s right.

 

Being ‘Appearance-Challenged’ When Looks Matter

Many years ago, an uncle of mine was talking about one of my distant cousins:  about how hard it would be for her to get married, because she was, you know, kind of, how do you say it, “ugly”? He didn’t use the word, of course. He said something like “Her face is a little, you know, kind of…” And then his voice trailed off. He couldn’t bring himself to say it. Her looks were a singularity of sorts, a precipice to be approached with care, perhaps alluded to, hinted at, but not addressed. She faced spinsterhood as a punishment; why make matters worse with that kind of explicit reference?

A dozen or so years ago, in the course of a drunken conversation with my girlfriend and her friends, one of them, giggling loudly, said she always felt sorry for “ugly” people and always said a silent prayer when she saw one on New York City’s streets: “Girl, I’m so sorry this happened to you, but thank God it didn’t happen to me.” She was thankful that in life’s sweepstakes, her cards had come out just right. She had been saved, she had dodged the bullet; she could now try to make her way through this world unencumbered by homeliness of the worst kind.

So, pity in the first instance, and in the second too. In both cases, the appearance-challenged were women; in the first case, a particular woman, in the second, a class of women. (Though the initial reference was to “ugly people”, my interlocutor’ s use of “girl” seemed to indicate she had women in mind.)

Both these folks were correct in one cruel sense; we are an appearance-obsessed society. Looks matter. The data confirms it: if you are ‘good-looking’, you get more interviews, better jobs, higher salaries, live longer lives. You get better service in restaurants and stores; you’ll get seats offered to you. (Though there seems to be some evidence that being attractive works better for men than it does for women.) Psychologists have offered a variety of explanations for this bias–some of them, unsurprisingly enough, evolutionary in flavor. You can guess the outlines of those: partner-seeking takes many forms, including hiring at the workplace, or taking better care of your clients.

And so, my uncle saw his niece’s looks as a curse; she would not be able to find a suitable groom; she would be rejected again and again–as indeed, till that stage in point she had been, though I do not know if her looks were ever cited as the reason for why. And then, she would become a source of anxiety for her parents; perhaps even an economic burden. My ‘friend’–I use the scare quotes because I was never very friendly with her–also saw the looks of the folks she pitied as a curse. They wouldn’t be able to hook up; they would not be able to score; they would not be able to enjoy their youth’s appropriate quota of sexual abandon.

Talk of beauty being skin-deep was never going to make much headway against such deeply rooted discomfort.

Note: Needless to say, our society regards obesity as a form of ugliness, which, because it seems like a personal failing is to be castigated in especially severe terms.