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.

Polygamy And Joseph Smith’s Convenient Revelations

In Under The Banner Of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Jon Krakauer cites Fawn Brodie‘s No Man Knows My History, her classic biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism:

Monogamy seemed to him–as it has seemed to many men who have not ceased to love their wives, but who have grown weary of connubial exclusiveness–an intolerably circumscribed way of life. “Whenever I see a pretty woman,” he once said to a friend, “I have to pay for grace.” But Joseph was no careless libertine who could be content with clandestine mistresses. There was too much of the Puritan in him, and he could not rest until he had redefined the nature of sin and erected a stupendous theological edifice to support his new theories on marriage.

That ‘stupendous theological edifice’, of course, was constructed by conveying some rather conveniently timed and worded ‘revelations’ that Smith would subsequently receive from God himself.

Indeed, as Krakauer goes on to note, so precisely specified were these revelations that they even took care of any resistance that Smith’s wife, Emma, might have had to her husband’s rather transparent philandering. As Verse 54 of Section 132–the one that sanctions so-called ‘plural marriage’– of the Mormon’s Doctrines and Covenants states:

And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.

Other passages make it plain that casting one’s eyes about is quite all-right:

61 [I]f any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another…then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.

62 And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.

63 But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment.

It all works out rather nicely. Take as many as you need; and woe betide any of your ‘brides’ if they seek similar sexual freedom for themselves. Indeed, threaten them with damnation and destruction in response.

The misogyny, mendaciousness,  and self-serving deceit on display is quite breathtaking. But it is not novel–as the histories of fundamentalist strains of the world’s major religions so depressingly reveal.

The new atheists–Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al.–are rightly pilloried for their intemperate and unsophisticated attacks on religion. Still, it is worth recalling, when one reads of the foundations of one of the world’s fastest growing faiths, that the reason they find such a sympathetic following is, all too often, because they have such glaring and easy targets to aim at.

Christopher Hitchens: Pro-War, Anti-Death Penalty

A few days ago, Corey Robin wondered on his Facebook status:

Something I never understood about Christopher Hitchens: how such a fervent opponent of the death penalty could be such an avid supporter of war.

Supporters of the death penalty, of course, are notoriously fond of war (they also tend to be ‘pro-life’ in the debate on abortion). But why 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, I think, 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.)

The death penalty, in sharp and instructive contrast, is almost uniformly grubby and sordid. It is underwritten by retribution, an ignoble business at best; it is wrapped up in tedious layers of penal codes, legal wrangling, and procedural disputes; it happens quietly and grimly, away from the public eye, the punishment that dare not  speak its name. All associated with it are diminished; the condemned have lost their human dignity well before they ascend the gallows, the jailers and clergymen and executioners appear merely as bureaucratic functionaries, executing–no pun intended–with nary a trace of flair or style, the bookish orders laid out in the court document sanctioning the killing. There is no glamour, no sheen, no gleaming edges in the death penalty. It is dull, dull, dull. Especially in this guillotine-free age.

If the death penalty could have been lifted, somehow, out of the unappealing morass of state bureaucracy, judicial procedure, and clumsy modes of execution, if it could somehow have brought with it some of the frisson that war provides, then I do not doubt that Hitchens would have been all for it.

Note: One should also not forget that Hitchens considered himself a contrarian. Perhaps his opposition to the death penalty was formed at a time when public support for it ran high; his support of the Iraq War was probably viewed by him as a gleeful flipping of the bird to his former mates on the Left.

(Coded) Messages in Bottles

As part of his continuing series on free speech in Asia, Timothy Garton Ash turns his attention to Burma–the land of military juntas and Aung San Suu Kyi–and points us to some deft work to get around its censors’ pen:

Thirteen years ago, editors of tiny magazines in dim, cramped offices showed me examples of the crudest precensorship by the authorities: individual phrases or whole pages had to be blanked out, or hastily replaced with advertisements. This was the age of the hidden message, of the Aesopian, with even an article on the proliferation of mosquitoes in Rangoon banned by the censors as suspected allegory. Sometimes, editors got away with little triumphs, like the November 2010 First Eleven magazine headline, in this soccer-mad country: “SUNDERLAND FREEZE CHELSEA UNITED STUNNED BY VILLA & ARSENAL ADVANCE TO GRAB THEIR HOPE.” First Eleven submitted this to the censors in black and white, but published it in multiple colors. The letters in bright red spelled out “SU…FREE…UNITE…&…ADVANCE TO GRAB THE HOPE….” Su—that is Aung San Suu Kyi—had just been released from house arrest. The captain was back.

This little bit of crypto-messaging reminded me of yet another cloaked message, in another context and country and age, pointed out by Christopher Hitchens:

In the year 1798, seeking to choke the influence of French and other revolutionary opinions in their own “backyard”, the British authorities jailed the radical Irish nationalist Arthur O’Connell. As he was being led away, O’Connell handed out a poem of his own composition that seemed to its readers like a meek act of contrition, and a repudiation of that fount of heresy, Thomas Paine:

I

The pomp of courts and pride of kings

I prize above all earthly things;

I love my country; the king

Above all men his praise I sing:

The royal banners are displayed,

And may success the standard aid.

II

I fain would banish far from hence,

The Rights of Man and Common Sense;

Confusion to his odious reign,

That foe to princes, Thomas Paine!

Defeat and ruin seize the cause

Of France, its liberties and laws!

If the reader has the patience to take the first line of the first stanza, then the first line of the second stanza, and then repeat the alternating process with the second, third and fourth lines of each, and so on, he or she will have no difficulty in writing out quite a different poem. (How much the British have suffered from their fatuous belief that the Irish are stupid!)

Such a construction yields, of course:

The pomp of courts and pride of kings

I fain would banish far from hence,

I prize above all earthly things;

The Rights of Man and Common Sense;

I love my country; the king

Confusion to his odious reign,

Above all men his praise I sing:

That foe to princes, Thomas Paine!

The royal banners are displayed,

Defeat and ruin seize the cause

And may success the standard aid.

Of France, its liberties and laws!

Christopher Buckley and Dipsomania: Apparently Hard To Let It Go

The writers of great literature often supply us mere mortals with memorable lines, especially if they serve as the openers for their works. Thus, for instance, Tolstoy‘s Taxonomy of the Family, which kicks off Anna Karenina:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

This serves as raw material for endless variations which then embellish our own–lazy–conversation and writing:

All successful sports teams are alike; every unsuccessful sports team fails in its own way

Or,

All good movies are alike; every bad movie is terrible in its own way.

And so on. You catch my drift.

Or to consider another example, consider Jane Austen‘s unforgettable opening for Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Armed with this line, one can, with some facility, provide a suitable response to Christopher Buckley‘s homage to dipsography, the art of drinking, and, as it turns out, his drinking buddies, the slogan for which reads, ‘Alcohol makes other people less tedious. And food less bland.’ (‘Booze as Muse‘, The New York Times, 30 June 2013):

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a boring drunk’s boring drunk friends will write chapter and verse–boring ones–about their drinking exploits and their love of the bottle.

In this tedious jaunt through the flagon-and-Boy’s Club-infested shelves of his life, Buckley describes ‘three-martini lunch’ dreams involving Tom Wolfe, writing assignments involving Bloody Mary recipes, works in the obligatory Kingsley Amis reference (among several others to–mostly male, I think–writers), before leading up to what surely was the central motivation for writing this piece, the opportunity to let us readers know that he, too, like many before him, had tried to, but failed to keep pace with, that writer’s writer, that drinker’s drinker, Christopher Hitchens:

I mentioned Christopher Hitchens a moment ago. It seems fitting that he should provide our nightcap. He and I once had a weekday lunch that began at 1 p.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m. I spent the next three weeks begging to be euthanized; he went home and wrote a dissertation on Orwell. Christopher himself was a muse of booze, though dipsography and fancy cocktails were not his thing. Christopher was a straightforward whiskey and martini man. In his memoir, “Hitch-22,” he made a solid case for liquidity.

“Alcohol makes other people less tedious,” he writes, “and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.”

Unfortunately, very little could have made less tedious the increasingly unhinged rantings of Hitchens as his expiry date loomed, and on the evidence available to us, the same goes for this considerably-less-than-novel paean to alcohol of Buckley’s. Men musing about their alcoholic recipes and proclivities is boring enough, but my tolerance runs out especially quickly when confronted with boastful tales of consumption marathons in the company of equally uninteresting hacks.

The next time Buckley feels the ‘entheos’ to write about his alcoholic adventures and adventurers, he should respond to it in the only way possible: drink himself to sleep, and spare us the details.

Fish on Eagleton on Religion

Stanley Fish reviews Terry Eagleton‘s Reason, Faith and Revolution in The New York Times and approvingly quotes him contra the excesses of Christopher Hitchens:

[T]he fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

This is a peculiar remark to make. Religion might not be in the business of offering explanations for natural phenomena now, but that is because it has, over an extended period, as a tactical and strategic move, ceded that explanatory function to science. Its history suggests that it has often seen itself in the business of offering explanations and indeed, comprehensive theories of the world that begin at its beginning and go on till its end. Hitchens’ remark is crude in suggesting the religious are only motivated by a desire to seek the kind of comforts made possible by technology but Eagleton’s suggestion that the description of religion is entirely misguided ignores the historical role that religion has played in the lives of its adherents in years gone by.

The same considerations apply to another one of Eagleton’s passages quoted by Fish:

[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

Again, one can provide metaphorical and non-realist readings of religion that do not see it as an explanatory theory but it is not clear such readings do full justice to the way that practitioners of religion see it, as a system which makes the world coherent. But systems which seek to provide such clarity are, contra Eagleton and Fish both, attempts to explain the world. If those systems are found wanting, it is because rival explanations for the same phenomena they claim to make comprehensible are found more satisfying, more able to do justice to the desiderata posed by the explanandum.

The move to cast religion as a non-explanation of anything is an interesting defensive move in light of the criticisms made of its extravagant ontological and ethical claims but it is not one that strikes me as likely to be successful. If religion did not seek to explain the incomprehensible then what comfort could it provide to the faithful? If you arrive at religion with a mystery and leave with one, then it hasn’t distinguished itself from the rest of this mysterious existence of ours.

Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Essayists and Posterity

For a couple of days now, Katha Pollitt’s obit/remembrance of Christopher Hitchens has been making the rounds to near-universal adulation. For good reasons; the piece is well worth a read, especially as it highlights aspects of Hitchens’ writing and personality that few have seen fit to focus on (especially not by his drinking buddies, whose cliche-ridden remembrances will be chuckled over by many for years to come).

But toward the end of the article, Pollitt throws in the following:

Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones. I doubt we’d be reading much of Orwell’s nonfiction now had he not written the indelible novels 1984 and Animal Farm.

Pollitt seems to be trying to establish the following thesis (roughly): Even the best non-fiction writers only get read by future generations if they are lucky enough to have written some quality best-selling fiction. I disagree. (Notice, incidentally, that Pollitt has thrown “essayists” into a group that includes “columnists” and “book reviewers”; I do agree that “columnists” and “book reviewers” are more inclined to be creatures of their age who risk rapid obscurity unless they write more substantive and possibly popular work. I’m also aware that “non-fiction” is too broad a category in my purported thesis above but I think it is clear what Pollitt and I are aiming at.)

The simplest way to refute Pollitt’s assertion is to dredge up examples of essayists whose place in posterity is secure without their being famous through the fiction they wrote: Michel Montaigne, Edmund Burke, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Susan Sontag, Jacques Barzun; the list goes on. (Standard caveat: to really settle this dispute check back in a couple of hundred years). We can disagree plentifully about how well posterity is treating every single member on the list we would generate, and about its definitive membership, but when the smoke would clear, we would still list many essayists to whom posterity has been “kind” without requiring that they have written a best-selling novel or two. Indeed, in some cases, it would be clear their literary fame has been achieved not because of the fiction they wrote but in spite of it (I think this is especially true of Sontag, whose fiction I simply could not stand).

But there is another problem in Pollitt’s assertion given its reliance on the case of Orwell. Would Orwell simply have slipped into obscurity had he not written those “indelible” novels? Well, fiction is always more likely to reach a broader market than the non-fiction a writer puts out. And popularity in that genre can have the salutary effect of attracting a broader readership to the rest of a writer’s corpus. And yes, Orwell’s writings became famous only after he wrote his best-selling novels (I’m inclined to think that 1984, incidentally, is a not-very-good novel whose fame was ensured by a particular set of historical contingencies). But is a large readership what Pollitt means by being treated kindly by posterity? Or would posterity still be kind to a writer if critical acclaim for the writer’s non-fiction corpus were to endure through the ages? If the latter, then since Pollitt is trading in hypotheticals, let me do so too. I think anyone that wrote Homage to Catalonia, The Road to Wigan Pier, Decline of the English Murder, How the Poor Die, Shooting An Elephant, Why I Write, or Politics and The English Language would have found enduring critical, even if not popular, fame.

Lastly, slipping a mention of Orwell into a remembrance of Hitchens shows that Pollitt has succumbed to the temptation to lump the two together. Please. Cease and Desist.