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.

Missile Firing Day: The Republic’s Inaugural Day Is Here

There is a popular and enduring American fiction that the US President is sworn into office on something called Inauguration Day, which is commemorated on January 20th in Washington DC. Seasoned students of the Republic are well aware, however, that the actual, truly meaningful, Inauguration Day is not so rigidly anchored to a particular freezing day, a particular locale, one that makes it decidedly inconvenient for most Americans to participate in any meaningful way. Instead, Inauguration Day is a floater; it takes place on a select day later in the year following the elections–when the President-elect decides that the time is right to launch a few missiles–or perhaps a long-range bombing raid or two–at distant targets. Such an inaugural method offers some distinct advantages over the model commonly supposed to exist.

First, the firing of the missiles prompts an almost immediate civics lesson as curious citizens hear–for the first time–about things called ‘Presidential war powers’ or ‘Congressional approval for declarations of war.’ Some devoted folks even open copies of the US Constitution; most others use this as an opportunity to learn about the relationships between the different branches of the government. Admittedly, the judicial branch is somewhat shortchanged in this context; no Supreme Court Justice is required for the swearing in, and there is little talk of it in connection with the President’s war powers.

Second, on a related point, the citizens of the American republic also enjoy the benefits of many history and geography lessons pertaining to the historical and spatial location of this particular act of missile-firing. Where is this country that we have just attacked? How many times have we attacked it before? What sorts of reasons have been adduced in the past for similar attacks? Small children learning how to count can also be profitably engaged by teaching them the serial number of the latest instance of bombing; ‘forty-one, forty-two…what comes next? Forty-three!’; obviously, such counting would have to be restricted to just post-WWII instances to make it less intimidating for our little ones.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the nation comes together in a fashion quite unlike any other. The traditional Inauguration Day often features demonstrations and protests by disgruntled losers; Missile Firing Day produces effusive proclamations of patriotism and calls to ‘support the troops.’ Political pundits, much given to expending considerable ink from their poison pens in attacking the Presidents, now lay them down and term the President-elect ‘presidential’ (c.f. the related phenomena of hailing the parading of war widows as ‘presidential.’)

Missile Firing Day, the 2017 edition, is here. This time, the US has launched sixty Cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. (After courteously and politely informing the Russians so that the Syrian military could also move its military assets out of the way.) President-elect Donald Trump has now, in the words of at least one former critic, just ‘become President of the United States.’  These missiles’ most effective vanquishing will be that of former critics of the regime. A nation united can never be defeated.

Inaugural Day is here; long live the Republic.

A Teachable Moment For The Republican Party

That famous Republican Party discipline (or, ideological commitment), the one that made sure that many of Barack Obama’s legislative priorities were derailed through relentless parliamentary grandstanding, that ensured the federal government’s operations were shut down, producing misery and inconvenience for many, that produced budgetary brinksmanship of the highest order and negatively affected the national debt rating, it also ensured a stinging defeat for the Donald Trump-Paul Ryan effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The Freedom Caucus–that benign moniker which identifies a group of apparently sworn nihilists determined to gut government from the inside out–did not find the modified Republican replacement for ‘Obamacare’ sufficiently heartless; it healed too many, served too many; not even the prospect of doing damage to Paul Ryan’s risible and entirely concocted image as a policy wonk was enough to deter them from their opposition to the bill. (The Trump Administration’s attempts to placate this crew led in turn to so-called Republican ‘moderates’ to threaten to abandon ship; causal responsibility rests solely with the Freedom Caucus.)

Captain Trump and the USS Republican Party were headed for the shoals, and that’s where they ended up. Capitol Hill is not a campaign rally venue. There are old lessons here to be learned, apparently.  In writing of the various Athenian power struggles that preceded the Battle of Marathon against Persian forces (The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon, And Its Impact on Western Civilization, Bantam, New York, 2013, p. 80), Jim Lacey makes note of the struggles between the aristocrats Isagoras and Cleisthenes:

With Isagoras deposed, Cleisthenes and his supporters returned. Whatever his own predisposition, he now had to deliver on the promises he had made during his political struggles with Isagoras and the other noble families. He probably was also beginning to understand that it is easier for an adroit politician to manipulate the masses than it is to manage powerful competing factions.

It is small comfort for the American polity to realize that this bill failed because a Republican faction did not find it dastardly enough, because its primary architects were simply too incompetent to shepherd it through the legislative gauntlet. This same factionalization and incompetence could very well help produce a more radical version of another bill, which would gut comfort and safety elsewhere.

But there is another side to this story of Republican failure, which is that Republican representatives and senators chickened out of a ‘No’ vote because their constituents threatened them with electoral reprisals. They did so by calling in, by attending town halls, by sending postcards; in so doing, they proved, yet again, that old-fashioned citizen pressure on elected representatives works. Give the bastards hell, indeed. Elected Republicans are finding out–the hard way–that the President’s unpopularity is both deep and wide; it brings all the formerly somnolent members of the electorate to the yard; that loud presence has made the threat of disaster in 2018 more likely; and if there is anything that will help induce flight from His Orangeness’ apparently contagious success, it is the fear of contracting a fatal electoral disease.

Much damage could still be done to the Republic and its denizens; there are more bullets to be dodged; but also some lessons to be learned by those infected with hubris.

Report On Brooklyn College Teach-In On ‘Web Surveillance And Security’

Yesterday, as part of ‘The Brooklyn College Teach-In & Workshop Series on Resistance to the Trump Agenda,’ I facilitated a teach-in on the topic of ‘web surveillance and security.’ During my session I made note of some of the technical and legal issues that are play in these domains, and how technology and law have conspired to ensure that: a) we live in a regime of constant, pervasive surveillance; b) current legal protections–including the disastrous ‘third-party doctrine‘ and the rubber-stamping of governmental surveillance ‘requests’ by FISA courts–are simply inadequate to safeguard our informational and decisional privacy; c) there is no daylight between the government and large corporations in their use and abuse of our personal information. (I also pointed my audience to James Grimmelmann‘s excellent series of posts on protecting digital privacy, which began the day after Donald Trump was elected and continued right up to inauguration. In that post, Grimmelmann links to ‘self-defense’ resources provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Ars Technica.)

I began my talk by describing how the level of surveillance desired by secret police organizations of the past–like the East German Stasi, for instance–was now available to the NSA, CIA, and FBI, because of social networking systems; our voluntary provision of every detail of our lives to these systems is a spook’s delight. For instance, the photographs we upload to Facebook will, eventually, make their way into the gigantic corpus of learning data used by law enforcement agencies’ facial recognition software.

During the ensuing discussion I remarked that traditional activism directed at increasing privacy protections–or the enacting of ‘self-defense’ measures–should be part of a broader strategy aimed at reversing the so-called ‘asymmetric panopticon‘: citizens need to demand ‘surveillance’ in the other direction, back at government and corporations. For the former, this would mean pushing back against the current classification craze, which sees an increasing number of documents marked ‘Secret’ ‘Top Secret’ or some other risible security level–and which results in absurd sentences being levied on those who, like Chelsea Manning, violate such constraints; for the latter, this entails demanding that corporations offer greater transparency about their data collection, usage, and analysis–and are not able to easily rely on the protection of trade secret law in claiming that these techniques are ‘proprietary.’ This ‘push back,’ of course, relies on changing the nature of the discourse surrounding governmental and corporate secrecy, which is all too often able to offer facile arguments that link secrecy and security or secrecy and business strategy. In many ways, this might be the  most onerous challenge of all; all too many citizens are still persuaded by the ludicrous ‘if you’ve done nothing illegal you’ve got nothing to hide’ and ‘knowing everything about you is essential for us to keep you safe (or sell you goods’ arguments.

Note: After I finished my talk and returned to my office, I received an email from one of the attendees who wrote:


A Modest Proposal To Cull The Human Herd

Feeding the elderly and the young i.e., the economically unproductive, is a terribly wasteful, irrational enterprise–programs like Meals on Wheels and after-school lunches are but the most glaring instances of this catastrophically misdirected act of charity; acts like these will never produce any tangible, meaningful results like an increase in the Gross Domestic Product or the Gross National Product, indeed, the Gross Product of anything whatsoever. The elderly and the young merely consume resources, among which is the most valuable of all, the time and attention of those who could be otherwise engaged in more useful and productive endeavors–all of which may be located in those zones of virtue and redemption, the workspace and the office of the corporation (not the public sector enterprise.) Parents all too often have to turn their eyes away from useful work to attend to the plaintive cries of their useless children, while on the other end of the age spectrum, those same workers have to minister to their useless parents, who continue to occupy space, drink drinking water, eat edible food, and contribute to this planet’s terrible climate change situation by increasing our atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content. Children can at least be mildly amusing, while the elderly are anything but. Enough is enough; our civilization is at a genuine point of crisis.

Any strategy to ameliorate this state of affairs must begin with a recognition of our fundamental human nature: we are individuals, first and foremost. We are born free, radically independent of family and home and state; we die free, hopefully alone, all by ourselves. We take care of ourselves from the moment of our birth, tending to our needs with rugged solitary enterprise; we disdain the helping hand at every step. We feed ourselves, we clean ourselves, we clothe ourselves; we are pioneers of the spirit, heart, and mind. The company of other human beings is always an irritation, one only tolerated in our recognition of them as potential future consumers for the goods we will try to sell them at some point in the future.  The care of others is a burden; we need little care as we grow up, and indeed receive none, so why should we extend our care outwards? We were left by the wayside at birth; so must we do to others.

Faced with these incontrovertible facts about ourselves, a simple plan of action suggests itself for dealing with the problem of the too-young and the too-old: a gentle but firm shove over the edge. No more bleating for attention from the children; no more calls for assistance from the elderly. A population made up entirely of working-age adults is an economist’s delight; it should be our aspirational ideal, guiding our social and economic policies at every step; it should inform the moral instruction we provide to our, each other. The qualms we might feel as we prepare to enact this policy are merely the vestiges of an archaic sensibility, one that must bow its head before the relentless logic of the economic enterprise, and the moral demands it places upon us.

Brave Analytic Philosophers Use Trump Regime To Settle Old Academic Scores

Recently, Daniel Dennett took the opportunity to, as John Protevi put it, “settle some old academic scores.” He did this by making the following observation in an interview with The Guardian:

I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.””

Roughly, postmodernism brought you Donald Trump. If only Trump voters hadn’t read so much Deleuze or Derrida or Spivak, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. Dennett has now been joined in this valiant enterprise of Defending Truth and Knowledge by Timothy Williamson who makes the following remarks in an interview with The Irish Times:

No philosophical manoeuvre can stop politicians telling lies. But some philosophical manoeuvres do help politicians obscure the distinction between truth and falsity.

When I visited Lima, a woman interviewed me for YouTube. She had recently interviewed a ‘postmodernist’ philosopher. When she pointed at a black chair and asked ‘Is that chair black or white?’ he replied ‘Things are not so simple’.

The more philosophers take up such obscurantist lines, the more spurious intellectual respectability they give to those who try to confuse the issues in public debate when they are caught out in lies. Of course, many things in public affairs are genuinely very complicated, but that’s all the more reason not to bring in bogus complexity….

Obviously it wasn’t mainly postmodernism or relativism that won it for Trump, indeed those philosophical views are presumably more widespread amongst his liberal opponents than amongst his supporters, perhaps most of whom have never heard of them. Still, those who think it somehow intolerant to classify beliefs as true or false should be aware that they are making it easier for people like Trump, by providing them with a kind of smokescreen.

In the course of an informal Facebook discussion, I made the following responses to Dennett’s remarks (which I described as ‘very silly’):

[We] could just as well lay the blame on the very idea of truth. Perhaps if truth wasn’t so exalted so much, we wouldn’t have so many people claiming that they should be followed just because what they said was the truth. Especially because many lies really are better for us than some truths. Perhaps we would have been better off seeing what worked for us, rather than obsessing about naming things as true or false.

Fascist insurgencies like the ones here in our country are not relying on post-modern critiques of truth and fact to prop up their claims; they need only rely on something far simpler: the fact that talking of truth and facts grants them an aura of respectability. The elevation (or demotion) of this political debate to a matter of metaphysics and epistemology is to play their game because we will find these pillars of ours to actually rest on sand. Far better to point out to proponents of ‘alternative facts’ that these facts will not help them send their kids to school or cure their illnesses. Let us not forget that these ‘facts’ help them in many ways now: it finds them a community, makes them secure, gives vent to their anger and so on. I’ve never liked the way everyone is jumping up and down about how some great methodological crisis is upon us in this new era, which is entirely ab initio. People have been using ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ all through history and using them to achieve political ends.

On a related note, Ali Minai responds to another set of claims against ‘relativism’ made in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Alan Jay Levinovitz:

In fact, it is non-relativism that has generally been the weapon of choice for authoritarians. The weaponization of “alternative facts” may be aided by relativism but its efficacy still relies on the opposite attitude. It works only when its targets accept “alternative facts” as actually true.

What these responses to the Defenders of Truth Against Relativism make quite clear are the following propositions:

  1. So-called ‘postmodern’ critiques are more often than not, the political weapons of choice for those critiquing authoritarian regimes: they serve as a theoretical grounding for claims against ‘dominant’ or ‘totalizing’ narratives that issue from such regimes.
  2. Non-relativism or absolutism about truth is the preferred theoretical, argumentative, and rhetorical platform for authoritarians. Let us not forget that science was a challenge to the absolutism about truth that revealed religions claimed to profess; the Enlightenment brought many ‘alternative facts’ in its wake. Those worked; their ‘truth’ was established by their working. All the mathematical proofs and telescope gazings would have been useless had the science and technology built on them not ‘worked.’
  3. When fascists and authoritarians present ‘alternative facts’ and reject established knowledge claims, they do not present their alternative claims as ‘false’ because ‘truth’ is to be disdained; rather, they take an explicitly orthodox line in claiming ‘truth’ for their claims. ‘Truth’ is still valuable; it is still ‘correspondence’ to facts that matters.

The target of the critiques above then, is misplaced several times over. (Moreover, Willamson’s invocation of the philosopher who could not give a ‘straightforward’ answer to his interlocutor is disingenous at best. What if the ‘postmodernist’ philosopher wanted to make a point about colorblindness, or primary or secondary qualities? I presume Williamson would have no trouble with an analytic philosopher ‘complicating’ matters in such fashion. What would Williamson say to Wilfrid Sellars who might, as part of his answer, say, “To call that chair ‘black’ would be to show mastery of the linguistic concept ‘black’ in the space of reasons.” Another perfectly respectable philosophical answer, which Williamson would not find objectionable. Willamson’s glib answer to the question of whether the definition of truth offered by Aristotle correct is just that; surely, he would not begrudge the reams of scholarship produced in exploring the adequacy of the ‘correspondence theory of truth,’ what it leaves out, and indeed, the many devastating critiques leveled at it? The bogus invocation of ‘bogus complexity’ serves no one here.)

Critiques like Williamson and Dennett’s are exercises in systematic, dishonest misunderstandings of the claims made by their supposed targets. They refuse to note that it is the valorization of truth that does all the work for the political regimes they critique, that it is the disagreement about political ends that leads to the retrospective hunt for the ‘right, true, facts’ that will enable the desired political end. There is not a whiff of relativism in the air.

But such a confusion is only to be expected when the epistemology that Williamson and Dennett take themselves to be defending rests on a fundamental confusion itself: an incoherent notion of ‘correspondence to the facts’ and a refusal to acknowledge that beliefs are just rules for actions–directed to some end.

Hannah Arendt On The Rehabilitation Of George W. Bush

In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics, New York, p. 144-145, [1963], 2006), Hannah Arendt, making note of Heinrich Himmler‘s ‘change of heart’–as German defeat loomed in the Second World War–with regards to the Final Solution, as he considered suspending the mass killings at Auschwitz, writes:

It was about at this time that a “moderate wing” of the S.S came into existence, consisting of those who were stupid enough to believe that a murderer who could prove he had not killed as many people as he could have killed would have a marvelous alibi, and those who were clever enough to foresee a return to “normal conditions,” when money and good connections would again be of paramount importance.

George W. Bush is making a comeback, and he is being welcomed back with open arms. He has defended the media, under fire from Donald Trump as the ‘enemies of the people,’ he has bemoaned the ‘racism’ present in the American polity’s discourse; he has received hugs from First Ladies; he has been talked up by stand-up comics and liberal talk-show hosts. Welcome back, Dubya; we missed ya. (Even though you walked back your ‘criticism’ of Donald Trump.)

Love means never having to say you are sorry.

Apparently, we love George W. Bush, a mass murdering war criminal, who oversaw torture on his watch, who having bided his time during the Obama Presidency, has now chosen to speak up during the Donald Trump years, all the better to take advantage of an ostensible dramatic contrast with a crude buffoon. George W. Bush remembers only all too well that the scorn that that is now directed at Trump was once sent his way; he is grateful for the cover our Great Orange Leader has now provided him, especially as he count on the fawning admiration of the same commentariat and pundit class that saw fit to deem Donald Trump ‘presidential’ once he had provided proof of his ability to read a prepared speech for television and indulge in the oldest political clichés of all time, that of paying homage to ‘our troops.’

It is unsurprising that George W. Bush’s stock would rise on stepping down from the Oval Office. Our nation’s memory is short; we are all too eager to believe that everything that happens is sui generis and ab initio (and any other Latin phrases you’d like to deploy to make the same point), that all is unprecedented, extraordinary, novel, utterly lacking in historical provenance. Donald Trump is a singularity, appearing suddenly, dramatically, out of nowhere, posing a radical disjuncture with all that preceded him. We appear unwilling to consider that he is the product of a particular political party with an established track record, one whose leaders waged an illegal war and tortured, who were not prosecuted by the Obama Administration, which then went on to wage more war, and further expand the powers and reach of the executive branch, which now provides a veritable arsenal of loaded weapons to Donald Trump. (To his credit, Trump has not as yet ordered illegal war resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ‘furriners,’ though he might be sorely tempted to do so, given the standing ovation on Monday night.)

Why wouldn’t we forgive and forget? All the better to prepare ourselves for the next unprecedented moment in American history. The loss of memory is the best way to ensure novelty.