Sunday, November 30, 2008

mere words

The temptation we have to fight, in confronting the horror of an atrocity like the attacks in Mumbai, is mistaking the natural grief and rage that we feel in the face of that pain as a call to express ourselves in ever more intense language. Blogs and punditry are ultimately small conversations between large groups of people. Ideas and themes are battered around, and while we often feel that there is no limit to what the blogosphere talks about, ultimately the flow of discourse is just as self-reflective and circular as any conversation. We talk to each other, and then we keep talking. The trouble is that the desire to be heard can inspire us to privilege volume over clarity.

When we are presented with a grief so enormous and incomprehensible, we who have made language our business feel a desperate desire to use that language to make some sense of what we've confronting. We want to be heard, and we express ourselves out of the conviction that we must. That's natural. But the temptation, which we have to work to avoid, is to believe that there is some utility in merely piling up adjectives to express our frustration. The temptation is to believe that if one person is saying "awful," the second says something more in using "terrible". The sad truth is that using "unconsionable" does little more than using "bad". The important question is what we advocate, and with an event like Mumbai, what language could match the event? The desire to express more is admirable. The notion that scolding others for not using stronger language is somehow doing something is lamentable. Poetry makes nothing happen.

Would I ever begrudge anyone their attempts to make some small moves in the direction of sense, in the face of the unbearable? Of course not, never. I am in many ways a hypocrite and guilty of self-deception, but I'm not hypocrite enough to do such a thing from my perch on a blog. What I mean is only that we have to listen to content, to ideas, and regarding the two most important ideas involved in this tragedy, I have seen nothing but unanimity: this is a tragedy of greatest magnitude, and those responsible have to be hunted down and arrested or killed. There are of course vastly different notions of what is the best way to prosecute the latter, and broader foreign policy discussions are naturally of great controversy. But I sense a great frustration in certain corners of the blogosphere that some of us aren't saying more, or acting more angry, or demanding revenge in ever-louder voices. Yet they advocate no different action than the ones we have been advocating, recognized in the intelligence community as the most effective way to combat terrorism: the slow and tedious and dramatically unsatisfying work of police work.

We must never mistake our self-expression for action, for doing something, or worse, mistake the failure of others to say what we want them to as a failure of theirs to do what is right. Saying something more intensely isn't saying something different. At the end of the day, there are no words to express events like Mumbai, though that failure is no reason we have to stop trying. But we must not let anyone mistake our reticence for apathy. The course of action I and others like me are advocating, after all, is among the most extreme we have: find the people responsible, and kill them. The enormity of that, like the enormity of these events, is what will remain, not language.


Bob said...

You write, "... the enormity of these events, is what will remain, not language. " A mild dissent.

The language, words memorializing this, or any event, is all that will remain. It's called history. The memory of good and evil can only be captured by words. The world will soon have other events to contemplate, and many, regrettably, may be of greater consequence than the events these past day in India.

Don't sell language, and yourself short. It's not just our opposable thumb that gives us some advantage. But the fact that we can manipulate a pen with that hand does give me some small hope.

Freddie said...

That's a very good point, Bob, and one that seems blindingly obvious once you put it that way. What I struggle with is the temptation with blogs to get into contest to see who can write the most purple prose. But you're right, history is written in language.

Bob said...

My last comment. I don't think you have a purple prose problem. For P.P. I'll go to NRO or AmericanThinker. I find your blog very conservative and that is a small "c" complement.

I realize you were making the argument against over the top bloging but I must say I've never read anything like that from you.

william randolph brafford said...

“…find the people responsible, and kill them.”

You've said this twice now, and it's a stronger statement than I expected. Could you write something on your justification for this? Most importantly, who is the “we” that is going to do the finding and killing? Also: what degree of responsibility deserves death? How does the case of terrorism relate to your thoughts on capital punishment more generally?

Freddie said...

Damn you, Will. Can't you tell when I'm trying to sneak something by everybody? I'll write something up soon.

Thanks, Bob.

william randolph brafford said...

Oops! I'm always bad with context clues…

Anonymous said...

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."

-- Lincoln, in a long remembered address, commemorating a less remembered sacrifice