Thursday, March 15, 2012

taking it easy on myself

It's interesting; I've now encountered the following quote from Susan Sontag four times in the past week, posted by a couple Facebook friends and in a couple blog posts. This is probably where it's springing from. (Check that link for me behaving badly in the comments.) On a certain level, it's just what I want to hear.
Photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus…No 'we' should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain 
Except....

I mean, when I think about America's problems, top of the list is not that Americans are too aware of suffering in other countries, right. Hard to say what "rhetoric" here even means; all argument is rhetoric. I don't blame anyone for being seduced by this passage. We have certainly seen all the problems that come from American do-gooding. But the illusion of consensus? The idea that there's too much American consensus about the need to end war-- wow.

I am torn between the desire to affirm this and the knowledge that invoking this passage now requires a willful rejection of context. Every day, the American public is still inundated with pictures of smiling soldiers, gleaming American flags, aircraft carriers cutting through churning seas. Meanwhile, our media and our government and our people are in a conspiracy of silence regarding the victims of our military, our machine. But apparently, to show the bodies of the children we keep massacring, more dead bodies in Afghanistan, would be a failure of... I don't know, ontology? What theoretical construct can you gin up? Grab your Spivak and your highlighter, and construct a rationale for why there's something enlightened about your apathy.

Here's the "we" that I assume: I assume that we are responsible for the conduct of our country, and so we have to be aware of its horrid behavior, and we have to do everything possible to stop it. The American people don't know the consequences of our military's behavior. To refuse to show them because Virginia Woolf told you can't possibly be the best stance, can it?

I think my many years of noninterventionism on this blog will convince you that I'm not interested in any neocolonial military adventures to get Joseph Kony. But the Kony backlash was so swift, so universal, and so complete in its sanctimony, I couldn't possibly mistake it for a positive development. Has there ever been a more self-congratulatory genre than the anti-Stop Kony essay? I haven't read a single one that wasn't actually a statement of the author's superiority to the noobs who posted that infuriating video in the first place. Can anyone get outside of the Endless Cultural Contest of Superior Savviness? Can I?

Here's the question. I told this story. It was one of the most profound and important moments of my life. So: should my father not have taken me to that mass grave? We could have done many other things, stuff that the tourists who choke the island do. We could have gone body surfing in Kuda. Would that have reached enlightenment? Could it somehow have been better, more critical, more conscious?

I'm actually asking, here. Y'all who have read me for a long time know that I would be perfectly thrilled to get to a place where Americans understood that remaking the world for goodness and democracy is not our business. But I remain entirely unconvinced that my principled isolationism is different from apathy. I feel it is, I hope it is, and I'm not going to change my mind. (War on Iran, jesus christ.) I just don't know where other people's suffering begins and ends anymore.

Update: Anonymous in comments:

 "'Has there ever been a more self-congratulatory genre than the anti-Stop Kony essay?'
Yes: the "Stop Kony" video."

Touche.

14 comments:

Greg Sanders said...

I've seen the backlash but not the original video. I think this may be one of those cases for the "answer speech with more speech" aphorism. From what I've heard, the video did tell part of the story, the LRA is despicable, and much of the response did try to tell the larger context.

I think backlash is easier than generating new, more complete content and the urge to respond rapidly can be a bit of a problem. Obviously everyone in the field can't take the time to craft an enticing new context enhancing video presentation or something. However, it's likely best to develop the habit to keep one's rhetorical powder dry until someone else has.

Anonymous said...

"Has there ever been a more self-congratulatory genre than the anti-Stop Kony essay?"

Yes: the "Stop Kony" video.

victor said...

remember that video of the kid hopped up on drugs after his trip to the dentist? that was hilarious.

somehow, i think there are similarities between that and the stop kony video.

Charles said...

"Here's the question...I'm actually asking, here."

No, of course not. You had a powerful experience, it shaped you, contributed to who you are now, and you seem to be fine with that. So, good, right?

I don't see how to generalize from that to conclusions about reducing American apathy using shocking media, or the Kony video mess. Your experience doesn't strike me as comparable to watching a YouTube video or seeing photos of war dead on cable news.

Also, the initial response to the Kony video was pure wag the dog. The obnoxiousness of the backlash doesn't make that unquestioning enthusiasm any less absurd. In a political environment in which people are willing to be emotionally moved and outraged and excited as long as they don't have to think for themselves and dig into what's actually going on, Sontag's point looks like a useful warning.

Freddie said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

well, that passage from sontag is not about pictures of people suffering. it's about pictures of people looking at the dead and suffering. think eisenhower and american troops gazing on concentration camp victims. that stuff was staged and used in the US as propaganda, to claim that "we" were witnesses, that "we" had fought a good war.

sontag's point is that such consensus is an illusion. it's a point i thought you would have appreciated.

ovaut said...

you could've mentioned that much of the backlash came from africans. maybe the Endless Cultural Contest of Superior Savviness conscripts even them

jcapan said...

The relentless bloodletting of empire is exclusively about resources, markets and geopolitical real estate. The global peasantry, slaughtered or otherwise, is necessary to maintain the increasingly fragile privilege of the comfortably bourgeois. And all of this moral narcissism, originating in the same class (see also Libya), is about displacing our patently obvious complicity. Our own capacity to live like anesthetized pigs at a digitized trough is far more important than dead or starving brown children. Fortunately, given the looming collapse of the biosphere and the burgeoning corporate state, the swine’s comeuppance is only a short ways off.

jcapan said...

The relentless bloodletting of empire is exclusively about resources, markets and geopolitical real estate. The global peasantry, slaughtered or otherwise, is necessary to maintain the increasingly fragile privilege of the comfortably bourgeois. And all of this moral narcissism, originating in the same class (see also Libya), is about displacing our patently obvious complicity. Our own capacity to live like anesthetized pigs at a digitized trough is far more important than dead or starving brown children. Fortunately, given the looming collapse of the biosphere and the burgeoning corporate state, the swine’s comeuppance is only a short ways off.

sweet tooth said...

What Jcapan said, tho he is too harsh on the pigs.

I say this as a swinish sort myself.

I am not sure what Jcapan would have people do. It's not like we all got together and decided it would be grand to live small, mean, empty, miserable little vicarious lives.

At the end of the day -- and it pretty much is the end of our day --the beast eating potato chips in the blue glow of the boob tube is a tragic figure. Sure -- banal, boring, trivial, wasteful. But he shoulda been a hunter-gatherer! He woulda had a great life. The Good Life.

Our great good (and with the wind grieved) lost life.

It is all so fucking obvious. Sucks shit has to collapse before the most basic truths of existence will dawn on us.

jcapan said...

S-T,

A few rushed pts. Re: pigs, I intended to reserve most of my scorn for a particular class of swine, those educated enough to know better, those privileged/desperate enough to want to keep what they've got, which you'd agree ain't much. Though it probably didn't come across effectively, either time lame blogger posted it, I have a good deal of sympathy for the proles--my roots are only a few wee generational steps above their plight.

You ever see this visual representation of Neil Postman's thoughts on Huxley vs. Orwell:

http://www.prosebeforehos.com/image-of-the-day/08/24/huxley-vs-orwell-infinite-distraction-or-government-oppression/

I don't think there's much to be done at this pt. All the bad crap coming down the pike is baked into the cake. As a father, I wish I were wrong.

In any event, how in the fuck did either one of us ever wander into this pub? It's not exactly an outpost for deep ecologists.

sweet tooth said...

What do you mean? I wandered in for a drink!

haha but yeah, I hear ya. And it's a good analogy because I make a point of never commenting unless I'm pretty plastered.

amabel87654 said...

Yeah, just take it easy folks.

Regards, Mikes
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