Monday, July 4, 2011

If Everything Is War, There Can Be No Peace

How many wars is in the United States of America involved in?

One in Iraq.  One in Afghanistan.  Right?

But what about the war on Christmas?

The war on the middle class?

The war on tradition?

The war on the family?

The war on success?

The war on welfare?

The war on freedom of expression?

The war on women?

The war of the godless liberals against America?

The war of the religious right against America?

The war on sex?

Look through the bookstore and you will see that all of these and more are currently being fought in America and among Americans.

"In war, the first casualty is the truth."

Reportedly Aeschylus said this in ancient Greece.  I tend to agree with him, including when it comes to using warfare (and victimhood) to frame one's polemic.  This hyperbolic rhetoric, from the left or the right, makes objectivity, and therefore good judgement, difficult.

I have taught many college English classes, and I have tried to teach my students to summarize counterarguments fairly and honestly.  But the "enemies" would be hard pressed to recognize themselves or their beliefs in this war rhetoric.  They are made to look stupid, mean, or both.  There is little effort to be fair to the opposition in this rhetoric because it is not intended to be read by the opposition.

It is screeching to the choir.

The book covers I have featured call attention to a war on something that we assume the author holds dear.  The publisher assumes the target audience will hold this thing dear as well and will want to know who is attacking a thing it values.  The book titles never call for a war FOR something.  The strategy is for the author to convey himself as a victim -- Help! I am being attacked! -- and then motivate readers to take defensive action with him.

Taken together, these book titles (more than I have featured here) suggest that everyone is waging war against everyone else.  But we can't ALL be victims.

This war rhetoric can lead to some absurd claims of victimhood.  This came to mind recently when I saw the subtitle to Joe Kernan's new book.  The main title is Your Teacher Said What?  The subtitle is Defending Our Children Against the Liberal Assault on Capitalism.  Gee, I thought, if capitalism is under attack, someone should tell the capitalists -- they seem to be doing rather well.

For instance, a recent study from Northwestern University professors indicates that corporate profits have risen dramatically while wages have been stagnant and unemployment has remained high.  In fact, the study indicates, corporations have captured 88 percent of all of the income growth since the economic recovery began in June 2009.

I am completely prepared to accept that a bias against some corporations and some aspects of capitalism exists in the classroom.  I teach literature at a university, and I have seen that bias.  But it is a stretch to characterize this classroom bias as some kind of widespread assault against capitalism.  And Kernan describes attacks on capitalism outside of the classroom; he mentions it coming from Hollywood and from Washington, D.C.  If it is an assault, we would have to say it has been a rather ineffective one.

At best, "war on" has become a cliche, a phrase emptied of meaning from overuse.  At worst, it is delusional or disingenuous.

This war rhetoric also is a problem because it is a dead end.  Once you say you are at war with someone, you have indicated no room for resolving conflict through cooperation or compromise -- hallmarks of a healthy democracy.  Instead, your "enemy" is trying to "destroy" you, so you need to fight back and you will be justified in "destroying" him.  This leads to the United States getting paralyzed by posturing and bickering.  The dialectic we need -- thesis, antithesis, synthesis -- becomes simply thesis and antithesis.

This is why I find Ann Coulter boring.  I know she tries to be shocking.  Her rhetorical style depicts all of her opponents as not just foolish but dangerously stupid and morally corrupt.  Demons, in fact.  But demons are evil in their nature and cannot be persuaded to behave differently.  This perspective not only kills any sense of objectivity and truth; it also locks each side into eternally opposed stances.  This perspective is static.  Unchanging.

That is why I say it is boring.  It is predictable.  It is easy.  It does not lead to change.  It does not lead to solutions. 

So, to all of those other folks running around with your hair on fire: Yawn.

The poet Ezra Pound declared, "Make it new!"  It is the writer's job not only to explain the world but to help readers see that world in a new way.  Perhaps there was a time when this war trope was new and helped us understand things from a fresh perspective.  But now it is as useful as a flat tire.  It is worn out and needs to be replaced.

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