Why So Syria?

Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, War and Politics

My friend D. recently sent me an email asking the really critical question: why does Captain Janeway suck? Fortunately, I had recently re-watched most of Voyager, and had given the question a fair bit of cogitation prior to his asking. Viewed in relatively quick succession over the course of a month or so, what you really notice is that the Janeway character combines an immoveable moral rigidity, which manifests as a strident self-righteousness, with an extraordinary capriciousness, a mercurial ethic completely at odds with her self-presentation as a pole of right conduct.

It strikes me now that this is the perfect analog for the Obama administration’s approach to armed violence and the use of the military, stentorian correctness overlaying a feckless utilitarianism, utter conviction the costume of callous ineptitude. The last few months’ red line drawing and redrawing have been as arbitrary as any underwritten weekly serial, and the promises of punitive action suggest an adolescent aesthetic enthusiasm for some explosions right around the third commercial break. That may even be over-crediting this government; at least B-rate TV throws in the space battle because the audience demands it.

Yes, there is the irony of the government that murders 16-year-olds because it doesn’t like their dads arrogating to itself the right to punish other governments for choosing the wrong method with which to kill their own citizens, but I think the grimmer joke is the US so publicly preparing to once more wade into a civil conflict as an act of Public Relations, because if you listen to the appeals and to the rationales, what you hear, again and again, is that the US must make a tepid—albeit deadly—gesture of disapproval at the conduct of a war in order to maintain its brand as the industry leader in hasty moral arbitration. “They must not doubt our resolve.” Yes, and there’s a reason that phrase sounds like an ad for detergent.

Truly, all the agonizing—do we, or do we not light the rockets and launch the mortars—has the real moral seriousness of a generically pretty 30-something commercial actor wondering “where do all these stains come from.” Casuistry is deeply repellent as theater, and the fact that our government is willing to kill even against the better judgment of its own professional military is a sign of just how little it really values life. For all the showy agonizing, the administration has treated its decision to kill as casually as any decision to issue a press release. The thing is already written; they’re just waiting for the right moment to blast it out.