Va, pensiero

War and Politics

policy in disarray greenlight atmosphere of crisis deeply divided claimed lives proved prophetic touching off a crisis banking on the success intervention diplomatic breakthrough deeply ambivalent president contentious debate authoritarian governments enmeshed in a messy war debate dragged on emboldened strained relations messy threat of force paralysis . . .

These are the clichés of American mainstream foreign reporting, which is rarely more than the DC Local beat, from just the first quarter of a long New York Times article on the heart-rending, life-changing story of an administration at war with itself. It’s a sort of metafictive take on the Syrian civil war that manages to be almost entirely devoid of Syrians. Where they do appear, they serve in a solely adverbial capacity.

I’ve already seen some criticism of the story for making the neat arrangement of stock phrases a substitute for analysis, and it is true that it’s just terribly written, a parody of the house style of major American papers.  (I idiosyncratically believe that terrible writing is among the greater contributors to their continued decline in American intellectual life; the chocked, neutered, non-committal, wishy-washy, passive prose of our Timeses and Posts is the literary equivalent of eating a box of stale crackers without water.) I agree with that criticism, obviously, but could the story have been written any other way? Is there anything to analyze? It describes, after all, a non-event; a series of non-events. I know we’re supposed to believe that this sort of reporting exposes the inner workings of the American government, that our civic understanding is somehow enriched by knowing that Samantha Power and some other guy disagree with each other, that the mechanics of these little office dramas, because they happen to revolve around questions of war, are of critical importance to the life of the Republic. Well, I say: bogus.

Actually, these people could be arguing over who does the dishes in the kitchenette and why no one ever washes out the microwave. These are conflicts of temperament and personality in an office, and what makes it so appalling is that an actual event, a war in which many thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of people have died and are dying, serves as the last cupcake from the staff meeting that I was saving for after lunch and someone ate it. Yes, someone will say that the attitude of the administration toward Syria is important; we should know when and how the president reached his decision over what to do or not to do there. Well, I’d say, no, not really.

The relentless refocusing of world events onto the minor squabbles of American actors over how to respond to them not only serves to trivialize all the other lives and societies in the world beyond Washington, but also, ironically, it fails utterly in reporting on what the US is, in fact, doing in other countries around the world. We see, for instance, some passing references to the CIA smuggling arms to rebel factions, but that’s lost in the swirl of detail about how crisply Mr. McDonough responded, or how the President’s enthusiasm cooled.

Behind these arias, there’s a war on, but the tunes are so familiar to us; honey, let’s just stay in our seats.