In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, novelist, book critic, and GQ staffer Walter Kirn had some Very Important Things to say about burgeoning anti-American sentiment. Apparently, back in 1983, Kirn won a Rhodes Scholarship. Or, as he put it, he “enrolled at Oxford University on a prestigious two-year fellowship meant to promote international understanding.” Anyway, young Kirn was stunned to discover that his fellow “Oxfordians” hated America, and therefore hated him, despite his tweed jacket and his familiarity with various philosophers. “I may have thought of myself as Jean-Paul Sartre,” he writes, “but in the eyes of my anti-American schoolmates I was, and always would be, Merle Haggard.” The experience, Kirn goes on to say, made him into the reluctant patriot he remains today in the face of impending war with Iraq and possibly the rest of the world.
My first thought when I read this was: Screw you, man. Merle Haggard rules. My second thought was: Who is this guy to suck up plum space in the New York Times Magazine with sweeping generalizations about the people who make sweeping generalizations about us? I mean, attitudes in Europe vary from person to person, just like they do in the United States. World opinion is complex and variegated, and it’s . . .
And then I thought: Eh, who cares?
Don’t get me wrong: the U.S. is about to unleash the biggest military assault of my lifetime, an action that could plunge the world into apocalyptic chaos. I do care about that, and I’d be an idiot if I didn’t. I’m totally against the war 70 percent of the time, and then once in a while I think, Well, the planet’s already dying, let ‘er rip and see what happens.
But so what? Do you really want to hear what I think? I don’t, and I don’t want to hear what Walter Kirn thinks either. Here’s a little secret. Writers, including Salman Rushdie, don’t have a single new idea to add to the discourse about the current geopolitical situation. We should all shut up. All of us should shut down our computers and shut our goddamn pieholes. Why don’t we all just shut up?
I’ve been stewing about this for a while, but what pushed me over the edge was the inevitable emergence of Poets Against the War—an overhyped coalition of usual suspects that has been promoting antiwar poetry readings across the country. Their Web site claims they’ve received “poems, statements of conscience and letters” from some 10,000 people. A similar project, an Internet chapbook called 100 Poets Against the War, compiled by Canadian expat Todd Swift, is now in edition 3.0 and will be published in real book form next month. Why, if you didn’t know better, you’d almost think that thousands of poets were taking advantage of a political trend to further their careers!
Here’s the first stanza of “Living in Bull’s Eye,” a poem by Daniela Gioseffi. It’s dedicated to “Arundhati Roy of India,” as opposed to that other Arundhati Roy:
We live in ballistic bull’s eyes of nuclear missiles
Shall I flee New York, shall you flee New Delhi?
If we run away, our friends, children we love, gardens
we’ve planted, birds we’ve watched at our windows,
neighbors we greet each morning,
homes arranged as we’ve wanted, books lining our shelves,
will be incinerated and who, what shall we love?
Who will welcome us home to be who we are?
Golly, Ms. Gioseffi. I guess I never thought of it that way!
The events of September 11 have had all kinds of unintended consequences. One of the least tragic, but most irritating, has been the explosion of absolutely terrible writing. I was almost able to excuse the self-important prose that followed the day that “changed us forever.” If I’d been asked to contribute a personal essay to a special issue of the New York Times Magazine or the New Yorker, I couldn’t have done any better than, say, Colson Whitehead, and I probably could have done worse. We all had our special “experience” of September 11, and we all wanted to record it for posterity.
Post-September 11 writing felt like the nation’s collective diary: even at its worst, it was somehow cathartic and sweet, even necessary. But this war-to-be with Iraq has unleashed another torrent of pompous fulmination, perhaps not as great in volume but twice as grating. Every magazine of “ideas,” every newspaper, and every goddamn poetry Web site is its own carnival of preachy blathering. For the purposes of this piece, I’m not even going to cover the extremes. Ann Coulter and Peggy Noonan, Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore—they were all bad writers before this mess started. But now everyone else is leaping into the didactic muck with them.
For no particular reason, I’ll start with the prowar writers. How about ex-Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens? He’s all over the place, ranting from his rarified bar stool in Slate, the Guardian, and Vanity Fair, among other forums. About two minutes ago I read an article he wrote for the Stranger, the Seattle alternative weekly, and its content has already leaked out my ears. Something about how we are at war with “the forces of reaction.” Then something else about how the war is about oil but that’s not a bad thing, then something else about something else, and then I clicked over to the article about punk porn.
You have to admire Hitchens—the guy’s stood up against the pope, Mother Teresa, and Henry Kissinger. But this war has made him prosaic and mortal. Last year, probably emboldened by post-September 11 comparisons drawn between him and George Orwell, he published a book called Why Orwell Matters, in which he intimated that he alone has the writerly courage to challenge the left’s prevailing orthodoxies and dismantle its new intellectual hypocrisies. Hitchens’s main point these days is that we’re on the brink of World War III, and all “serious” people need to make a choice between democratic modernity and what he calls “Islamofascism.” Fair enough. I choose modernity. On the other hand, I hope being a serious person doesn’t mean I have to write sentences like this one, picked at random from Why Orwell Matters: “To return to my point about the immense power that his enemies attribute to him, Orwell once wrote about the ‘large, vague renown’ that constituted the popular memory of Thomas Carlyle.”
If that’s seriousness, call me Captain Goofy.
Andrew Sullivan, once the editor of the New Republic and later a controversial freelance writer specializing in gays, Catholicism, and gay Catholicism, also lays claim to the Orwell legacy. This is absurd. At least Hitchens has been to North Korea. Sullivan’s political writing is perhaps the most obnoxious of its kind. It appears most often on his widely read Web site, www.andrewsullivan.com, though somehow he makes time to write a column for Salon in which he denounces dangerous characters like Harry Belafonte and Sheryl Crow. Day after day, post after post, Sullivan jousts with his enemies, real and imagined, sneering and smearing in a combat to the death that plays out only in the hellbroth of his mind. Here’s a sample post from February 11:
ANTI-AMERICANISM: It’s obviously a multi-faceted phenomenon, but at some level I think its roots are pretty clear. The basis of it is resentment. The U.S. is what other nations wish they could be. It has a vibrant economy, a dynamic society and irrepressible popular culture; it absorbs more immigrants than any other society; and dominates global ideas and cultural images in ways that have simply never been experienced before. When you add to this overwhelming military superiority, you can see why many people around the world chafe in envy and resentment—especially when there’s no rival superpower to frighten the allies back into American arms. It’s human nature. Human interaction won’t prevent that.
It ain’t Homage to Catalonia, that’s for sure.
Let’s move on to the New Yorker. I’ve just plucked an issue from the pile on my coffee table . . . here’s a Hendrik Hertzberg editorial about Important Matters That We Face: “A little more time, especially if it comes with a Security Council resolution unambiguously authorizing force if Iraq does not unambiguously disarm, would mitigate the damage to allied unity, lessen the (largely self-created) isolation of the United States, and . . . ”
I’m sorry, Rick. Were you saying something?
Bill Keller of the New York Times should win the Pulitzer Prize for Self-Regard for an editorial he wrote on February 8, in which he identifies fellow members of the “I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club.” Haw-haw! That’s a funny name! “If the United States storms into Iraq, as now seems almost inevitable,” he writes, “it will have been airlifted to war with a tailwind from some unlikely sources.” These, according to Keller, include “op-ed regulars at this newspaper and the Washington Post, the editors of the New Yorker, the New Republic and Slate, columnists in Time and Newsweek. Many of these wary warmongers are baby-boom liberals whose aversion to the deployment of American power was formed by Vietnam but who had a kind of epiphany along the way—for most of us, in the vicinity of Bosnia.”
Do Keller or any of the members of his “club” really believe that anything they write registers with the Bush administration? Is Donald Rumsfeld feeling more secure now that Slate is on board? Was Dick Cheney sitting around waiting for Lance Morrow’s reluctant approval? In what world are these writers living? This isn’t a second-year honors seminar at the Kennedy School of Government. This is war, motherfuckers!
Great Bylined Thinkers of America, I bid you: Shut up!
With the prowar writers, you sometimes get the sense that they’re trying to persuade not only their readers but also themselves. Except in extreme cases, a little doubt creeps in around the edges. But that’s never the case with the antiwar pundits, who exude smug entitlement as they preach to the converted. They know the secret evil heart of U.S. imperialism, and they’re going to tell us all about it, for pages and pages. Ted Rall’s recent piece in, once again, the Stranger, is little more than the lengthy shriek of a madman, but it’s presented so matter-of-factly that the only sane response is to shrug. It moves so fast from one Bad Thing to another that you can barely breathe between them. “Invading a sovereign state to impose ‘regime change’ is a bad idea. If people don’t like their government, whether or not to launch a revolution should be their decision. But given that you are going in, the least you can do is do the job right.” Ted Rall, cartoonist, thinks the Bush administration’s not doing a good job. Of course, he knows exactly what it should be doing. Why, perhaps he’ll launch a revolution right here at home. Wouldn’t Ted Rall make a great information minister?
And so long as we’re picking on the Stranger, let’s go back to the prowar guys for a minute: Editor Dan Savage, also the author of the racy syndicated sex column Savage Love, writes so persuasively in favor of the war that Rush Limbaugh read one of his pieces on the air. Hooray, Dan! You support the president! You also support teabagging, mucophagy, and Tom Green. I wouldn’t take advice on sex from E.J. Dionne Jr., and I don’t want to read political commentary by you.
In general, left-wing writers lack authority. They sound naive and crazy, or they sound elitist. Here’s Lewis Lapham from the December Harper’s, in an essay called “Hail Caesar!”(a title spit out, I believe, by the Lewis Lapham Headline Robot). He writes about his travels in ordinary America, among the “citizenry.” Apparently, some American “citizens” are against the war, and Lapham is charmed by their innocent rationality. These “voices in the wilderness,” he writes, “asked questions that seldom make their way past the velvet rope at ABC News or the headwaiters at Time magazine.” Then there’s this sentence, which could have been taken from any Lapham essay in the last 20 years: “Whether sporting lapel pins in the shape of elephants or donkeys, the members of Congress dance to the tune of the same big but nervous money, the differences in their political views reduced to a choice between the grilled or potted shrimp.” Which made me think: Where can I get me some of that big, nervous money? And what the hell is potted shrimp?
In the naive and crazy category, you’ve got the likes of Anne Lamott, who wrote recently in Salon about how she gave a sermon (summarized in agonizing detail) to a “few hundred people” at a church in San Francisco, “lots of same-sex couples, many enthusiastically gendered men and women and, I suppose, some drag queens in mufti.” She had such a good time, and made so many special friends, but her point, thankfully spelled out in the subhead for the story, is that “as the world falls apart around us, the only answer is to stick close to each other.” Yes, and after the sermon, they all went back to Mrs. Madrigal’s for tea and hand-rolled joints! How delightful!
Why, Lamott even gave us a reading list of people to turn to (“besides Dr. Seuss”) for hope, direction, and laughter. Get this: Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Molly Ivins, Ann Richards, Fran Lebowitz, George Carlin, Garry Trudeau, Bill Maher. No, no, no, no, and no. I can watch George Carlin on HBO, but don’t make me read his books. But I’ll give her Fran Lebowitz, because Fran Lebowitz is a woman of sense. She knows when to shut up, unlike Anne Lamott.
Anne Lamott, shut up.
You’d expect a lot of the antiwar poetry to share Lamott’s Marin County hippy-dippiness. But some of it is actually quite harsh and political—and so much more annoying for it. I’m just sick of the whole brouhaha. I hate the self-righteous grandstanding of the poets, and I hate the accusations of anti-Americanism and “bad manners” from their opponents in the weekly magazines. The whole “controversy” seems prefabricated, cut along the lines of a cultural war that affects no one and doesn’t need to be fought. Why bother taking either side? It’s bad poetry! Just shut up!
For a far more nuanced and sophisticated anti-antiwar-poetry screed, I point you to J. Bottum’s vicious “The Poets vs. the First Lady,” in the February 17 issue of the Weekly Standard. Like all articles in the Standard, the piece is full of gratuitous red-baiting and 60s bashing, but it also contains a phrase that to me explains lousy protest poetry now and forever: “There is something in the air at this moment—some scent of a long-vanished dawn among the old, some hunger for a heaven they never knew among the young.”
On both sides of the Iraq war “debate,” writers are straining. They want to be seers, prophets, and tellers of eternal truths. They think they’re dropping wisdom for the ages. But they’re not. From any important historical circumstance, only a few pieces of genuine literary art emerge. In this current situation, I would argue for two: the Onion‘s special issue following September 11 and William Langewiesche’s book about reclaiming Ground Zero. One was the product of seemingly divine inspiration, the other of months of 16-hour reporting days. Everything else—from Gore Vidal’s paranoid Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace to Hitchens’s invocations of Orwell to this humble piece of blather by me, which is mercifully about to end—is but chatter on the wind.
So to all of us who deem ourselves writers in this time of war, I can only say, in the immortal words of the great folksinger Kelly Osbourne:
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/William L. Brown.