September 11, 2011
War, Sacrifice, and the Media
In honor of the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 and in lasting solidarity with all the victims of both the original tragedy and its costly and controversial aftermath, we thought we’d rebroadcast our episode on War, Sacrifice, and the Media this week. We don’t seem to have blogged for the original episode – somehow that got sacrificed. But here is a fresh one for your consideration.
Whenever America is involved in a war in a distant land, we’re often involved in a war, closer to home. This second war isn’t fought with tanks or bombs or missiles, but with ideas, words, and images. I’m thinking of the struggle over the narration and representation of war -- its meaning, its cost and benefits, its victors and vanquished, its combatants and non-combatants. He or she who controls the narration and representation of war controls the public perception of war.
Now if you are the cynical sort, you might well think that ’s pretty obvious who determines what gets represented and how it gets represented? Elites - moneyed elites, political elites, media elites. War comes at us through a top-down system of politically, economically and culturally condition representations designed to make us feel sympathy for our side and antipathy or indifference for the other side.
That seems true enough, but it’s also true that the so-called elite – of which John and I are card carrying members, by the way -- doesn’t always speak with a unified voice. And top-down efforts to control thought and manipulate sympathy through the means of mass representation hardly ever succeed, not in a fractious and boisterous democracy like ours – at least not in the long run. Thankfully, in the age of the internet, people do have access to alternative sources of information that offer a different take on things. Even the most repressive and controlling regimes can’t keep competing narratives completely out of the public square. Remember those brave Iranian students tweeting from the barricades? And more recently the popular uprising in Egypt seems to have been sustained, at least partly by the ability to mobilize, inform, and organize over the internet.
Still, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the power of top-down narration. In the early days of the Afghanistan and then the Iraq war, the so-called mainstream media bent over backwards to tell the story of the war in terms pretty much dictated by the administration. There were dissenting voices – but they were pushed pretty far off center stage.
But there’s a deeper question here. Are different narratives just different or is it possible for one to be true and one to be false? How do we go about determining which is true and which is false? And who should determine what gets represented and how it gets represented?
The realist in me wants to say that of course there can be narratives that are more true to the facts and narratives that are less true the facts. A narrative of the Iraq war that focuses on the casualties on our side and leaves out the death and displacement we imposed on the innocent citizens of that country is incomplete and less true to the facts. Is there any question about that?
But it also seems to me that our narratives are bound to be incomplete, because they are always constructed from a particular and partisan point of view. It’s just a fact that in a war the lives of enemy combatants count less than the lives of one’s own soldiers. Our narratives of war are bound to privilege the lives and losses of our own and deemphasize the lives and losses of the distant other.
You could say that that’s not a good thing. It’s a bad thing that blinds us to the common humanity w share with our adversaries. But on the other hand, It’s a human thing. We are sort of biologically programmed to care more about those near and dear than about the distant other.
Of course, biology is not destiny. Whatever we’re biologically programmed to do, we morally ought to care about all human beings equally.
But now ask yourself where would such “oughts” come from? If humans are simply hard-wired to care more about the near and dear than the distant other, would it really be possible anyway for us to treat all lives as equally worthy of our sympathy?
To be sure, the reach of human sympathy isn’t just a product of unaided biology. It’s also shaped by culture, society and politics. In the right sort of political, social and cultural context, we could have equal regard for the lives of innocent victims of war everywhere. Problem is, it is a little hard to imagine how to get from here to where it seems we ought to be.
Fortunately, Judith Butler, our guests, had and has lots to say that provoked lots of thought on these topics and more. And although she is sometimes known for being a forbidding and hard to penetrate thinker, when it comes to her more academic work, on this topic she was clear, articulate, and forceful. Listen in and I’m sure your thoughts will be provoked in this time of national remembrance.
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My cousin, Spook, says: There is no human progress so long as killing people is seen as a solution to problems.
The foreign policy of the United States (similar to that found in the Old Testament) has two aspects: 1. Demonization of others, and 2. Irrationality to create fear. War is how that irrationality is demonstrated.
I have a question: in a highly contested presidential election, why is the nation’s number one issue, war, not even mentioned in the campaign? And what does this say about our country?
There is no better illustration of the uselessness of philosophy than listening to a philosophical discussion of war… because war, philosophically analyzed, should never be used. And no philosophical argument will ever change anyone’s mind about war.
Please see the documentary “Restreppo” to understand some things about war.
Posted by: mirugai | Sep 11, 2011 11:24:20 AM
Until we teach our children never to war,
The wars will never end.
Posted by: Michael J Ahles | Sep 11, 2011 4:49:15 PM
And until we teach our children equality,
There will be none.
Posted by: Michael J Ahles | Sep 11, 2011 4:51:44 PM
First off, it is tragedy, not trajedy. Small point, but important to editors when they are reviewing manuscripts. It seems synchronistic to me that you have re-posted this topic---I was not on-board the first time around. Inasmuch as I try to expand my knowledge of world affairs, time and space, I have been reading Hitchens' BLOOD, CLASS and NOSTALGIA. The second paragraph on page 286 of his book begins:"Very often-usually in the aftermath of some reverse or embarrassment overseas-democratic America conducts an inquest." The paragraph continues and portrays Hitchens' perception of certain reverses and/or embarrassments.
At least two syndicated columnists have opined on the 911 remembrances in the last three days. Dionne and Robinson both said,in essence: move on America. It is time for us to cease the wringing of hands, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Indeed. America has either won the war on terror or she never will. And if she never will win such 'war', she will adjust.
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH, a venerable, if anal news outlet in my hometown, devoted page after page to 911 in today's edition. I suppose this nationalistic pablum is devoured by many readers. But, some of my nontraditional friends are unimpressed by the outpouring of such fervor. The fact that someone like Hitchens would use a word like synchronicity in a book about history is instructive.
Philosophy has no legitimate application to wartime planning, application and strategy. Mirugai is eminently correct in assessing this reality. Hitchens was also correct in saying religion poisons everything. And just so---this is where we live, LION*
(*like it or not)
Posted by: Dave the Carpenter | Sep 11, 2011 5:50:07 PM
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