The poets, the celebs, the musicians all have large anti-war segments. Good for them – war in general is bad. But THIS SPECIFIC war isn’t a generic war, isn’t Vietnam or imperialism, or for the corporations, or some vague aggressive muscle-flexing. It’s proactive self-defense catalyzed by the hideous shock of 9/11, the realization that we have a responsibility to ourselves and to the world to PAY ATTENTION to what is going on outside our borders, to read the writing on the wall, to take the words and actions of our avowed enemies seriously and to ACT BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE.
This is what the glib poets don’t understand. Check out this reverential report on a gathering of peace poets in Vermont from PW Daily for Booksellers:
- It was a dramatic setting for a poetry protest: the white spire of the church was brightly lit against the clear Vermont night and stood in stark contrast to the background of surrounding mountains and town, a resort destination best known for its luxury outlet shopping and skiing.
….Poetry protesting war with Iraq proved most popular with the audience. Julia Alvarez got a standing ovation for her poem describing the dread she felt learning that the poetry reading at the White House was cancelled. Her comment, “Why be afraid of us, Mrs. Bush? You’re married to a scarier fellow,” elicited a loud cheer. William O’Daly also received a standing ovation after reading a piece he penned for the Web site Poetsagainstthewar.org entitled “To the Forty-third President of the United States of America.” It begins, “today, our solemn duty is to defy your willful aggression,/to parse provocative words and habits, your heroic battle/to distract us” and contains the line, “What ‘urge and rage’/thrives in the American heart, that so many cheer/this obsessive, unilateral madness?”
One of the organizers of the event, Northshire Bookstore marketing director Zachary Marcus, was so moved that he took the microphone and, noting that his wife was pregnant, said he would accept O’Daly’s poem “in the name of my unborn child.”
I won’t mention what this trite, simplistic, sloganeering piffle moves me to, but it has nothing to do with naming children. This poem is totally reductionist – the poet and the legion of others like him concentrates on specifics while ignoring the larger picture: yes innocent people will be hurt and killed and this is tragic, BUT the general popuation of Iraq will be much better off. The world will be a better place with Saddam out of power.
I am sorry to have to harsh your mellow and offend your delicate sensibilities, but the president of the United States can’t dwell on the grim specifics of a dead Iraqi woman in the gutter or a dead American soldier for that matter, he must look at the bigger picture, the one that helps the greatest number of people the greatest amount. Not only will his own country – the United States – be safer, more secure, and enjoy a better quality of life with Saddam disarmed and overthrown, but so will the people of Iraq (other than the dead ones, sorry) AND THE REST OF THE ENTIRE PLANET.
Now tell me who is humanitarian: the poet who counsels for the status quo, for inaction, for ANYTHING but the use of force, or the president who is willing to make the hard choices, to sacrifice the lives of a relative few, to make the world a vastly better place? From a moral standpoint, that is why I insist that disarmament and overthrow of Saddam are not enough: we must accept the responsibility of ensuring that a liberal (small “l”), democratic, rights-based government take the place of the Stalinist regime now in place.
Why don’t the poets and the celebrity activists acknowledge these circumstances? The realities of a world and a conflict that is vastly different from the ’60s/’70s and Vietnam. As Melik Kaylan writes today in the Wall Street Journal:
- The fact is, this is a different time. The homeland was attacked. The draft is gone. Saddam is, manifestly, a monster growing in size. Yet you’d never know it from the simple antiwar certainties of so many big-name entertainers–from Sean Penn on his Baghdad pilgrimage to Spike Lee (“the German and French governments should be commended”) and Edward Norton (“I almost forgot what it’s like to be proud of our government”), both at the Berlin Film Festival.
Artists in general, and poets in particular, seem to feel that an important part of their role is to disregard specific circumstances and boil things down to basics, to abstract, to reassert first principles. Good for them, this may (sometimes) make for good art but it makes for piss-poor policy. Richard Cohen wrote something similar in the Washington Post yesterday:
- contemporary poets are thought to practice what the critic and essayist Roger Rosenblatt calls “the compression of wisdom.” When this is done well — and it hardly ever is — it can be immensely powerful. “We dig a grave in the breezes,” Paul Celan wrote in “Death Fugue.” It’s the Holocaust in a breath.
Too often, though, compression becomes simplification. Thus we get references to colonialism, oil and militarism and a naive admiration for the Palestinian struggle. George W. Bush is caricatured as a simpleton out to avenge Saddam Hussein’s attempt to assassinate his father or doing the bidding of Big Oil. This is not the compression of wisdom, nor, for that matter, is it art. Art demands that we see something familiar in a new way. This poetry makes no demands at all. It simply repeats slogans, presenting the familiar as new — the brittle dogmatism of Bush recited back to him in iambic pentameter.
Those of us who were against the Vietnam War but who now find ourselves enlisted in Bush’s Brigade are always looking over our shoulder, fearing history doing a reprise. (I have been re-reading Norman Mailer’s wonderful “Armies of the Night.”) I scan the new poetry, as I do the placards at the peace marches, alert to the cathartic nugget of wisdom that would avert war while dealing realistically with Hussein. What I find, instead, is yesterday’s wisdom about Vietnam misapplied to today’s challenge of Iraq.
Iraq and the greater war on terrorism is about taking responsibility, about not waiting for the worst to happen – again – but doing all that is reasonable to prevent the worst, which remarkably also is having the salutary affect (Afghanistan) of making the world a better place to live. Who wouldn’t want that?