In recent issues, patrons of this tawdry but readable newspaper have endured a long, shrill antiwar essay from Ted Rall and a short, grumpy pro-war essay from Christopher Hitchens. One would think that's enough war writing, in any publication, for any lifetime.
But last week, The Stranger's editor sent me an e-mail. In response to Hitchens and Rall, he wanted me to write something called, provisionally, "Who Cares?" Impossible, I said. 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, 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 war rip and see what happens.
At the same time, so what? Do you really want to hear what I think? Do you really want to hear what any writer thinks about our upcoming war with Iraq? I don't. Suddenly I had the idea for this piece, which officially begins now:
Shut up, antiwar people. Shut up, pro-war people. Shut down your computers and shut your goddamn pieholes. No one gives a shit what you write, so stop writing about the war. Shut up, all of you.
My annoyance has been stewing for a while. It peaked with the emergence of Poets Against the War, an overhyped coalition of usual suspects led by Seattle poet and small-press publisher Sam Hamill. Last week Mr. Hamill, with a maximum amount of self-righteous pomposity, staged readings across the country. My first reaction, upon hearing about the protest readings, was, "Oh, no. The poets are against the war. Whatever are we going to do?" But my flip, quote-marks-in-the-air reaction grew even less sincere and more ironic when I actually read some of the poetry. Select pieces are available on the Internet, in the e-book 100 Poets Against the War, now in a "third edition" because there have been so many submissions. Why, if you didn't know better, you'd almost think that thousands of poets were taking advantage of a political crisis to further their careers!
Let me provide a sample. This is 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 ran 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?
That's a very good question, Ms. Gioseffi.
Now shut up.
· · ·
September 11, 2001, has had all kinds of unintended consequences. One of the least tragic, but most irritating, has been an explosion of absolutely terrible writing. The flow of lousy literature began almost immediately after the attacks, and has continued without pause. I was almost able to excuse the bad, 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. Any one of 1,000 writers could have been reflexively anti-American, just like Susan Sontag, or reflexively, blindly patriotic, just like everyone else. We all had our special "experience" of September 11, and we all wanted to write. And eventually, the clothes-rending stopped, the weeping subsided, the Taliban got fried, and the essays about What It All Means began to vanish into history.
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 a torrent of pompous fulmination--perhaps not as great in volume as after September 11, but twice as pretentious and grating. Every magazine of "ideas," every daily newspaper, and every political website is just a carnival of preachy blathering. I'm here to say to both the right and the left: Shut the hell up. 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, and they're still bad. But now they've dragged everyone else down into the didactic muck with them.
For no particular reason, I'll start with the pro-war writers, leading off with Christopher Hitchens. Two gold stars to the Stranger reader who remembers anything Hitchens said in his January essay. I read it two minutes ago, 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, and that's not a bad thing, then something else about something else, and then I clicked to that Stranger article about punk porn.
I hold nothing against Hitchens. The man stood up against the pope, Mother Teresa, and Henry Kissinger, and has logged more reporting miles than 100 lesser reporters combined. But this war has made him prosaic and mortal. Last year, Hitchens authored a book called Why Orwell Matters, in which he basically made the backhanded claim that he, Christopher Hitchens, is the George Orwell of our day. The book not only doesn't explain why Orwell matters, it barely takes the time to explain who Orwell is. It seems that Hitchens' main point these days is that we're in the middle of World War III, and all "serious" people need to make a choice between the forces of 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, then call me Captain Goofy.
Andrew Sullivan, who was 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. On the other hand, Sullivan's political writing is perhaps the worst of its kind. It usually appears on his widely read website, andrewsullivan.com, though occasionally he takes the time to write a column for Salon to denounce dangerous characters such as Harry Belafonte and Sheryl Crow. Day after day, post after post, Sullivan jousts with his enemies, both real and imagined, sneering and smearing in the most obnoxious manner possible. It's a combat to the death that occurs only in the hellbroth of his mind. Go to his site and see what I mean. Here's a sample post from February 11:
ANTI-AMERICANISM: It's obviously a multifaceted 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 [it] 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.
Thank you, Andrew. But no matter what you think, it ain't Homage to Catalonia.
Now let's see what's up over at the New Yorker. I've just selected an issue at random from the pile on my coffee table. Oh, here's this week's 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?
Apparently he thinks so, as do dozens of other writers. 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 identified members of the "I-Can't-Believe-I'm-A-Hawk Club." Haw-haw! That's a funny name! The "club," according to Keller, includes: "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 is not a second-year honors seminar at the Kennedy School of Government. This is war, motherfucker!
Great Bylined Thinkers of America, I bid you: Shut up!
With the pro-war writers, sometimes you get the sense that they're not only trying to influence their readers but trying to persuade themselves as well. Except in extreme cases, a little doubt crawls around the edges. But that's not the case with antiwar writers, who just exude smug certainty as they preach to their already-converted audience. 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 piece in this paper a couple of weeks ago was little more than the lengthy shriek of a madman, but presented so authoritatively, so matter-of-factly, that you have to shrug. Rall's essay moves fast; one can barely breathe for all the Bad Things he cuts down. Here's a sample: "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."
Yes, Ted Rall, cartoonist, says the Bush administration isn't doing its job properly. Of course, he knows exactly what to do. And one gets the sense that he'd like to launch a revolution right here at home. Wouldn't that be interesting? Wouldn't Rall make a great information minister?
He exemplifies a bad trend. Bill Maher, exiled comedian, writes a book called When You Ride Alone, You Ride with bin Laden, in which he offers "comic" solutions to the problems of the war on terror. Please, Bill Maher. Tell us how to live. Meanwhile, in turncoat land, Dan Savage, generally liberal sex-advice columnist and medium-market weekly newspaper editor, writes pieces in favor of the war so persuasive that Rush Limbaugh reads them on the air. Hooray, Dan! You support the president! Now shut up and go test-drive that three-pronged dildo for your next column. I wouldn't read a sex-advice column by, say, E. J. Dionne, and I don't want to read a political article by you.
In general, left-wing writers lack authority. They either sound naive and crazy or they sound elitist. Here's Lewis Lapham from the December Harper's, in a "Notebook" essay called "Hail Caesar!", a title which was, I believe, spit out 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." Or 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." Tired arguments about the decadent elite versus the noble workingman aside, where can I get myself some of that big but nervous money? And what the hell is potted shrimp?
Then there are your wishy-washy liberals, such as Anne Lamott, who last week wrote faux-movingly in Salon about how she gave a sermon (which she then 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. I guess her point, since it was spelled out in the subhead to 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 for hope, direction, and laughter. It included Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Molly Ivins, Ann Richards, Fran Lebowitz, and George Carlin. No, no, no, no, and no. George Carlin is fine as long as I can watch him on HBO and don't have to read his books. I'll give her Fran Lebowitz, but only 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 dippy, blunted-edge Marin County attitude. But the poetry is actually quite harsh and political, and so much more annoying because of that. 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 from the cloth of a cultural war that affects no one and doesn't need to be fought. Why bother taking either side? It's bad poetry! So shut up!
But just for laughs, let's listen to a few more antiwar poetry bleatings. Here's E Russell Smith, who is apparently a third grader, with an important dissent: "This is the land/where the war was fought/that George fought./This is the oil/that comes from the land/where the war was fought/that George fought." Or how about the great poet Stephen Vincent: "No Blood for Oil/Did Your Car Start This Walk?/How Many Lives Per Gallon?/Go Solar Not Ballistic/Start Drafting SUV Drivers Now."
There are, according to Sam Hamill's reliable count, more than 5,000 specimens of this antiwar doggerel creeping around, degrading the English language. For a far more nuanced and sophisticated anti-poetry screed, I point you toward the February 17 issue of the Weekly Standard, and J. Bottum's vicious unloading, "The Poets vs. The First Lady." Like all articles in the Standard, the piece is the usual stew of gratuitous redbaiting and '60s-bashing, those twin beasts without which the conservative press would cease to exist. But it also contains a phrase that to me explains the current onslaught of lousy protest poetry, now and forever: "There's 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."
Yes! Poets! Put a sock in your collective mouth! Now!
· · ·
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. They just sound foolish. 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 immediately following September 11, and William Langewiesche's book about reclaiming Ground Zero. One was the product of seemingly divine humor inspiration, the other of months of 16-hour reporting days. The rest of the products, from Gore Vidal's paranoid book Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace to Christopher Hitchens' invocations of Orwell to this humble piece of blather by me, which is mercifully about to end, are but chatter on the wind, lost to history the moment they see print.
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 folk singer Kelly Osbourne:
Neal Pollack, the Greatest Living American Writer, is the author of more than 50 books of fiction, nonfiction, military and culinary history, and biographer of seven presidents. He is also the lover to hundreds of beautiful, mysterious women and several men. He lives in Austin, Texas.