Elegant Violence: David Shields Takes On The New York Times

David Shields is a puckish literary critic and Litkicks favorite whose epic 2010 book Reality Hunger proposed that creative writers may as well skip the pretense of fiction and simply write the truth, since that's what readers value most in either fiction or non-fiction anyway. His latest book examines a more malevolent borderline between fiction and truth.

Why, his new War Is Beautiful asks, does the New York Times illustrate its reporting from war zones with such lush and painterly elegance that horrific violence is transformed into stunning art?

Shields confronts one major newspaper directly in this art book (which is subtitled "The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict"), explaining in the introduction that he began to distrust the Times following their failure to report accurately about the phony justification for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. He's on solid ground with this argument, and indeed a quick perusal of War is Beautiful does help to make a larger case: for reasons that may or may not include cultural aspiration, editorial incompetence or simply aesthetic instinct, the New York Times appears to have a chronic tendency to glorify and celebrate war.

A Thanksgiving Thought Experiment

A great skit on this weekend’s Saturday Night Live suggested an Adele song as a cure for obnoxious and endless Thanksgiving dinner arguments about politics.

Adele is great, but here’s a more substantial (though simple) thought experiment that can produce amazing results. It works great if you’re going to be talking politics with friends or relatives this holiday season, because it’s designed to bring a sense of mutual understanding where none previously could be found. It’s something you do inside your own imagination before trying to talk with others you disagree with. It involves three steps, and the third is the most difficult. Here goes:

Step One: select a current political figure you really despise and completely disagree with. Of course this should be a politician who is influential in your own region. Some popular choices for my fellow Americans might be Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama. (I’ll be playing along with you, and I’ll pick Marco Rubio for myself. I really hate that guy!)

Step Two: Leave the bubble of your own personal political mindset and opinions, and try to imagine yourself in the body and mind of one of this politician’s eager supporters. Most importantly, do this without putting on an imaginary cloak of “evil” or "stupid". Assume that you are an intelligent and rational person who considers yourself a decent and moral citizen. Try to imagine, even if only for a short moment, what the world looks like from inside the mind of a person who considers themselves a decent and rational person, but who is an enthusiastic supporter of the politician who you actually hate.

Like This House Needs More Fire ...

Paris and Beirut were brutally attacked by ISIL terrorists on Friday, and people are talking about how France and the world should respond. French President Francois Hollande has declared that "this is an act of war", which is a disturbing echo to anybody who remembers how eagerly US President George W. Bush embraced the word "war" after the attacks of 2001.

Pacifists know that an escalation to a national declaration of war is exactly what the world doesn't need right now. But we're having a hard time being heard, and louder voices are yelling that thoughtful and well-informed problem-solving is useless in crises like this. As one friend said to me yesterday: "pacifists are incapable of getting tough."

Well, I don't think pacifists are incapable of anything at all, and I agree that there comes a time to get tough. But we're going to have to start by getting tough on anybody who is ignorant enough to actually believe that we can reduce terrorism by attacking the Middle East AGAIN. It was the last invasion that created ISIL in the first place.

We pacifists don't like to call anyone "stupid". It's not a nice word. And it's not even technically accurate because, incredibly, many people who are calling for an international coalition to "crush ISIS" and "nuke them" and "bomb them back to the stone age" are actually well-educated. Some of them hold important positions of responsibility that require solid skills of judgement.

And yet it takes a special degree of blockheaded ignorance and willful blindness to look at the history of terrorism from the Middle East and believe that the situation can be improved by adding more war. If you are one of the people who believes this, it's a good bet that you also believe that ...

A Veteran of the World

What's it like to be a pacifist on Veteran's Day? Well, I can only tell you what it's like to be a pacifist with a father who is a Korean War-era veteran who helped to turn me into a pacifist ... on Veteran's Day.

These are some pictures of my Dad, who later found his calling as the cartoonist Eli Stein, at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He was drafted into the army straight out of Brooklyn during the early years of the Korean War, and it blows my mind to imagine him as an 18 year old on that long bus trip to North Carolina. It was, as far as he remembers, the first time he had ever ventured outside of New York City. As he told the story later, he always emphasized the fact that joining the US Army was not his choice, though it was a choice he felt he had to comply with.

The Army worked out pretty well for my Dad. His work as a photographic reconnaissance specialist helped lead to his later career as a graphic designer. He made good lifelong friends at Fort Bragg. And, let's face it, he must have known he looked pretty fine in uniform.

Later in life he would always recall his military experience with a sardonic smile, and would often sing this song:

A Taxonomy for Pacifism

A couple of days ago we talked about the need to reclaim the word "pacifism" and return it to general use. We believe the time is ripe right now — if Bernie Sanders can bring "socialism" back from the dead we're sure pacifism can't be far behind.

Pacifism is not a simple word but rather indicates a vast family of meanings and possible connotations. The image above is a first attempt at capturing the complexity of pacifist practice and philosophy in a single diagram. Please join us in stepping through the various branches of this tree, and please click through to the corresponding Wikipedia pages if you'd like to further investigate each of these terms. We'll also discuss many more related words and terms that didn't make the cut for our initial illustration, but might be included in a larger version in the future.

We'd also like your feedback, critique and further suggestions so we can make the next version of this tree more accurate and complete. Just like our world, this diagram is a work in progress! Let's begin with the trunk.

Pacifism: Rescue the Word

Since we're getting serious about pacifism, we should also get serious about the words we use to talk about it.

Language has been nearly fatal to pacifism: the word itself is often considered foul and offensive. This is because many people mistakenly believe pacifism to be an extreme and fanatical position. Specifically, they believe that anyone who calls himself a pacifist must allow himself to be punched without punching back, and must also support a foreign policy that allows the same.

This is an incredibly foolish and childish definition of "pacifism", one that has nothing to do with the essential goal of discovering paths to peace for our frightened and war-sick world. And yet I know that this misconception is widespread, because I've had this trivial and naive definition of the word “pacifism" thrown in my face over and over in the past few months as I've gone around talking to people about my plan to build an organization called Pacifism21.

This misunderstanding of the meaning of "pacifism" presents a severe challenge, and I know that it's been making it difficult for me to raise funds for my new organization. A marketing consultant friend recently put it this way, as I described the difficulty I'm having in selling this idea: “you've got an ugly baby on your hands".

The word “pacifism" may very well be an ugly baby, but, well … we'd better learn to love this ugly baby. There are two big reasons. First, the baby belongs to us. Second, the baby is (frankly) the best thing we've got.

The Fractal Pillar: Website as Philosophical Argument

A couple of weeks ago I announced my plan to launch a new nonprofit organization and website, Pacifism21 and Pacifism21.org, in order to promote pacifism as a viable political philosophy for the 21st century. A beta version of this website will go live in the next few days, and I’d like to explain several things that will make this project unique.

Pacifism21.org will be many things — a social activity center, a news and information resource — but at its core will stand a pillar. This pillar is a structured argument: a set of premises and conclusions, and an explanation of how the conclusions follow from the premises.

As this is naturally a complex argument, the pillar will be no simple construction, but rather a fractal sort of a thing, as each of the premises may itself require its own argument, of which each of the premises may again require an argument, and so on.

This is, of course, not a unique format. Every complex philosophical argument contains the same fractal structure, more or less, and so do many other forms of persuasive speech, from a well-written essay to a courtroom litigation.

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