Beware the Shortcut

Now by way of a holiday from bad writing, we can have a look at some good writing. David Aaronovitch is pretty reliable that way, and he’s good at that (alas all too easy) parlor game of pointing out the omissions and blind spots in some leftist rhetoric. It’s an honourable job, Orwell made a good thing of it, and certainly somebody has to do it. It’s no good leaving it all to the right, thus giving the impression that no one on the left objects to silly or ill-founded arguments. Such as this from the novelist Philip Kerr in the New Statesman:

I find it almost incomprehensible that someone from a generation who came of age during the Vietnam war, who read the war poets, [who]… listened to Joan Baez and John Lennon, and who must surely once have seen this marvellous film, could march this country into so many military conflicts.

To which Aaronovitch replies:

The military conflicts we have been ‘marched into’ by Mr Blair are Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq. That isn’t because the PM never understood the words of ‘Imagine’, but because it transpired that the Taliban, the hard men of the Baath, the amputating militias of West Africa, the Hutu Interahamwe and the Serb army of Radko Mladic had been brought up on something other than Joan Baez….The Dutch UN forces, who watched while the worst massacre in 50 years on the European continent took place at Srebrenica, were too lightly – not too well – armed. Perhaps, as they watched the coaches being driven off, they were singing ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone?’. In the end, no Dutch soldiers returned to Holland in body bags, yet the country felt itself disgraced.

Which is not to say that I think there’s no reason at all to be opposed to the war in Iraq, but it is to say that it’s no good pretending it’s a simple matter of rejecting violence and all will be well. That’s it’s not all that useful to say heatedly that there are children in Iraq, as if that makes everything clear and obvious.

And then, even better, Aaronovitch goes on to address the use of pictures and television as anti-war devices. ‘There is an implication in what Professor Lewis said that, if people in Britain were confronted with more disturbing images of war, they might be more reluctant to permit it (a logic, by the way, which no one suggests applying to the aftermath of road crashes).’ But a picture can be of anything, and mean anything. What if people in Britain were confronted with more disturbing images of mass graves in Iraq? Or torture victims? This interests me particularly because I’ve had arguments with people about the same issue from a different angle. When I’ve been arguing that language and print and books and reading are more necessary for and conducive to rational thought than pictures are, and that pictures can’t make an argument whereas language can, I’ve known people to disagree with great vehemence, and adduce the famous picture of the little girl running down the road after a napalm attack in Vietnam. That one picture made more of an argument than millions of words, they informed me. I tried hard to convince them that it didn’t, not by itself, it was only because they knew what it was a picture of that it had such an effect, and that knowledge depended on words. Without the context the picture could have been of many things, and no one would have the faintest idea who had caused the child’s misery or what to do about it.

But what happens if the war that kills the boy is about things the camera does not capture? About carnage that is threatened in the future? Or about executions by the thousand that are carried out far away from foreign reporters, and whose victims, though just as dead, are unseen? Had we been shown live pictures of Saddam’s men at work on their victims, or the delivery of body parts to the relatives of murdered democrats, what effect might that have had upon us?…What might we have demanded to be done in Congo if only it were safe enough for film crews to get pictures back of the horrors there?…I worry about what happens when we believe that what we see is all there actually is, about what you might call TV-solipsism. The undiscovered boys in the Bosnian graves are every bit as dead as the photographed Iraqi boy.

Exactly. Cameras can’t capture everything, and they can’t explain what they do capture. Beware of shortcuts. Advertising slogans, pictures, questions about children – they’re all shortcuts, aimed at the emotions, and they go around all the important questions.

Comments are closed.