Their War

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Arthur on 21 May 2006

I was having lunch—gosh, it must have been three years ago—with Grant Morrison, Scottish storyteller, comics genius, and chaos magician. We were in Life Cafe, across the street from where I lived at the time, and we got on to the subject of 9-11 and the Bush regime and the state of the world.

What surprised me most was Grant’s nonchalance about all of it. Sure, he hadn’t witnessed the felling of the World Trade Center towers from his apartment window, but he was a worldly fellow, filled with tales of revolting against the consensus reality, maintaining one’s own perspective, and beckoning the very fabric of creation to surrender to one’s will. Given that so many kids and travelers read our work, don’t we owe them some guidance as to how to approach the war?

“That’s their war,” Grant told me. “The adults have never listened to us and they never will. That’s their reality. Their thing. So let them do their thing and we’ll do ours.”

I remained unsatisfied with that answer for some time. And I took a different tack. I wrote some editorials about what was happening, tried to decode some of the Administration’s sensationalist rhetoric, signed those same anti-war New York Times ads that my literary heroes were signing, and read as much as I could about everything from Halliburton and Cheney to the Patriot Act and domestic spying.

Of course, the more I knew, the worse I felt. Even most politicians and world leaders who spoke out against the more heinous of actions—whether state-enacted tyranny or bottom-up violence—seemed to be doing so for short-term tactical advantage in some more petty or selfish pursuit.

Worse yet, the worse I felt, the less I felt like writing, speaking, or even thinking. Why bother? The whole system is corrupt, our votes are no longer counted, the redistribution of wealth from poor to rich in the past decade is the greatest in history, disease and environmental catastrophe are being ignored, and my baby’s formula is too expensive to justify doing much of anything that doesn’t go towards paying for it or the rent, anyway.

Even the students in my media theory and activism classes at New York University appear overwhelmed by the seemingly futility of taking a stand. Just the other day, they were debating whether going to a protest or rally even matters—especially when it can be reframed by the mainstream media as almost anything. Besides, most young protesters’ rally activities are betrayed by their real-life purchases and behaviors. Is futile or unconsciously hypocritical protest really no better than no protest at all?

Because over in the real world, Iraq is descending into civil war, Palestinians are suffering under repression from within and without, thousands continue to die by the day in Darfur —and all of this is due, at least in part, to one or another policy for which America or its allies are responsible. Mustn’t we take a stand? A direct, informed, progressive, and potentially contagious stand?

Perhaps. But, as I imagine Grant and other committed artists would argue, not without a cost to our ability to see, think and feel clearly.

For example, to “learn” about the war in the Persian Gulf, we must wade through disinformation upon disinformation. Which news agency to trust, if any? How smart are the reporters at those “good” papers, like the Guardian, really? Smart enough to remember and remind us that America’s real goal is permanent bases in Iraq, or that 9-11 was used as an excuse to establish these bases? And what is communicated to us by daily headlines of single-digit casualties in that war, with often no mention at all of the thousands who died that day in Africa?

In short, does “staying informed” itself subject us to more propaganda and distorted values than it’s worth? Does it suck us into “their” story so deeply that we are incapacitated rather than prepared to act? Is “having an opinion” about a distant war or policy of any value, or is it an intellectual cocktail party substitute for caring about something in a realm where we can actually make a difference?

And I admit, I’ve felt obligated to have answers. I’ve spent the past few years immersed in the issues of the day, educating myself as best I can on affairs of state and occasionally posting what opinions and revelations I can muster. And while energizing people for protests or voting strategies or even outright activism is a great thing, I can’t help but wonder if I’m sending people further down the rabbit hole each time I attempt to deconstruct or analyze a Pentagon press conference or White House leak.

Meanwhile, I’ve been getting emails and calls for the past couple of months from some of the groups attempting to get down to the real story behind 9-11. They’ve pointed me to articles and essays calling the structural collapse of the Word Trade Center into question, implying that explosives were planted in the building beforehand, or that George W. was not only responsible for the attacks, but part of the cabal that perpetrated them in a kristalnacht-like scheme to vilify all Arabs and invade Iraq. Won’t I do research and write essays about this? Why not?

When I respond that I don’t believe Bush and his team are competent enough to pull off such a scheme, the well-meaning 9-11 investigators call me part of the problem. Never mind that I’m only one person with only so many hours and so many competencies. To ignore the issue that they are most interested in—or, rather, the particular expression of that issue that they’re most interested in—is to be part of the media whitewash. While I am concerned about a possible 9-11 cover-up (although not one of the magnitude many of those folks were suggesting) I’m personally much more concerned about how that concern itself has affected those who are obsessing on it. I mean, if we’re going to play conspiracy theory, mightn’t there be a concerted effort by the White House to ensnare activists in conspiracy theories about 9-11 so that they stay off the topic of, say, the invasion of Iraq or a war over in which currency oil is denominated?

There’s something to be said for creating works of art and media that instead give people the tools and energy we need to disengage from story being told to us on TV, and to feel optimistic about our own potential to rewrite reality on terms more consonant with our hopes. But I can’t sanction any strategy that leads people to shove their iPod earbuds further down towards eustachian tubes and ignore our wars and our mutual complicity altogether.

So while I’ll admit that violence on TV is their war, and that no one involved in any of its decision-making will likely come in contact with me or my work or my vote, I won’t make myself or my writing oblivious to its ever-present toll on the real lives of real people. For me, this means writing comics or books or screenplays that explore what I believe to be the issues underlying our propensity for violence, our belief in money, our surrender of agency, our fear of the “other.” It means engaging with people as honestly and openly and availably as possible, without spreading myself so thin that I’ve got nothing of value for anyone.

Sure, I’ll take a stand and even take to the streets when I get the sense that a mass action is called for. But I won’t fool myself into believing it is having an effect on anyone but the participants, themselves. Or that signing an email petition against the next cruel Bush atrocity is a more effective strategy for eradicating the damage than doing something kind, meaningful, or difficult for another person in the world where I live. Actions can trickle up much more effectively than rhetoric trickles down, because actions have reality on their side.

And to the extent this means shutting off the war—whichever war—happens to be playing on the cable news, I will keep Grant’s words close at hand: it is their war.