Literature's Moral Limits
Teju Cole, writing for the New Yorker, is baffled that someone as well-read as President Obama could (would?) make the moral choices to use drone strikes and other tough tactics in the War on Terror.
How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became? ...
According to a report in the New York Times, the targets of drone strikes are selected for death at weekly meetings in the White House; no name is added to the list without the President’s approval. Where land mines are indiscrimate, cheap, and brutal, drones are discriminate, expensive, and brutal. And yet they are insufficiently discriminate: the assassination of the Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud in Pakistan in 2009 succeeded only on the seventeenth attempt.
The sixteen near misses of the preceding year killed between two hundred and eighty and four hundred and ten other people. Literature fails us here. What makes certain Somali, Pakistani, Yemeni, and American people of so little account that even after killing them, the United States disavows all knowledge of their deaths? How much furious despair is generated from so much collateral damage?
Alan Jacobs cautions against expecting literature alone to guide moral judgements.
For most people literature has limited power to do character-shaping because of the limited range of ways it involves the person. (There are of course exceptions to this rule — I think of William Cobbett, for instance, whose whole life was, according to his own account, altered by reading Jonathan Swift. But even then I can’t help thinking that that could only happen because a whole range of complex experiences had prepared him to receive precisely what Swift had to say.)
Various forms of ritual enactment — Yoni Appelbaum is working on some of these matters in his dissertation-in-progress, and I put the point this way after corresponding with him — seem to me to have much greater power because (a) they engage our sensorium more completely and (b) they benefit from repetition. ...
The complex social and cultural forces that find their embodiment in rituals — family rituals, educational ones, religious ones — are what determine how we read literature, how we are able to read literature. Literature in itself has, comparatively, very little power — but in conjunction with those forces, and primarily in their service, it can indeed help to change lives.
Finally, Ari Kohen draws inspiration from Richard Rorty's superb Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:
[W]e don’t know whether or not President Obama is at war with himself about these drones strikes, but it’s certainly important for me to imagine that he is, that he is deeply disturbed by them or at the very least that he doesn’t undertake them lightly. This allows me to cling to the image of Obama as our deeply-conflicted reader-in-chief, someone who cares about the suffering of others because he has read “the sort of long, sad, sentimental story that begins, ‘Because this is what it is like to be in her situation – to be far from home, among strangers,’ or ‘Because she might become your daughter-in-law,’ or ‘Because her mother would grieve for her’” (185).
Whether or not Obama is conflicted, ultimately, doesn’t much matter for the people whose deaths he has ordered or for those who were merely nearby. But I think it does matter a great deal for us. This isn’t, after all, really a debate about the transformative potential of literature; it’s a debate about our public beliefs and opinions with regard to the suffering of those who are different from us and who might (but also might not) threaten us in some way. We must ask ourselves, how we will treat those people and how our thoughts on the matter reflect our understanding of ourselves as political liberals.
I'm going to revisit Rorty for a while. In the meantime, debate away. This is the type of thread that should be very interesting.