About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, December 22, 2006
Please, don't talk to me about “the war on...”
First off, I don't see why people keep using “war on” as a positive, affirmative metaphor. Apparently, it's a good thing to be waging war on cancer or poverty. But, in reality, wars are never a good thing, even in the few instances in which they may have been just from an ethical point of view (World War II comes to mind, with some caveats). So why use an atrocious and most despicable human activity as a metaphor for positive change?
Besides, wars are usually won by someone, and usually within a fairly short period of time (the Hundred Years war being an obvious exception). Which is why politicians love the war metaphor (it also makes them look tough, even though, like Cheney and Bush-II, they were actually very careful to avoid getting themselves on the front line when there was a chance). But all the so-called “wars” mentioned above cannot actually be won, and they will last a long, long time. Cancer, AIDS and poverty cannot lose a war in any meaningful way, because they are not sentient combatants, they are biological and social diseases. And since they are complex diseases, it will take a lot of effort, ingenuity and money to make progress on those struggles, but it's hard to see what one gains from describing them as wars.
The war on terror, of course, is a bit closer to a real war, because it is in fact fought against sentient combatants. But terror wasn't invented on 9/11, despite what some Americans may think. It is a time-honored way for people without the means to raise an army to annoy whoever they see as their oppressors to the point that the oppressors lose interest and go away. This was done against the Romans on the frontiers of the empire, it's how most revolutionary movements begin (think of John Brown before the Civil War, if you want a terrorist that fits the definition), and it is the only way today that a superpower can be violently challenged. But it isn't a war because there are no armies facing each other, no enemy that can be vanquished on the battlefield, no rules of military conduct, and no distinction between soldiers and civilians. Ironically, Bush-II was correct when he triumphantly said, after the fall of Baghdad, that the US won the war. But that's a whole different matter from saying that “the mission was accomplished,” as the “mission” ain't no war.
So please, enough already with the war on this and the war on that. Don't allow politicians to score cheap brownie points by posturing as tough guys when the best they can do with weapons is to shoot their hunting buddies in the face . Terrorism, cancer and poverty have absolutely nothing in common that justifies us labeling them “wars”. A good first step toward making progress with any problem is to form a realistic concept of what kind of problem it really is.