When You Get the Message, You Can Hang Up the Phone

When the Iraq War was gearing up, and while it was beginning, and up through Falluja and the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, I paid pretty close attention to what was going on over there — as well as I could from way over here — and I listened carefully to people with more historical and cultural perspective, and to those who had been in the thick of it.

And then, somewhere along the line, I just sort of stopped keeping track. Not entirely — I’m probably still more well-informed than the average, but I no longer have the sort of appetite for details that I once did, and more and more I read the news and it all seems kind of fuzzy and far away — who was Tariq Aziz again? how far is Basra from Baghdad?

Some of my detachment is because much of the news out of Iraq is unreliable, and it is very difficult to set up good filters. The relatively independent news media have a devil of a time getting the story without getting killed, and much of what they print and much of everything else is propaganda and speculation and groupthink and, in the U.S. media, really nauseating jingoistic bias.

The recent news about Haditha seems weirdly out-of-proportion to me. The massacre, for instance, would hardly have rated a back-page paragraph if its victims had been ripped apart by U.S. missiles instead of shot by U.S. marines. From the looks of things, the justification for such overblown concern has nothing to do with the victims, but is all about how the war is affecting our killers (are our boys being over-stressed by repeated deployments? do they need more ethics training? are we worried enough about them? will this cause more Iraqis to try to hurt them? will it make us look bad?).

But a lot of my reason for shutting out the news, I think, comes from following some good advice I heard years ago: “When you get the message, you can hang up the phone.” I watched Iraq long enough to get the message, and any more watching at this point is only for the war junkie, tavern-talker, or politics buff in me. The extent to which I care about what is going on over there doesn’t much depend on the details any more, and I can be of more help over there by keeping my concentration here.

I’ve been reading a collection of essays by Dave Dellinger recently. His remarks about the Vietnam War, the grotesque charade of American democracy, and the mistakes of the anti-Vietnam War movement have more to tell me about what’s going on today than most of what I read on the Web or in the papers.

Maybe I’m wrong to disengage like this, to give up on the possibility of impressing in debate the sorts of people who know all the dope on all the players in Iraq and their dueling militias. But I see more danger in becoming the sort of person I read on the blogs all the time, who feels the need to jump to Google and cough up an analysis every time they read some new dispatch on the wire, or must parse and fisk the latest press release from CENTCOM or the latest op-ed from Ann Coulter.

Damn near everything I read even on the good blogs is someone’s more-or-less thoughtful, well-composed answer to a question that ought to have been ignored. What does it mean any more to demonstrate decisively that something Dubya said yesterday was hypocritical or incorrect?

Drop your fingers from the keyboard for a moment and imagine that you’ve finally been convinced, yourself, by the arguments you’ve been making or trying to make. What if it were all true (not “what if you could convince everyone it were true”)? Would it make a difference in your life or the lives of those around you (and not only “once they see the light”)? If not, move on to something that will make a difference, or start making a difference.