George Orwell and Tomahawk Missiles ("You Wouldn't Have the Guts")

There are countless reason to hate Twitter.  The most immediately obvious to me is the perpetual rapid-fire outrage it stokes.  If I were hooked up to an EKG, the doctor would be able to tell just from the readout when the app was open.

The more substantial reason, however, is the shallowness of the whole thing, but that is more a social problem of which Twitter is an incredibly obvious symptom.  People comment on issues of profound importance with the repeated use of little more than bumper stickers.  Making light of this particular president can be useful as long as the danger isn't obscured as well (an ego of his size is probably best punctured by ridiculing the ridiculous).  Sometimes, also, the most effective weapon against propaganda is an equal and opposite force of sloganeering as well.  But there are times that the whole thing is exposed for how damaging it can really be.  Most of those times are after or during acts of war.  The civil war in Syria poses a perfect example; there are no solutions, yet everyone has a solution to propose.

But there is nothing worthwhile to say about a bloody civil war that can be said in 280 characters.

George Orwell wrote often about war during one of the most astonishingly violent periods in human history.  He was also known for his brevity ("never use two words where one will do").  But when asked by a small publication to comment in six lines or less on the ongoing conflict in Spain for a section entitled "Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War," his reply was scathing:

I am not one of your fashionable pansies like [W.H.] Auden and [Stephen] Spender, I was six months in Spain, most of the time fighting, I have a bullet-hole in me at present and I am not going to write blah bout defending democracy or gallant little anybody.

Orwell, in an age of pamphlets and journals and newspapers and books, had no patience whatsoever for those who tried to simplify the politics of life and death. But even eighty years later, we haven't learned that lesson.  We unify around missile strikes, boycott french fries, and argue that a man "becomes president" when launching tomahawk missiles into a war-torn country between online outbursts.  It's perhaps more egregious now, but the phenomenon is nothing new.

Barack Obama launched numerous drone strikes all over large swaths of the world.  George Bush took foreign interventionism to its pinnacle.  Clinton and the senior Bush struggled to get their footing in a changing world, but they were preceded by four decades of constant military maneuvering (both covert and overt) and interminable arms racing.

We feel comfortable when a president is acting as Commander-in-Chief; defending even if the concept we defend is amorphous; instigating the paradoxical spread of democracy by force; enforcing international norms even as we allow our own norms to collapse for neglect.

We force these decisions into an inevitable binary – agree or disagree – but Orwell, of course, shows that this is nothing new.  We've taken a sort of comfort in the splendor and heroism of faraway war for as long as we've seen fit to comment on politics.  But Orwell also provides a template for a response to oversimplifying violence and war.  He writes near the conclusion of his diatribe:

This is more than 6 lines, but if I did compress what I know and think about the Spanish war into 6 lines you wouldn't print it.  You wouldn't have the guts. 

When stakes are high, Twitter, Axios, network news graphics, and the like provide a form of shelter.  We don't want to think deeply about the important things.  We have a hard time putting questions of war and peace into moral terms because they challenge our morals so deeply.  We can't face them in a way that stimulates sympathy or deep thought or conflict because the questions are too difficult and the answers too uncomfortable.  And so we make camps and we pick a side and defend it in 280 characters or less.  But it's only partially about apathy; we also can't say anything else.  We don't want to or don't know how, but I think it's more than that.  On some level I think we just don't have the guts.