In the latter half of the 20th century, Americans were called to meet abstractions with metaphors in a series of gaudy figurations popularly called “The War On . . .” Intended to be wholly symbolic, rhetorical frameworks that loosely invoked the legendary national unity that accompanied America’s good wars, whichever those were, our Wars On various and sundry Things that Are Bad proved the power of language to mold behavior, for often the martial tone spilled into martial practice, and so we find heavily armed SWAT units kicking down doors like soldiers in Baghdad. More recently, Wars On have spilled into the private sector, where you’ll principally find inexplicably aggrieved majorities crying that they and their dearly held beliefs are under siege from the ravenous forces of queers or atheists or $3-an-hour day laborers from Chavezistan. For this new year, we might look back at the five worst of our Wars On whatever, and reconsider this, ahem, tortured metaphor.
1. The War on Poverty
Jesus said that the meek would inherit the earth and that the poor are blessed, but his contemporary followers are fairly convinced that he was bullshitting on that one, worn out from miracle-making and winding up for a good punchline which history failed to record. America’s preference has always been to pretend that there are no poor people, and if there are, it’s probably their fault anyway. But in the sixties, with the Great Depression still in living memory, and with a slowly awakening awareness that rural blacks and whites alike often lived in grinding poverty, it was briefly in vogue to “consider the neediest,” as the odd tag line inexplicably reads after certain articles in the New York Times. This was less out of a true sense of charity, one suspects, than it was out of the era’s misplaced competitiveness with the Soviet bogeyman, which was way ahead of America in its own efforts to combat poverty. The Soviets had simply renamed it the Proletariat, praised it to the sky, and increased its numbers. Lyndon Johnson called America to wage a War on Poverty, but poverty is a hard thing to get your arms around, and that war swiftly and inexorably changed into something more like a war on poor people. Johnsonian efforts at redistributionist economics matched early on with a generally strong economy, but as those fortunes went south, so too did the idea that anything could be done about the poor, who quickly went from noble, if hardscrabble, folk characters to dangerous black people lurking around every city corner. By the time Ronald Reagan first said the words “welfare queen,” the fix was in. The poor had transmogrified into a legion of flashy pimps. Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it,” and Democrats decided that it wasn’t the poor they wanted to help, but the “working class,” a transparent and hoary neologism designed solely to prevent White America from associating anti-poverty programs with crackheads and other mythical varieties of blacks.
2. The War on Cancer
Wars on Diseases are a perennial favorite, and the War on Cancer was the daddy to them all. Dreamed up by Richard Nixon, it was a curious appendage to the War on Vietnam: a doomed, unwinnable slog against a tenacious and irrepressible foe. As Susan Sontag famously noted in her seminal “Illness as Metaphor,” loose talk of making war on a sickness had the deleterious effect of obscuring what sickness actually was. The body itself became enemy-occupied territory, and cancer not merely a disease, but a stigma. Since the time of that essay, cancer patients are less stigmatized, and the disease is no longer anathema to polite conversation. That’s a good thing. Yet the military end of the metaphor continues, and one can’t help but note that our treatments for many kinds of cancer are essentially torture. The mania for endlessly prolonging life has eclipsed the humbler offerings of palliative care. There are virtually no means that our medicine will not undertake to rid the body of malignancy: pumping it full of poison, shooting it up with radiation, and slicing bits of it clear off. It is a macrocosm of the horrors of 20th-century war, practiced on the body and offered as medicine. We might start by questioning whether or not it’s always worth it.
3. The War on Christmas
Who could fight a war on Christmas when Christmas is so fucking cute? You, that’s who. A hilarious, ginned-up controversy used by the put-upon millionaires of right wing broadcasting to beat down any aspirations in their slack-jawed audience of Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men, the War on Christmas is the latest in a long series of efforts to convince white, Protestant Americans that they are beset on all sides by powerful interests with guns aimed square at the ineffable heart of the Baby Jesus and all His works. Businesses and politicians who embrace the ecumenical balm of “Holidays” are the supposed generals in this war, and you, you bastards, with your “Seasons Greetings,” and your Jew and Nigger holidays that so inconsiderately fall in the same month, you are all to blame. It’s supremely unlikely that you’ll find any infamous O’Reillys kneeling at midnight to receive the Host, and yet to hear him howl, you’d think that the big guy-in-the-sky suffers from inapposite and non-denominational greeting cards the way he once suffered on the cross itself. Everyone from Charles Shultz to your cranky Catholic grandmother has long since noted that if anything has undermined Christmas in our so-called culture, it’s the still-expanding crassness of its commercialization, the idea that the birth of the supposed savior and redeemer of all mankind shall best be celebrated at the Sharper Image.
4. The War on Drugs
Mencken once wrote that George Washington would never be elected now because he loved whiskey and made his own, enjoyed a good dirty joke, and knew more swear words than scripture. He was writing from the depths of Prohibition, but the spirit of those remarks is truer now than ever. America is a tippler that pretends to be a teetotaler—the world’s largest consumer of porn and loudest extoller of its own moral virtue; the world’s greatest user of drugs and harshest prosecutor of that use. Even more than the War on Terror, it’s the Drug War that shepherded the militarization of our police, the surveillance of our society, and the creation of the world’s largest internal prison population. The fact that we put people in jail for possessing marijuana is one of the great jurisprudential jokes of all time. The iniquity in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenses, a 15-year-plus surcharge for getting high while black, is outdone as an injustice only by the fact that any of those sentences exist at all. It is sometimes argued by those moderates who advocate for more “humane” drug laws but who nevertheless believe that it would be irresponsible to enact broad legalization, that legalizing would lead to more addicts. It would. But better to have more addicts than more prisoners, and the black-market derangement of the drug trade cannot be rectified by half-hearted efforts to decriminalize only those drugs deemed morally acceptable. Each man’s body is his temple, and if he wants to shit on the altar and spray-paint the walls, he can. A nation of pot-smokers doesn’t kill grandmothers in no-knock midnight raids at the wrong street address, nor does it spend billions a year arming South American brown shirts and spraying the only crops that their rural poor can produce that hasn’t already been rendered unprofitable and unsustainable by American and European agribusiness and subsidies.
5. The War on Terror
Do I even need to tell you? In a spectacular bit of luck and timing borne on the fruits of American incompetence, a group of men successfully carried out several vicious acts of terrorism against America. Now you can’t carry a bottle of water onto an airplane. It is the strangest series of causes and effects ever foisted upon the poor people of the planet Earth. The self-described capo of our Nazislamo enemies stated in the plainest terms that his beef was with America’s constant meddling in the Middle East, our wars and oil-lust and sanctions and tyrannical client governments. How do we respond? By invading the Middle East, meddling in their politics, and setting up more corrupt, useless governments. Our need to “hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world,” in Tom Friedman’s immortally bloodthirsty formulation, was so immediate and disproportionate that it would be parody, but for all the bodies it left and is leaving in its wake. America went from being a mere back room practitioner of torture to its loudest global advocate, and the imperialism we’d always practiced abroad, which we formerly weren’t supposed to talk about, became a point of national pride. At home we rushed to disregard the old Franklinian aphorism about those who sacrifice liberty for security deserving neither, and the very same people who once (rightly) complained about Janet Reno’s ham-fisted massacre of the Branch Davidians and Bill Clinton’s relatively subtle efforts to undermine our privacy now shouted that the government must tap every phone, open every letter, and dump every toiletry bag onto the conveyor belt at the airport. The War on Terror is a bipartisan nightmare, a hideous outgrowth of the governing consensus, and Democratic congress creatures and presidential aspirants are by and large just as willing to speak in bellicose absurdities about the necessity of its prosecution as their cross-aisle counterparts.