Teju Cole’s 9 questions about Britain you were too embarrassed to ask

September 3, 2013
(Gene Thorp/Washington Post)
(Gene Thorp/Washington Post)

Last week, as the U.S. signaled it may launch limited strikes against Syria as punishment for allegedly using chemical weapons, I posted an explainer titled "9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask."

On Sunday, novelist Teju Cole, whom I've had the privilege of editing, parodied it on Twitter. His composition, which we might call "9 questions about Britain you were too embarrassed to ask," is posted below. Following it is a brief Q&A I did over e-mail with Cole, who was writing from Australia.

Cole's parody is partially premised on conflicting reports that the United Kingdom may have allowed a British arms exporter to sell chemical components to Syria. (He also at one points writes that the U.S. sells chemical weapons abroad, which isn't actually accurate.) In any case, it is true that Western countries sell lots of weapons to shady non-Western countries, and his larger points stand. Here it is:

WorldViews: What made you write this? What was the moment when you had the idea?

Teju Cole: I'm always thinking about alternative ways to think about the news, particularly where "the Other" is concerned. My first tweet–"US considers surgical strike on UK over sale of chemical weapons to Syria, but won't seek regime change in London"–was just a straight reaction to the hypocrisy around weapons and punitive strikes (the question of who has a right to use which weapons was the chief pretext for the Iraq war). It seems to me that, without quite thinking it through, we’ve divided the world into two: countries we can imagine bombing and countries we can’t imagine bombing. It’s a question of imagination. The idea that the US would launch missiles into London in 2013 is beyond absurd. But the tragedy is that it’s all too easy to imagine the U.S. launching missiles into other cities in other places in the world. I wanted to bridge that gap, in the little drive-by way of troublemaking that Twitter allows.

WV: Obviously the U.S. is not going to bomb the U.K. But it may very well bomb Syria. How do you see that distinction and why call attention to it?

TC: I don't like to make false equivalences. There's a serious question here about the use of chemical weapons which is related to, but distinct from, their proliferation. I understand the difference between someone gassing a town and bombing it. To the dead and mourning, the difference is relative, not absolute, but there does seem to be an ontological shift in the violence there: chemical weapons are a new level of “indiscriminate.” Still, every weapon means different things is different from every other in terms of accuracy, morality, effectiveness, etc. Nuclear bombs, missiles, mines, drones, machine guns, etc, are, at heart, simply different technologies for one single awful goal: the killing of human beings, the increase of human suffering.

The argument that some are worse than others needs to be made, but we also need to say, "a pox on all their houses." I think the Western world is too at ease with conventional weapons, ignoring the fact that the designation "conventional" is precisely that. The U.S. and its Western allies are eager to promote those weapons that underscore their own superiority. Take weaponized drones, for example, which are rapidly being sold and promoted and used throughout the world: an unmitigated horror for their victims, but for those who deploy them, it's the dream of endlessly killing without facing any risk of being killed.

All that said, U.K.'s issuance of a license for the export of chemicals or holding arms trade fairs for whomever has the money does not not make Cameron a butcher like Assad. That's one indelible truth. The fact that Cameron and Obama preside over needlessly vicious war machines is yet another. We can hold both thoughts in our heads at the same time.

WV: The Smiths are great and all but why them over the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Clash?

TC: The Smiths are great, end of discussion. The only other possibility would have been Radiohead, but I love the way the Smiths are very intensely located in a place and time, as opposed to the more cosmopolitan brilliance of Radiohead. The Smiths just say "Britons" to me. (Of course, my slightly comic use of the word "Briton" comes from Monty Python.) I thought of Dizzee Rascal too, which would have been a nice intervention from left field. But that’s the nature of tweets: you write them, and they’re done.

WV: You were parodying an explainer of the most basic dynamics in Syria. There've been a lot of those this week. What do we lose, or miss, with that sort of approach?

TC: In an essay this week, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, wrote about the "stubborn flaws" she has found in the Times' otherwise admirable newsroom: "Although The Times usually corrects factual errors quickly, it is not quick to admit that matters of tone or practice could be better." This true and beautifully worded. And it is in matters of tone that I object to things like your Syria explainer.

I actually appreciated the piece. I picked up a lot of detail from it, and I could see you battling to present as much nuance as the space would allow. It would be hard to fit in more facts into such a small space. The honesty of the effort was clear, in a way that not all such efforts are honest. But, tonally, it was still very much about "the Other," about them over there, those strange people doing crazy things. Even the music break felt like a simplification of the people in question, as though our fatigue in learning about their terrifying reality were even relevant. And so, when I did my satirical take, it was about how to effectively estrange those whom we rarely consider "the Other": the Britons.

And so, even if my satire in hindsight proves to have been insufficiently surgical (it seems unlikely these particular British chemicals did not get to Syria as earlier reported, though the export license for them was indeed issued, long after the war there had begun), the general point still holds: we should imagine what it would be like to bomb London punitively.

WV: Since I'm asking anyone I can find: What's the right answer to Syria?

TC: I don't know man. I'm almost certain I'm against any US bombing there. Yet another Middle Eastern country as target practice? Just what is it with the U.S. and bombing brown people in this past decade? The people on the ground there are real human beings.

But it is also precisely the fact that the people on the ground are real human beings that one wonders if an intervention (as happened mostly positively in Mali; and failed to happen with tragic consequences in Rwanda) is what's needed. It's all too complicated for me to figure out. It’s certainly painful to watch things unfold over there, hence my objection to any reading that makes it just more grist for the commentary mill.

Somehow, we must keep the humanity of the people in Syria before us. Anything thing we do or do not do, or say or do not say, should be about them, not about us. We must live perpetually in hope of a negotiated settlement. Forces are too evenly balanced, and the suffering will continue and the death toll continue to mount horrifyingly until there's some kind of negotiated peace. No one is going to win this war. So all the work in the back channels should be about getting Russia, China, Iran, the US, and the various Syrian parties to the table. But if you have drones, you want to use them. “Surgically.”

WV: What's the question I should have asked you here but didn't?

TC: I think you just about covered it. I just want to thank you for being a good sport about being parodied.

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Max Fisher | September 3, 2013