Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut’s last novel, is an odd thing. The story is ostensibly about the world having to relive the years from 1991 to 2001 all over again, with full memory of everything we did during that time but unable to change any of it because we don’t possess free will. The book itself is about that story, but also about Vonnegut’s attempts to tell that story and ends up folding in on itself to become as much a story of his life as it is a fiction. It’s an understandable mess because why the concept is a good one – and people being doomed to make and repeat mistakes while pretending they have free will is a recurring theme of Vonnegut’s works – actually depicting it is hard work.
I’m reminded of Timequake this week because it feels like we’re staggering through a replay of the events of the build-up to war in 2003 and at least one side is being portrayed as possessing no free will in the matter. So, we get coverage like this
4 newspapers tie Corbyn's name to airstrikes in Syria. Wasn't it Cameron's proposal? What exactly is going on here? pic.twitter.com/77CA0bQk1M
— Media Diversified (@WritersofColour) November 30, 2015
and posts like this where the decision to start bombing Syria is taken as an unavoidable fact. Only those opposed to bombing appear to be deemed as possessing the free will required to have to come up with justifications for their actions, while those proposing it act as though they’re prisoners of destiny, lurching towards war because there’s no way to change their course of action and do something else. A whole army of keyboard Clausewitzes appear ready to blame those arguing against bombing for it happening while there own arguments in favour are little more than Something Must Be Done.
There’s a concept in chess (and wider game theory) called ‘zugzwang’ where a player finds themselves in a position where whatever move they make leaves them in a worse position. It feels an apt description for Jeremy Corbyn’s relationship with the media where whatever he does, it’s wrong: trying to get Labour to oppose air strikes is an attempt at loony lefty dictatorship, conceding a free vote is weak leadership that allows bombing to happen. Beyond that, it also seems apt for describing the global situation where every potential course of action appears to lead inextricably to the good intentions road to hell, the only question how we get there and which sub-district of the inferno we arrive in.
The problem seems to be that we’ve got a whole lot of tactics available to us, but none of them in themselves appear to add up to a strategy. Just like in 2003, we spend almost all our time arguing over what we should or shouldn’t be doing with the tools we have at hand without pausing to think about any long-term aims and goals. The overriding principle appears to be feeling that because we must Do Something, we have to choose from a variety of bad options and decide which is least worst. We’re not in a game, though, and we don’t have rules that say we must Do Something. Pretending that we must act, and expecting those advocating other courses of action to be the only ones who need to come up with a convincing argument why not is confusing tactics for strategy, repeating the mistakes we’ve made before and just confirming that we’re going to keep making them again and again.
So it goes.