But I’m profoundly ambivalent about his newest project, a series of Tweeted musings on the American drone program. On the one hand, his entry on Tuesday — essentially seven fictionalized Small Fates of people killed by drone strikes — brilliantly humanizes some of the more problematic parts of America’s targeted killing campaign. One of Cole’s victims was killed in a “signature strikes,” wherein missiles are launched not because of concrete intelligence indicating the target is a part of a terrorist organization, but because the person or group of people ” bear[s] the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban” targets. This tactic raises serious legal and ethical questions, the answer to which determines whether real people live or die. Cole’s work skillfully draws the public’s attention onto the all-too-often invisible foreign victims of our counterterrorism policies.
On the other, not all of Cole’s drone writing is so revealing. About a year ago, Cole wrote a series lumping together drones with Downton Abbey and Virgin Atlantic’s name for its first class section to show that “height” was “the commanding metaphor” of our time. At the time, it struck me as fruitless postmodern metaphor-play. I still think that now, but I’d add that, unlike his recent entry, it’s didactic and unhelpful. Virgin Atlantic’s semantic choices, while maybe obnoxious, don’t shed light on why the targeted killing program continues or what to do about it. The question “those people down there, are they really people?” that Cole suggests links the things he lists isn’t one whose answer explains the American targeted killing program. America’s use of drones in the war on terrorism is an incredibly difficult policy question, one that isn’t amenable to simple moralizing. Drawing attention to the moral stakes is one thing; reducing disagreement to a world-historical dispute over “for whose sake this world exists” is quite another.
The promises and pitfalls of Cole’s writing on drones aren’t created by his his chosen medium, as a lazy analysis might suggest, but reflective of the broader limitations of literary approaches to argument about politics and philosophy. Non-fiction has the luxury of being able to be boring: it can reflect every nuance, every subtle detail of an argument, however much rote recitation of facts that might require. Even narrative journalism, with all its literary trappings, still has a basic obligation to string together an argument based on the facts.
Fiction, by contrast, is about a universe that isn’t real. It isn’t about making an argument with facts that exist in our world; it’s about creating a new one. That world may be very similar to ours, but it isn’t the same thing. Fiction isn’t a direct argument, with clear premises and conclusions; it’s a means of pointing us in a certain direction. This can be brilliantly illuminating: think 1984 on the nature of totalitarianism. But the insights that book, brilliant as they are, could very well have wrong. Winston Smith’s world isn’t necessarily ours. We know from firsthand accounts of life in totalitarian nations that the book’s account of the psychology of repression is chillingly accurate. But other world-pictures, like Ayn Rand novels, miss the mark, yet remain stubbornly influential on the real-world outlooks of a shockingly large number of people. The seductive appeal of a worldview grounded in fiction can lead to mistaken judgments about the real world it obliquely argues about.
Cole’s blend of cultural criticism and life-like fiction in his drone writing blurs the line between non-fiction and fiction, as does the pseudo-journalistic portrayal of the hunt for bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. Both are ways to use the tools of literature, word and screen, to heighten our awareness of our real past, present, and future. That’s a laudable goal. But art can mislead as much as guide, a point that Plato first recognized when writing about art and poetry in The Republic:
There is a principle in human nature which is disposed to raise a laugh, and this which you once restrained by reason, because you were afraid of being thought a buffoon, is now let out again…the same may be said of lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure, which are held to be inseparable from every action — in all of them poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue.
The irony, of course, is that The Republic itself is a fictional dialogue.