Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Creative writing

One of the more interesting scandals being discussed in the blogging world these days concerns a certain Scott Thomas Beauchamp, a US soldier currently serving in Iraq. Until a few weeks ago, Beauchamp was known to the world by his first and middle names alone, which he somewhat unimaginatively employed as a pseudonym while writing first-hand accounts of the war for The New Republic, a centre-left political magazine based in Washington.

Beauchamp's accounts were both entertaining and shocking: they depicted American troops running over stray dogs in Baghdad in their Bradley fighting vehicles, donning the skulls of dead Iraqi children for humorous effect, and mocking the disfigurement of those wounded in insurgent explosions. The accounts were meant to suggest the dehumanizing effects that the war was having on otherwise decent and sensitive people -- bread and butter for the anti-war readership of TNR.

Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, little of Beauchamp's writings seem to have been based in reality. Beauchamp himself, after his true identity was exposed by persistent bloggers, turned out to be an aspiring author whose voluntary enlistment in Iraq was by his own admission aimed at accumulating personal experiences that he could use for a novel that would launch his career. His avowedly fictional writings about the horrors of war date back to a time when he hadn't yet been deployed in Iraq, but still use some of the same elements that he later transposed to Baghdad and presented as fact. What he really saw in Iraq during his tour of duty was apparently lacking enough in dramatic intensity that he felt entitled to embellish it: as the Italians say, si non é vero, é molto ben trovato -- even if it isn't true, it's very well invented.

The whole sorry episode tells us once again that the establishment media is instinctively agenda- seeking and not to be trusted automatically. (The New Republic, even though it has a low circulation nationally, is still influential enough with Washington insiders to be considered part of the "establishment", and it has a loyal following among American- politics junkies everywhere: I used to read it faithfully myself when I was in university and had access to free copies at the library.) --The rise of the bloggers has been necessary and beneficial if only because they have once and for all exposed the myth of media transparency. TNR, looking for an anti- war angle, saw one in the fictions of Beauchamp and eagerly embraced them without making even the slightest attempt to verify that they were true. Such oversights and overt fabrications happen almost every week at The New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, and other pillars of respectable public opinion, and probably they have been taking place for years, but only in the past few years has it become possible to disseminate knowledge of these errors to a wide audience via the Internet.

On a purely aesthetic level, it also saddens me to recognize in Beauchamp the spectre of the typical North American liberal- arts graduate: educated badly enough to have turned out to be a pretentious and sub- standard writer (you can check out specimens of his dismal output here); indoctrinated well enough to have actively pursued a political agenda even at the cost of his own personal integrity; and under- employed enough that he would have even considered enlisting as a soldier not out of a sense of duty or vocation, but merely for the experience -- and only then because he thought he'd become famous if he wrote about it.

The last word on this subject has to rest with the esteemed short story writer Flannery O'Connor: "Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them."

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