Browsing the archives for the The Homans Articl category.


No Glory

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September 11, The Homans Articl

I’ve linked to this in the past, but it’s still good — “The Long Funeral” by John Homans, published in New York magazine in 2006.

New Yorkers tended to want to keep 9/11 (“it happened to us”) for their own, but no one believed that could happen. The grief culture this country has lived in for the past five years began in those spontaneous shrines, but it didn’t end there. Before the week was out, many different interests had moved in to stake their claims on its meaning.

As an event, 9/11 was a perfect entry point into the softness and indulgence and inwardness that mass media are most comfortable exploiting. In this, it was clearly part of what came before, the high-rated bathos of the deaths of Princess Di and JFK Jr. (or more recently, for that matter, the cat stuck in the wall of a West Village bakery), the media’s hunger for strong emotion coupled with its ability to make huge numbers of people think the same thing at the same time. The journalistic necessity of putting faces on the story minted a huge new class of celebrities, dead and alive. Jokes, of course, could be told about Princess Di and JFK Jr. But the grief culture that had just been born imposed its own form of correctness. The circles of loss and victimhood created a new etiquette—who could speak first, what could be said.

Paul Krugman writes today,

What happened after 9/11 — and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not — was deeply shameful. The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons.

Back to Homans in 2006 —

Bush and his administration quickly swooped down to scoop up the largest part of the 9/11 legacy. The justified fear and rage and woundedness and sense of victimhood infantilized our political culture. The daddy state was born, with attendant sky-high approval ratings. And for many, the scale of the provocation seemed to demand similarly spectacular responses—a specious tactical argument, based as it was on the emotional power of 9/11, rather than any rearrangement of strategic realities.

Of course, the marriage of the ultimate baby-down-a-well media spectacle with good old American foreign-policy adventurism was brokered by Karl Rove, who decreed that George Bush would become a war president, indefinitely.

Krugman, today:

The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it.

Homans 2006 —

The memory of 9/11 continues to stoke a weepy sense of American victimhood, and victimhood, as used by both left and right, is a powerful political force. As the dog whisperer can tell you, strength and woundedness together are a dangerous combination. Now, 9/11 has allowed American victim politics to be writ larger than ever, across the globe. When someone from Tulsa, for example, says, “It’s important to remember 9/11 every day,” what he means is, “We were attacked, we are the aggrieved victims, we are justified.” But if we were victims then, we are less so now. This distorted sense of American weakness is weirdly mirrored in the woundedness and shame that motivate our adversaries. In our current tragicomedy of Daddy-knows-best, it’s a national neurosis, a perpetual childhood. (With its 9/11 truth-conspiracy theories, the far left has its own infantile daddy complex, except in that version, the daddies are the source of all evil.) No doubt, there are real enemies, Islamist and otherwise, more than ever (although the cure—the Iraq war—has inarguably made the disease worse). But the spectacular scope of 9/11, its psychic power, continues to distort America’s relationships. It will take years for the country to again understand its place in the world.

As you can imagine, righties are having screaming fits over what Krugman wrote today. But as Homans wrote five years ago, there’s a common feeling among New Yorkers that this profound and intimate experience was ripped away from us and exploited and re-interpreted by others who weren’t part of it, who weren’t even here.

New Yorkers responded to the disaster with grace and courage. It still inspires me that so many were able to escape, and they did so helping each other, often strangers, to get away. People were afraid, but no one was trampled to death in the WTC stairwells or on the streets. The courage of the firefighter and other responders also is not diminished.

I even give Rudy Giuliani credit for holding the city together emotionally in the hours and days immediately after the attacks, especially while the “President” was still flapping around aimlessly in Air Force One or hiding in the White House. But the fact remains that his own policies and decisions were partly responsible for the deaths of many firefighters that day. And since then he’s taken self-glorification to Olympic, and sickening, heights. But for a while, he found the right words when the city needed the right words.

But I utterly disagree with Jeffrey Goldberg

Self-criticism is necessary, even indispensable, for democracy to work. But this decade-long drama began with the unprovoked murder of 3,000 people, simply because they were American, or happened to be located in proximity to Americans. It is important to get our categories straight: The profound moral failures of the age of 9/11 belong to the murderers of al Qaeda, and those (especially in certain corners of the Muslim clerisy, along with a handful of bien-pensant Western intellectuals) who abet them, and excuse their actions. The mistakes we made were sometimes terrible (and sometimes, as at Abu Ghraib and in the CIA’s torture rooms, criminal) but they came about in reaction to a crime without precedent.

Reaction, yes. That’s the whole problem. We reacted. We didn’t respond, we reacted. I wrote awhile back,

A wise person pointed out to me once that there’s a difference between reacting and responding. As it says here, reacting is a reflex, like a knee-jerk. Reacting is nearly always triggered by emotions — attraction or aversion — and is about making oneself feel better. Responding, on the other hand, is a thought-out and dispassionate action that is primarily about solving a problem.

Another article I had linked to in the paragraph above has since disappeared, but the point is that in reacting, we gave more power to al Qaeda. We let them goad us into reacting with the worst in ourselves. Al Qaeda didn’t torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo; we did. Al Qaeda didn’t play fast and loose with our 4th Amendment rights; we did. Al Qaeda sure as hell didn’t force us to start a pointless war in Iraq.

Basically, what Goldberg is saying is that lynch mobs are blameless because, you know, they’re just reacting to something outrageous. But we Americans like to pretend, at least, we’re better than that. I guess not.

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Moving On

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Bush Administration, conservatism, September 11, Terrorism, The Homans Articl

Frank Rich writes,

The results are in for the White House’s latest effort to exploit terrorism for political gain: the era of Americans’ fearing fear itself is over.

In each poll released since the foiling of the trans-Atlantic terror plot — Gallup, Newsweek, CBS, Zogby, Pew — George W. Bush’s approval rating remains stuck in the 30’s, just as it has been with little letup in the year since Katrina stripped the last remaining fig leaf of credibility from his presidency. While the new Middle East promised by Condi Rice remains a delusion, the death rattle of the domestic political order we’ve lived with since 9/11 can be found everywhere: in Americans’ unhysterical reaction to the terror plot, in politicians’ and pundits’ hysterical overreaction to Joe Lieberman’s defeat in Connecticut, even in the ho-hum box-office reaction to Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.”

I admit I’m surprised by the tepid box office for “World Trade Center,” especially since the reviews have been good. I’d be tempted to see it myself except that I’m afraid it would be a little too intense to watch in theaters. Someday I’ll watch it on television. Rich says that the film is doing better in the Northeast than the rest of the country, which surprised me, also. I guess all those Heartlanders who snapped up T-shirts picturing weepy eagles and flaming towers, and the country music fans who made “Have You Forgotten?” a big hit as we prepared to invade Iraq — have moved on.

If, indeed, they were ever there. I’ve believed all along that 9/11 represented something very different to many who watched on television than to those who were eyewitnesses and survivors. George Lakoff speaks to that a little bit in the Talking Dog interview:

There is a difference between imagery of someone who watches from afar, and the reality of someone who was actually there. The way the picture was shown, the buildings were hit, like a person being hit. The image would permit one to identify with the building– as if it were you. This has to do with mirror neurons: in our brains, there is a system of neurons that fire when you are either doing something physically or seeing another do the same thing. Seeing the plane hit the tower over and over on tv is as if you were seeing someone in shot, over and over again.

Lakoff elaborated in a paper he wrote just a week after September 11.

Buildings are metaphorically people. We see features—eyes, nose, and mouth—in their windows. I now realize that the image of the plane going into South Tower was for me an image of a bullet going through someone’s head, the flame pouring from the other side blood spurting out. It was an assassination. The tower falling was a body falling. The bodies falling were me, relatives, friends. Strangers who had smiled as they had passed me on the street screamed as they fell past me. The image afterward was hell: ash, smoke, and steam rising, the building skeleton, darkness, suffering, death.

It was different for me, because when I think of that day I remember watching through a window as the towers burned and collapsed. And they weren’t metaphorical buildings to me. I had walked through the mall levels where the shops and restaurants were many times. The towers were part of my ordinary workday landscape. I didn’t see the planes hit the buildings that morning, and seeing that imagery on television later didn’t hit me as hard as the collapse of the towers did.

As the Talking Dog says of the destruction of the towers, “people who DID NOT experience it personally actually have a harder time dealing with it than people who did.” I’ve heard other New Yorkers say the same thing. I believe that is true. That may be because, for New Yorkers, our whole environment changed. For days, weeks, months after, the city all around us was coping with September 11. For us, it wasn’t something that happened inside a little box in our living rooms. I think because of that direct and personal experience we had to face what had happened and deal with it in a direct and personal way. Television viewers could indulge in feeling outraged and victimized; survivors and eyewitnesses, on the whole, were overwhelmed with other emotions.

Lakoff continues,

The administration’s framings and reframings and its search for metaphors should be noted. The initial framing was as a “crime” with “victims” and “perpetrators” to be “brought to justice” and “punished.” The crime frame entails law, courts, lawyers, trials, sentencing, appeals, and so on. It was hours before “crime” changed to “war” with “casualties,” “enemies,” “military action,” “war powers,” and so on.

Lakoff wrote this just a week after September 11, remember. He caught on to what the Bushies were up to a lot faster than I did.

John Homans describes in the August 21 issue of New York magazine how the Bush Administration appropriated the grief of September 11:

Bush and his administration quickly swooped down to scoop up the largest part of the 9/11 legacy. The justified fear and rage and woundedness and sense of victimhood infantilized our political culture. The daddy state was born, with attendant sky-high approval ratings. And for many, the scale of the provocation seemed to demand similarly spectacular responses—a specious tactical argument, based as it was on the emotional power of 9/11, rather than any rearrangement of strategic realities.

Of course, the marriage of the ultimate baby-down-a-well media spectacle with good old American foreign-policy adventurism was brokered by Karl Rove, who decreed that George Bush would become a war president, indefinitely.

The final military takeover of Manhattan was the Republican convention in August of 2004, with nary an unscripted moment. In the convention’s terms, New York was less a place than a stage set for a sort of 9/11 puppet show.

Both Lakoff and Homans say that the nation became infantilized by September 11. Homans writes:

The memory of 9/11 continues to stoke a weepy sense of American victimhood, and victimhood, as used by both left and right, is a powerful political force. As the dog whisperer can tell you, strength and woundedness together are a dangerous combination. Now, 9/11 has allowed American victim politics to be writ larger than ever, across the globe. When someone from Tulsa, for example, says, “It’s important to remember 9/11 every day,” what he means is, “We were attacked, we are the aggrieved victims, we are justified.” But if we were victims then, we are less so now. This distorted sense of American weakness is weirdly mirrored in the woundedness and shame that motivate our adversaries. In our current tragicomedy of Daddy-knows-best, it’s a national neurosis, a perpetual childhood. (With its 9/11 truth-conspiracy theories, the far left has its own infantile daddy complex, except in that version, the daddies are the source of all evil.) No doubt, there are real enemies, Islamist and otherwise, more than ever (although the cure—the Iraq war—has inarguably made the disease worse). But the spectacular scope of 9/11, its psychic power, continues to distort America’s relationships. It will take years for the country to again understand its place in the world.

But if Frank Rich is right, maybe the psychic power is wearing off. This is good news, but to me it’s also a little sad. It was an extraordinary event, and it deserves to be remembered. They’re still finding bone fragments of the victims, for pete’s sake. And I worry that Americans are moving on not because the memory has faded, but because they’ve come to associate September 11 with the Bush Administration and all its shams and lies and deceits. And maybe people who over-indulged in victimhood don’t want to think about September 11 now, like someone overstuffed on Thanksgiving dinner who doesn’t want to even hear about roast turkey for several days.

Homans writes that for New Yorkers, September 11 is “a bond, a secret society, a thought world entered if not exactly happily, then without fear.” However, “The country, perhaps inevitably, has made a mess of our grieving.” I know how he feels. But this to me is a reflection on the hideous caricature of “leadership” provided by the White House. For five years the Bushies have worked mightily to bring out the worst in America. And they’ve done a heck of a job.

Just a week after September 11, Lakoff foresaw how the Right would react:

The use of the word “evil” in the administration’s discourse works in the following way. In conservative, strict father morality (see Moral Politics, Chapter 5) evil is a palpable thing, a force in the world. To stand up to evil you have to be morally strong. If you’re weak, you let evil triumph, so that weakness is a form of evil in itself, as is promoting weakness. Evil is inherent, an essential trait, that determines how you will act in the world. Evil people do evil things. No further explanation is necessary. There can be no social causes of evil, no religious rationale for evil, no reasons or arguments for evil.

Rightie refusal even to consider what caused Osama bin Laden and his followers to attack America is, IMO, pathological. As I explained here and here, to understand is not to justify. There is no virtue or advantage to remaining ignorant of our enemy’s motivations. But try explaining that to a rightie.

I agree with Lakoff also about how righties understand evil; I said about the same thing here. Righties judge whether an act is evil by who does it, not by the act itself.

Lakoff continues,

The enemy of evil is good. If our enemy is evil, we are inherently good. Good is our essential nature and what we do in the battle against evil is good. Good and evil are locked in a battle, which is conceptualized metaphorically as a physical fight in which the stronger wins. Only superior strength can defeat evil, and only a show of strength can keep evil at bay. Not to show overwhelming strength is immoral, since it will induce evildoers to perform more evil deeds because they’ll think they can get away with it. To oppose a show of superior strength is therefore immoral. Nothing is more important than the battle of good against evil, and if some innocent noncombatants get in the way and get hurt, it is a shame, but it is to be expected and nothing can be done about it. Indeed, performing lesser evils in the name of good is justified—”lesser” evils like curtailing individual liberties, sanctioning political assassinations, overthrowing governments, torture, hiring criminals, and “collateral damage.”

Of course, there’s also the cowardice factor. This past week (see Tbogg for details) rightie bloggers actually worked themselves into a lather over a couple of ladies with suspicious substances — which turned out to be Vaseline and facial scrub — on airplanes. It was way pathetic.

But Frank Rich says that, for most Americans, the thrill is gone.

The administration’s constant refrain that Iraq is the “central front” in the war on terror is not only false but has now also backfired politically: only 9 percent in the CBS poll felt that our involvement in Iraq was helping decrease terrorism. As its fifth anniversary arrives, 9/11 itself has been dwarfed by the mayhem in Iraq, where more civilians are now killed per month than died in the attack on America. The box-office returns of “World Trade Center” are a cultural sign of just how much America has moved on. For all the debate about whether it was “too soon” for such a Hollywood movie, it did better in the Northeast, where such concerns were most prevalent, than in the rest of the country, where, like “United 93,” it may have arrived too late. Despite wild acclaim from conservatives and an accompanying e-mail campaign, “World Trade Center” couldn’t outdraw “Step Up,” a teen romance starring a former Abercrombie & Fitch model and playing on 500 fewer screens.

Come to think of it, I’d rather watch a dancing Abercrombie & Fitch model than Nicolas Cage in fireman’s clothes, too.

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