The results are in for the White Houseâ€™s latest effort to exploit terrorism for political gain: the era of Americansâ€™ fearing fear itself is over.
In each poll released since the foiling of the trans-Atlantic terror plot â€” Gallup, Newsweek, CBS, Zogby, Pew â€” George W. Bushâ€™s approval rating remains stuck in the 30â€™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 weâ€™ve lived with since 9/11 can be found everywhere: in Americansâ€™ unhysterical reaction to the terror plot, in politiciansâ€™ and punditsâ€™ hysterical overreaction to Joe Liebermanâ€™s defeat in Connecticut, even in the ho-hum box-office reaction to Oliver Stoneâ€™s â€œWorld Trade Center.â€
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 featuresâ€”eyes, nose, and mouthâ€”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.
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 responsesâ€”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 conventionâ€™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, â€œItâ€™s important to remember 9/11 every day,â€ what he means is, â€œWe were attacked, we are the aggrieved victims, we are justified.â€ 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, itâ€™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 cureâ€”the Iraq warâ€”has inarguably made the disease worse). But the spectacular scope of 9/11, its psychic power, continues to distort Americaâ€™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.
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 justifiedâ€””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 administrationâ€™s constant refrain that Iraq is the â€œcentral frontâ€ 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 â€œWorld Trade Centerâ€ are a cultural sign of just how much America has moved on. For all the debate about whether it was â€œtoo soonâ€ 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 â€œUnited 93,â€ it may have arrived too late. Despite wild acclaim from conservatives and an accompanying e-mail campaign, â€œWorld Trade Centerâ€ couldnâ€™t outdraw â€œStep Up,â€ 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.