by Cynthia Hasz
American Reporter Correspondent
San Diego, Calif.
September 9, 2002
IN DEFENSE OF AN AGGRESSIVE AMERICA
SAN DIEGO -- "These are times that try men's souls," wrote Thomas Paine in the Crisis Papers of 1776. Those words were written long before jet airplanes, and oil and Huntington's famous "clash of civilizations," before the Twin Towers were even a gleam in a young republic's eye.
It will likewise be noted by historians hundreds of years from now that September 11, 2001, marked another tectonic shift in the collective soul.
Instead of simply postmodern, America has become "post-Manhattan." The paradoxical consciousness welded at ground zero is at the same time wiser and more vulnerable. Insecure but less conflicted. More grim but less ironic. A nation painfully awakened to the shadowy perils of world dominance. We are somnolent no longer. America is not immune to attack. Our parents' generation knew that and now we've been reminded. The idyllic, "superpower daze" that has functioned like a placental barrier reef for decades has been shattered. Our young men and women do not have to travel to the shores of Tripoli to fight and die, Tripoli has come to us.
"They," whoever they are, will come here and kill us. September 11 was an eviction from the garden of naivete and back into the ugly world of realpolitik.
The good news is that we are still here. Despite the apocalyptic pronouncements of the bin Laden's of the world about Judgment Day for American infidels, our banner yet waves.
No mushroom clouds have exploded over our cities, no chemical or biological warfare has been unleashed on our children. Whether due to improved intelligence or as Bill Gertz of the Washington Times asserts, in spite of it, the "Sum of All Fears" was just another summer movie.
As the anniversary of 9/11 rolls around, there seems to be a rising level of cynicism. For some journalists and literati, it's become imperative to sneer at the inevitable swell of emotion and patriotism that accompanies this anniversary. In some circles, indeed, there is unmistakable "9/11 fatigue."
Impatience with prolonged mourning is not unusual. The heartfelt sentimentality of mourning rites can be embarrassing, if not tedious, to those not directly affected by the loss.
Cynics invariably are in denial about suffering. They wish to arrest the great mythic beating of the wounded American heart.
Some have gone further in their condemnation. Many of those voices are European, like French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, who wrote in an article in Le Monde that "Ultimately, terrorists did the deed, but it is we who wanted it... terrorism is immoral and it responds to a globalization that is itself immoral."
America as provocateur? It seems like the philosophy of moral equivalence is as ubiquitous as the West Nile virus these days. In fairness I must mention that Baudrillard's piece was denounced by another Frenchman, Alain Minc, in the same publication, saying that such a callous position reflects "the French intelligentsia's traditional inability to recognize that a hierarchy of values exists."
Similar indictments come from diverse sources in our own country, such as contributors to "The Nation," and fundamentalist think tanks of the Christian right, revealing more similarities in their rigid dogmatisms than either would care to admit.
We can be certain of one thing: people who say these things did not lose loved ones in that crematorium of cement and steel. They do not know the savage jaws of grief. They do not lay awake in the tedious, small hours missing sons and daughters; husbands, fathers and mothers.
Few spoke thusly while the country was still hemorrhaging in the days and weeks immediately after 9/11. But as the shock wore off, the rhetoric of American deconstructionists became bolder, subjecting us to their vapid, pedantic wisdom with irritating regularity.
They waited until the healing process had started before taking their shots. And that may just be the point; we are in fact healing to be able to pick at our wounds.
But for many of us, 9/11 gave us the permission to slough off irony like dead skin.
The attacks crystallized the fact that being American is not about being perfect. Americanism is a work in progress. There is no argument that America has a darker side and a comic side that are often related. But despite our imperfections, we are neither the bogeyman nor the perennial clowns that many in the Third World and our European allies increasingly love to hate.
The fact that America has her shadows and ambiguities does not belie the fact that she also bears great illumination to the world from her funamental documents, from her people, and from her unbreakable spirit.
This past year has been especially shadowed. From pedophile priests to stockmarket swindles, we've watched as our society as well as our 401K's fall apart - all without the help of terrorists, Arab or otherwise.
We seem mired not just in darkness but in what may be more anathema to our national self-image: helplessness. Perhaps the American version of the original sin. Hence litanies of impotence abound:
Our light is often eclipsed by the darker side, yet we as a people and nation remain stubbornly defined and illuminated by our ideals. Our European friends think that is obnoxious - especially when it comes to our newly muscular foreign policy towards the "axis of evil."
Our perceived unilateralism and nation-state resistance to international law are bound to be what Francis Fukuyama calls "highly neuralgic" to the more highly polished members of Western civilization. He cites Robert Kagan in his recent article in Policy Review.
"It is the Europeans who believe they are living at the end of history, that is, in a largely peaceful world that to an increasing degree can be governed by law, norms, and international agreements," Kagan points out. "In this world, power politics have become obsolete. Americans, by contrast, think they are still living in history, and need to use traditional power-political means to deal with threats from al-Qaida, and other malign forces.
"According to Kagan, the Europeans are half-right: they have indeed created an end-of-history world for themselves within the European Union, where sovereignty gives way to supranational organization. What they don't understand, however, is that peace and safety of their European bubble is guaranteed ultimately by American military power. Absent that, they themselves would be dragged backwards into history."
Andrew Sullivan, in the Sunday Times of London, agrees. "If Europeans believe that the new threat to world peace can be palliated by subsidy, diplomacy or appeasement or surrender, they are simply mistake their elysian state of affairs for the Hobbesian world outside their borders." Our critics, foreign and domestic, will try to reduce us to ridiculous, pathetic caricatures, but regardless of even the longest shadows of American life, the fact is that unlike national identities based on religion, culture, race or ethnicity, our "Americanness" is irreducible.
Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset has coined an apt phrase to describe the American self-image: "exceptionalism." He says that " America is consistently more anti-statist, individualistic, laissez-faire and egalitarian than other democracies."
This exceptional Americanness means we are the whole damn, mixed-up, multidimensional collage. That very complexity is our pedigree and even our glory and we've remembered that with a vengeance post-Manhattan.
As bones, flesh and steel were being vaporized in New York City, our national pride was resurrected forcefully from a thirty-year exile in the jungles of Indo-China. Exhumed from the paralysis of guilt and shocked out of our compulsive irony, Americans gave themselves a standing ovation in the weeks that followed and are continuing to stand unapologetic in defense of freedom.
V.S. Naipaul celebrates Western culture as "alert, many featured and ever-changing; it's writers and philosophers respond to complexity by continually seeking to alter and extend sensibility; no art or attitude stands still."
Vital, complex and adaptable: a better portrait of post-Manhattan America cannot be found.
America is not any simplistic snapshot, not just corporations or governments run by rich, white males - regardless of what Michael Moore thinks. We are firefighters and policemen, nurses and housekeepers, just as we are Wall Street bankers and Silicon Valley techno-geeks. We are divorced women entrepreneurs and single mothers, farm and factory workers, students, stay-at-home Moms and Dads, the elderly languishing forgotten in old age homes.
What we are not is paralyzed by a jaundiced, ironic sense of ourselves. Such a guilt-ridden limpness does not wear well in the American psyche. "Irony is simply not the sign of a great nation," wrote Michael Kinsley in a pre 9/11 commentary, "it is the sign of nations in decline."
Americans for the most part are far too romantic and far too earnest about our lives to put up with more than token existential nonsense. Immigrants are funny that way. Sheer survival makes the seductive labyrinths of self-doubt a non-option.
Thomas Mann once wrote, "When irony is not employed as an honest device of classical rhetoric, the purpose of which no healthy mind can doubt for a moment, it becomes a source of depravity, barrier to civilization, a squalid flirtation with inertia, nihilism and vice."
Americans can always find time for squalid flirtations with vice, but we cannot afford such dalliances with inertia.
Catatonic indulgence has a highly valued place in the philosophical dissections indigenous to latte man, but it is not conducive to unambiguous action in the world. Like it or not, unambiguous action in a post-post-modern world is what we've come full circle to.
This is not your father's Cold War. This is a hot-blooded war over human freedom - freedom to worship or not to worship, freedom of religion and from religion; freedom for women and children; for music, the arts, and for the full expression of human dignity, responsibility and creativity.
It is a self-induced psychosis to imagine that the modern peoples of the West have anything substantial in common with the cultural kamikazes of Islamic Jihad. Legitimate consensus is one thing, but the pathological need to be liked and pandering to the part of the world that suffers from incurable freedom-envy is quite another. If the first task of leadership is defining reality, let's get on with it.
What would be inexcusable is to look back a decade later and wonder why we lacked the foresight, tenacity and resolve to prevent the curtain from ever rising on the final scenario of militant fundamentalism.
Cynthia Hasz is a free-lance writer living in San Diego, California. Richard LeCuyer contributed to this article.