Just one day over a decade ago, 9/11 changed everything. It did. But we got through it, because after all are we not Americans — that’s what we do, “get through” a constant sewage stream of economic and moral disasters. It was 10 years ago. Certain authors remember it well. “9/11,” they say, sitting down to tap out think pieces about that fateful day, “I remember it well. It changed everything. But is not America still, after all, America?” Let’s skim through some of these poignant “remembering 9/11” columns and incisive “how has this horrible decade affected Things on Earth?” essays, and compare and contrast, as a terrible beauty is born.
The New Yorker, apparently, isn’t about to let slip its record of epic 9/11 bathos. Remember Adam Gopnik’s “smoked mozzarella”?
Or Jonathan Franzen’s “deep grief for the loss of daily life” and his yearning for the bygone days of “hourly AOL updates on J. Lo’s doings”? [Editor’s note: No, nobody remembers these things.]
For the special tenth anniversary, the New Yorker had Zadie Smith cobble together an “aren’t we all a little guilty?” meditation:
[T]his whole, unlovely decade, which started downtown, and made us all monstrous, me as much as anybody. I was for the war, at first. Later, I was pleased when President Obama promised to commit more troops to Afghanistan, not because I thought it would end that war but because I hoped it would win him the election. I sat at dinner parties and felt envious of people who had not supported the war, as if whether or not a lot of armchair intellectuals did or did not support a war was what the war was actually about.
9/11 made monsters of us all, and we looked silly at dinner parties. And everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.
Zadie Smith is clearly a smart and self-aware person, but even with her qualifying last clause one can’t help but feel that the envy of “armchair intellectuals” (who types in an armchair?) for their opinions on real life slaughter and mayhem is missing the point somewhat. More precisely: bringing this up in a column, and using it as your main example of 9/11-inspired monstrousness, is upper-middle-brow cluelessness at its best. But this is the New Yorker, after all (and don’t get one wrong; one likes long-dead New Yorker writers like Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling, and even now there’s the occasional terrific report, and Anthony Lane’s movie reviews are wondrous). [Editor’s Note: And David Denby eats cat poop off his Android phone, because he misunderstood the concept of a novelty app.]
In the rest of the piece, Smith ticks all the appropriate boxes: “everything had changed”; but then again maybe not, because Jews and Christians are peacefully co-existing in New York City (evidence: papier-mâché Stars of David and crosses hung side-by-side at Christmastime); MLK’s most optimistic and least prophetic line (he wasn’t a 9/11 dinner party monster, Smith says); and finally a snappy rhyming quotation from Frederick Seidel, the poet laureate of well-heeled, educated Manhattanites who don’t read poetry. “What joy to eat the unborn,” he wrote.
There are lots of other “remembering 9/11” pieces in the newest issue of the New Yorker, most of them written by celebrated authors. Jonathan Safran Foer echoes Franzen’s reaction ten years ago by reminding us that the incineration of humans is kind of like a nightmare. This is how unconscious influence works, probably.
Anyway, enough picking on the fussy old New Yorker. What does NEW MEDIA have to say about the recurrence of September 11 every year? What says The Daily Beast, the hawt and cutting-edge savior of Newsweek, about this subject?
In the Beast, Scottish teevee favorite and Star Trek historian Niall Ferguson went the alternative history route in a “what if 9/11 had never happened?” piece. He speculates that the Saudi regime would have collapsed and Osama bin Laden would have taken over Saudi Arabia, causing disaster in the Middle East, due to Arabs:
Replaying the history game without 9/11 suggests that, ironically, the real impact of the attacks was not on Americans but on the homelands of the attackers themselves.
Thank you for not overthrowing the Saudis, 9/11. Disasters were truly averted. Ferguson never mentions what the people of Iraq and Afghanistan might be up to right now had the attacks never happened.
The New York Times gathered a few “liberal hawks” and forced them to speak (“virtually”) at a round table.
One expects these things to be tedious, and indeed most of it is like being trapped in a faculty lounge with the entire Department of Taking Heroic Stands by Writing for the New Republic Studies. But some parts of it are good, like this outburst of David Rieff’s, aimed at the forever-innocent Paul Berman:
BERMAN: We — the United States and its allies- — at least raised the issue of liberal democracy.
RIEFF: Raised the issue? At the price of how many dead, including our own? This is not a high table debate, for God’s sake. Huge numbers of people have killed and been killed because of our decision to stay in Afghanistan after we had toppled the Taliban and our invasion of Iraq. All this to raise the issue of liberal democracy? My God, man!
And one would like to take this sentence of Ian Buruma’s and plaster it across the entrances to every newspaper or magazine office (or blogger batcave) in the land:
You cannot use “fascism,” “Islamism,” or “Communism” as abstractions, without historical context.
This is useful advice. Even Newt Gingrich could learn from it.
Which reminds us of something. Back in the 1930s, when left-wing and liberal intellectuals were calling for armed struggle against fascism in Spain, many of them actually went to Spain to fight. George Orwell, André Malraux, a very young Octavio Paz, and many more. Orwell even got shot in the goddamn neck. Truly hawkish socialist hawks, those men. Put their money where their beaks were.
Anyway. How has this decade of colossal brutality changed you? 500-word personal essay, double-spaced. GO!
(Your Wonkette book person apologizes for inflicting a 9/11-related column on you.)
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