Monday, September 12, 2005

"A troublingly belligerent idealization of historical ignorance"

It's thirdhand wisdom and a couple of days late for the 9/11 anniversary, but it's wisdom all the same.

Normon Solomon quoting Joan Didion on the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when intelligent discussion gave way to something else over the course of a couple of weeks.
In the wake of 9/11, [Didion] later wrote, "these people to whom I was listening – in San Francisco and Los Angeles and Portland and Seattle – were making connections I had not yet in my numbed condition thought to make: connections between [the American] political process and what had happened on Sept. 11, connections between our political life and the shape our reaction would take and was in fact already taking. These people recognized that even then, within days after the planes hit, there was a good deal of opportunistic ground being seized under cover of the clearly urgent need for increased security. These people recognized even then, with flames still visible in lower Manhattan, that the words 'bipartisanship' and 'national unity' had come to mean acquiescence to the administration's preexisting agenda…."

A lot of media coverage was glorifying people who died and/or showed courage on Sept. 11, 2001. "In fact," Didion contended, "it was in the reflexive repetition of the word 'hero' that we began to hear what would become in the year that followed an entrenched preference for ignoring the meaning of the event in favor of an impenetrably flattening celebration of its victims, and a troublingly belligerent idealization of historical ignorance."
Although Solomon doesn't cite the Didion work he's quoting, it's Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History (note: a New York Review of Books subscription is required). There's much more in this piece that's interesting. It's an article from January 2003 based on a lecture from November 2002, and as such it' s old news, but important to consider because it takes a cold hard look at how the intelligentsia, such as it is/was in this country, got sucked into Bush's vision thing and forgot, for a few critical YEARS, our history, in fact forgot (or refused to recall) what history was.
California Monthly, the alumni magazine for the University of California at Berkeley, published in its November 2002 issue an interview with a member of the university's political science faculty, Steven Weber, who is the director of the MacArthur Program on Multilateral Governance at Berkeley's Institute of International Studies and a consultant on risk analysis to both the State Department and such private- sector firms as Shell Oil. It so happened that Mr. Weber was in New York on September 11, 2001, and for the week that followed. "I spent a lot of time talking to people, watching what they were doing, and listening to what they were saying to each other," he told the interviewer:
The first thing you noticed was in the bookstores. On September 12, the shelves were emptied of books on Islam, on American foreign policy, on Iraq, on Afghanistan. There was a substantive discussion about what it is about the nature of the American presence in the world that created a situation in which movements like al-Qaeda can thrive and prosper. I thought that was a very promising sign.
But that discussion got short-circuited. Sometime in late October, early November 2001, the tone of that discussion switched, and it became: What's wrong with the Islamic world that it failed to produce democracy, science, education, its own enlightenment, and created societies that breed terror?"

The interviewer asked him what he thought had changed the discussion. "I don't know," he said, "but I will say that it's a long-term failure of the political leadership, the intelligentsia, and the media in this country that we didn't take the discussion that was forming in late September and try to move it forward in a constructive way."

I was struck by this, since it so coincided with my own impression. Most of us saw that discussion short-circuited, and most of us have some sense of how and why it became a discussion with nowhere to go. One reason, among others, runs back sixty years, through every administration since Franklin Roosevelt's. Roosevelt was the first American president who tried to grapple with the problems inherent in securing Palestine as a Jewish state. It was also Roosevelt who laid the groundwork for our relationship with the Saudis. There was an inherent contradiction here, and it was Roosevelt, perhaps the most adroit political animal ever made, who instinctively devised the approach adopted by the administrations that followed his: Stall. Keep the options open. Make certain promises in public, and conflicting ones in private. This was always a high-risk business, and for a while the rewards seemed commensurate: we got the oil for helping the Saudis, we got the moral credit for helping the Israelis, and, for helping both, we enjoyed the continuing business that accrued to an American defense industry significantly based on arming all sides.

Consider the range of possibilities for contradiction.

For those with NYROB subscriptions, read on...

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