On September 11, a colleague of mine rang Henry Kissinger to ask if he’d write something for the op-ed page of Sunday’s paper. On the Thursday, my friend called him back just to be sure he was still doing the piece. “Ah,” the good Doctor growled dryly, “so this story has not been superseded?”
Kissinger makes a good point, though not just about the news media. The urge to (in the dread Clintonian phrase) “move on” is the natural condition of our culture. If anything, the news operations tend to be a little behind the curve. When so many people watching TV that morning said it was “like a movie” — like Independence Day
— I began to get nervous. Not because it wasn’t like Independence Day, but because the defining characteristic of those movies is not the “money shot” of the atomized White House or any of the other special effects but the fact that they’re huge, boffo, smash, record-breaking mega-blockbusters for three weeks and then utterly forgotten. Movie’s over. What’s next?
Is something similar happening here? On September 22, the Miss America pageant went ahead as scheduled. If ever there was an event ripe for a bit of star-spangled symbolism, Old Glory wrapped around the flower of American maidenhood, this was it. The host, Tony Danza, began by justifying the decision. “We don’t carry on to make less of what happened, we carry on to make more,” he said. One of the producers had explained beforehand that they’d had to make a lot of changes — as a result, it would be “more of a USO show.”
I wish. The urge to “move on” was almost palpable. When Danza asked one contestant what she liked about Manhattan, she replied cheerily, “More than any other city I’ve ever visited, it’s just so full of life!” I wouldn’t have minded if this had been delivered as an infelicitous cry of defiance, but instead its blank-eyed perky ingenuousness all but advertised the fact that the young lady had entirely forgotten the slaughter of ten days earlier. Instead of awkward, clunky, heartfelt patriotism, the whole event was suffused with an awkward, clunky, desperate embarrassment at even having to acknowledge what had happened.
What would a 2001 USO show look like? There was a report that Bob Hope is eager to stage a special benefit. Bob is 98, just back from the hospital and recuperating from pneumonia, but he may be the only guy in Hollywood who’s not uncomfortable with uncomplicated flag-waving. Sixty years ago, the radio shows were full of lame gags about the Yanks putting ants in the Emperor’s Japants. On the comic-book covers, Batman and Superman forgot about the Joker and the Penguin and took on Nazi spies. Can anyone imagine popular culture conscripting itself in similar fashion today? The forces we are up against and the governments that shelter them are Neanderthal, racist, misogynist, homophobic, fundamentalist, and an affront to democracy. They sound, in other words, like a typical Republican candidate-and yet for once the cultural Left won’t hear a word against them, for fear of giving even hypothetical offense.
Indeed, there’s a reluctance to admit there’s any “enemy” at all. It was not a good sign when New York City decided to entrust its special prayer service at Yankee Stadium to Oprah, and it would have been too much to expect Oprah to forgo Oprahfying. “May we leave this place,” she concluded, “determined to now use every moment that we yet live to turn up the volume in our own lives, to create deeper meaning, to know what really matters. What really matters is who you love and how you love.”
Not right now, Oprah. What really matters is who we get to Afghanistan and what they do once they’re there. Oprah’s line isn’t pacifist. Pacifism in the honorable sense is Mahatma Gandhi, a determined nonviolence that bent a mighty empire to its will. What’s happening now is not pacifism but passivism-a terrible inertia filled with feel-good platitudes that absolve us from action, or even feeling. It was thus inevitable that an all-network, all-star telethon should have featured John Lennon’s anthem for fluffy nihilists:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today . . .
You may say he’s a dreamer, but he’s not. A couple of years ago, it emerged that Lennon was a very generous contributor not just to organizations that support and fund the IRA, but to the IRA itself. He could “imagine there’s no countries” and “nothing to kill or die for,” but until that blessed day he was quite happy to support an organization that blows up people in shopping centers and railway stations. It’s heartening to know that, though he grew rich peddling illusory pap to the masses, he didn’t fall for it himself.
Robert Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times summed it up better than he knew: “The rock ‘n’ roll descendants of blues and folk artists, who would have been excluded from earlier prime-time showcases as voices of rebellion, have become the ones the country turns to as voices of unity. The defining moment during a national World War II radio benefit: Bing Crosby singing Irving Berlin. There was still a place for Berlin on Friday, as Celine Dion sang ‘God Bless America.’ But the telethon’s central moments involved rock artists, including Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Neil Young, who drew upon the music and/or spirit of Bob Dylan and John Lennon.”
These are the words Celine sang:
God bless America,
Land that I love.
Berlin wrote those lines sincerely and without embarrassment: He said it simplest and he said it best. He was a Jew and he endured slights. When he married a society girl, Ellin Mackay, she was dropped from the Social Register. When Ellin’s sister took up with a Nazi diplomat in New York and went around sporting a diamond swastika, she suffered no such social disapproval. Nonetheless, through that and a thousand other idiocies, Berlin remembered the alternative-being a child in Temun, Siberia, when the Cossacks rode in and razed his village, sending his parents scuttling west. About his adopted land, he had no doubts. And, if John Lennon and U2 are now the “voices of unity,” it’s worth asking: Unity for what? “God Bless America” is a song to go to war to. Is “Imagine”?
Being a member of an NGO (non-governmental organization, as they call them at U.N. conferences), Osama bin Laden can easily “imagine there’s no countries”: He’s been doing it for some time. By contrast, the distinguishing characteristic of people who stand around holding candles and singing John Lennon seems to be a colossal failure of imagination. When some bozo guns down his schoolyard, the day generally ends with him dead or in custody. The vast squadrons of grief counselors who descend on the joint faster than the local SWAT team and start drooling about “healing” and “closure” do have a point to this extent: The event is over, there is something to “close.” But you can’t begin “healing” until the guys have stopped firing. And in this case they haven’t. This isn’t Independence Day. It’s not a movie. It’s an old-fashioned radio serial, with cliffhanger endings week after week after week. Whoever is responsible for September 11 already has well-advanced plans for the next atrocity — probably nothing to do with planes; maybe a gas line, maybe just a shopping mall in some town you’ve never heard of. A terrorist is an opportunistic warrior. If he can kill the president, he will. But if he can’t, he’ll kill you. Imagine that.
So we need something a little more robust than the soothing drone of Lennon and Oprah. We need people willing to speak truth to evil. Saying you love everyone in general is like saying you love no one in particular. It’s like being told “Gee, that was really special” by a hooker.
Here is my worry: At one end of the national spectrum are the anti-American elite, the Edward Saids and John Lahrs secure in their redoubts. At the other end are the great full-throated “These colors don’t run” patriots. But in between is a big wobbly blurry mass trembling on the brink of making this just another wallow in victimization-the “dominant discourse” (as Said would say) of the day. Five years ago, Bob Dole wondered, “Where’s the outrage?” Three years ago, Bill Bennett wrote a book called The Death of Outrage. In Europe, the ferociously anti-American Left is plenty outraged — it is raw, visceral, passionate, and none the worse for that. If we can’t get outraged-not sad, not weepy, not candle-in-the-windy, but outraged — over thousands of people killed for no other reason than that they went to work, then we’re really in trouble. If cultural passivity — love the world, be non-judgmental, everybody does it — co-opts even this awesome event, then the sleeping giant isn’t sleeping so much as comatose.