Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/11 vs. National Renewal
Maybe it's my general bleak mood these days--informed by the Phillies, the election, and my evidently stalled career, not necessarily or consistently in that order--but I found this piece in today's Times incredibly moving:

And in the seventh year after the fall, the dust and debris of the towers cleared. And it became plain at last what had been wrought.
[A]round the whole earth, which had stood with America, there arose a great trouble, for it seemed to peoples abroad that a great nation, rich in flocks and herds and land and water, had been cast among thorns and Philistines; its promise betrayed, its light dimmed, its armies stretched, its budget broken, its principles compromised, its dollar diminished.

And it came to pass that this profligate nation, drinking oil with insatiable thirst, could not cure itself of this addiction, and so its wealth was transferred to other nations that did not always wish it well.

Wherefore the balance of power in the world was altered in grievous ways, and new centers of authority arose, and they were no more persuaded by democracy than was the Pharaoh.

For Bush ruled over the whole nation, and so sure was he of his righteousness that he did neglect the costs of wanton consumption. And he believed that if the Lord created fossil fuel, fossil fuel must flow without end, as surely as the grape will yield wine.
Behold, so it was in the seventh year, and it seemed that America was doubly smitten, from without and within.

And, lo, a strange thing did come to pass. For as surely as the seasons do alternate, so the ruler and party that have brought woe to a nation must give way to others who can lead their people to plenty. How can the weary, flogged ass bear honey and balm and almonds and myrrh?

Yet many Americans believed the exhausted beast could still provide bounty. They did hold that a people called the French was to blame. They did accuse a creation called the United Nations. They did curse the ungodly sophisticates of Gotham and Hollywood and sinful Chicago; and, lo, they proclaimed God was on their side, and carried a gun, and Darwin was bunk, and truth resided in Alaska.

As literary exercise or polemical, I think this is really superb. But what Cohen doesn't get to (probably can't, in this context) is the very fact that 9/11 itself distorted the country's outlook, indeed somewhat deranged it--and that this derangement arguably has continued to the point that it's now an enduring, maybe permanent, part of our national character.

The country seems incapable of thinking clearly about anything. The campaign this year has disappointed me more than any I can remember--not primarily because of the advantage the Democrats seem to have squandered (though I'm certainly upset about that), but because six months ago it really was possible to argue, as the Economist did, that Obama and McCain represented "America at its best," and this campaign has shown us at our banal, mindless worst.

It would be easy to blame this on McCain's embrace of Rovian tactics and personnel, and the utterly cynical selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. (Matt Damon, of all people, has this exactly right--he calls it a bad Disney movie, while I thought of it as a hackneyed reality show plot.) And indeed, it's beyond laughable to position a campaign run by lobbyists with a vice-presidential nominee who could fairly be called the Queen of Pork as some kind of good-government reform crusade.

But Obama isn't blameless either. One of the charges made against him by some of the more thoughtful voices on the right is that he's never taken a politically risky position against his own party or its key interest groups. This strikes me as a fair criticism; the bravest thing he did that I can think of--going to the National Education Association and pledging to support merit pay for educators--didn't cost him the group's endorsement, and it's not a major part of Obama's campaign platform. More broadly, his skills as an orator seem to obscure a disturbing lack of substantial difference from any of the last three Democratic standard-bearers.

Seven years after 9/11, we're right back to tribalism and reptile-brain politics--which doesn't bode well for the sober, informed consideration of the key issues necessary for the democratic process of self-renewal to work. I think it's now fair to ask if this is a permanent condition.


Feral said...

Good for Damon. Just 'cause you love fame and fortune doesn't mean you're (always) an idiot. The kid did go to Harvard. Not for, you know, as long as most others, but getting in is the hard part anyways...

Don't be too cynical about the derangement being permanent. An unexpected crisis led to some bad decisions and a wrongful path, but you can’t recover from something like that overnight. I think the country is in the process of self-correcting, and the strategy and Hail-Mary trickery of a party on the decline (possibly for decades) is not a strong indicator of the political mood in general. As was pointed out in Gail Collins’ Op-Ed column in the Times recently, the panic of the candidates being “neck and neck” is a bit of an overreaction (“national” polling not being the best indicator). Obama is not going against his party, because he doesn’t want to rock the boat when he’s got a good shot at holding the middle and getting where he needs to go.

Don’t forget, elections don’t involve people like you or me (especially me); they’re for the undecided dummies who think a redneck hockey-milf is a pleasant change of pace in the Whitehouse and who don’t like the nice “urban” fellow to get out of line too much. Once we successfully trick them into doing the right thing, we’ll be on our way to fixing the legacy of the retarded cowboy era.

Side Note: Did you see the CNN piece about Palin’s teleprompter during her acceptance speech? You can see in some shots that the word “nuclear” in the transcript is spelled “new-clear”. They also showed an old speech by her where she pronounces it “nucular”. So see, even the republicans are making an effort to correct the mistakes of the past…

David said...

I watched both her first speech on Friday after being named ("nu-kyu-ler)and her convention speech (nu-KLEE-ur). The first one almost sent *me* into permanent derangement.

Between Palin's evidently awful performance on TV last night (didn't see it, was playing cards), Obama's newly declared "take it to 'em" strategy and the Phillies beating Ben Sheets, I do feel slightly better today.