On the matter of “getting over” 9.11, what would it take to “see oursels as ithers see us,” in Robert Burns’ prayer? Yesterday we spoke with the writer Pico Iyer. I think of him as our eyes and ears on the global culture. He had Indian parents, an English boyhood, American university education and now citizenship; he’s married to a Japanese woman, and his home base now is rural Japan, but his career is traveling to the far places – Somalia, Iran, Latin America on recent assignments. We put the question to him: How are we Americans looking to the rest of the world in this long post-traumatic time?
September 11, 2006
We seek out historians to reveal the present, not the past. We want to find a doctor who’s seen our symptoms before… on the general suspicion, from Ecclesiastes, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Or as Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus said, because history is “the nightmare from which we are trying to awaken.” Also: because so much of the daily news — of mad military overstretch abroad and commercial and cultural decadence at home — feels like the late-imperial lurch that our own Founding Fathers warned us about and that contemporary historians say is here. (Historian Niall Ferguson — only recently an empire enthusiast — has “The Descent of The West,” in the subtitle of his new doomsday book, The War of the World.)
We will have at the grand historial scheme of things (“Where the hell are we?” and “How did we get here?”) with Simon Schama, historian of the Dutch and British Empires and the most thrilling English-language talker since Churchill; and with Sean Wilentz, a preeminent historian of American 18th and 19th Century democracy who, in Philip Roth’s glowing estimate, “redeems the time he writes about without sentimentality or cynicism and with a deep understanding of every last detail of the American political tradition.”
We want them to play the counter-factual (what if?) game (as Roth did in The Plot Against America, the novel in which the isolationist hero Charles Lindbergh unseated Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, to keep the US out of the war in Europe.) What if Al Gore had been elected in 2000? What if Abraham Lincoln had been president when Al Qaeda struck America? What if Tony Blair had leapt out of the Bush lap before the invasion of Iraq? What if the Bush administration had by now dragged us oil addicts into a tough detox program and led an agonizing recalibration of our role in the world? What if Osama bin Laden had been captured by a concerted police effort in 2002 and been tried and convicted at the Hague in 2003?
Please fire up the conversation with yet more pointed, or more philosophical, what ifs…
And above all, on the day after this fifth birthday of 9/11, help us locate this uneasy moment, this “long war,” as the Pentagon calls it, in a longer story. We live life forward, as Kierkegaard said, but what if it can only be understood backward?
September 8, 2006
We watched the New Year coming in around the world, the mass hysteria of no significance that was the millennial New Year’s Eve celebration. Brilliance flaring across the time zones, and none ignited by bin Laden. Light whirling over nighttime London more spectacular than anything since the splendors of colored smoke billowed up from the Blitz. And the Eiffel Tower shooting fire, a facsimile flame-throwing weapon such as Wernher von Braun might have designed for Hitler’s annihilating arsenal-the historical missile of missiles, the rocket of rockets, the bomb of bombs, with ancient Paris the launching pad and the whole of humanity the target. All evening long, on networks everywhere, the mockery of the Armageddon that we’d been awaiting in our backyard shelters since August 6, 1945. How could it not happen? Even on that very night, especially on that night, people anticipating the worst as though the evening were one long air-raid drill. The wait for the chain of horrendous Hiroshimas to link in synchronized destruction the abiding civilizations of the world. It’s now or never. And it never came.
Philip Roth,The Dying Animal
Phillip Roth’s portrayal of the Y2K hysteria, which held our nation hostage, is a remarkable foreshadowing of the culture of fear that we live in today. As soon as we survive an Anthrax scare, or a mad cow craze, or that kitchen sponge suffused with pestilence, another fear-trend dominates the headlines. It’s impossible to escape and even more impossible to determine what fears are real and what are perceived.
We’re hoping to include voices from the Open Source community, and from other realms of the blogosphere, in this show. If you comment on this thread we’ll consider calling you to record a brief phone conversation, which we’ll play during this broadcast. If you are radio-shy but know someone else whose voice should be heard, please send him/her our way. Thanks.
Robert Jay Lifton
- Psychiatrist Author of several books, including Destroying the World to Save It and Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima
Thanks to Potter for suggesting Mr. Lifton
- Associate Professor of Literature, Duke University Author, Portents of the Real: A Primer for Post-9/11 America
- Conterterroism consultant Contributing Expert, Counterterroism Blog
- Extra Credit Reading
- Station Charon, The Enduring Power of Fear, Station Charon, August 13, 2006, “‘To live in America is to be beset by fear, anxiety and insecurity, to be surrounded by potential harm, enemies and evil intent.'”
Furyious, Politics, Fear, and Creating a Culture of Scaredy Cats, Lots O’ Stuff, September 7, 2006: President Bush has made “fear” and “caution” interchangeable words in our society.
Joseph Carroll, Americans’ Terrorism Worries Five Years After 9/11, Gallup Poll, September 11, 2006.
Matthew B. Stannard, Alerts aid terror goals, study finds, San Francisco Chronicle, September 6, 2006: “‘There are findings suggesting that the administration’s use of the alert system increased inordinately before the election and each time it did, Bush’s numbers went up about 5 percent.'”
Potter suggested: Robert Jay Lifton, Giving Meaning to Survival, The Chronicle Review, September 28, 2001: “The greatest danger in our present situation would be to resort to extreme measures to deny our vulnerability and reassert a sense of superpower invulnerability.”
William M. Arkin, The continuing misuses of fear, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/ October 2006: “A threat that is nightmarish and enduring and can neither be proved nor disproved is a powerful lubricant.”