Published in the October 15, 2001 issue of The Nation
Dreaming of War
To Imagine That This National Emergency is Good for Us is a Dangerous Mistake
by Ellen Willis
You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to surmise that war has a perverse appeal for the human race, nor is the attraction limited to religious fanatics committing mass murder and suicide for the greater glory of God. Among the so-called civilized it takes many insidious and sublimated forms. In the week after September 11, one of the more disturbing themes to surface in the press was the suggestion that as devastating as this attack has been, something good may come of it: an improvement in the American character or, at any rate, a salutary blow to our purported complacency and self-indulgence.
An editorial in the New York Times opined, "There has been a sense that whatever comes next must naturally be diminished. That need not be true.... Americans desperately want to commit to something greater than themselves. That was the secret of what we admired in the World War II era, and it is what this new war against terrorism will require as well. The awful week of death and destruction that has just ended might be the invitation to create a great new generation and a finer United States." The Financial Times gave us Francis "End of History" Fukuyama: "As with individuals, adversity can have many positive effects. Enduring national character is shaped by shared trauma.... Peace and prosperity, by contrast, encourage preoccupation with one's own petty affairs." Americans have been allowed to "wallow in such self-indulgent behaviour as political scandal or identity politics." (Of course, a terrorist attack by Islamic militants is identity politics carried to its logical extreme, but never mind.)
And then there was New York Times Op-Ed columnist Frank Rich, who concluded that any event with the power to force shark attacks off People's cover can't be all bad: "Not all of what's gone may be a cause for mourning.... This week's nightmare, it's now clear, has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decadelong dream...that we could have it all without having to pay any price, and that national suffering of almost any kind could be domesticated into an experience of virtual terror akin to a theme park ride." Gary Condit, Lizzie Grubman, overblown fears of school shootings, Elián González, the California blackout that wasn't, Survivor, a Hollywood-sanitized Pearl Harbor--all are breathlessly invoked as horrible examples of ersatz catastrophe now swept away by the real cleansing thing. President Bush, Rich declares, must prepare us for sacrifice, "something many living Americans, him included, have never had to muster"--as though that gap in experience were self-evidently to be deplored.
Have we come to this? Purification of our national soul through war? It has a ring to it, all right; an unnervingly familiar ring at that. The authors of these commentaries cannot be accused of war fever, exactly. They are not, after all, among the ranters venting their anger by demanding that we wipe most of the Middle East off the map.They merely hope to use a lemon to make lemonade, as it were. But if that hope resonates with enough people--if Americans are seduced into going for the secret erotic payoff of sacrifice, discipline and submergence in the collective will--the effect will be more repressive than a crude crackdown on civil liberties could ever be.
To begin with, the premise that this country ("That fat, daydreaming America," in Rich's words) has been corrupted by prosperity is a lie. The "prosperity" of the past decade has mainly consisted of the dramatic concentration of wealth among 20 percent of the population. Most people have continued to struggle economically; their daydreams, if any, were about the riches they were told they were supposed to have, but that had somehow eluded them. In any case the boom was already over, without any help from terrorists.
It's true, as Fukuyama argues, that in recent years "many Americans lost interest in public affairs, and in the larger world...others expressed growing contempt for government." True too, as the Times suggests, that most Americans have been disinclined to commit themselves to any larger cause. But this is not because we are too well fed. Rather, a triumphalist corporate capitalism, free at last of the specter of Communism, has mobilized its economic power to relentlessly marginalize all nonmarket values; to subordinate every aspect of American life to corporate "efficiency" and the bottom line; to demonize not only government but the very idea of public service and public goods.
Will putting the country on a war footing do anything to change this, other than getting the free marketeers to tone down their antistatist rhetoric? On the contrary, things have just gotten infinitely more difficult for the nascent rebellion against "globalization," which is to say world domination by transnational capital. The mass demonstration that was to have taken place in Washington September 29-30 has been canceled. Few would have had the stomach for it anyway. And though some smaller groups are still going, how can the public possibly hear them the way they wish to be heard? A serious effort to put public affairs back on the American agenda, to revive people's sense that they have a stake in the way our society is run, would require a national debate on privatization, deregulation, income redistribution, the rights of workers, the share of our national wealth that should be devoted to subsidizing healthcare, childcare, education, support for the aged. Implementing such an agenda would require massive infusions of public funds. Does anyone believe this crisis will stimulate such a debate or encourage public spending for anything other than the military, law enforcement, the national security infrastructure, relief for the airlines and other stressed industries? Will Congress, in the interest of national solidarity, rush to repeal Bush's tax cut for the rich?
As for the obsession with violence and scandal that so exercises Frank Rich, its source is not an excess of contentment but chronic anxiety, at times blossoming into full-blown panic.The day the frame froze, it was on a culture that had become ambivalent to the point of schizophrenia: caught between the still-potent hype of the boom and the reality, for most, of a stagnant and increasingly insecure standard of living; enmeshed in our ongoing, seemingly intractable tensions between the impulse to freedom and the fear of it; between desire and guilt, secular modernity and religious moralism (here too this latter conflict breeds violent fundamentalists). The boundaries of political debate had steadily narrowed, not because we were fat and happy but because it was taboo to challenge in any serious way the myth that we were fat and happy. The notion that there might be any need for, or possibility of, profound changes in the institutions that shape American life--work, family, technology, the primacy of the car and the single-family house--is foreign to the mainstream media that define our common sense. And so conflicts that cannot be addressed politically have expressed themselves by other means. From public psychodramas like the O.J. Simpson trial, the Lewinsky scandal and Columbine to disaster movies, talk shows and "reality TV," popular culture carries the burden of our emotions about race, feminism, sexual morality, youth culture, wealth, competition, exclusion, a physical and social environment that feels out of control.
Will this confrontation with real terror kill our taste for the vicarious kind? Perhaps; but it does not follow that we will be less susceptible to illusion. As many have pointed out, if this is war it is a mutant variation: a war in which the enemy is protean and elusive, and how to strike back effectively is far from clear. Yet for a decade Americans have been steeped in the rhetoric of "zero tolerance" and the faith that virtually all problems from drug addiction to lousy teaching can be solved by pouring on the punishment. Even without a Commander in Chief who pledges to rid the world of evildoers, smoke them out of their holes and the like, we would be vulnerable to the temptation to brush aside frustrating complexities and relieve intolerable fear (at least for the moment) by settling on one or more scapegoats to crush. To imagine that trauma casts out fantasy is a dangerous mistake.
Similarly, while the need to focus on our national crisis will no doubt supplant the excruciating triviality of our usual political conversation, it will if anything reinforce the denial of our deeper social problems. In emergencies--and war is the ultimate emergency--such long-range concerns are suspended. This may be unavoidable, but it is never desirable, except to tyrants. I'm not a pacifist--I believe that war is sometimes necessary--but I agree with pacifists that there's nothing ennobling about it. I accept that in this emergency, national defense must be our overriding concern. But let's not compound our losses with deluded bombast about what we have to gain.Ellen Willis directs the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and is a Freda Kirchwey fellow of the Nation Institute. Her latest book is Don't Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial (Beacon).
© 2001 The Nation Company, L.P.