The Language of Catastrophe

“Language failed this week,” wrote Michiko Kakutani of the New
York Times
as the dramatic first paragraph of her two-cents worth on the
terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon of September 11. It
was itself an example of what she described, being a banality of the first water
founded upon the childish assumption that language might do anything but
“fail”– that is, fall short of providing an expressive
counterpart adequate to such an enormity — under the circumstances. But
of course she didn’t intend any such subtlety. The remark’s subtext
was that her language, at least, would not fail. Like so many other eager
wordsmiths, she felt up to the literary task of memorializing the event or she
would not have written thus, and her first clever stroke was to be this
insightful and original observation of language’s hitherto unrecognized

Yet she wrote truer than she knew. For those who expected of language no more
than what it could provide, namely a gravity and decorum appropriate to the
occasion, were also too often disappointed. It would be tedious to go over the
many verbal memorials which adorned magazines, op ed pages, or Arts or Style
sections, and were lovingly wrought by (apparently) lady- and
gentleman-reporters with extensive backgrounds in “creative
writing.” Even the editorialists got into the act, as this passage from a
New York Times editorial on September 12th suggests:

Remember the
ordinary, if you can. Remember how normal New York City seemed at sunrise
yesterday, as beautiful a morning as ever dawns in early September. The polls
had opened for a primary election, and if the day seemed unusual in any way,
that was the reason — the collective awareness that the night would be
full of numbers. All the innumerable habits and routines that define a city were
unbroken. Everyone was preoccupied, in just the way we usually call

Oh please! Nobody but an editorial writer straining for effect ever calls
preoccupation innocence. This trope of “innocence” – so often
seen before, yet so seldom eschewed as hackneyed (not to mention false) –
was predictably a great favorite with the creatives. On the same day, the
Washington Post’s “Style” section featured an article
by David Montgomery which was headlined: “Under a Cloud of Evil: Their
Remaining Innocence in Shreds, People Shudder and Carry On.”

It was a day in
Washington that people compared to the day President Kennedy was assassinated,
or when Pearl Harbor was bombed. America has lost its innocence many times, but
this was a day to discover all over again that the country still had something
left to lose.

A thick column of
smoke rose black and blunt from the burning Pentagon for most of the day, like a
new, sinister kind of Washington Monument. . .Wealth and power are supposed to
ensure peace at home. The apparent vulnerability of a superpower is shocking.
Yesterday people studied the black cloud over the capital with grief, rage,
incomprehension. It signaled things would be different from now on.

“Today we realize
the world is a really scary place,” said Wendy Mills of Arlington. “This
shatters the bubble of invulnerability.”. . . So this is the way the world
really works. Terror. Death from above at any minute. Our smiley- face sense of
security has been shredded. How could we have been so naive?

Or have we not
been naive at all? Is this day a freakish departure, not the start of a trend,
that we must not allow to warp our outlook?

This is a very special kind of nonsense, since no one but the foolish ever
really inhabited that mythical “bubble of invincibility”; nobody but
an idiot ever supposed that wealth and power ensured peace at home.
Montgomery’s faux-elegiac lament for the chance to be foolish is itself a
foolish posture in response to the deaths of thousands of people. But I do not
think that we are meant to take the literal sense of what he writes seriously.
We are meant instead, as a kind of courtesy to the writer and to the gravity of
the occasion, to go along quietly as we are herded into that naïve but
merely literary “we” whose alleged “smiley-face sense of
security” has allegedly been “shredded.”

The point, however well-hidden by rhetorical artifice – and usually it
was not well-hidden at all – was to involve the reader in a conspiracy to
make the loss our own, rather than that of the actual victims and their
families. The death of people is horrible and messy and inelegant; the death of
anything so ephemeral as innocence, even if it is (as it must be) only
conventional, is much better suited to the genteel task of writing newspaper
memorials. It also allows the memorialist a chance to push himself and his
beautiful language forward as the center of attention. In this way it is the
literary counterpart of the emotional exhibitionism in which the television
specializes. It is a depressing thought but undoubtedly true that there will be
people who remember September 11th because it was the occasion for
Dan Rather to break down on the David Letterman show.

The worst offender among the literary show-offs, however, was The New
Yorker –
not even counting the appalling, politically-motivated
efforts of two of that magazine’s most illustrious contributors, Susan
Sontag and John Lahr, to find a way to pin the blame for the attacks on the Bush
administration. But I forbear to animadvert further on the disgraceful
performance of this fons et origo of the new genteelism, as the job has
already been done so splendidly by Leon Wieseltier on the back page of The
New Republic
. In a blistering attack on the magazine’s attempt
“to meet atrocity with sensibility,” he is particularly scathing
about Adam Gopnik (who shows his “skill for shrinking everything in the
universe to the scale of a bourgeois amenity” by comparing the smell of
disaster to that of smoked mozzarella) and John Updike, who

witnessed the fall
of the towers from an apartment in Brooklyn, but he produced a description of
what he saw that would not differ from a description of a painting of what he
saw. . .Such writing defeats its representational purpose because it steals
attention away from reality and toward language. It is provoked by nothing so
much as its own delicacy. Its precision is a trick; it appears to bring the
reader near, but it keeps the reader far. It is in fact a kind of armor: an
armor of adjectives and adverbs. The loveliness is invincible. . .There are
circumstances in which beauty is an obstacle to truth. All this is the testimony
of a man who has words for everything and nothing but words.

Wieseltier points us towards the insight that it is the fine-writer,
innocence’s elegist, who is the true innocent. His protection against the
agony that comes, and has always come, with experience, is not a foolish and
childish innocence-as-ignorance, not mere naïveté, but a determined
blindness made palatable to him by the scrim of words he has always prepared to
drop between himself and any unpleasantness.

The New Republic was also good about compiling a sottisier of
journalistic and political comment called “Idiocy Watch” that, with
any luck, will make some at least of its unwitting contributors long remembered
for their foolishness. First prize among the idiots undoubtedly went to Hillary
Rodham Clinton, whose oft-quoted response to a question about whether or not she
could understand the anger of the terrorists against America bears quoting once

Oh I am well aware
that [murderous anger] is out there. One of the most difficult experiences that
I personally had in the White House was during the health-care debate, being the
object of extraordinary rage. I remember being in Seattle. I was there to make a
speech about health care. This was probably August of ‘94. Radio talk show
hosts had urged their listeners to come out and yell and scream and carry on and
prevent people from hearing me speak. There were threats that were coming in,
and certain people didn’t want me to speak, and they started taking
weapons off people, and arresting people. I’ve had firsthand looks at this
unreasoning anger and hatred that is focussed on an individual you don’t
know, a cause that you despise–whatever motivates people.

Headed “Me, me, me (Part II)”— “Me, me, me (Part
I)” being a quotation from Mrs Clinton’s husband – this was a
reminder that the essence of bad taste and bad judgment in writers and speakers
during a time of crisis, as much for the creative-writers as for opportunistic
politicians, was to divert attention away from the crisis and back to
themselves. It was hardly surprising, then, that when Mrs Clinton finally
visited the site of the World Trade Center nearly a month after September 11th,
she described it as “the most personally horrendous experience” and
said that attending to the attack’s aftermath was “all I’m doing and
all I’m thinking about.” In this respect, the bad taste of Jerry Falwell
and Pat Robertson in suggesting after the fashion of a truly if quaintly old
time religion that the attack was God’s judgment on American wickedness,
had at least the merit of being an attempt to interpret the thing itself and not
to re-direct their audience’s gaze to themselves and their own exquisite
sensibilities or political sufferings.

Of course, I would be the first to agree that the right to bad taste is
constitutionally guaranteed to every American. One of the funniest passages in
the comically self-absorbed debate about “free speech” that ensued
upon the attacks in some quarters came in response to an op ed article by Robert
Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas, in the Houston
in which he said that the terror attack “was no more despicable
than the massive acts of terrorism . . .that the U.S. government has committed
during my lifetime.” Not surprisingly, the article elicited an outpouring of
protest – from, among others, the president of the University of Texas,
Larry Faulkner, who wrote in a letter to the Chronicle that he was
“disgusted” by Jensen’s “misguided” piece and
called the professor, his employee, a “fountain of undiluted
foolishness.” Thankfully, he added, “there is some comfort in the
fact that practically no one here takes his outbursts seriously.”

Well, maybe seriously enough to employ him in a position of responsibility to
instruct the impressionable youth of Texas in the art (such as it is) of
journalism — and, presumably, the science of politics. But, as might
almost have been expected, it was then Mr. Faulkner who came under fire from the
champions of free speech at his university who, according to the Chronicle of
Higher Education
, thought that his criticism of Jensen would have “a
chilling effect” on the willingness of faculty members to speak out.
You’ve got to wonder, though, don’t you? If a terror attack by
religious fanatics that kills 6000 of the guy’s fellow-countrymen
doesn’t have a chilling effect, his moral insulation has got to be proof
against a mere letter to the editor, even if it is from his boss. What else is
tenure for? But “the faculty felt there was a very clear message that if
you stick your neck out, we will disown you,” U. of Texas faculty member
Dana L. Cloud told the CHE. “This was a symbolic casting out of Bob
Jensen from our intellectual community.”

Poor man! How he must be suffering!

I’ve always thought of myself as a First Amendment absolutist, but
there is something ridiculous about people who would seize upon an occasion like
this to insist on their right to be obnoxious to their fellow citizens.
It’s another route to the same ground occupied by emotional exhibitionists
or the Me-Me-Me Clintons or the creative writers: an expropriation of tragedy
for purposes of self-aggrandizement. Another professor cited by the Chronicle
of Higher Education
complained when, in giving voice to sentiments almost as
outrageous as Jensen’s, he had been heckled. But what about the
hecklers’ right to free speech? I agree that it’s bad manners not to
give even a loony-tune a respectful hearing, though it’s not nearly such
bad manners as priggishly informing someone who has just suffered a grievous
injury that it’s his own damn fault — even if it were his

Yet in the aftermath of the attacks, tasteless egotism was on the whole less
a problem than the all-enveloping banality that was especially evident in the
seemingly endless television coverage. Here, for instance, is Peter
Jennings’s idea of cogent commentary — irresistible to quote at
length — as transcribed from his marathon broadcast (clocked at 17 hours
on the air on September 11-12) by the Media Research Center:

Now that’s the
Palestinian President, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser
Arafat who as I think everybody who watches the news or reads the news these
days understands is in a very very bitter war with the Israelis, and in which
terrorism has been a factor. Palestinians see what the Israelis do to them as
terrorism, and certainly the Israelis and much of the world see the Palestinian
and other suicide bombers who’ve attacked inside Israel to be terrorism of the
most gruesome order. No question about that, and so we should not be surprised
as on previous circumstances, to see Chairman Arafat, expressing his
condolences, but other Palestinians, who believe the United States is
responsible for what Israel is doing to the Palestinians or at least complicit
and is certainly supplying the Israelis arms will be happy to see this attack on
the United States today. So take a look at a scene from Jerusalem not too long
ago in which there is some celebration, that the powerful United States has
been harmed, has been seen to be vulnerable, has been hurt I suppose in the
broadest sense of the word.

And the people who
go off to do this sort of thing both in the Middle East tonight must remember
that a vast majority, of the, vast majority of the population of the Middle East
now, in all countries is under 21, much of it under 15, certainly under 17, and
the kind of intensity and intention if one presumes this is terrorism, one
[inaudible] this terrorism has come, had its genesis or had its roots somewhere
in the Middle East, or at least in people who are opposed, have, are just
filled, brimming with anger at the United States, and we are now becoming more
experienced with the notion that there are young men for the most part, who are
prepared to blow themselves up along with everybody else in terms, if they can
be, if they can be a service to the cause and they believe, they believe as do
some people believe about Islam, that they will, by sacrificing themselves gone
to another place.

It’s an unfair
comment on Islam in some respects, but it is certainly a motivating factor that
the hatred of the United States, and the hatred of the United States as a patron
of Israel, whether you’re from Afghanistan, or whether you’re from Iran, Iraq,
or inside the Palestinian territories is so intense at some levels, and has
become more intense in recent months, that nobody will be, very many people will
not be surprised at this attack today though like everybody else will be amazed
at the magnitude and success of it.

But one feels rather churlish for criticizing the media at a time when, at
least in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, so many otherwise
world-bestriding journalists permitted themselves an unwonted and embarrassing
measure of patriotism. Even the implacable Brent Bozell, head of the
bias-monitoring MRC, wrote that “our national news media have answered the
call to duty with professionalism and patriotism. Let us cheer the important and
inspiring work done by our nation’s journalists.” For at least a little
while, those of us who make it our business to read and listen day by day to the
prevailing media bias against President Bush and his administration and even the
U.S. armed forces – which have not been, institutionally, the good guys in
any commercially-released American motion picture since the 1960s – were
tempted to believe that we really had gone to sleep and awakened, as so many of
the prose stylists of the papers told us we had, in a different world.

In one respect, at least, I thought the media was too generous to the
administration. This was in the reception given to President Bush’s speech
of September 20th, of which Dan Rather said: “No President
since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, has
delivered anything approaching a speech such as this and there may be those who
observe that no President in the history of our country has ever delivered a
speech such as this.” Though characteristically over-the-top, this view
was not untypical. George Stephanopoulos said that Bush “was resolved, he
was reassuring, he was sober, he was strong.” Tom Brokaw called it
“strong” and “eloquent” and Tim Russert
“excellent,” while NBC’s on-air expert, Stephen Ambrose, says
it was reminiscent of Churchill with “lines that are going to resonate
with the American people for a very long time.”

Well, maybe. I myself thought not that the speech was not good but that it
was too good. Once again, the carefully wrought prose was not a lens through
which we could see more clearly what had been done to the country and what the
country’s leaders were proposing to do about it but a screen on which both
things were painted, by consensus, in a way that would justify the carefully
calibrated political response — as when he said that the hijackers
“follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism” and it
was instantly obvious that “totalitarianism” had been pencilled in
over “Communism” in order to avoid offending the nominally Communist
Chinese. The taste of the Bush speech-writers was not to be faulted, but here
was a case where we might have preferred just the hint of bad taste, just the
suggestion that Bush was expressing something that he was feeling himself and
not something that his handlers had told him it was all right to feel.

There must have been some sense in the White House that Bush needed to show
himself in more unscripted circumstances. In announcing the commencement of
American and British bombing of Afghanistan, he repeated “we will not
tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail” from the September
20th speech, adding “we will not waver” at the beginning
of the series, as if to make it a slogan. A few days later, however, he appeared
at a mostly impromptu press conference and still received good reviews. Dana
Milbank of the Washington Post wrote that, despite the lack of the
earlier speech’s “Churchillian phrases” the President had
“presented a homier, common-sense discussion of the war.” Alessandra
Stanley of the New York Times wrote that Bush had succeeded in reassuring
the world by speaking “without a net” and “showing the
confidence to risk mistakes and speak freely, at times forcefully.” She
added that “the news conference indicated Mr. Bush’s progress in finding
his own straightforward, conversationally unassuming style.”

For once, a conservative President’s “growing” in office
may be allowed to mean something other than his growing less conservative.


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