May 26, 2024

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The Language of Catastrophe

—from the November New Criterion

October 29, 2001.

“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 inadequacies.

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 innocence.

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 again:

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 Chronicle 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 fault.

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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