Same As It Ever Was

Even by the standards of a country notorious for losing its innocence every decade or so—surely our national anthem should be "Like a Virgin"—September 11, 2001, would appear to deserve its oft-given moniker, The Day Everything Changed. The spectacle of those jets bringing down the World Trade Center wasn't merely unforgettable: It was revelatory. Theodor Adorno once wrote that a splinter in the eye is the best magnifying glass, and on that infamous morning, what came into sharp view was our vulnerability. We weren't accustomed to seeing our citizens slaughtered on American soil, at least not by people who weren't born here.

Since that day, it's become an article of faith that we live under the shadow of September 11. This is indisputable. Al-Qaeda's murderous attacks did change America in many observable ways, from the proliferation of closed-circuit television cameras to the official and unofficial targeting of Muslims. It led the country into two wars that continue to ensnare us. It spawned an assault on constitutional freedoms at home (all hail Russell Feingold's lonely "no" vote against the original Patriot Act) and the acceptance of torture abroad. In direct overseas expenditures alone, it has so far cost us nearly $1.3 trillion, money that did not go to aiding our schools, to rebuilding an infrastructure currently worthy of Bedrock in The Flintstones, or (this one's for you, Eric Cantor groupies) to paying down the national debt. These days, those collapsing towers feel like the opening timpani roll of a disastrous decade that has ended in an obsession with national decline.

Yet out beyond what Norman Mailer called the housing projects of fact and issue, September 11 also entered our national psyche, the murky lagoon where the repressed can loom as large as the remembered, and where Snooki, Shakespeare, and Saddam splash around as equals. No country's sense of itself is more susceptible to pop mythology than America's, which is why it's worth asking how the terrorist attacks affected the way we think and feel, and pointing out that, far from radically transforming our culture, September 11 left it more American than ever.

Certainly, there were those who wanted the country transformed. The dust of the fallen towers hadn't even settled before the moralists began weighing in, not only fanatics such as Jerry Falwell (who blamed pagans, gays, feminists, etc., for calling down God's wrath) but also scolds from both the left and right whose words reminded us that America's puritan impulse still runs across ideological lines. They used the occasion to trot out old complaints about the frivolity of our culture, as if those 3,000 people died because we were all too busy watching Sex and the City to notice the box cutters. Caught up in the breast-beating hysteria, Vanity Fair's suave Graydon Carter declared "the end of the age of irony," for which he was promptly doused in ironic mockery.

Back in those early days, people often dubbed September 11 a "wake-up call," and to be fair, it did launch a burst of curiosity about, well, the world. Although such curiosity often took the form of the naively narcissistic question, "Why do they hate us?" the desire for an answer energized the whole society. Books on the Middle East rocketed up the Amazon rankings, students enrolled in Arabic classes (reportedly, anyway), floppy—haired Peter Bergen became the Hugh Grant of bin Laden experts, and millions flocked to the Internet. I had friends who scoured the Israeli press every day in hopes that Haaretz or Maariv knew things the American newspapers didn't. Even our media got better. The New York Review of Books regained a sense of purpose, The Atlantic no longer went down like a handful of Ambien, and after Jon Stewart's famous crying jag, The Daily Show took on a new weight, becoming the best media-studies class not taught by a superannuated Marxist.

But this moment when Americans were interrogating their history was overtaken by something simpler. What most of the country mourned as a tragedy, the Bush administration seized as an opportunity. Within days of the attacks, the White House had cast a complex historical event in classic pop terms, a good-versus-evil yarn enthusiastically embraced by the media. How could they resist? With his turban, spooky vibe, and desire to roll back history, Osama bin Laden made the ideal bogeyman for an America that hadn't had one since the Cold War. Less a man than a ghostly emanation, he was the spooky antithesis of Western rationality.

Before you knew it, the date September 11, 2001, gave way to the mystified shorthand of "9/11," a name all too soon employed as a talisman, a bludgeon, a Get Out of Jail Free card. The window on the larger world began closing. True, some Americans still scoured the papers and followed the news like latter-day Izzy Stones. But encouraged by the president to get back to their lives and let the military do the dirty work, most of the country did precisely that, falling back into America's traditional obsession with ... America. Over the next decade, foreign-film audiences shrank, The New York Times Book Review was routinely thumped for barely acknowledging translated books, and even after years of our soldiers dying, 63 percent of American young adults couldn't find Iraq, let alone Fallujah, on a map. The CIA is still desperate for Arab speakers.

It's not that nobody talked about the "war on terror" but that the passion fixated on George W. Bush. While this is hardly startling in a country more concerned with personalities than ideologies, Bush did shove the process along. Unlike Bill Clinton, who also inspired irrational hatred, Bush didn't feel people's pain or knock himself out to make everyone love him. He deliberately stoked the polarization that's become the defining quality of today's political culture, passing on a poisoned chalice to Barack Obama. Where Clinton's and Bush's foes only questioned those leaders' legitimacy as president—the former for winning without a majority, the latter for winning with a dodgy Supreme Court decision—Obama's enemies have taken an even more radical step. They deny his legitimacy as president by denying his legitimacy as an American. Although September 11 didn't create such polarization, which goes back at least to Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign, the fear and anger it sparked pushed things to a seething new ferocity, fueling in our political culture the same us-versus-them extremism that Karl Rove saw as the road to victory.

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THE PUSH TO THE EXTREMES also came in many of the things—books, movies, music, art—that we routinely think of as "culture." Oddly enough, one great exception would be the numerous artistic attempts to grapple explicitly with September 11, be it Oliver Stone's reverently empty-headed film, World Trade Center, or Jonathan Safran Foer's hyperkinetic novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which was accused of literary ambulance-chasing when it was merely a hot young writer's lousy second book and no more ignoble than, say, John Updike's equally terrible Terrorist. Because the attack was so cataclysmic, you could understand the desire to transform tragedy into art, yet the gaudy scale of its horror tended to render the results underwhelmingly banal or vulgar—Paul Greengrass's movie United 93 turned what happened on that flight into a verite thriller. Of all the works that weighed in on September 11, only a handful resonated. From the left came "The Rising" by Bruce Springsteen (who could turn making a smoothie into an anthem) and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, a Cannes winner and box-office hit whose agitprop worked only on those who already hated Bush. On the other side of the political barbed wire, you had Keith Urban's "Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)" and 24, Fox's hyper-violent, hyper-paranoid series whose hero, Jack Bauer, untrammeled by the laws of lesser men ("Say it again! Or I'll break your other wrist!), lives out a right-wing fantasy of finding the terrorists and blasting their (and, by extension, bin Laden's) death-loving asses.

While all these works had their moment, you could trace the broader psychic shockwaves of September 11 in the way it intensified four tendencies of our culture, starting with what we might call The Retreat into Comfort.

Early in October 2001, I bumped into a TV critic and asked what he, as a professional, had been watching. To my astonishment, he told me he'd been skipping the news in favor of SpongeBob SquarePants. This was my first inkling that the terror attacks were leading many grown-ups to seek solace in childhood pleasures—just as post-Hiroshima Japan became ground zero for all things cute.

The search for mental comfort food was everywhere: in the cupcake boom, the cars shaped like Tonka Toys, the sentimental finale of Jonathan Franzen's best-selling novel Freedom, which after much marital woe, ends up reuniting the couple who met in college; in faux-naive artists such as Marcel Dzama, Hollywood comedies about 30-year-olds who behave like teens, and the Facebook game Farmville, which makes Candy Land seem sophisticated (except for the part about having to pay real cash for virtual critters). Everywhere you looked you saw something cute—fashionistas carrying $5,000 Vuitton handbags decorated by Murakami, suburban moms with Hello Kitty cell-phone holders. Even the great satirist Gary Shteyngart began making "Ain't I adorable" book promos.

Now, I know that Americans have been loving cute things forever—we gave the world the Teddy Bear, Shirley Temple, Walt Disney, and Dave Eggers—but over the past decade, things have reached a new level. Friends who 20 years ago would've sooner slept with Dick Cheney than watched America's Funniest Home Videos now send us YouTube links to cats playing patty-cake and running around with paper bags on their heads. And the scary thing is, we watch them. They are, you know, comforting.

Of course, just as the Vietnam War wound up being good for both Jerry Garcia and Richard Nixon, so post-September 11 America has inspired a second, almost opposite tendency, The Embrace of the Unconsoling—an explosion of acclaimed books, movies, and TV shows that don't just stare harsh reality in the eyeball but revel in their toughness at doing precisely that. There's been a cavalcade of bleakness, from The Wire's despairing anatomy of our collapsing cities to There Will Be Blood's portrait of an oil tycoon (who winds up battering an evangelist to death) to Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road, a vision of post-apocalyptic America so dire it even serves up the image of a baby cooking on a spit. Now that's an unamusing amuse-bouche.

The American psyche has always been drawn to darkness—-just think of that great literary law firm, Hawthorne, Melville, & Poe—but the last few years have been painting it as black as Rick Perry's toupee. Hell, even Steven Spielberg went bleak with Minority Report and Munich. Since 2004, the Best Picture has gone to Million Dollar Baby (the hero mercy-kills the heroine), The Departed (the hero gets murdered), No Country for Old Men (evil conquers the land), and The Hurt Locker, whose hero is addicted to war. These are the darkest Oscar winners since The Godfather Part II, but they're no darker than the Emmy-winning Breaking Bad whose hero's criminality isn't comfortingly distant like a Corleone's. Walt White is a middle-class teacher with cancer who does dirty things and finds himself tainted. The show is so grim that the glum-riddled Mad Men comes as a relief.

While it would be foolish to suggest that September 11 caused all this, it seems natural that its aftershocks would unloose an avalanche of stories filled with misery, despair, even nihilism. Nor does it seem coincidental that young-adult readers, who were kindergarteners ten years ago, have made a smash of The Hunger Games trilogy, set in a post-apocalyptic North America in which 12- to 18-year-olds must fight in televised games whose winner is the one who kills all the others. These books make Harry Potter seem incredibly September 10.

In fact, the Potter epic fits more comfortably within another trend, The Ascent of the Super, the oft-decried proliferation of fantasy stories about dark supernatural forces, especially vampires and zombies, and their opposite, all those splendid heroes, often brightly uniformed, in possession of superpowers. Where bleakness has a long-standing artistic cachet, genre stories are largely treated as silly wish fulfillments.

At first glance, the profusion of yarns about the undead would seem a simple, almost predictable, metaphor for those shadowy aliens who threaten us—in this case Islamic terrorists. This is particularly true of zombies, mindless, brain-eating killers who attack in hordes, just asking to have their heads blown off. But the undead are also an almost perfect embodiment of the return of the repressed, the physical expression of all the dead bodies (terror victims, Iraqi citizens, American soldiers) that we know are out there but don't want to see and sometimes aren't allowed to (the Bush administration wouldn't permit flag-draped coffins to be photographed). Many of these dead are innocent. This may help explain the current, ambivalent image of vampires, who have gone from being the quintessence of bloodsucking evil to becoming (in Buffy, Twilight, and True Blood) good liberals who can coexist peacefully with humans who honor their culture and lifestyle.

The ubiquitous tales of superheroes would also appear to serve a simple cultural function. They offer a fantasy of magical power in the service of good. Such fantasies are appealing, even taking political form in the 2008 presidential election, which made one recall the title of Mailer's 1960 essay about John F. Kennedy, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket." It wasn't simply that Obama had a classic superhero biography—the racially ambiguous background, the alien-sounding childhood, the early years when he didn't properly acknowledge his powers—but that many of his followers thought him capable of feats far beyond those of ordinary politicians. The belief that he could somehow save us got him elected, but it also set him up to be the disappointment he became soon after he landed in the White House. The D.C. Comics fantasy curdled into a Washington, D.C., version of Game of Thrones, the HBO show loved inside the Beltway, a flagrantly unsentimental look at duty, power politics, personal ambition, implacable enmity, backroom scheming, and what happens to stoically noble warriors (like the apparent hero, Eddard Stark) who hew to old-school ideals of honor—they get their heads lopped off. One hopes Barack was watching.

Then again, disappointment, if not failure, is the destiny of most interesting superheroes. Consider the 2008 blockbuster, The Dark Knight. The picture came out amid a slew of pricey, star-laden box-office duds (The Kingdom, Body of Lies, The Green Zone, and The Hurt Locker) about Iraq and the war on terror. You kept hearing that American viewers didn't want to face the painful reality of what was going on overseas. In fact, the audience just didn't want to do so in overt political terms. But it has always been the genius of pop culture that, by wrapping things up as "entertainment," it can get across feelings and ideas that more officially serious culture cannot. So it was with The Dark Knight, in which Batman battles a Joker who's less a criminal than a cosmic terrorist—a loony version of bin Laden. While filmmaker Christopher Nolan included all the fights and panache of the routine comic-book picture, he turned the story into a study of the dangers of fighting evil—Batman himself becomes something of a monster who winds up slinking into the shadows, reviled by those who once loved him. Without ever mentioning Iraq or al-Qaeda, the movie became a verdict on how badly the war on terror was going and how it had changed the way the world saw us. In capturing its American moment, The Dark Knight—which made twice as much money as all the war-on-terror movies combined—better reflected the popular understanding of what was happening than did any of those Iraq movies shot in documentary style to look real.

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"Real" is, to be sure, a term one uses gingerly in the days of Reality TV and Andrew Breitbart's videos of liberals behaving scandalously (oops, that footage was edited). Indeed, if you asked most people to tell you what dominated our culture in the last decade, they'd probably talk about The TMZing of America. The Bush and Obama years have been defined by spectacles that are lurid and unhinged—Glenn Beck sobbing on Fox News, LeBron using a prime-time special to take his now-tarnished talents to South Beach, Kim Kardashian parlaying her reality show (and big bootie) into a small empire, Mel Gibson winning gold in the Bigotry Pentathalon (blacks, gays, Jews, women, and Mexicans!), the Octo-Mom and Anthony Weiner and the wedding of royals we don't actually give a damn about. Not to mention Paris and Britney. The Thirty Mile Zone that gave TMZ its name now runs, in a ghastly parody of Woody Guthrie, from the Jersey Shore to Wasilla, Ala-a-ska. Looking at all this in the context of two wars, financial collapse, and political vitriol, we might be tempted to think we've entered our star-spangled version of Weimar, except that we're missing an organized left and, of course, the hot sex is mostly on HBO.

Few things are easier than to bash the boundless obsession with gossip, celebrity, and reality TV. These were already popular on September 10, 2001, but it's hard not to think the fear and confusion following the terror attacks made the retreat to such sideshows more frantic, or "more depressingly frantic," as I suspect millions would have it—even if they can't stop themselves from watching. Just as the world would be a better place if Hollywood stopped making movies with vampires who can't act, it would be swell if the millions who think Lindsay Lohan is off her rocker would take the time to learn the same about Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.

But it's foolish to get into a righteous frenzy about how we're roaring down the bobsled run of cultural decline. Yes, our culture is probably even less "mature" than it was in 2001. Certainly, it's coarser and louder and more extreme. But you could have said that after every decade of your life and probably your parents' lives, too. What's most striking about American culture in 2011 is that, for both good and ill, it remains the same as it was on September 11 ... only more so. Indeed, if another huge terror attack happened here today, we'd soon be reading articles identical to the ones ten years ago about the end of irony, the need for cultural seriousness, and won't we ever learn? One can even imagine someone comparing the United States to The Hangover franchise, whose heroes, having once been knocked out only to wake up in trouble, let the same thing happen again in the sequel.

Yet seen from another angle, this apparent forgetfulness is also evidence of one of our national virtues—resiliency. Even wounded by a calamitous terror attack, America did not become a grim, sober place. It went on being what it has long been, the free and good-humored country in which people take their pleasures, however silly they might be, wherever they can find them—we're terrific at the bearable lightness of being. It's precisely this freedom and sunniness, not our proclaimed decency, that has made America the envy of the world. Or most of it, anyway. It's worth remembering that the terrorists who attacked America on September 11 did so in part because they hated our frivolous high spirits. If Osama had been taken alive (yeah, right), he'd doubtless be blaming the infidel temptations of the West for the porn-stash in his Abbottabad compound.

Now, we all realize that watching Iron Man or singing along with Lady Gaga in the car as our soldiers do battle overseas does not pass for heroism. It's not exactly volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War or even whistling Vera Lynn songs in the tube station during the Blitz. But the love of entertainment is central to our national character—a far better part of it, in fact, than our sense of righteous exceptionalism—and we should be grateful that the September 11 terrorists weren't able to diminish it. This would be a very different America if our citizens didn't find Avatar cool, couldn't sense that Michael Jackson's life was Olympian enough for Homer, or wouldn't crack a smile at one of those great Downfall mash-ups of Hitler having a tantrum or the YouTube video of that big-eyed slow loris being tickled.

There's no denying it: Pop culture does fill our heads with all sorts of goofy, childish, and disreputable stuff. But in 2011, it also does something important. It brings our culture together when the overwhelming fact of our public life is not just division but opposition. In an America where left and right have their own networks for getting the news, where conservatives and liberals make holy war over minor bills—and lose their seats if they don't—and where George W. Bush and Barack Obama can both be compared to Hitler by people who actually mean it, popular culture is a uniter, not a divider. Left and right may shout at each other about jobs and abortions and Wall Street and health care, but both sides enjoy Battle-star Gallactica, The Social Network, Top Chef, and the Miami Heat getting beat. They're even able to talk about these things with friendly good will and the bonding obsessiveness of fans. It sounds extreme to say so, but in these extreme times, our shallow, trivial, ephemeral pop culture may be what's keeping America from falling apart.

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