American Culture Since 9/11

American Culture Since 9/11

These are heroes then-among the plain people-Heroes did you say?
And why not? They give all they’ve got and ask no questions
and take what comes and what more do you want?

– Carl Sandburg, The People, Yes

September 11, 2002, has passed away, and so too the expected memory-fest. Pundits scurried about, as they had a year before, in order to ask the big question: have we changed as a nation or not? Our middlebrow magazines, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, pointed out that Americans were voting in record numbers to elect the next “American Idol”-the newest “reality” television event. Thus, we seemed to be settling back into our comfortable normalcy of vapid entertainment. Still others did their best to commodify our memory cells. The journalist Hanna Rosin explained, “Life magazine’s collections of haunting photos [of 9/11] has been turned into an heirloom edition-‘accented with pure 22kt gold and crafted to last for generations’-complete with its own satin-ribbon page marker. September 11 as coffee-table book, a display piece to help you ‘share’ such moments again and again ‘with your children and grandchildren.'” To remember this way seems not to remember at all.

There’s something annoying about the fact that a larger, collective self-reevaluation did not take place in the wake of September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, to say there might have been a lesson within this tragedy smacks of the ugly rhetoric of Jerry Falwell or the wacky left-that we were getting what we deserved for sins at home or abroad. With this said, though, it’s hard to think that such a cataclysmic event wouldn’t prompt us to think about ourselves. And I don’t mean about our foreign policy, on which there is plenty of debate. What I mean is different: what did September 11 and its aftermath tell us about American culture-about what we had become during the orgiastic years of the 1990s and what we might learn about ourselves in the face of a national tragedy?

One of the many things that happened on that fateful day of 9/11 and immediately afterward was that the visages of ordinary people suddenly pushed aside the smiling celebrities in our mass media. We saw people we don’t ordinarily see in magazines and on television -firefighters, ambulance drivers, police officers. Onto the national stage these heroes walked, performing their civic acts of bravery for all to see. Magazines ran pictures with no textual commentary; after all, the image of a tired firefighter was enough to convey the necessary point-that civic sacrifice would pull us through this awful time. In the end, what really mattered were the daily activities of ordinary working people, the sort of people usually ignored. I believe this is one of the legacies of September 11. Che...