That’s Entertainment!

Turning to Pop Culture in a Time of Trauma

So far, the major beneficiary of this reflex has been Rudy Giuliani, whose authoritarian instincts now seem merely premature. The unspoken reason for the current cult of Rudy is the contrast it offers with Bush, who has never looked more shaken. Never mind that his vacant rhetoric played a large part in our anxiety. In wartime, it's not acceptable to mock the president, or to point out that someone significant is missing from this remake of Pearl Harbor: Franklin Roosevelt.

Though there have been horrific ethnic assaults over the past week, no one is seriously talking about rounding up Arab Americans—yet. Nor have Jerry Falwell's admonitions about abortionists, feminists, and homosexuals causing God to withdraw his protection from the World Trade Center caught fire. But in more subtle ways, this crisis suits the puritanical right. Tabloid chauvinists sound like the voice of the people, and even doves are drawn toward the Post's blithe exhortation: "Bombs away." Columnist John Podhoretz seems righteous rather than right-wing when he demands an end to "the cramped and whiny" debate about "your Social Security, your abortions . . . your personal freedoms." Such issues can now be made to seem frivolous, even unpatriotic. And the metaphor of war trumps concerns about the coming recession. Suddenly it seems indulgent to complain about the price of gasoline. "We may have another Greatest Generation in the making," crows Bennett, "and they may be called upon to make sacrifices."

The impulse to change our decadent ways is an atavistic response—not so different from Jerry Falwell's. But in fact, our bad attitude has nothing to do with this tragedy. Nor is sacrifice needed, as it would be in a true time of war, when the nation's resources are diverted and millions must risk their lives. It should take much less than that to protect ourselves from terrorism. Yet once we accept the Pearl Harbor analogy, we're willing to suspend our politics, our sensibility, even our freedom. Such is the power of an unexamined metaphor: It has convinced us that America will never be the same—nor should it be.


This is not to say the crisis isn't real. But precisely because it is so inchoate, so unprecedented, and so dangerous, our response must be deliberate, effective, and humane. Anything else stands a real chance of making the world—including this city—a far more dangerous place. There are plenty of films that show what hell war is, but they haven't entered the current psychic repertoire. Nor have we called on the vast literature that describes the dialectic of violence—how one bloody deed begets the next in an endless sequence of macho posturing and murder. Instead, we're wedded to a metaphor that truly belongs in the past: the image of a world war that never really scorched our soil. But we can't go back to the future. History recedes regardless of our fantasies, leaving us to deal with the uniqueness of the present.

The only way to make sense of this new reality is to banish metaphor entirely. Only then can we see things clearly. Only then can we defend ourselves from terrorists and militarists alike. Only then can we assure that America remains the same.


Research: Adrian Leung

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