The Price of Unity

Our Greatest Danger Is Becoming the Same

There's a riveting Cuban film from the '60s called Memories of Underdevelopment. It's about an intellectual, disenchanted with his Communist society and determined to preserve his skepticism, who becomes engulfed in a national emergency: the American blockade of Cuba during the missile crisis. As he stands on his balcony overlooking the Havana waterfront, our skeptic sees the vague dark shapes of foreign warships through the mist. This was real documentary footage, and it concretized the moment when a crisis collapses any semblance of individuality. Suddenly the critical temperament of even this malcontent gives way to a primal sense of common destiny.

Something like that moment occurred here on September 11. Though we weren't invaded, the impact on our consciousness was profound. The mute presence of a gaping ruin and the heartbreaking evidence of calamitous loss made everyone feel horrified and terrified, especially in New York. This capital of conflict, this epicenter of the critical life, was awash in red, white, and blue. All evidence of cynicism—the signature of New York style—disappeared. The racial and sexual differences that make this such a scintillating place were instantly repressed. As the suspended state of city politics shows, we have yet to emerge from the refuge of a common identity.

The cult of Rudy is not just a tribute to his efficacy; it's also a sign of the magic thinking that has replaced savvy. Rudy is New York's Golem—the legendary clay giant who protects his people against their enemies—and we have been reduced to a childlike dependence on such supernatural figures. When the towers went down, so did the sense of control that makes us feel like adults. In such moments of regression, we fall back on patterns that provided safety in childhood. Women retreat behind men, and men react to their fear by becoming enraged. That's when we most need to hear from people whose minds work differently, but the dictates of uniformity prevent such voices from being heard. The clay giant becomes a wall of silence.

Illustration by Nathan Fox

Last week, a professor was threatened with disciplinary action for unseemly comments about the Trade Center calamity. Several journalists were fired for razzing George Bush. A noted composer had his music banned for comparing the attack to a work of art. (Is it now forbidden to be flaky?) Bill Maher apologized—after being scolded by the White House—for insisting that the terrorists were not cowards. These incidents are the most visible signs of a more pervasive repression, as pop culture puts its impious shoulder to the wheel of unity. Making artists behave is a marker of magic thinking: If we clean up our act, we'll be OK.

Because this bargain is irrational, everyone must abide by it. The social unit can't cohere unless we all become the same—or so it seems in a time of need. And so, funked-up versions of "God Bless America" replace the bitch-slapping anthems of more "innocent" days. Trend Hitlers declare sincerity the new black, and $1000 military-officer coats are touted by the Times. Postmodernism yields to traditional tropes of God and country, though we are actually entering the most postmodern moment in our history: a war without borders, battles, or reporters.

Just as children cannot help but love their parents, regressed adults must rally 'round their leaders, and any critique or mockery threatens this bond. Precisely because the issue is protection, every dissent feels like a punch to the gut. This must be especially true for young people who have never experienced a collective calamity, but none of us has lived through an attack on our cities of this magnitude, and the fact that it might happen again makes the crisis seem permanent. No wonder we think we see warships in the harbor. But in fact, this rush to unity presents a greater danger.

Consider the most immediate impact of the new conformity: the collapse of difference. Suddenly it seems like an act of impiety to point out that, in the phalanx of police and firefighters surrounding Giuliani on Saturday Night Live, there was hardly a black face to be seen. Or that, in the spectrum of opinion following this awful event, women were barely heard from, and so we were deprived of their perspective on the crisis. With some exceptions—such as right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, who was het up to invade terror-toting countries "and convert them to Christianity"—female writers showed a far greater willingness to come to complex conclusions than their more powerful male colleagues. If women were fully included in the national dialogue, it wouldn't be such a monologue. We might be able to process our feelings without sedating the culture (and diminishing its capacity to spark new insights).

The boldest voices of dissent belong to women now. Yet in the mass media, they play a supportive role, as the framework of feminism is enlisted against the Taliban. It's gratifying to see attention finally being paid to the brutality visited on Afghan women for many years. But no one reminds us that adulterous women have been beheaded in Saudi Arabia, our ally. It's not unifying to point out that male supremacy is a value all fundamentalist cultures share.

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