The Price of Unity

Our Greatest Danger Is Becoming the Same

In this climate, any information that might complicate our convictions is suspect. News that formerly would have made the front page is no longer fit to print. (For example, the consortium of papers—including the Times—that counted every ballot cast in Florida last year has decided not to reveal the result.) Abridgements of privacy unthinkable a few months ago are being floated with impunity. A generation that has never known a time when FBI and CIA agents destabilized democratic movements, at home as well as abroad, may not see the danger in empowering a new secret police. If you weren't alive when a lying U.S. government fought a war that cost the lives of millions (including 58,000 young Americans), you may not grasp the implications of conducting a military operation in secret. The war footage provided by the Pentagon will be real but not necessarily honest.

The golem legend carries its own warning. The giant ultimately runs amok, trashing the ghetto it was meant to protect. This is the problem with magic thinking: It has unintended consequences.

Illustration by Nathan Fox

Everyone is telling us to expect a long war. What will happen once the bodies come home—especially since so many will be brown or black? How will the nation react to the peace marches that are bound to intensify? And what if another act of terrorism throws us into a fresh paroxysm of anxiety? Will the primal perception of vulnerability usher in an age of iron conformity? It's impossible to say, but it's something to worry about.

To get a sense of what America might be like if this crisis becomes chronic, consider the current response to our few dissenting voices. Already the right is revving up its most successful organizing strategy: the specter of an enemy within. As their first target, they've chosen one of America's most renowned critics, Susan Sontag.

In a brief polemic for The New Yorker, Sontag dared to suggest that the rush to unity was unworthy of a "mature democracy." Democratic politics, "which entails disagreement, which promotes candor, has been replaced by psychotherapy," she wrote, referring to the wave of "confidence building and grief counseling" that followed the attack. Even worse, she dissed Bush: "We have a robotic president who assures us that America still stands tall. . . . Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be."

Within days, the attitude police fixed its guns on Sontag. "The hate America crowd is still there," fumed the Post's John Podhoretz. Playing the populist card, he noted that these critics are "comfortably tenured on college campuses. . . . In New York, they dwell in large rent-controlled apartments from which they collect book advances and foundation grant money." Such philistine posturing comes with a crisis. It also comes with a price. By demonizing intellectuals who question common values, we dismiss their ability to make us see beyond our reflexes. In the current situation, that could be a deadly error.

It's by no means certain that authoritarianism will be strengthened by this crisis. We could emerge with a new synthesis of ideas from the left and right. Nurturing this possibility demands that the dogs of unity be kept at bay. Certainly there's a time when individuality must yield to the need for self-defense. But we're not at that warships-in-the-harbor moment. What we face now is a series of fateful decisions, and it doesn't take a pacifist to see the consequences of making the wrong choices. All of us are in mortal danger. No Golem will change that fact.

To raise the odds of survival, not just for us but for millions beyond our borders, requires a real debate (wisecracks and all). If this truly is "a new kind of war," we need a new kind of home front: one where the ultimate defense of freedom—that it produces a more rational society—is put to the test. That means honoring individuality and speaking your mind.

Back when I was dodging tear gas thrown by the satraps of the Greatest Generation, my mantra was "Question authority!" That old '60s nostrum is even more necessary now. It's the essence of patriotism—or, if you prefer, it's our best shot.

Research: Adrian Leung

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