The Price of Unity


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.

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.

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.

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