October 6, the day immediately preceding the first U.S. counterstroke against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, found me on a panel at the New York Film Festival. The discussion, on the art of political cinema, had been arranged many months before. But as the chairman announced, the events of September 11 would now provide the atmospheric conditioning for our deliberations. I thus sat on a stage with Oliver Stone, who spoke with feeling about something he termed "the revolt of September 11," and with bell hooks, who informed a well-filled auditorium of the Lincoln Center that those who had experienced Spike Lee's movie about the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church in 1963 would understand that "state terrorism" was nothing new in America.
These were not off-the-cuff observations. I challenged Stone to reconsider his view of the immolation of the World Trade Center as a "revolt." He ignored me. Later he added that this rebellion would soon be joined by the anti-globalization forces of the Seattle protesters. When he was asked by a member of the audience to comment on the applause for the September 11 massacres in Arab streets and camps, he responded that the French Revolution, too, had been greeted by popular enthusiasm.
Although those who don't read The Nation, the New Statesman, and the London Review of Books, and who haven't come across Susan Sontag's disdainful geopolitical analysis in the pages of The New Yorker, may not be aware of it, these views are, sadly, not uncommon on the political left. Indeed, I would surmise that audience approval of Stone's and hooks's propositions was something near fifty-fifty. Clapping and hissing are feeble and fickle indicators, true. At different times, in combating both Stone and hooks, I got my own fair share of each. But let's say that three weeks after a mass murder had devastated the downtown district, and at a moment when the miasma from the site could still be felt and smelled, a ticket-buying audience of liberal New Yorkers awarded blame more or less evenhandedly between the members of al Qaeda and the directors of U.S. foreign policy. (And not just of foreign policy: Stone drew applause for his assertion that there was an intimate tie between the New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington attacks and the Florida ballot recount, which was, he asserted, "a complete vindication of the fact that capitalism has destroyed democracy.")
By this time I was entering my twenty-sixth day of active and engaged antagonism toward this sort of talk, or thought, and was impressed despite myself by the realization that I was the first person Stone and hooks and some audience members appeared to have met who did not agree with them. Or perhaps I should rephrase that: I was the first person on the political left they had met who did not echo or ratify their view. As it happens, I know enough about Marxism, for example, to state without overmuch reservation that capitalism, for all its contradictions, is superior to feudalism and serfdom, which is what bin Laden and the Taliban stand for. (Stone, when I put this to him after the event, retorted that his father had spent many years on Wall Street, and thus he knew the topic quite well.)
Having paged through the combined reactions of Sontag, Noam Chomsky, and many others, I am put very much in mind of something from the opening of Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. It's not the sentence about the historical relation between tragedy and farce. It's the observation that when people are learning a new language, they habitually translate it back into the one they already know. This work of self-reassurance and of hectic, hasty assimilation to the familiar is most marked in the case of Chomsky, whose prose now manifests that symptom first captured in, I recall, words by Dr. Charcot—"le beau calme de l'hysterique." For Chomsky, everything these days is a "truism"; for him it verges on the platitudinous to be obliged to state, once again for those who may have missed it, that the September 11 crime is a mere bagatelle when set beside the offenses of the Empire. From this it's not a very big step to the conclusion that we must change the subject, and change it at once, to Palestine or East Timor or Angola or Iraq. All radical polemic may now proceed as it did before the rude interruption. "Nothing new," as the spin doctors have taught us to say. There's a distinct similarity between this world view and that of the religious dogmatists who regard September 11 in the light of a divine judgment on a sinful society. But to know even what a newspaper reader knows about the Taliban and its zealous destruction of all culture and all science and all human emancipation, and to compare its most noteworthy if not its most awful atrocity to the fall of the Bastille ...
Flashbacks: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (September 18, 2001)
Americans today are finding new inspiration in Julia Ward Howe's anthem—originally published in The Atlantic in 1862 to rally Union troops.
I take a trawl through my e-mail and my mailbag. "Why sing the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'? Don't they know John Brown was the first terrorist?" ... "What about the civilian casualties in Vietnam, Guatemala, Gaza [fill in as necessary] ...?" This goes on all day, and it goes on while I sleep, so that I open a new batch each morning. Everyone writes to me as if he or she were bravely making a point for the very first time it had ever been made. And so I ask myself, in the spirit of self-criticism that I am enjoining upon these reflexive correspondents, whether I have any responsibility for this dismal tide of dreary traffic, this mob of pseudo-refugees taking shelter in half-baked moral equivalence. Professor Chomsky's preferred comparative case study is Bill Clinton's rocketing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan in 1998—a piece of promiscuous violence that took an uncounted number of African lives as part of Clinton's effort to "look presidential" (and also one of many fainthearted earlier attempts to "target" Osama bin Laden). At the time, I wrote several columns denouncing the atrocity, and the racism and cynicism that lay behind it. I also denounced the vileness of the public enthusiasm for the raid, which I think was at least comparable to the gloating of the dispossessed and the stateless over September 11. Now I get all this thrown back at me by people who didn't read it on the first occasion and who appear to believe that only Chomsky has the civic courage to bring the raid up. (He didn't bring it up at the time.) Kipling is back in fashion these days, because of the North-West Frontier, so when I ask myself the question, I also allow myself this couplet from If, in which we are asked, "If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken, / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools..."