Joan Didion on 9/11
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jan 8 07:05:02 MST 2003
The New York Review of Books
January 16, 2003
Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History
By Joan Didion
The following is based on a lecture given this November at the New York
Seven days after September 11, 2001, I left New York to do two weeks of
book promotion, under other circumstances a predictable kind of trip. You
fly into one city or another, you do half an hour on local NPR, you do a
few minutes on drive-time radio, you do an "event," a talk or a reading or
an onstage discussion. You sign books, you take questions from the
audience. You go back to the hotel, order a club sandwich from room
service, and leave a 5 AM call with the desk, so that in the morning you
can go back to the airport and fly to the next city. During the week
between September 11 and the Wednesday morning when I went to Kennedy to
get on the plane, none of these commonplace aspects of publishing a book
seemed promising or even appropriate things to be doing. Butlike most of
us who were in New York that weekI was in a kind of protective coma,
sleepwalking through a schedule made when planning had still seemed
possible. In fact I was protecting myself so successfully that I had no
idea how raw we all were until that first night, in San Francisco, when I
was handed a book onstage and asked to read a few marked lines from an
essay about New York I had written in 1967.
Later I remembered thinking: 1967, no problem, no land mines there.
I put on my glasses. I began to read.
"New York was no mere city," the marked lines began. "It was instead an
infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and
power, the shining and perishable dream itself."
I hit the word "perishable" and I could not say it.
I found myself onstage at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco unable to
finish reading the passage, unable to speak at all for what must have been
thirty seconds. All I can say about the rest of that evening, and about the
two weeks that followed, is that they turned out to be nothing I had
expected, nothing I had ever before experienced, an extraordinarily open
kind of traveling dialogue, an encounter with an America apparently immune
to conventional wisdom. The book I was making the trip to talk about was
Political Fictions, a series of pieces I had written for The New York
Review about the American political process from the 1988 through the 2000
presidential elections. These people to whom I was listeningin San
Francisco and Los Angeles and Portland and Seattlewere making connections
I had not yet in my numbed condition thought to make: connections between
that political process and what had happened on September 11, connections
between our political life and the shape our reaction would take and was in
fact already taking.
These people recognized that even then, within days after the planes hit,
there was a good deal of opportunistic ground being seized under cover of
the clearly urgent need for increased security. These people recognized
even then, with flames still visible in lower Manhattan, that the words
"bipartisanship" and "national unity" had come to mean acquiescence to the
administration's preexisting agenda for example the imperative for further
tax cuts, the necessity for Arctic drilling, the systematic elimination of
regulatory and union protections, even the funding for the missile shield
as if we had somehow missed noticing the recent demonstration of how
limited, given a few box cutters and the willingness to die, superior
technology can be.
These people understood that when Judy Woodruff, on the evening the
President first addressed the nation, started talking on CNN about what "a
couple of Democratic consultants" had told her about how the President
would be needing to position himself, Washington was still doing business
as usual. They understood that when the political analyst William Schneider
spoke the same night about how the President had "found his vision thing,"
about how "this won't be the Bush economy any more, it'll be the Osama bin
Laden economy," Washington was still talking about the protection and
perpetuation of its own interests.
These people got it.
They didn't like it.
They stood up in public and they talked about it.
Only when I got back to New York did I find that people, if they got it,
had stopped talking about it. I came in from Kennedy to find American flags
flying all over the Upper East Side, at least as far north as 96th Street,
flags that had not been there in the first week after the fact. I say "at
least as far north as 96th Street" because a few days later, driving down
from Washington Heights past the big projects that would provide at least
some of the manpower for the "war on terror" that the President had
declaredas if terror were a state and not a technique I saw very few
flags: at most, between 168th Street and 96th Street, perhaps a half-dozen.
There were that many flags on my building alone. Three at each of the two
entrances. I did not interpret this as an absence of feeling for the
country above 96th Street. I interpreted it as an absence of trust in the
efficacy of rhetorical gestures.
Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org
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