Joan Didion on 9/11

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
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 
Public Library.

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. But—like most of 
us who were in New York that week—I 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 listening—in San 
Francisco and Los Angeles and Portland and Seattle—were 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 
declared—as 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.


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