Shortly after 9/11, Adam Gopnik published an essay in the New Yorker titled “The City and the Pillars.” In it, he strolls the streets of New York in the days immediately after the attacks, noting the reactions of the man on the street, as well as his own sensory impressions. Of the smell wafting from the fallen towers, he writes:
The smell, which fills the empty streets of SoHo from Houston to Canal, blew uptown on Wednesday night, and is not entirely horrible from a reasonable distance — almost like the smell of smoked mozzarella, a smell of the bubble time.
For New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, them was fightin’ words. He fairly seethed: that Gopnik “reduces everything to a bougreois amenity.”
In fact, that was the point of Gopnik’s essay: most New Yorkers — probably most people, period — live non-ideological lives in which consumption plays a large part. Those lives are no less valuable for that; neither are attempts to rebuild those lives in the face of rampant evil any less valiant.
Wieseltier’s own read on Ground Zero, which he did not visit until some weeks after the attack, might be uncorrupted by consumerism, but it does bear the mark of an unheroic vanity:
I was not prepared for what I saw. I do not know how to express the quality of my shock, except to say that it banished culture completely from my mind. I fell dumb and stood there as if I had never read a book. My observations erased my memories. I was without allusions and without metaphors. Can a mind be naked? Then I was naked, without coverings. All I could do was look, and pray to see.
All culture banished from Leon Wieseltier’s mind? Impossible! Readers were supposed to think. Those al-Qaeda guys must be putting something in the water!
This old feud seems to have reclaimed its relevance over the past two days. With Osama bin Laden dead, Americans in general and pundits in particular are beginning to turn on each other, sifting through one another’s reactions for evidence of low character or seditious intent. In Salon, Joan Walsh wrote:
Bin Laden was clearly an evil human being, but it is deeply disturbing to see photos of some of my fellow Americans literally celebrating and cheering like it’s a some kind of football game win.
Walsh’s schoolmarm tone (which she puts down to her Catholic education) grates mightily, but so does Jim Geraghty’s rebuttal, which appears in his National Review Online blog:
No, really. This is the moment to cheer, to scream, to pump your fist, to break into that old bottle of your favorite beverage you’ve been saving for a special occasion. Because the world is different this morning. A key message has been beamed to every corner of the earth, sure to reach anyone who has ever committed terror against Americans, who seeks to do so again, or who is contemplating the act: No matter who you are, no matter how many followers you have, no matter how smart or careful you think you are, our guys can find you.
I don’t necessarily dispute Geraghty’s interpretation of bin Laden’s death at the hands of our troops. Hopefully, it will carry exactly the significance he eagerly ascribes to it. But for me, happiness and the imperative mood have always mixed badly. If someone tells me, “Be happy –ecstatically so! Now! Or else!” I’ll make a point of pulling a face longer than Celine Dion’s.
In fact, when it comes to all spontaneous, emotional reactions to events of staggering significance, I’m a confirmed relativist — within reason, of course. As long as you’re not throwing chairs or baring your breasts to those who don’t wish to see them, I’m all for letting you roll.
Some of the most unpleasant moments in my life have come when some busybody insisted that everyone observe some arbitrary, prescribed pattern of response. When it was announced that priests from the Order of Preachers would be surrendering my home parish to priests from the diocese, most parishioners were crushed. They staggered into the parking lot looking like someone had punched them in the gut. All except for one person, that is. This fellow, who welcomed the change, corralled his friends and — completely unable to empathize with their grief — ordered them, in so many words, not to be sad.
I almost decked him. There are times I wish I had.
Now, if someone reacts to bin Laden’s death in a way you consider unseemly, I’m not suggesting you make like the helpless villagers in that Twilight Zone episode, and tell him, “That was a good thing you did, Anthony! Real good!” If it bothers you, open a dialogue. But try, I beg you, in the name of can’t-we-all-just-get-along, not to begin with the presumption that the look on your face is the one everybody should wear.
Opinions are another matter. Opinions are fair game. But analyzing a person’s opinion to a turn from the way she’s pumping her fist in the air is harder than it looks.
In Milan Kundera’s Joke, the hero, Ludvik, is a student in Prague during the elections that bring the communists into power. He’s a committed communist himself, except for one thing — his comrades are too damned happy all the time. It’s how they prove to each other they have the proper revolutionary spirit. In a fit of playful exasperation, he sends his girlfriend a postcard reading: “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” And, well, that’s his life ruined.
Let’s not go there.
– Max Lindenman