Down with Reaction Nazis

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

  • Dorothy

    Max, you are a scream. Where do you blog when you aren’t co-anchoress? Tell me you will not vanish from cyberspace….

  • Revert Al

    As someone who had a couple of stiff drinks
    after the recent event, and whose
    father and father in law would have been
    in on the invasion of Japan had our nation
    not dropped the bombs.. count me a celebrator.

  • ECM

    I’m confused. Are you calling Geraghty a Reaction Nazi for defending the reactions of the revelers or confessing your own Nazism for wanting to punch someone who didn’t share your reaction to the news of the change in your church? Perhaps we just shouldn’t call people Nazis of anything.

  • Max Lindenman

    Geraghty’s more of a counter-Nazi. When Walsh tut-tutted about people who were celebrating, Geraghty came back with, “No, the pump-your-fist way is the only right and proper way!” In my ideal world, they’d have left each other alone, giving each other occasional dirty looks at worst.

    What bothered me about that guy in my parish wasn’t that he reacted differently from me. That was his right. What bothered me was that he insisted his friends react the way he was reacting when it was an emotional impossibility.

    Yes, I thought about doing the Nazi-like thing and punching him, but I didn’t.

  • ECM

    I guess we read Geraghty’s post differently. I saw it more as a defense of the relieved/happy people in the streets, rather than an edict to join them or fail at America-ing. Count me as one avoiding the happy throng. Bin Laden was a significant symbol, but a symbol nonetheless. The existential threat remains, and it’s hard to see how we’re defeating it.

  • Kate

    So I’m not allowed to express my feelings of embarrassment, even shame, that Americans are celebrating death by dancing in the streets? Am I allowed to mention that it’s irritating to be called a Nazi?

  • Max Lindenman

    Katie: I’ll tell you why it doesn’t bother me especially:

    1. The Global War on Terror has turned our whole world upside-down. One of the most frustrating things about it is, there are few tangile benchmarks for success. After ten years, people naturally want to believe that we’ve managaed to accomplish something. Whether or not bin Laden’s death turns out to be a major development, it makes a certain sense to celebrate it was though it were one.

    2. Most of the people cheering wouldn’t hurt a fly.

    3. They’ll find something to be miserable about soon enough.

  • Paul Zummo

    “Geraghty came back with, “No, the pump-your-fist way is the only right and proper way!”

    This is a pretty glaring strawman. Geraghty didn’t say or even come remotely close to even implying what you’re imputing to him. ECM’s interpretation is correct.

  • andy

    I am confused – this is a Catholic site and the Vatican spokesman was reasonably clear when he said we should not celebrate the death of any man, even a man who caused such evil. I too was concerned and still am concerned about the celebrations after bin Laden’s death. I do not see it as a murder, but death of any type due to violence lessens us a people and to celebrate cements the diminishment.

    As far as the use of Nazi – regardless who says about whoever – it is wrong. We spend so much time attacking the “other side” that we fail to see that we are all alike – made in God’s image, to love and serve Him, not call each other names and doubt each other’s beliefs and behaviors.

  • Kevin

    If we could agree to one rule, I always figured it was “whoever compares the other to a Nazi or Hitler has lost the debate.”

    That’s really how I see it here. There are those who are happy justice has been done to one of the vilest men in human history, whose attacks were not against a particular nation, but against the very notion of civilization itself.

    If people want to celebrate that man’s demise, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge them. That’s not the same as bloodlust for a mans death, which nobody should ever have.

    Just like Walsh’s statement doesn’t make her a nazi: it does however make her look like a fool if one asks me.

  • mcg

    Down with the anti Reaction Nazi Nazis!
    Cool, we can play this game all day.

  • furious

    As James Taranto wrote at “Best of the Web”:

    “If the terrorists lose and that makes us happy, then the terrorists win. Brilliant!”

    Is Godwin’s Law suspended, or is this more a “Soup-Nazi” kind of Nazi?