Monthly Archives: October 2008

Wrestling with the angel

I’ve raved to friends about The Terror Dream, Susan Faludi’s brilliant explanation of our culture’s bizarre reactions to the attacks of 9/11, but I had not actually finished the book until today, having been forced to consume some off-line media on a 10-hour flight to Germany.  I was mostly done with it and didn’t want to make room for this two-pound hardback in my tiny suitcase (carry-ons only!) for half an hour worth of reading, but I’m glad I did.  It was worth forgoing a second pair of shoes.

Faludi’s book is the kind that I hope they are teaching in American Studies courses these days.  Reading it I got angrier at our dysfunctional national psyche, but my primary reaction was the delight of relevation.  “So THAT’S why!”   Our maddeningly reactionary cultural responses are not senseless; in fact they make a lot of sense.  They are, unfortunately, insane.  Like clinically insane.  Having studied my own personal insanity a lot, I can assure you that insanity has a logic all its own.

The basic premise of the book is this: Our cultural response to 9/11 was to manufacture a narrative of male heroism and female weakness/rescue that was so blatantly disconnected from the actual events that some “serious ‘splaining” is required.  Part One of the book catalogs the ways in which narratives were rewritten, female voices were silenced, and fantasies were constructed in response to 9/11. Part Two embarks on the explanation, which lies in our “original shame” at not being able to protect ourselves from terror from the time the colonists arrived in the New World.  She writes:

September 11 was aimed at our cultural solar plexus precisely because it was an “unthinkable” occurrence for a nation that once could think of little else.  It was not, in fact, an inconceivable event; it was the characteristic and formative American ordeal, the primal injury of which we could not speak, the shard of memory stuck in our throats. Our ancestors had already fought a war on terror, a very long war, and we have lived with its scars ever since.

What I love about the book is not only that makes some sort of sense of what seems to be irrational or ludicrous behavior, but that it points towards alternate realities, how things could have been, and how they could maybe still be.  Surprisingly, it’s the earliest Puritan response to the terror of the wilderness and Indian captivity that she sees as the road, unfortunately, not taken.  I’ve always thought the Puritans were kind of crazy; they were an intensely patriarchal and religious society, and the whole submission to a higher power thing never really floated my boat.   Victimhood is not an attractive stance, and Faludi’s description of the Puritan response to attack comes dangerously close:

To place human intervention before divine was a sin for imperiled women and men alike.  Thus, when the “Utmost Frontier Town” of Deerfield, Massachusetts, faced imminent Indian attack, Rev John Williams…delivered back-to-back sermons on Jacob’s wrestled submission to the angel…The people of Deerfield understood that they should not pray to conquer their enemies but to be conquered themselves by God.”

Helpless maybe, but I’m starting to get the appeal (of the higher power, not the patriarchy).   However wacky it may seem that Puritan Mary Rowlandson, who wrote her narrative of captivity in 1682, turned out to be really quite glad to have been abducted so that she could make up for the sin of independence from God, her story is introspective and ends relatively happily.  And it beats the hell out of how Americans soon evolved to deal with this sort of trauma: by constructing a set of myths designed to compensate for male powerlessness and invite disaster and further terror.  [There’s a lot there on how this happens; if you’re curious, READ THE BOOK.  It reads fast and it’s worth it.]  Later, speaking of American culture’s preference for Westerns (which chronicle the time during which we finally exterminated our homeland enemies) over narratives of settling the Eastern frontier, Faludi writes:

…Cold War America turned its back on the earlier chapters of our history and the insights they might yield.  One potential insight, which would seem all the more essential in a post-atomic age, involves learning to live with insecurity, finding accommodation with – even drawing strength from – an awareness of vulnerability.  It entails struggling, as the earliest Puritans once struggled, to perceive the message in Jacob’s story of strength and dependency, to fathom the difference between wrestling with angels and slaying them.

There it is again: wrestling with the angel Jacob.  This is where I got really glad I’d brought the book on the plane.  I’ve heard that phrase several times recently, in the voice of Tim O’Reilly, quoting a favorite poem of his by Rilke.  Tim employs this poem, exceedingly effectively (if I can say that with any objectivity), to exhort the audience to tackle important, hard problems.  On the surface, you could argue that Tim’s instruction would sound like pure hubris to a Puritan; on the other hand, listen to the words he chooses to say it (Rilke’s words):

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.

I doubt this what Rilke had in mind, but certainly any of the ways our current political leaders have claimed to win in the “war on terror” have been exceedingly small things, and have made us small.  Many of the ways we’ve responded – security theater, the constriction of civil liberties, our tolerance for torture — have diminished us as a culture and a people.  To me, one of the most heart-wrenching parts of the book is the description of rescue workers’ profound sense of helplessness, and their subsequent betrayal by the media, whose desperate need to cast them as heroes deprived them of their ability to express their anguish.  Faludi writes: “In the mind of the New England Calvinist, helplessness and heroism were one.” But in the post 9/11 media, helplessness was seen as an intolerable condition that required heroism, however problematic, to neutralize it.  We’ve lost much of our ability to tolerate, or even embrace, powerlessness, but there are small ways, perhaps, that we are rediscovering how powerful it can be.

It’s not hard to see that learning to live with insecurity and vulnerability are going to be a core competency of the coming years; how could you argue otherwise in this political and economic climate?  But this dawning recognition predates the current crisis.  I heard Tom Malone speak about the “paradox of power” four years ago: the way to gain power is to give it up.  Most Web 2.0 and open source business models depend on giving away what has traditionally been your advantage: control, assets, intellectual property.  In fact, there is something extraordinarily modern about the notion that weakness is a form of power.  Or maybe our definitions of power are just hopelessly broken.

Tim’s rally cry is for hackers and entrepreneurs to tackle the enormous challenges of our economy, and environment.  But what more profound problem could we face than the inability to see past the contours of our own nightmares?  Functioning radios for the New York City Fire Department are certainly not the kind of hard problem Tim is envisioning when he asks the inventors of the world to wrestle with the angel, and yet still can’t provide them for a group of men and women we insist are our nation’s greatest heroes.  That’s just one of many absurdities that we participate in every day as American citizens: when we go to the airport, when our libraries buy metal detectors instead of books, when our neighbors kids are shipped off to fight a pointless war. For now, simply admitting vulnerability and rejecting the myths that cripple us may be the hardest work we have.  And Faludi’s book, as futile as her agenda may seem, is hard, important work.

The Rilke poem ends with defeat, but the regenerative power of defeat and the beauty of the struggle:

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

There is another point I have not made here, because it requires a bit more thought. I have been in the audience for most of the times Tim has delivered this speech (or variants of it) and the audience is largely male.  It would be a bit silly to draw parallels between these two works and not acknowledge that Faludi’s book is at its core a feminist work, and Tim’s audience (and my audience, since I produce these events) has a noticeable gender imbalance.  I have more to say on this topic, I think, but I will save it for another day.