Monday, October 15, 2007

That Was Then

Americans have two completely divergent ways of seeing themselves, the first as a nation of individualists who fiercely resist authority and strike out for themselves, the second as a united and indivisible nation seeking a common objective. Victory at Sea’s episode about Guadalcanal talks about the long, heroic struggle of the Marines on the island once Japanese airpower cut them off from their sources of supply. But unlike the Ken Burns movie, it never presents the story from the standpoint of a single individual. At the height of the battle, the film rather strangely cuts away from the jungle to scenes of American economic might—wheat fields, steel mills, truck factories, warehouses overflowing with supplies, airplanes coming off the assembly line, and then crowds of faceless Americans in factories, offices, and farms, concluding with soldiers parading in lock step to Rogers’ memorable Guadalcanal March. The series’ emphasis on the home front is particularly interesting: the humblest office clerk or assembly line worker was dignified by being part of a national project much larger than him or herself. Similar films could have been and were made in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. The collectivism of the war effort is something that has entered America’s national consciousness, and is one of the reasons for people still remembering this a “the good war.”

Compare, contrast with:

What interests [Susan Faludi] is not Islamic terrorism as an actual phenomenon that has already claimed many thousands of American lives, in Baghdad and Kabul as in New York and Washington. Instead, in a way that is natural to people who make their living by analyzing culture, Ms. Faludi concentrates solely on America's imaginative response to terrorism. She is more at ease talking about the psychodrama of our "terror dream" than about terror itself, to the extent that terror comes to seem like just a dream, a blank screen on which we project our fantasies.

Ms. Faludi means to be tough-minded in the manner of the Freudian analyst, who forces us to confront our damaging illusions. But in fact, her approach has the effect of reinforcing our deepest fantasies of omnipotence. If what matters in the post-September 11 age is not our enemies but our dreams, then we remain effectively invulnerable: only we can hurt ourselves. Ms. Faludi offers a perfect symbol of this delusion in her book's first pages. Early on September 11, 2001, she writes, she had a dream about being on a hijacked airliner, only to wake to the news of the twin towers attacks. She has literally replaced reality with her own dream.

People yet alive have been citizens of both nations here described, without ever leaving the same house. No wonder they look increasingly bewildered.