The American challenge: waking to dream again

Lindsay Waters
23 January 2002

The sudden vogue of Walter Benjamin in the 1990s seemed to arise weirdly, out of nowhere, until one considers that his is a philosophy of awakening out of an intoxicating sleep. By the nineties, things were looking so good that many of us had fallen into a sleepwalk. The big cities of the United States were looking up. Manhattan was almost, once again, the brightly lit riverboat she’d been in the early twentieth century. Her crowds looked like nothing so much as the passengers on the Mississippi steamer the Fidele in Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence Man. From TriBeca, Soho, Chelsea on to 57th and 59th Streets up to Broadway near Columbia to 125th Street, the city was hopping with people from everywhere in the world. It felt like it was once again the number one, pre-eminent, global city…

But by the nineties, many of us felt that the only place to find life would have to be in the privacy of our homes under the headphones, in front of the tube. And a sense of foreboding came upon some of us. The strong, affective response audiences had to movies like The Truman Show, and the rise of the environmental movement, indicated that some people felt the urge to wake up from the dream that these sunny days could continue for ever.

Behind the mask of contentment

The new questions are: will the bombings at the WTC and the Pentagon cause us to wake up? And from what exactly? Or will we burrow more deeply under the covers in order to escape into sleep once again? What can I hold on to? What holds my loved ones and me together?

At a time like this, after such a massive attack, when we have been caught off-guard it is very important for US citizens not to give in to the temptation of excessive self-recrimination. Of course, the behaviour of the US needs to be re-examined scrupulously. But we need to bear in mind something about ourselves: there is something in the American Psyche that finds it exceedingly seductive to go beyond apologising for some bad action to the wholesale condemnation of one’s self as bad. We seem to enjoy it. It is one of the puzzling things about Americans, most of us anyway, that we have no defined sense of ourselves. In a profound sense we do not know who we are. This can be a very good thing. Good or bad, it seems to be how we are, and why we are so vulnerable.

Americans present to the world a happy face. This mask of ours is known world-wide. But there is, not far below the surface, an American darkness. The people who plotted the bombings in NYC and DC know us well. They have been, many of them, living aboard the good ship Fidele for many years and studying us for many more. In them, we as a system have developed our most subtle parasite, and so they aimed their bombs precisely at the fissure we know profoundly yawns between our smiles and our hearts.

It must be OK for some societies to want to keep their distance from us and not get on the good boat Fidele, with all its card-sharks and hucksters. Indeed, the most important modern political philosopher in the US, John Rawls, made just this claim in the book he wrote as his last testament as an attempted description of a plan to achieve everlasting peace. His blueprint looks very different from a shield to be erected over the US and its chosen allies.

Rawls sees conflict as basic in human life. In The Law of Peoples, he tries to give some hints about how to deal with a situation such as we have now – of globalisation – where different societies find themselves bumping up against each other all the time. His basic message to the Americans is this: accept the fact that – despite your own belief that your democratic and egalitarian ideas are universal – there are some hierarchical, traditional societies that don’t believe this. As long as they are ‘decent societies’ that treat the people who live within them and outside of them with respect, you must desist from trying to get them to submit to your values. In light of the need for the US not to tolerate terror, but to gather around itself a great variety of different forms of societies to fight terror, Rawls’ ideas could not be more in need of being heard over and against those of Samuel Huntingdon.

Americans, who are we?

There are few foreign countries that the US feels it has a special relationship with. But such relations have their peculiarities. I remember when I made my only trip to the Holy Land getting spooked when I kept running into American religious groups singing in chapels and getting re-baptised in the River Jordan, because it dawned on me that for all these people, American domination of the Middle East gave them the very strong conviction that at last, after centuries of struggle, we, the Americans, thanks to our support for Israel, had won the Crusades permanently.

This thought made me feel very vulnerable to attack. In school I had studied how to attack Jerusalem militarily with a literature professor with whom I had read the great epic of the Crusade of 1099, Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered. Professor Murrin had insisted that we see this great imaginative work as founded, in its essentials, upon an earthly struggle the poet had made it his business to understand inside out. So I knew that seizing Jerusalem was nigh to an impossible task for ground forces.

The goal we might be after as Americans – to know ourselves by producing ourselves – should never come down to possessing a piece of property. I believe we can, with justice, claim that the destruction of office buildings like the WTC and the Pentagon does not harm the US. These buildings are certainly not great Buddhas for the Americans, like the icons the Taliban destroyed in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Destroying the Statue of Liberty or the White House would have offended us deeply, to be sure. But even those things could not do permanent damage. No, no building or thing is that sacred to the Americans. The horror of watching those buildings collapse delivered the attack it did to each American because we felt the horror of realising how many individual dreams had disappeared in a flash: millions of human events and experiences went up in smoke for those who died and for all their loved ones, and to many more of us.

The ‘free market’ is not the US. If it truly were, then the destruction of the symbolic centre of the economy would matter and the deaths of five thousand plus would not. But if those deaths are truly to be transmuted into a spiritual legacy, it is by insisting upon the power of all, each and every one who died, to possess us and haunt us, now and into the future, and provoke us to be better pilgrims so that we might truly know ourselves. But how?

Looking reality in the face

We need to wake up. We have been a blinkered people. The tools we have used for seeing the world have shielded us from too much for too long. It is not amusing to see a giant blundering his way through the world, unaware he is bumping into other people. The citizens of the US for entirely too long have acted as though they could not be guilty of wrongdoing, if what they did to others was well meant. If I mean good for the Jews of Israel and I mean no wrong to the Palestinians of Israel and Palestine, then I can only do good, right? No.

This sort of behavior is the result of a structure of feeling that can be changed. And once it becomes obvious, we are under a moral obligation to change it. Some now will think Samuel Huntingdon remarkably prescient when he predicted the clash of civilizations as the chief threat to US security. But I remind you that his idea – that we should ignore all the troubles that develop within other peoples – is a recipe for disaster, even if it dignifies ignorance with the pompous name of “the abstention rule”.

So, we must be prepared to get along with decent hierarchical societies that say ‘no thanks’ to what we have to offer them. This incommensurability must be accepted.

That some people in the Islamic world feel their way of life to be in crisis is evident. It is possible that in fact the big game the forces of Osama bin Laden are after is the Saudi throne. We may in times to come call this the War of Saudi Succession. And to some considerable extent it is possible that the existence of the United States is a side issue to those sons who want to remove their corrupt fathers from power. On the other hand, the fates of the United States and Saudi Arabia have become so entwined over the last fifty years that the disentanglement of the two cannot possibly be quick.

Until the year 2001, the Americans were so caught up in a dynamic with the oil-producing religious extremists, the Wahhabi Muslims in charge of Saudi Arabia, that they could not force themselves to face the basic facts. Now we can see that the money we pay for gas for our cars is the same money that paid for bin Laden’s network to bomb our buildings. All the components of this event – people, airplanes, petroleum – were right out in the open. The appropriateness of the means of inflicting this harm is all too obvious.

Why were we in Vietnam, Mailer asked in his book with that title? We never could figure that one out. Where is the Domino Theory when we need it? Oil is the reason why we are in Saudi Arabia, and it is the reason why all the states in this region link together and link up to the US. And it is horrible after the fact to see how the whole event was staged to provide a news feed to TV. How did these people learn so much from the Reagan White House about using the TV to give Americans “a war they can believe in”? But Reagan’s made-for-TV infommercial on the taking of Granada was small potatoes by comparison to this epic in which people the US think live in the Stone Age, take Manhattan. Who you gonna call?

The reason the situation we are in is tricky is because what is central to it goes to the heart of a complicated relationship in which we are so locked in an embrace that it is nigh on to impossible to see how we can extricate ourselves. In this, it is exactly like Melville’s Benito Cereno. We need energy now in the form of petroleum. We needed it then in the form of slaves. We are going to have to terminate our relationship with the Saudi royal family and radically lessen our dependence on petroleum. We can change this: we do not need to be so dependent on petroleum. It will be hard, but this is what we may need to do to really fight the terror. Oil has become the heroin of our economy. Our dependence is killing us.

Escaping from dreams

Another sort of incommensurability must be seen for the source of conflict that it is. There are some people who just cannot tolerate the very way the US exists: people who, if they listened to Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech, would say, not just ‘we want none of that’, but ‘we want that dream, and anyone who shares it, to be eradicated from this earth’. Because as long as that dream is free to roam the earth, it will steal away adherents from their authoritarian social order.

Tyranny is the opposite of democracy. The Wahhabi Muslims who run Saudi Arabia are tyrants. This violent Puritanism, this loathing of women and their bodies, is indecent to the core and betrays the operation of a culture of death. This is Misogyny Incorporated. The Saudi royal family disguise themselves as traditionalists, as shepherds and camel drivers, no gas-guzzling car drivers like us. But the power they wield over us is absolutely contemporary, corrupt, and corrosive of the idea of the US. The tyranny and the terrorism are one. These people are fighting for the absolute incommensurability of their culture. Every night we slide into bed beside them we betray our core values yet again.

What is harder to change is ourselves: that is the real challenge. This should not be impossible to contemplate, since not much hinges for Americans on being any one thing, and we have a bias to futurity and to seeing how future events transform our sense of ourselves. But we were lulled into a kind of quiescence over the last two decades and have avoided reflection on who we might be. This must change.

The challenge to Americans now is to resist the compulsion to escape back into dreams. The very way this terrorist act was accomplished was meant to work mysteriously, causing Americans to fall back asleep: not to see the threat posed by the hijackers to their way of life. Blame yourselves. You are the bad people. ‘We represent the suffering multitude.’ But those people care not a fig for the Palestinians. A lot of loose talk speaks about American ‘fascism’. This is not accurate. In fact, the behavior of the bin Laden terrorists can much more accurately be called fascism: their politics and their aesthetics. They wanted our internal screen to go blank. Taking the risk that we would overcome the trauma and want revenge, they wanted us to feel ourselves to be undifferentiated elements of the mass that was crushed inside the WTC.

This is just how fascist art works. It is said the killers believed that the whole US would collapse just like the WTC buildings, because the US was but a paper tiger. The killers will never know how wrong this estimation of the US was, but the planners of the attack will. The suicide-killers allowed themselves to be turned into automatons. Their self-alienation had reached the point where they could experience their own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure. Its force is all centripetal, sucking all it can into a whirlwind of destruction. It uses machinery to destroy the human world.

A time for re-imagination

The most horrible moment for me in reading Jerusalem Delivered is when, in canto 13, the evil magus Ismeno destroys the ancient forest that stood next to Jerusalem in order to prevent the Christian army from rebuilding the tower they had constructed for getting over the walls of the city. Tasso sets before us what horrible end is going to come to us if humans fail to see that their relation to the environment is just as important as the relation between humans and humans.

He also shows a set of warriors who do not back down. Tasso’s good warrior Tancredi gets frightened, especially when one tree he has dared to strike answers him in the voice of his beloved Clorinda. But he overcomes his fear. When some Americans wander through life not imagining the consequences of their actions, they are engaging in a behavior that is akin to sleepwalking. Art is the mechanism that can most powerfully awake people from this dangerous sleep.

The prime goal of the hijackers as it pertains to Americans was to lay waste to the notion Americans seem to hold very dear to them that, given time, they can find a rhythm or a vibe to share with any other human being. The primary function of war is to destroy connections. The primary function of art is to make connections and render connections palpable. I am calling for a change, a development of the American mentality, a change that art can effect. If I could choose my own prophetic writer to be my guide, it would be Melville, who imagined life in all its complexity, and who knew the heart needed to be fortified to make the journey the imagination has in store for us out of knowingness and into soulfulness. He does not minimize for one second just how difficult it is to wake up.

What the artists can do is to provide not just sweet dreams, but lead us to imagine new ways of constructing the great artwork that is the jazz that is America. Artists can give us, not a wake-up call, but rather lead us to the great awakening it was always time for us to engage in. If there are people who cannot tolerate the fact that some others on this earth want to project dreams that can be shared, these must be truly evil people who have pronounced the judgment of damnation on themselves, long before I could do so.

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