I recently saw an in-depth interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Susan Faludi about her latest book, The Terror Dream. Her comments widened my thinking about how national self-identity always affects our response to national tragedy. It’s there as a starting point almost, in that your basic assumptions shape how you view international events. And it’s evident on a national policy level, as well as in our national cultural dialogue and in our own personal beliefs and assumptions. Where does this come from? How do we take a step back and really examine ourselves and our beliefs? Although I haven’t read her book, I believe that this is what Faludi believes is the most important task during turbulent times: Take a hard look in the mirror. But I also gather that her book’s premise reveals just how hard this is, and that in our shortcomings we will fall back on worn-out stereotypes.
Why do we do this? From Susan Faludi’s Web site: “The answer, Faludi finds, lies in a historical anomaly unique to the American experience: the nation that in recent memory has been least vulnerable to domestic attack is also a nation haunted by a centuries-long trauma of assault on its home soil. For nearly two hundred years, our central drama was not the invincibility of our frontiersmen but their inability to repel invasions of non-Christian, nonwhite “barbarians” from the homestead door. To conceal the insecurity bred by those attacks, American culture would generate an ironclad countermyth of cowboy swagger and feminine frailty, which has been reanimated whenever the nation feels threatened. On September 11, Americans were once again returned to an experience of homeland terror and humiliation. And, once again, they fled from self-knowledge and retreated into myth.”
It’s strong cultural criticism to be sure. But when the stakes are so high, I don’t think leaders and citizens alike should fear anything that might surface from some strong self-examination.
Postscript: The New York Times has a critical review of Faludi’s book that suggests readers take the author’s points into some perspective. The reviewer makes some good points that Faludi tends to downplay some evidence that might not fit her arguments. Michiko Kakutani writes, “Ms. Faludi asserts that the 9/11 widows â€œthe media liked bestâ€ were the fragile, dependent ones, â€œwho accepted that their â€˜jobâ€™ now was to devote themselves to their families and the memory of their dead husbands.â€ But even she has to acknowledge that the so-called â€œJersey Girlsâ€ (Kristen Breitweiser, Mindy Kleinberg, Patty Casazza, and Lorie van Auken) played â€œan essential role in forcing the creation of the independent 9/11 Commission,â€ and helped strong-arm â€œtop White House officials into testifying before the commission.â€”