I came here tonight to talk about the response of American intellectuals to the events of September 11—and I use the neutral, meaningless term “events” to start off right where any intellectual response begins, with an attempt to name what took place, or to avoid naming it.
We are all familiar with the words that quickly turned into buzzwords, or evasions. Some of these I’ll take up later: “tragedy,” “crime against humanity,” “major atrocities.” Some are now just shorthand: “9-11,” “September 11.” “Terrorist attacks” was somehow too much of a mouthful. Some names that seem to me the most weighty—enormous words that force the speaker or the listener to confront what they mean, where they came from, what ground they share—have been used by a few and have then disappeared, never entering the common conversation at all: “massacres,” “mass murders.” Intellectuals are supposed to care about words, to respect them, to understand their power to deprive public talk of meaning, or their power to block clichés. But intellectuals are also afraid of words—afraid not only of what they can do, but of how they can make one who uses them appear. Who wants to look like a fool, unserious, as if one doesn’t know what to say? The New York Times on September 12 caught me right in the throat with its headline, a headline, I realized the instant I saw it, that I been certain I would never see:
The country itself. The idea of the country. Its territory. Its citizenry. Its past and its future. “U.S. Attacked.” But after that, use of language as a blunt object dissolved into logos, each one, you could imagine, immediately trademarked by whatever news organization was using it: “America Under Attack” on CNN; “America Strikes Back” on Fox News and MSNBC; “A Day of Terror” and “A Nation Challenged” in the New York Times. That sense of shock, of the sudden recognition of a truth, that I’d gotten from the first Times headline had somehow been returned to the conventional, to the predictable, to the manageable, until I saw the headline on the satirical weekly, The Onion. It announced the truth, but in words intellectuals wouldn’t use as their last words: “Holy Fucking Shit.” Against this, my favorite certified intellectual attempt at naming, far beyond composer Karl Stockhausen’s “the greatest work of art ever . . . the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos”: novelist Rick Moody, best known for The Ice Storm, beginning a mid-September essay by throwing his hands in the air—”The Attack—what else can I call it?”—and then proceeding to use his hands to smooth the paper before him: “‘The Attack,’” Moody said, “—is a web of narratives.”
Words used in that manner—that kind of naming, that kind of instinctive intellectual work—are an insult to whoever is unlucky enough to hear them. They laugh at your confusion. They mock your fear. They look down at you. They parade their confidence, their certainty that there is nothing that can’t be folded into the language of the day before, their refusal to entertain the possibility that something might have happened that never happened before.
The acknowledgment that something can take place in the world that never happened before might be the starting point of any real intellectual activity. Acts can be taken, events can occur, that demand a whole new way of being in the world, of looking at the world, of speaking about the world. It may be the most common instinct, in the face of the new, to flee to the old: to analogies, to precursors, to whatever old name can be used to cover up the need for a new one, anything to avoid having to say “I’ve never seen anything like this before”—”Holy Fucking Shit,” in other words—which means having to say, “I don’t know what to say.” So one says what one knows how to say. One says that this it not so new as it appears, not that surprising, not that shocking—and, doing that, one takes one’s place in Bob Dylan’s greatest protest song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” from 1963, with its saddened, angry chorus naming “those who philosophize disgrace, and criticize all fears.” Those who claim to know what to say in the face of something new precisely criticize the fears of those who sense in their bones that something new has taken place—and who realize that they no longer know precisely what their place in the world might be. “The Attack—what else can I call it?—is a web of narratives.”
My idea of an intellectual is Hannah Arendt, a German Jew who found her voice in the United States after the Second World War. As a scholar and a professor she was also always a student—a student of what she called the human condition. Her books—The Origins of Totalitarianism, On Violence, On Revolution, Men in Dark Times—were often attacked as ahistorical, or even anti-historical. That was because, to many, the stories she told—and she was most of all a storyteller, like a guide in the catacombs of history—were set less within a solid frame of reference, where every seemingly new event has its analogy, than they were anchored—anchored by the Athenians, the philosophers and the dramatists, more than anyone else. And Arendt was often condemned as anti-historical because she knew that sometimes anchors come loose, and the that the ships they were meant to hold to solid ground go adrift. “Thinking without a ground” is how one student of hers characterized her work. She is best known, certainly in the American Jewish community, for her 1961 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, where she wrote these lines which, to me, anyway, sum up her idea of what the human condition is made of.
It is in the very nature of things human that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past . . . Once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been.
This may seem like a truism, but in fact it goes directly against the grain of what, in most times and places, intellectual discourse takes itself to be—against what it most often takes its purpose to be. When confronted with what might seem like something new, most intellectual discourse says that what appears new is not: that to the contrary it fits into familiar categories, can be described, explained, and analyzed with familiar concepts, can be fixed with familiar words. Hannah Arendt was on the other side of the mirror. Between Past and Future was the title of one of her books, and the title spoke for her understanding of how the world works, what the human condition is. There can be a breach between past and future, and if there is such a breach, the future must be something new. It may be terrible, formless, incomprehensible, even mute, but it will be new—in truth, every time there is such a breach between past and future, a new event has taken place, for no such breach can be the same. “Originality,” Arendt wrote in 1953, “is horrible, not because some new ‘idea’ came into the world, but because its very actions constitute a break with all our traditions; they have clearly exploded our categories of political thought and our standards of moral judgment.” The past floats away like an unmoored, unanchored ship. We remember it; like a Spanish galleon loaded with Peruvian gold, as it drops over the horizon it carries off our treasure, our memory. As the ship disappears, we can imagine ourselves on it. We can even name it: the Flying Dutchman.
Feeling herself living in the space between past and future—feeling herself, if not the philosopher of that space, its storyteller—Arendt actively sought what had never been before. Listen to her language: “Every act that has once made its appearance and been recorded in the history of mankind”—it is a philosophical assertion that an act that has not been made before can be made. What the Nazis did, she argued at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem—and, really, everywhere in her work—was something new: they altered the limits on human action. Now, crimes that heretofore were literally unthinkable—for which the conceptual, philosophical, legitimating apparatus did not exist—were, by the very fact they now were facts, easy to think. More than easy: it was impossible not to think such crimes. It was impossible not to imagine what the Nazis had done to the Jews in Europe in the 1940s being done to anyone else, anywhere else, at any time.
Arendt looked for the new, for what was making its appearance in the history of mankind. She found it in totalitarianism; she found it in the American revolution. And she wrote with such grace, seductiveness, and force because in such an intellectual quest, so much was at stake: the chance, which might not come again, to identify, in that gap between past and future, what the particular opportunities and dangers were—the opportunities that had never come before, the dangers that had never come before. As she wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us—neither denying its existence or submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.
Almost immediately after the fact, I found out that the mass murders perpetrated in the United States by Arab terrorists—that’s one of the things one can say instead of “the Attack”—might lead to very particular breaks between past and future: they could lead to breaks between friends. It came at a Yom Kippur dinner when I found myself shouting at an eighteen-year-old who had said that what had happened was more than anything “a cry for help.” It came when a friend said on the phone that he was trying to come to terms with “who was really culpable here,” by which he meant the degree to which the United States was culpable—“How about the people who hijacked the planes?” I almost yelled at him. It came when a British friend, a professor, said that “Anti-Americanism was a necessity” in any attempt to come to grips with “the Attack” and I instantly found myself on the far side of a great divide, in another country from the one we had both inhabited a second before, one in which I imagined that I was at home, and imagined that my friend was not, and didn’t want to be.
Friends aside, the recognition of such a breach can be liberating. The first premise of intellectual work, of thinking without a ground, is to trust your first response—and my first response to reading the leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky’s first statement on the massacres was disgust. “The terrorist attacks were major atrocities,” he said on September 13, as if this was something that was in doubt—or a line that had to be laid down before what was really important could be said. “In scale,” Chomsky went on, “they may not reach the level of many others—for example, Clinton’s 1998 bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and killing unknown numbers of people.”
What caused the bile to rise in my throat was not the formal accuracy or legitimacy of the particular things Chomsky was saying—Chomsky, an eloquent speaker in the movement against the war in Vietnam, a defender of Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson in the 1980s, today a relentless critic of American power everywhere at all times. It was the assumption of simplicity, of obviousness. It was the absolute denial of surprise.
Chomsky’s words were those of someone who had seen all the way around the major atrocities even before they happened. There was no possibility that they contained, that they signified, anything new. Rather, they were a confirmation that, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower once put it, “Things are more like they are now than they ever were before.”
That Chomsky’s statement was an act of bad faith—less as a citizen of the United States, who has the right to say what he likes, than as an intellectual, who has an obligation to words and ideas—is borne out in the interviews he gave after September 13, and which he collected in a book he titled 9-11. The fact that, to impress upon people that he was appalled by the acts of terrorists, he did not bother to put his own thoughts in his own words, but again and again quoted the reporter Robert Fisk to that effect, meant, “Get this out of the way so we can talk about what matters.” “I mentioned,” Chomsky said on September 21, “that the toll of the ‘horrendous crime’ committed with ‘wickedness and awesome cruelty’ may be comparable to the consequences of Clinton’s bombing of the Al-Shifa plant in August 1998”—and so on. In other words, Chomsky’s earlier “major atrocities” was not serious. What he really meant was this: In the context of the world order as established by American power, what happened on September 11 was an ordinary and not even particularly egregious action by people resisting that power by those means left to them. It was of a piece with Robert Fisk’s own insistence, in his position as a veteran Middle East reporter who had himself interviewed Osama bin Laden several times, that the thousands of deaths were “a crime against humanity.” This sounds impressive—serious—until you find out what it means: “policemen, arrests, justice, a whole international court at the Hague if necessary.” In other words, the New York Times headline “U.S. Attacked” was hysterical. Rather, “Humanity” was offended. The United States has no right to respond. There was no war—except, as the book in which Fisk’s statement is collected titles it, September 11 and the U.S. War—a book which, with its cover, in four photos, demands that one acknowledge an idiot symmetry: smoke rising from the World Trade Center, smoke rising from a target in Afghanistan; Ground Zero in New York, a bomb site in Afghanistan.
I am not going to spend any time tonight taking apart Chomsky’s comparison of the New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania mass murders and Bill Clinton’s attempt to retaliate against Osama bin Laden’s bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Others have done it. What I want to talk about is the way in which American intellectuals have seized on the unprecedented acts of last year as an opportunity not to think—and I should say now that when I say “American intellectuals,” I mean left-wing intellectuals. That is because I think leftist intellectuals come out of, and must necessarily draw on, a tradition of open inquiry in which neither questions nor answers are fixed in advance. It doesn’t matter if the ancestors one chooses were, in some real sense, conservatives. In 1831, when he published Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville was a conservative intellectual. So was Hannah Arendt. Their sense of gravity drew them to the past, even if they knew it could never be recovered. As intellectuals they were Robinson Crusoes, scavenging whatever could be rescued from the shipwrecks of their place and time as they tried to navigate in an altogether unfamiliar world. But like Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus, or Edmund Wilson—all, in their way, deeply conservative thinkers—they understood that they were, in some significant sense, ignorant, deaf, blind, and mute. To make sense of a new world, or the gap between a past and a future, they would have to ask questions that had never been asked, and consider answers that to their ancestors would have made no sense at all. It may be that my inability to take right-wing intellectuals seriously as intellectuals is nothing more than my own lack of imagination—but as far as I can see, right-wing intellectuals in America today are propagandists before they are anything else. They speak and write not to ask, but to answer. They are literally bought and paid for—in so many cases, their titles awarded, their salaries paid, and their publications subsidized by the Hoover Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Olin Foundation, and the racist, eugenicist Bradley Foundation.
In the wake of the mass murders, leftist American intellectuals spoke again and again of the need to resist the attempts of the Bush administration and other right-wing powers in American life to use the excuse of war to do things they might otherwise not be able to do: to “highjack” the war, as people are beginning to put it, in favor of the curtailment of civil liberties, new tax cuts for corporations and rich Americans as part of an “Economic Security Act,” drilling in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge as part of an “Energy Security Act,” and the like. But there is no chance to even begin to talk about what is right about a war and what is wrong about it, what is right about the United States and what is wrong about it, when leftist intellectuals no less than right-wing propagandists speak the same language—the language of flattery. If most right-wing intellectuals write to flatter those who pay them, so many left-wing intellectuals, who may be paid nothing to write, write to flatter themselves.
An international Gallup poll conducted in late February—”face to face interviews with 9,924 residents of Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia”—determined that “sixty-one percent did not believe Arab groups carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks.” The first I heard of such a notion came not from the Middle East, but from Berkeley, on September 12 or 13, when an anonymous e-mailer sent a leftwing thread my way: “Who has the most to gain?” one person asked, and immediately answered: “Mossad.” Though within a week it would be plain that it was George W. Bush who had the most to gain from the mass murders—and who has, as a skillful politician, gained the most—no one suggests that he carried out the massacres. But the confluence between Arab public opinion and leftist intellectual analysis is quite stunning. Arabs are often quoted to the effect that Arab terrorist groups are incapable of the acts of which they are accused—technically incapable, imaginatively incapable, of insufficient intelligence, it’s never spelled out. American intellectuals seem to proceed from the assumption that Arabs are incapable of defining their own destinies or making sense of their own actions.
To read through the writings and interviews of Chomsky and so many like him is to be told that everyone and anything the United States was or might be attacked by is in fact the direct creation of the United States. The Taliban. Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda. The Pakistani secret service. Saddam Hussein. Leftist intellectuals from Chomsky to the scholar Michael Parenti to the Nation columnist Katha Pollitt to the social commentators Barbara Ehrenreich and Vivian Gornick to the historian Howard Zinn write as if to say, if America did not literally plan and carry out an attack upon itself, it might as well have. As Robert Fisk puts it, most crazily, if not really outside the boundaries of the common discourse: “Our broken promises, perhaps even our destruction of the Ottoman Empire, led inevitably to this tragedy.” This tragedy—a terrible occurrence, in its formal definition, brought about by the arrogance, by the overweening pride, of he or she on whom the terrible occurrence is visited. A terrible occurrence, in its commonplace, everyday usage, that just happens, and for which no one can really be blamed. In either case, neither a crime nor an act of war.
It has been said by revolutionary theorists that it is the duty of every revolutionary to explain his or her actions. It was said by our own: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” But one of the many things that was new in the astonishingly successful, staggeringly symbolic, overwhelmingly physical act of war committed against the United States last September was that, as an act, it was without speech. There was no manifesto, statement, or justification addressed to the opinions of mankind, let alone those who were to be killed—implicitly, anyone and everyone within the borders of or holding any allegiance to the United States. It was as if the reason for the murders was, in the next phrase of the Declaration of Independence, “self-evident.”
But for so many American intellectuals, this was not sufficient. When one makes one’s living speaking in public, nothing can be self-evident; otherwise, some people would be out of a job. So one learned, again and again, that the acts taken against the United States were the result of crimes the United States had committed against others—against Guatemalans, Chileans, Nicaraguans, Philippines, Japanese, Angolans, Serbians, Sudanese, Iraqis, Iranians, Afghanis, Saudis, and, most of all, most deeply and most hideously and most proximately, Palestinians. It was the United States, through its client state Israel, and the client state’s general Ariel Sharon, one read, who was responsible for the massacres of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 1982—and the death of every Palestinian man, woman, or child killed by Israelis since. That by the same logic one could say that the United States was responsible for the death of every Israeli man, woman, or child killed by a Palestinian was not remarked upon; that from a different logic one might wonder why it is only the United States, or Israel, that is held responsible for the 1982 Lebanon massacres, and not the Lebanese Christians who in fact carried them out, was as far as I know mentioned only by Fredric Smoler, a professor of literature and history at Sarah Lawrence, in the leftist New York tabloid First of the Month.
“Responsibility for violence lies with those who perpetrate it,” the novelist Salman Rushdie wrote in 1990. He was speaking, most specifically, of the fatwa issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini—the death sentence passed on him for his supposedly blasphemous book The Satanic Verses. What he meant, I think, was that should he be murdered, as the leader of the faith had commanded that he be, the person who killed him should be held fully responsible. That person, Rushdie was saying, would have made a choice. He—for only a man would have been considered worthy of the act—would not have been impelled by, and could not be justified by, any religious belief or historical necessity. Men and women make their own decisions, and rightly suffer for them. The greater cause only exculpates; only the individual can take responsibility. But this was not a notion that one has much heard from American intellectuals. Not only had the United States, as a world power, or a military apparatus serving as the protector of American capitalism, created the attack on itself; as good Americans, American intellectuals were obligated to explain and justify it. And this was only one more of the many things about the beginning of the war that was new.
There were many exceptions, and they were drowned out, or appeared in relatively obscure or specialized publications. In First of the Month, co-editor Charles O’Brien wrote from the heart, condemning Noam Chomsky and others as “the Vichy left,” and saying, finally, more than anyone else was saying, right or left. The left always speaks in terms of its “task,” its “duty”; almost mockingly, knowing who he was up against—that is, most of those who might be reading a leftist New York tabloid—that was the language O’Brien took up.
It is the duty of the left in this time not only to be a party of war, but to be the maximalist party of war. Hostilities must extend not only to Iraq, Sudan, etc. but to the supposed friendlies, the darlings of so many on the domestic right: Saudi Arabia, the [United Arab Emirates], and Pakistan. We can do no better, to use Chomsky’s phrase, than, first to disregard Chomsky utterly (along with such organs of disinformation as “Z” and “Counterpunch” as well as the more genteel “Harpers”, “LRB”, and the “Nation”). But more important, we can do no better than to emulate revolutionary France: which, with audacity, without indulgence, summoning up the people, carried the war, across whosever borders, to the enemies of the republic.
In Artforum, Homi Bhabha, a professor of English and African American Studies at Harvard, and as an intellectual most distinguished for his translation of the political concept of “plausible deniability” into literary discourse—putting every word of potential meaning in scare quotes, to indicate that he does not accept any meaning anyone might attribute to it—as in, “putting every ‘word’ of ‘potential’ ‘meaning’ in ‘scare’ quotes”—wrote a piece with only three such quotes: and rather than provide meaning, or explanation, simply merged himself with the event, which he somehow saw as a crowd of men and women climbing up and down on Jacob’s Ladder. With startling eloquence he spoke of something he called “the Unbuilt.” “Gardens of solace and towers of regeneration may heal the wound,” he wrote.
But the Unbuilt that haunts the space is the spirit of those, firefighters and rescue workers, who climbed an endless ladder, descending into the circle of death, to do their duty to those who had to escape. In that movement there is a sense of “making progress,” step by step, without a transcendent form of progress. And in that action there lies the un-utopian ethic of the Unbuilt. There are no available images of this act of ascent; progress here is a lateral or adjacent move toward the stranger as toward the neighbor.
But those were oddities. The insistence on America—which is to say Israel— which is to say Jews—as, on the level of deepest truth, the true author of the massacres, was so pervasive, and often so automatic, that when I read the following—”The attack on September 11 was certainly not about people hating our freedoms. It was purely in response to America’s foreign policy; and it was primarily about our monetary and military support of Israel”—I barely thought to look for the byline. It was American Nazi and Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, but it could have been any number of people on the left.
All of this is summed up nowhere so well as in Susan Sontag’s instantly notorious short comment that ran in the “Talk of the Town” pages in the September 24 issue of the New Yorker.
Sontag, since the 1960s the most ambitious, respected, controversial, and politically engaged of New York intellectuals, was surrounded in those pages by many voices. There was the repulsive, epicene eyewitness account of the destruction of the World Trade Center by the novelist John Updike, watching from Brooklyn, searching for words that would divert attention from the event itself and toward his ability to gild it: “We clung to each other as if we ourselves were falling. Amid the glittering impassivity of the many buildings across the East River, an empty spot had appeared, as if by electronic command, beneath the sky that, but for the sulphorous cloud streaming south toward the ocean”—I can’t read any more. There was the novelist Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, imagining, as a novelist is supposed to do, the possible contours of life and death: “the scene inside a plane one moment before impact. At the controls, a terrorist is raising a prayer to Allah in expectation of instant transport from this world to the next, where houris will presently reward him for his glorious success. At the back of the cabin, huddled Americans are trembling and moaning and, no doubt, in many cases, praying to God for a diametrically opposite outcome. And then, a moment later, for hijacker and hijacked alike, the world ends.” One of the bombs planted in Franzen’s sentences may not go off right away: “huddled Americans,” from the “huddled masses” emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, in the moment reaching out to the huddled few flying over it, as if, somehow, huddling is an American condition, our version of dust to dust.
In this context, Sontag’s few words were imperious, unsurprised, impatient, and ice-cold. It was nothing she hadn’t seen before—not really. When Sarajevo was under siege, she had traveled there again and again, to direct a play; she was, as she wrote in 1995, “a veteran of dread and shock,” “comfortable,” after her experiences, only with “those who have been to Bosnia, too. Or to some other slaughter—El Salvador, Cambodia, Rwanda, Chechnya. Or who at least know, firsthand, what a war is.” She knew. So it was no problem for her to cut through the shock and dread of virgins—of those who, unlike her, had never seen anything like this before, who had never imagined anything like this before—who, even if they had imagined the destruction of the World Trade Center, which, since it was built, many people casually have, had never remotely experienced in their imagination the reality of what they imagined. Sontag had already been there and gone. She could speak like Ronald Reagan talking about redwoods: “Seen one war, seen them all.” What happened, Sontag said in her first sentence, was simply a “monstrous dose of reality”—and I think one can take the “monstrous” as a grace note. Like Chomsky’s “major atrocities,” it translates into “ordinary events,” and even more quickly: “dose of reality” takes you where she means to go. You have been living in a dream world, Sontag said; now, you have been forced to wake up. There is no mystery, there is nothing to wonder about.
Sontag wrote to close questions, not to open them—and as if hers was the only voice brave enough to say what had to be said: “Where is the acknowledgment,” she wrote, “that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”
Again, the bile rose in my throat, and for the same reason as when I read Noam Chomsky’s first interview. “Specific American alliances and actions”—there was apparently no need to say what they were. It’s the language of the hipster: If you have to ask, you’ll never know. But certainly the writer, the thinker, did not have to ask. It had all happened before—that is, to those who understood, the event had happened even before it happened.
In a questionnaire Sontag responded to in 1997, she wrote that “You have no right to a public opinion unless you’ve been there, experienced firsthand and on the ground and for some considerable time the country, war, injustice, whatever, you are talking about.” Forget what the response of Sontag, or anyone, would be if the government, or a rightwing propagandist, were to say the same thing: “You have no right to a public opinion unless.” There’s no unless in the Bill of Rights, anyone would say. But that is not the point; establishing one’s superiority to any event, and to any of one’s fellow citizens, by denying the existence of anything that one’s conceptual apparatus cannot enclose is the point.
Or rather the point is that real intellectuals admit that it is in the nature of the human condition that it will inevitably, at unpredictable times, in unpredictable ways, produce events that leave every conceptual apparatus in ruins, and that real intellectuals value nothing so much as the chance, which comes only to a few, to do their work there.
From June, 2002