Selling Nine Eleven: America is back

BY RENEE KAPLAN

It was fashion week in New York last week — wait, before you turn the page — and the reason that’s important is that last season’s fashion week was interrupted by the terrorist attacks of September 11. Respectfully, the majority of the runway show reviews this season all managed to mention September 11. For Marc Jacobs, it’s that his show took place in an armory where families of the missing gathered after the attacks. For Bill Blass, it’s that the clothes were so divine, it’s like they came from a world before September 11.

Everything these days seems to be appropriating its own little piece of Nine Eleven. In the weeks following the attacks, most feature stories and opinion columns — anything that wasn’t hard news about some other topic — made a September 11 disclaimer. “In this most emotionally charged of times …” Or, “After September 11, [blank] may seem a) trivial b) meaningless c) inappropriate, but …” The newspaper style pages sheepishly tracked trends, hesitant to speculate that some chimera that could have existed before September 11 may possibly have continued to evolve since then. It’s been an odd form of guilty survivor rationalization, as though we’re not certain — or don’t want to admit to ourselves — that there still is a normal to return to.

So we’ve assumed either the “patriotic” grin of fortitude or a veil of pained regret, beneath which, with some hesitation and no small guilt, the consumerism and everyday banalities of the world’s wealthiest nation can continue like before — sort of. The attacks of September 11 have become a veritable trends producer, a source of any number of newly marketable lifestyle products: Nesting, Staying At Home With Loved Ones, Cooking Is Back, God Bless America, Feeling Secure, The State of the Union is Stronger Than Ever. It’s hard to say if these phenomena all really arose naturally in the aftermath of the events, or if the trend was manufactured, a logical, comforting — oh! and lucrative — by-product of the cultural moment.

Tiffany’s is reviving its original 1876 American flag brooch (take note, Madeleine), and Van Cleef & Arpels is redesigning it own classic Haricot with sapphires (blue) and rubies (red). Much has already been made of the fine line between commemoration and exploitation, with nearly every blue-chip company from Pfizer to IBM running a full-page ad in The New York Times on some variation of being American, supporting America, of being in the business of doing right by Americans. There has also been discussion of the questionable taste of certain tributes, like the Super Bowl half-time melee that mixed a gigantic wall of illuminated names of September 11 victims, with Bono, jambalaya and pom-poms.

What has not been discussed is this idea that September 11, in fact, did change us forever and for good. Especially in the weeks close to September 11, the attacks were described as cataclysmic, even apocalyptic, as events that had utterly transformed the American cultural landscape. Nothing that followed would ever be the same again. September 11 became a bright-line demarcation between the world before and the world after, a post-apocalyptic tabula rasa.

Irony was declared dead. Nobody wanted to be single anymore. School districts all over the country have seen record numbers of people applying to become teachers. U.S. News and World Report says that public service is the new ideal job. Writers have declared poetry the new supreme art form. Trusts and estates lawyers have been deluged with young people wanting to draw up wills. People are reportedly reassessing their priorities.

But that kind of cultural tabula rasa seems impossible, even wishful. Would that we could start anew, from scratch, like some biblical rebirth after the destruction. Some of those cultural changes certainly are real, and undoubtedly for the many people affected closely by the attacks, life will never be the same. Certainly there is an America before the terrorist attacks, and an America after the attacks. But it is the same America, perhaps frightened and deeply moved, or traumatized. An American culture less innocent, and maybe less arrogant. To talk about a split-second catharsis, a cultural lightning-flash purge, in which everything that meant something before suddenly means something different, reduces the events to a naïve cartoon version.

It reduces the attacks to the symbolic image of the towers crashing, like some supernatural gesture of annihilation. It is infrequent that commentators refer to “the attacks,” preferring just to say “the tragedies,” or “the events” of September 11. Bush has dubbed the attacks simply “nine eleven,” abstracting the deaths to one talismanic number. In reality, the horribly prosaic tragedy of the terrorist attacks is that these things do happen on earth; they happened to us. There is nothing extraordinary, no transformative meaning to this that would allow us to explain it as something unearthly and thus unrepeatable — as something transcendent, which could in an awful way have some greater meaning.

The terrorist attacks were our Lisbon earthquake, a destruction of grotesque proportion that will profoundly influence the culture that follows it. No matter how we try to dehistoricize the events, they will be tallied up with all the cultural cumulus that preceded them, too. This is a horror that we will have to metabolize in the same bodies and the same minds, in the same world that existed before the towers crashed.

The Nine Eleven cottage industry may be our characteristically commercial way of trying hard to buy into the idea of this allegedly changed, new world. But it is also a commodified and sloganeering sign that beneath the red, white and blue, the same old normal is going on.

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