Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 and the Banality of Goodness

I don't have a lot to say about 9/11 that hasn't been said elsewhere. I think what was startling for me about 9/11 was the way it brought good and evil to the surface after a long period of what felt like the heat death of morality. (I am thinking in particular of the ubiquitous cable news coverage of the various scandals of the Clinton administration.) The other striking thing was the asymmetry of the attack - the attackers themselves died, but the planners seemed remote and invulnerable. The attacks therefore felt like a "poor man's cruise missile." (I suppose these days the proper analogy is an unmanned drone.) That second aspect has largely been eliminated by the assassination of Osama bin Laden, though it remains true that he waged a form of asymmetrical warfare against us for more than a decade.

Anyway, I think everyone can find something to regret about the years that followed 9/11, even if you don't take quite as cynical a view as Paul Krugman. Personally, I find it striking how quickly our national mood of solidarity and determination faded into everyday concerns. Perhaps inevitably, things have slid back toward the heat death of morality. Our political culture continues to be obsessed with trivia and paranoia. I work at a big law firm. Howard Dean is a lobbyist.

Largely speaking, I don't think it could have been otherwise. The United States does not deploy its power outside of the political sphere, and democratic politics is inescapably pedestrian. This is how we address good and evil in this country (and in any democracy) - piecemeal and as necessary.

This all brings to mind Francis Fukuyama's book The End of History and the Last Man. I haven't read the book, so I'll take Matt Yglesias's word for it that recent events have bolstered, rather than undermined, Fukuyama's thesis. I guess I think people probably misunderstand the book because the title uses the word "history" in a rather non-intuitive way. The idea, I take it, is that liberal democracy is a more or less stable equilibrium and that social forces are pushing (slowly and fitfully) toward its universal adoption. The End of the Cold War. Fukuyama is not committed to the idea that historical events will become less common or less tectonic.

Taking this to be broadly true, if rather less interesting than Fukuyama's title implies, I think that what stands out about 9/11 is precisely how unusual it was. We paid a lot more attention to 9/11 than the raw number of deaths would seem to call for, and rightly so. But the events since then have not in any noticeable way escaped what I take to be the Fukuyama framework. The big issues are overwhelmingly political or technocratic. We are contemplating the breakup of the eurozone and bickering about Chinese macroeconomic policy. Even war and peace are relegated to the compromises of partisan politics (as in Egypt, where, as I understand it, the center-right Muslims have thoroughly consolidated power).

I think the lesson is that good and evil are neither so terrible nor so gripping as we thought after 9/11. We will continue to build a better society, if at all, not in a grand sweeping gesture but brick by brick. On 9/11, we were all Americans, but it turns out that on a daily basis we are all Dutch. Issues will be complicated and small-bore and endlessly ramifying, and the challenge will not be to rise to the occasion but to stay engaged at all. That's life in a "post-historical" world. What I hope is that 9/11's call to morality will remain strong enough that it will withstand the sordid realities of democratic politics. We shouldn't expect transcendence, but nor should we concede the struggle. The terrorists were wrong and we are good and we must do the hard work of preserving and proliferating our good society.


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