Wednesday, September 3, 2008

I Was 18.

I started classes today, including one I had really been looking forward to, Terrorism in the Modern World. It looks like it's going to be amazing, as is to be expected from a phenomenal professor dealing in his true bailiwick, but I am also vaguely nervous about the emotional component of the course. He started the class today with asking what one political issue had dominated the class' collective political awareness in the past ten years (paraphrasing). The girl next to me answered "the war in Iraq" as I said "September 11th"...I was a little quieter, so he latched onto the Iraq War, which was good, because it turned out that most people in the class agreed. The prof went on to explain that the most significant political event was actually September 11th, which is rarely discussed in political terms anymore (or ever really was in any kind of depth, in my opinion).

He noted that September 11th was seven years ago, meaning most of the class was 11, 12, 13, maybe 14 or 15. He explained that when they were so young, they couldn't appreciate it in the same way as an adult would. A friend of mine disagreed with this after class, saying that she certainly remembered September 11th, that her Dad had been on a business trip in NY at the time, etc., and I explained that those kinds of concerns were exactly the point - in your early teens, you simply don't have the weltanschauung to appreciate that on September 11th the entire political world changed. You just worry about the people you know, the status of your own personal world. It's not that you don't REMEMBER the event, it's just that you don't have the ability to appeciate it on the same level as you may as an adult. The professor then talked about living in New York at the time, wondering where his wife was, furniture falling out of the skies for days, taking all his money out of the bank, buying water. He talked about how he still can't think about it without getting upset and angry and sad. I could have cried out of sheer relief, just to hear someone feel the same way.

I have found that there are levels of September 11th empathy and understanding. There are the people who recognize it as a great tragedy, but were so far removed from the actual events that they almost view it as a historical event exclusively, and have from September 12th onward. (NB: Obviously, these are huge generalizations.) Then, there are people who were nearby, and maybe had some loose connection to the events...a friend, or distant cousin in one of the Towers, etc. Then you have the statewide people, whose lives got rerouted and messed up and probably had close friends involved. Then, finally, there's the city level. This is where you got really fucked up. This is where maybe you got injured or trapped or your husband or your wife or your mom or dad were in the buildings. This last level is hard. Everyone feels the pain, everyone feels the damage, but for the people who were right there, your infrastructure was gone, too. You couldn't call anyone for more information or even to tell people you were okay. Your city was turned upside down. Public transit ground to a halt. Many people experienced fear unlike anything they had ever or will ever imagine, simply by virtue of the lack of communication during something unprecendented and horrifying. September 11th was different for everyone, is what I am saying. And in many ways, no matter the varied meanings of it, it's been forgotten as a political event.

I've noticed the age gap between my fellow students and me before, though it's almost always been in view of typical generational differences...they all look about 12, they wear Uggs with miniskirts (I'm not ready to let go of this...why?), they don't seem interested in the world around them, they can't put the fucking cell phones away. I've never thought the existance of such a gap in historical reference. When I answered "September 11th," I thought it was the no-brainer answer. I thought it was a statement of fact. I am intrigued now by what this divide, over a paltry five years, means for our national (and international) political dialogue. A person considering the Iraq War itself to be the notable political event of the past five years approaches their discourse in a vastly different way than someone who considers September 11th to hold that same position. If the Iraq War is your start-point, you're focusing on a conflict with a nation state with side issues of insurgency and terrorist activity. If you're starting with September 11th, you're beginning with the disparate terrorist groups of the world - state-less, covert, nimble groups with no army bases to bomb into oblivion. Again, we're not dealing in wrong and right approaches, just different ones.

At American, I took a course about Congressional Behavior where I learned for the first time in any kind of depth about the concept of the realignment election. It's popped up here and there since then (about 2002), most recently in America's Constitutional Soul. For some time, I've been aggravated by political conversation because it seems like everyone brings angry baggage to the table in the form of preconcieved, negative ideas of what makes a conservative or liberal, and in turn, these have become attached inextricably to Democrat and Republican labels. This all means that one of two things happen when you try and have a political conversation - 1. you spend 75% of the conversation explaining how you're not personally one of THOSE liberals/conservatives/Democrats/Republicans, then have an anemic conversation because you're so worn out from that explanation, or 2. you never get to the conversation at all, because one or both parties simply can't imagine any of those types existing outside of their predefined boxes. Realignment elections shake out the crazy chaff and redefine a party's aims and beliefs. We're way overdue for one, and as a result you have these huge, amorphous parties that include all kinds of divergent concepts and goals. These elections help us understand where the political faultlines lie, and as overdue as we are, it's no wonder that this kind of confusion exists. That being said, it renders us incapable of conversation, much less effective compromise. In our current state, we are by and large unable to admit that we have common ground, much less meet on it.

So okay, we have some language issues between political parties. What happens when those problems are rooted in differing range of experience and historical consideration instead of just political designation (which frankly is a huge thing in and of itself in our political landscape)? I'm not really sure...I never really considered this before today. But just look at the example above of the disparity Iraq or September 11th driven foreign policy and discourse. Depending on which you play from, your view on foreign policy changes pretty extravagantly. I personally feel that this shouldn't be the case, since the threat of scattered terror cells factors significantly and perhaps predominantly into the problem of Iraq, but it seems that it must be so, and that much of the discord in the current US foreign policy stems directly from these kinds of rifts in historical priority and range. To me, it seems like this kind of confusion would make it all but impossible to find a true and well reasoned solution to Iraq and Middle Eastern policy - if you're fighting in Iraq, you have a different set of criteria to deal with (infrastructural development, establishing a stable government, supporting border defense, etc.) than if you're hitting it from a September 11th angle (solving terrorism, which...good God).

Now combine the domestic communication problems with the foreign ones.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - language matters. The words we choose matter. Spelling matters, grammar matters, eloquence matters. Communication - EFFECTIVE communication - matters. Unless we collectively understand and act on this basic truth, we will keep on spiralling down into this horrid war zone of ugly politics that we've made for ourselves, and our stature on the world stage will continue to slouch ever lower. Most of the other leading nations of the world have a better sense of their own history (How often do you see a poll about how many high school seniors can't hit Gettysburg on a map or tell you why it's important?), and it may be this quality that tempers their foreign policy decisions. Maybe it's also why they are not superpowers. But right now, we have to be questioning how great it is to be in the exact postion we're currently in. Technology makes it so easy to receive and respond to information almost instantaneously, but this too robs us of our time to consider and really unpack the question at hand.

I am lead to believe that until we imbue our political discussions and thoughts with a solid historical grounding and a deep consideration of the issues of the moment, we will not be able to progress beyond our current squabbling.


  1. "I am lead to believe that until we imbue our political discussions and thoughts with a solid historical grounding and a deep consideration of the issues of the moment, we will not be able to progress beyond our current squabbling."


    I completely forgot that your current classmates are that much younger than we are now, and had no real experience of Sept. 11th as an even that brought significant change to the political atmosphere of America. My sister is a senior this year, and I'm not sure she grasps at ALL the concept.

    Thanks for making me feel old, Jos.

  2. Well fucking said.

    What's strange is that at the time of 9/11, my youngest brother was 8 years old. I remember when they finally allowed planes to fly again, he burst into tears when one went flying over our house. He still talks about what happened om 9/11 7 years later.

    I know that he considers it an important event, but I think our close proximity to NYC has something to do with that. What he thinks about politics, I have no idea. He'll be 16 in 2 weeks and I doubt he gives a shit.

    (Anyone who wears Uggs and miniskirts is an idiot. Case closed.)