Man Up: The Terror Dreams of Susan Faludi and Thomas Friedman

Spurred on by a comment left on this blog, I tracked down a talk by Susan Faludi at a Portland bookstore during her 2008 book tour for The Terror Dream in which she considers what 9/11 revealed about America. It sparked the following:

“9/11 pushed feminism off the map,” that’s what Susan Faludi recalls hearing from a reporter who’d phonedher shortly after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. She follows this anecdote with a couple questions. Why when symbols of our commercial and military power were attacked did we act like our homes had been attacked? Why when attacked by people who hated western women’s liberation were some of our pundits so eager to usher in the end of feminism?

She begins her answer by unraveling the myth that the U.S. had “never before” been attacked on its home soil when, as she puts it, for the first 200 years of colonial life in this land its main feature was that of being attacked on what Europeans perceived as their home soil by the original occupants — Native Americans. “Terrorists” was a term used to describe Native Americans and unlike those on September 11, 2001, their attacks were aimed at “home and hearth.” Per capita, she says, it resulted in America’s deadliest war killing 1 of every 10 men of military age in the Massachusetts colony over the course of one year. The men were killed and the women captured; the men failing to “protect their women” many of whom were never heard from again, others managing to defend themselves or negotiate the terms of their own release. In the end, our survival required outside help via King George.

She sees these first two hundred years as a protracted early emasculating experience failing to provide the strong, savior narrative desired by future generations. I’m a little leery of what appears as an attempt to undermine the idea of a Grand National Narrative by replacing it with another narrative (for comments in that vein, see this review in the Guardian), yet one way of countering a story is by telling another one and her competing narrative is one worthy of attention. What I hear her saying is we required this story to convince ourselves we’d be safe, secure and prosperous once on our own. History didn’t provide the stories we needed so we told new ones and the new stories replaced anything that might invite feelings of male shame with tales of exaggerated valor requiring women be viewed as helplessness and in need of rescue; their own stories also rewritten to fit the new story line and one that ignores that early settlers felt perpetually insecure in an “atmosphere of terror” and what Faludi calls our “foundational experience of terror.”

In listening to her, I’m reminded of a common assertion made after the attacks that America had “woken from its long vacation from history;” a weird little line implying we’d been blissfully unaware of world events. This line usually led into a pithy joke about American pop culture and the idea it was time to wake up and get serious. (In this context, getting serious meant adopting the stentorian tones of a far-flung war correspondent and the grimace of Dick Cheney.) I always heard the line as condescending but missed the full implication which Faludi sees as alluding to a psychological return to colonial times, a return to a time when, in reality, we’d been unable to defend ourselves but where, in myth, we were forceful and heroic thus never truly “terrorized.” Believing we’d always lived in relative harmony free from foreign aggression on American soil — in this version Native Americans never a true threat to the birth of a nation, a shining beacon to the world, the apple of God’s eye — anyway, believing our own myths forced us into a psychic vortex where we felt obligated to live up to non-existent past.

Wrap your head around that, living up to a non-existent past not an easy job.

Knowing my ancestors perceived Native Americans as “terrorists” helps me see where she’s coming from. It’s nonsensical but the colonialists didn’t see this land’s original inhabitants as legitimate or even fully human, interlopers requiring “triumphal rescuers” as Faludi puts it to rescue the country from its original inhabitants. They were as blinded by their own circumstances as we are today. Such is the human experience.

Anyway, I know discussing 9/11 exhausts a lot of people and I’m one of them — the chief source of the fatigue being the repetitiveness of the self-congratulatory pablum and heroic gravitas of pundits ready to send other people off to war. I was living outside the U.S. when it happened, in fact didn’t hear about it for more than a day and didn’t get any real information until September 13 when I read a New York Times op-ed by Thomas Friedman where he claimed:

“…while this may have been the first major battle of World War III, it may be the last one that involves only conventional, non-nuclear weapons.”

Always nice when cool heads prevail, yes?

A few bewildered emails later and told by those still living within the United States I “couldn’t understand” as I wasn’t here, I understood the resultant chest-thumping patriotism as the simple self-congratulation countries use when wounded. Even if it’s not my style I tried to let it go — getting bent out of shape over a few extra flags struck me as a little petty. But something else ate at me: a persisting certainty that Friedman’s true talent is for loping alongside the cultural zeitgeist and if so that meant we’d be at war tout de suite and through it all would run a quiet thrill at having a reason to do so. To gird up our loins. To pronounce a willingness to go to war. Tragic, tragic, but such are the times. Terrible, sure, but go for it, full steam ahead. Friedman’s declaration of the beginning of World War III came served with numerous World War II references — the so-called good war when the U.S. became the superpower it had prepared itself for after rewriting the history Faludi finds so revealing.

Thomas Friedman, incidentally, loves to declare new wars and their aftermath. And what must follow a World War? A Cold war, of course, this one with Iran. In 2008, he advocated strategies that qualify as war crimes — specifically inflicting “heavy pain” on civilians which, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out on Salon meet the U.S. Department of State’s definition of terrorism. He’s also excellent at explaining why wars should happen, are happening and did happen. These definitions will shift but in mulling over Faludi’s thoughts I was again aided by another Greenwald article on Salon where he notes that Friedman, in a PBS documentary, declared that after a bit of Middle East tourism with a camera crew had answered the question of why the U.S. has an image problem in the Muslim world. Naturally, the answer came as an easily digested trinity:

  1. U.S. backing of dictatorial Arab regimes as long as they sell us oil.
  2. Support of Israel.
  3. The “overpowering sense of humiliation” that comes from not having a freely-elected government. (The humiliation-as-motivator angle reminds me of Faludi’s argument for why the U.S. behaves as it does; I think Friedman’s implying they are jealous of our pluralistic nirvana and thus seek to destroy it, a line of reasoning I find a little smug.)

In unpacking Friedman’s latest declaration of war, Greenwald points out Friedman’s advocating all of the above as U.S. foreign policy:

So 9/11 was caused by our backing of dictatorial Arab regimes, our unconditional support for Israel, our general interference in the Middle East, and the fact that Muslims aren’t free. So what does Friedman want to do now? Have the U.S. wage a “cold war” (at least) for dominance in the Middle East alongside our best friends: the dictators and monarchs of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf States (plus, incidentally, Israel). In other words, Friedman now wants to do everything that he himself said is what caused 9/11 in the first place.

Or, as Friedman put it in an interview with Charlie Rose, we need to hit them with a big stick and say “Suck. On. This.”

More from Greenwald in the same article:

There’s a reason that Friedman occupies the place he does in America’s foreign policy establishment. He’s perfectly representative of it. It’s an establishment in perpetual search of an Enemy and the next war. And finding it (or creating it) is the one thing they do well.

And they do so, Faludi would say, because we are a nation who doth protest too much in trying to endlessly cover up the blemishes that came with our origins. We are trying to justify the stories we’ve told about ourselves. Saddling up and playing cowboys and Indians on a bigger stage.

I’ll close with Friedman’s final words in his September 13 op-ed. The two words summing up his pitch-perfect representation of U.S. foreign policy.

“Semper fi.”

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