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A Few of Our Favorite Things

By David Chorlton
November 16, 2001

Schnitzel with noodles may be a solace when the dog bites or the bee stings, but what do we need so as to deal with terrorists flying jets into Manhattan's heart? America's cultural reaction to the September assault has been fascinating for this foreigner, albeit a twenty-three year resident of the U.S., to observe. I have kept my senses sharp and spirits high in this new world by establishing a category of "wonder and bewilderment" for all the phenomena I could never have imagined during my years in Manchester and Vienna. We had the Lord's Prayer imposed on us in English schools, but I never thought anyone took it as more than an authoritian gesture. Later, in Austria, I was aware of there being an army although nobody talked about it. We probably saw more men in uniform at the Hungarian or Czech borders where they looked down at tourists from their Communist watchtowers. Propaganda was something we associated with the Eastern Bloc, and certainly not with the benevolent United States. But I grew up in a Europe that seemed crisis-free, and arrived in my new home in time to see in Ronald Reagan a president tailor-made for wonder and bewilderment. God became a regular guest in political debates, and I had to adjust to a nation whose culture stretched from divine loftiness to crass commercialism. Never have these two forces combined as much as in recent weeks.

National Public Radio began asking celebrity musicians to suggest a sound of music that the wounded nation needs to hear. First up came Beethoven's all-purpose Ninth Symphony, frequently offered on ceremonial occasions. This was hardly an imaginative choice, neither does it make sense for us to sing an Ode to Joy when five thousand people have just been killed. The seams of civilization are coming apart, yet all men will be brothers. Mahler's Ninth would serve better as a drawn-out farewell to the victims with a mood of reflection, but America is not a reflective nation. No; it calls out for God's blessing as the warships sail.

The sudden promotion of God Bless America as a substitute national anthem shouldn't have surprised us. After all, we don't want to linger on bombs bursting in air when we are still traumatized from watching repeated images of fireballs. Just when it seems that God has deserted His post and allowed the worst to happen, it becomes prudent to appeal to Him to get back to performing His duties as America's protector. The president tells us this not a religious war, and still the nation turns its eyes toward the heavens as it sings. Are we looking for comfort or an ally?

Times of crisis are times for elevated ideas and noble aspirations. As troops leave their families behind for the intimidating Afghan landscape and a B-2 bomber flies over the Phoenix baseball stadium as a prelude to the last World Series game reminding us of military deployment, what do we find on homeland television? Basically the same fare as usual, but for the added zest to automobile ads. Car dealers invoke patriotism, while the big manufacturers put their goods on display and appeal for us to keep America moving. Never mind that our collective appetite for oil played more than a small part in the history behind the current situation. Madison Avenue has its role to play in our rehabilitation: to erase any hint of guilt for our consumption of gasoline. Buy big. Drive fast.

The first poem to come to my mind after September 11th was by the Austrian, Ingeborg Bachmann. In the aftermath of World War II she reflected that "Der Krieg wird nicht mehr erklaert/sondern fortgesetzt." War is no longer declared/but continued. The hero in the poem, Alle Tage (Every Day), will stay far from the battle and display courage before a friend. Heroic acts in this present war, if that is what we choose to call it, are not only to be found in combat. Shop till you drop has a new connotation. Buying to keep the economy moving is suddenly the patriotic thing to do. We're holding on to our favorite things, Islam be damned. Charlie Daniels releases a song extolling the virtues of the flag by explaining that it ain't no rag and we don't wear it on our heads. Lee Greenwood steps up to groan out a few more renditions of his God Bless the USA. These are, I suppose, comforting songs for a lot of people, especially when they get those credit cards out, stand to attention, and swipe. Spend for America, and don't feel guilty if it makes you feel good.

Could President Bush ever have guessed that during his first year in office he would be addressing us on so great a divide as that between Good and Evil? Could his scriptwriters have anticipated such an opportunity to bring the complexities of human history to such a simplistic conclusion as that they are evil, and so we must be good. Herein lies the ultimate deception for a people led by their own abilities to a position of unprecedented domination of world business. If it takes military action to root out terrorists and protect interests, when that action inevitably takes a toll of innocents as well, there is little basis for feeling triumphant. Instead of indiscriminatingly blessing us, God might consider spreading more introspection around the land of plenty.

 

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