Never mind where I was standing or what I was doing this time five years ago. (Because really, what could be less pertinent?) Except that I do remember wondering, with apparent irrelevance, how soon I would be hearing one familiar cliché. And that I do remember hearing, with annoyance, one other observation that I believe started the whole post-9/11 epoch on the wrong foot.And My Stupid Dog, for honest personal recollection:
The cliché, from which we have been generally but not completely spared, was the one about American "loss of innocence." Nobody, or nobody serious, thought that this store-bought phrase would quite rise to the occasion of the incineration of downtown Manhattan and 3,000 of its workers. It might have done for the Kennedy assassination or Watergate, but partly for that very reason it was redundant or pathetic by mid-day on September 11, 2001. Indeed, I believe that the expression, with its concomitant naïve self-regard, may have become superseded for all time. If so, good. The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the United States was assaulted for what it really is, and what it understands as the center of modernity, and not for its unworldliness....One must have a blunt answer to the banal chat-show and op-ed question: What have we learned? (The answer ought not to be that we have learned how to bully and harass citizens who try to take shampoo on flights on which they have lawfully booked passage. Yet incompetent collective punishment of the innocent, and absurd color-coding of the "threat level," is the way in which most Americans actually experience the "war on terror.") Anyone who lost their "innocence" on September 11 was too naïve by far, or too stupid to begin with. On that day, we learned what we ought to have known already, which is that clerical fanaticism means to fight a war which can only have one victor. Afghans, Kurds, Kashmiris, Timorese and many others could have told us this from experience, and for nothing (and did warn us, especially in the person of Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance). Does anyone suppose that an ideology that slaughters and enslaves them will ever be amenable to "us"? The first duty, therefore, is one of solidarity with bin-Ladenism's other victims and targets, from India to Kurdistan.
In the 1930s, Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wrote extensively about the "carnivalesque" -- which in its broadest sense is a way to live in opposition to the tyranny of "official" society, and in its more narrow sense is a safety valve for impulses that do not lend themselves to strict control. According to Bakhtin, the medieval carnival provided a safe space for ordinary citizens to mock the rigid dogma of the medieval Church through scatological and sexual humor. Free for a brief time from strict social roles, peasants could lampoon priests, women could dance in the streets, and cats could look at kings. The carnivalesque, in short, reminds us that everyone in the power structure is human, and therefore subject to the same infirmities, foibles and peccadilloes as everyone else. (Of course, Bakhtin's real target was not the medieval Church, but Soviet totalitarianism under Stalin, an ideological tyranny which left no room even for social safety valves -- and which therefore had little use for Bakhtin's scholarship.)
In the days after 9/11, my friends and I shared a carnivalesque perspective without knowing it. Of course, we did not seek refuge from governmental or religious tyranny as such. Instead, we fled from something more nebulous, a tyranny of popular sentiment that permitted ordinary citizens to do no more than weep and pray. We were told that Americans had to sympathize with the victims and trust our president unconditionally; anything more or less from that standard line and we were practically playing into the terrorists' hands. Still, my friends and I had to "cock a snook" at this atrocity for the same reason little boys have to tell jokes about Helen Keller (or in extreme cases, Anne Frank). We had had enough of plaster saints and cardboard leaders, of souls soaring in the ether. The sick humor about the victims reminded us of the fact and perhaps the finality of the body: It was anti-spiritual, at a time when a certain mysticism on matters of life and death was considered almost mandatory within the American body politic.
Far from denying common humanity with the victims and their families, or with the politicians who oversaw the response and eventually took credit for it, our sick humor became a way of asserting essential, common humanity. And in the universe of carnival, common humanity is emphatically not a pretty sight, overrun as it is with bodily secretions, smelly excrement, and unruly venial desires. The image of Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush with diarrhea (or with hard-ons for that matter) isn't especially funny, except inasmuch as the image might undercut their presumed moral and political authority: Hizzoner and the President are merely people like us, whether they would have us know it or not.
The type of bad taste I want to celebrate today is not so much apolitical as anti-political. Despite its unsightly appearance, it has some positive effects. Bad taste can enable us to resist efforts from both sides of the aisle to exploit the 9/11 attacks for electoral gain. More importantly, it may help us remember that our own emotions during those frightening days were far from unmixed -- that for most of us who lived far from the actual terrorist attacks, even the most altruistic and loving support was tempered with more cynical thoughts of "Better you than me, bud." And because we are currently fighting religious extremists who routinely sacrifice what is "merely" human in pursuit of perfection, I think it's not only fitting, but essential, to include some unofficial, unsanctioned, thoroughly personal reflections in these sad, official remembrances.
Bad taste would doubtless have no place in a perfect world. But it is part of what makes us human, and for that reason if no other, I do not believe I should wish to be entirely free from it. Besides, the only weapon which can defeat dogma, ideology, or extremism in any form is an awareness of basic humanity -- and if we would be fully aware of our humanity, we must own our lapses, at least a little.