Robinson Crusoe breaks a plate on his way out,
and hesitates over the pieces. The ship begins
to sink as he sweeps them up. Sets the table
and stands looking at history for the last time.
—Jack Gilbert, “The Revolution,” 1982
May Day. It is the feast of pagans and socialists and the namesake of distress. We are ten years into the age of 9/11. George W. Bush is gone and Barack Obama is again casting his voice into the air. No lilting refrain. No poetry. The president is most intent on gravity, although the teleprompter is oddly placed so he cannot look us in the eye. Here is a familiar story retold. Once upon a time, there was a bad man, an enemy to even his own people, like Benedict Arnold or Rasputin or John Wayne Gacy. He declared war on us and “so we went to war against Al-Qaeda to protect our citizens.” Such stories always promise a conclusion and now for the first time we reach it. “After nearly ten years of service, struggle, and sacrifice,” Obama intones, we have “conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.” This “marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat Al-Qaeda.”1
How did the president of the United States, especially this president, come to attribute such high significance to a single outlaw act of lethal violence against an individual seven thousand miles away? Obama is famous for his words and by lingering with them we may bring to light an important change that has occurred in the course of another decade of civic war in America. It is a change measured less by events or persons than by the investments in symbols and words that constitute the all-too-real and all-too-human prospects and constraints of national civic life.
Barack Obama himself is one of these capital symbols. The way a poster operates with color and form he signifies with words. This is how to some extent he avoided being treated as nothing more than color and form. Recall how easily and with what success his voice became the first material for a music video by will.i.am, viewed, actually adored, by tens of millions of people. “Yes We Can” is how most people know and remember the extraordinary speech candidate Obama delivered on learning the promising result of the first primary election.2 Two poster words also appear in the video; they are hope and change.
In the dark tunnel of the Bush administration, the body of Americans yearning for change had been growing. Obama stood exalted against that New Hampshire night and declared to that burgeoning we that “we have been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.” What he meant is that they do not believe in you. But I do. Indeed, change and hope are for us, where we reaches now to embrace every American naysayer, the steady rails of our tradition. For “in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.” Deny it or see it fail, perhaps. Nonetheless hope is still the truth of those who strive because it is the motor of copious achievement. Given to this thought about themselves the crowd is awakened.
For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready, or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.
At this a wave of auxiliary voices is growing. “Yes we can.” On the preacher’s tone the refrain is hammered in like spikes in the ties of an advancing railroad. “Yes we can.” It is as if our nature speaks. “Yes we can was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.” Then, “yes,” and now “we,” too, “can.” Since the advent of the Republic we have lived out this spirit.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights—yes we can—it was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness—yes we can—it was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier.
And then comes a culminating passion that bends Obama’s high professorial voice just down. It feels personal, specific to him. But by 2008 many, many Americans have known this passion with uncanny intimacy. It has been marshaled over and over again against our weakness, as if the apotheosis of that founding and its meaning for the world. For there was, too, “a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land.” This is where it all comes together, for, following Socrates or Jesus, yes we can is not the relish of sheer capacity. It is will turned to purpose. It is for us a “yes- we-can to justice and equality . . .” These added words pulse through the crowd. Another wave breaks and another, and “yes we can to opportunity and prosperity—yes we can heal this nation—yes we can repair this world—yes we can . . . ”
This is a spirit of deliverance. It offers the specific relief of seeing an open path, a way toward a wide diversity of lives to be lived and bettered. All those founders followed by teeming slaves and immigrants and workers and women have bent their backs and their will toward justice.
Not just any justice, but an American one. It is rooted in the ancient principle of no man a judge in his own case. This justice renounces retaliation. It is bound, in a uniquely American way, to opportunity. It is one of our deepest traditions. The arc of its repeated arrivals is long and far-reaching. And time and time again we have called it change.
We call it change, but not rupture or innovation. Obama himself is a symbol of this change, but he is nothing new. He was the candidate a long time coming, made by history. What he brought before us in the campaign, the “change you can believe in,” was a visceral collective anticipation of what our civic expectations can do. This change was not spontaneous generation or discovery of a new world. It was something we—Obama and his followers at his impetus—were nursing into life. Something that occurs under the sign of Odysseus, change as a looping journey that returns us home. Yes we can become in fact what we are in imagination, where imagination has its own history and is the measure of our achievement. If someone had asked me in the fall of 2008, I would have said that is what has most changed since 9/11: Obama invested new content in an old topos, change.
It is no longer 2008 when the successor to the presidential offices of George W. Bush declares “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat Al-Qaeda.” Three more long years have passed. Barack Obama is coming out of the backstretch of his first term, entering that curve where modern Democrats—Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and even Bill Clinton—have hit the wall. By now Obama has lost or conceded so much to his opponents that one marvels at their still-intensifying desire to expel him. Only the darkest thoughts can explain this hostility. The president’s salt-and-pepper hair is seasoned with it. There is a gratuitous violence in the air, and people are doing and feeling the kinds of things people do and feel when no one stands in their way. This is not, however, Lord of the Flies. Nor is it the know-nothing liberty of the militias. It is the programmed anti-statism of Grover Norquist. Beck and Coulter and Hannity are disciplined entrepreneurs. They are equipped and mobilized by big money like Richard Scaife, big corporations like Fox News, and burgeoning political movements like the Tea Party. Mindful of the utter perversity of the fact thus named, one may call this institutionalized irresponsibility. This is something new. Do not be misled by Sarah Palin and the sculpted whims of a strategic hedonism. There is more to it. It has deep roots. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Cold War anti-science evangelism exhibited by Michelle Bachmann the way a clever fly-fisher casts out and draws back the line. The public sphere has been colonized by this new and newly armed type of irresponsibility. They are building settlements that will not be swept away.
Meanwhile, mender, mediator, seeker of that communal or maternal we-are-all-in-it-together feeling, Obama is beat back. He has been spit on and shouted down. The fanatics will do whatever it takes to have their way. There is nothing new in that.
Since 9/11 this spitting and shouting has penetrated the language of the presidency. I do not mean that the current president, like the last one, sputters and shouts. I mean to say that the language that Americans need to hear from the White House to believe that they have the leadership and national coherence they believe they need to have . . . this language exists in an environment in which the spitting and shouting is effective, and the Executive, seeking its own effect, must take into account the expectations of its audience, which is the source of its executive power. Once one officeholder relents, it is very difficult to turn back. All the offices are refurnished.
So, now, from this penetration there has arisen a peculiar continuity of office. This president must behave like the one before him. It is not that promises have been made. It is that words have been spoken, people have been moved, and energies have been spent. It is an investment and the temptation to profit from it is great. Faust tells us that in the beginning was the deed, but now Obama must begin his deeds with borrowed words. There is something tacit in the words of Bush which, when repeated by Obama, extort from him afresh in each new iteration the same sort of promise. This is another sort of institutionalized irresponsibility. With his somber look and gaze askew, Obama is speaking to lend reality to the death of Osama bin Laden. And this continuity weighs heavily on him.
The message is passed through “the families who lost loved ones on 9/11” but is in fact directed to all America. Barack Obama is drawn to George W. Bush’s declaration like a moth to the flame. We will not, he insists, “waver in our commitment to see that we do whatever it takes to prevent another attack on our shores.” No pale affinity here. Obama reproduces precisely the punch line of the advertisement that so aptly summarized Bush’s position during his campaign for reelection in 2004: “Whatever it takes.” The President is promising the President’s promise as his own. Obama is speaking Bush’s words. Only the slightest inflection now separates them.
Consider the family resemblances that join and sunder yes we can and whatever it takes. Both are signs of fortitude and purpose. Yet, as here yes we can speaks the will of a plural subject, whatever it takes is ruled by its monolithic object. The former, like a thousand points of light, expresses the diversity of human purposes and projects, while the latter, like a marksman drawing his bead, is blind to what is off its line. Yes we can is a big-tent invocation, calling everyone and everything to achieve greatness. Whatever it takes needs only one iron will and the blindness of rage to conclude its reductive business. We see here a difference between power and force.
We also see here yes we can becoming whatever it takes. The metamorphosis is aided by a mistake. The whatever seems inclusive but is not. It is, rather, a setting aside. In the name of its one goal, gone are essential capacities of civic existence like discernment, judgment, restraint, moderation, compromise, cooperation, and the rest.
“But tonight,” the president tells us, Osama bin Laden is dead, and “we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.”
Yes we can? Point the gun? Pull the trigger? Step outside law and its rules to assassinate an individual? When the president tells us to accept “today’s achievement” as “a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people,” what is he asking us to invest ourselves in, or divest ourselves of? How withered is this new vision of “greatness”? How ignorant of the foundations of civic life must we become? How shamefully proud in the face of the tragic necessity to murder? To take pleasure in someone’s death can be justified, but it is never right. It is never good. It is never a sign of “greatness.”
What we can, yes, is today, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, caught in a downdraft from Obama’s once ethereal heights. “We can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are.” By now the we addressed is not the one assembled in 2008 in New Hampshire and at stop after stop around the country. The we of yes we can has been expelled from the vital stream of the American experiment. Once the new Cicero, Obama tosses out rote and hollow words from a mantra of the Victorian Boy Scouts. His we is no more those founders, nor the striving slaves and immigrants and workers and women, the rich historical pluribus struggling day in and day out to forge that unum. We are meekly and presumptively “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We can pack our tools and go home.
How much further will the President go? Will he put more distance between himself and Martin Luther King’s yes we can to justice? Indeed. For, when justice appears again in his speech it is more a sickness than a cure. “We know well the costs of war,” Obama drones on, and “yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed . . . ”
And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to Al-Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.
A single outlaw act of lethal violence against an individual seven thousand miles away may have many names—necessity, tragedy, pleasure, relief, or simply murder—but to call it justice, to offer this one of all acts as proof that “we will be true to the values that make us who we are,” is an offense to the America that sought to arrive, that for a century had been seeking as if to arrive, with the election of Barack Obama, the America that called in that way for what Obama offered: change.
Forget that distinctive American justice, the one that spurs life and its opportunities. This is the retaliatory justice of a gunfighter nation. In it Obama joins directly with George W. Bush, who made his imprint in those days after 9/11 saying “I want justice” the way it used to be, recalling “an old poster out West that said—‘Wanted, Dead or Alive.’”3
Conquering the desire for retaliation, conquering institutionalized irresponsibility, has been a long and slow and uncertain process in America. Without this process democracy is impossible. If terrorism is an assault on democracy, it works by undoing this progress. The goal of terrorism is to provoke retaliation in modes that harm the victim more than the aggressor. In this sense Vice President Biden’s reported recent use of the word “terrorist” was a most precise upgrade.4
Listen again to George W. Bush’s call for retaliation in the name of justice. This may sound like a script borrowed from John Wayne. In fact it was written for Bush and the rest of us by Osama bin Laden. That declension of justice is a crucial way the attack on September 11, 2001, attained its goal. It instilled in us an overwhelming desire for retaliation and made us feel good about it. George W. Bush, seized by that desire, confused retribution with retaliation, and used that confusion to extract from us, by hook and by crook, agreement to seek this retribution, this justice, where none could be found.
Now, against the backdrop of continuing war in Iraq, in Afghanistan, war that is spreading in quicksand far and wide, President Obama repeats a story that once belonged to President Bush. To the fanatics. To the monocrats. Which we now own. We “went to war to protect our citizens.”
This is not merely hypocrisy. Barack Obama was never a pacificist. It is something far deeper and more tragic. Saying these words, this president loses his historical voice. Yes we can has been overcome by whatever it takes. It more recalls Nancy Reagan’s just say no than Martin Luther King’s I have a dream. Without its agent, justice, a word sacred in America’s second century as liberty was in the first, is lost from the imagination of the citizen. As it turns out, what has changed since 9/11, what has changed according to terms dictated by 9/11, is not the rise of an alternative politics carried forward by Obama but the failure of the historical agency that might have rectified some of the havoc wreaked by Bush.
* * * * *
Once Osama bin Laden’s teams attacked the United States it was easy to see that war was inevitable. Anyone who had studied the history and practices of democracy could have advised—as I did in the SSRC’s symposium in September of 2001—that “we must struggle not to make war against ourselves” and that “the best way to do this is to defend politics.” What I meant is that in times of crisis it is important (now I am again quoting President Obama) “to be true to the values that make us who we are” and to focus on those capacities and constraints that make civic life together possible. A people obsessively attentive to the demands of an enemy, distracted by panic, and by those disorders drawn into ignorance and forgetting, will be a major cause of their own further suffering. In short, my small counsel was think politics, not war.
Called upon to expand that first essay into a book, I quickly saw why my advice would be difficult to follow. The first reason was that nearly everyone else insisted that 9/11 was a radical break with the past. What I saw instead was a rhetoric of rupture that disguised essential lines of continuity and provided, on the basis of those very continuities, opportunities for some actors while foreclosing them for others. I knew that it is very hard to make reasoned judgments and take effective action if you cannot see what in your situation is changing and what is staying the same. Although I held to my conviction that it would be essential to concentrate on our own civic life, another fact appeared even more brutally opposed to it. The relationships formed among citizens in America, which is to say our civic life and the fabric of democracy, are to an extraordinary degree figured through our everyday experience of war. This experience has rarely been firsthand; it mostly involves indirect connections to war-fighting overlaid with mythic and mundane representations of violence. For this reason, the entanglement of war and civic life does not come easily into view. It is nonetheless as old as the Republic, something woven tight across the nineteenth century, intensified with the advent of the Cold War, and ultimately developed into the new social configuration I came to call civic war. How, then, could a people who for decades had had their public life bent to conform to war “defend politics” against the exigencies of war? This is the question I tried to answer in Civic War and the Corruption of the Citizen.5
In other words, my attention was focused for quite some time on what did not change with the events of September 11, 2001. It was Osama bin Laden who had sought to sever our ties to our own history. History is useful for citizens and I believed that some among us should undertake to sew those ties back together. I was also moved by two other truths about history to stress continuity. The first is that nothing but the flick of a switch changes like the flick of a switch; although birth is unprecedented for the newborn as death is final for the dead, even these are events in the course of time, space, and relationship—continua like families, friendships, nations, and the world are what give form and meaning to all human events. The second truth is that our history depends on our acts, even if it does not come out as we wish it would. Those early claims that “everything changed on 9/11” were not descriptions. They could not be because we had not yet acted. They were rather prognoses motivated by interest. I sought to show them as such because I believed that reflective knowledge should be part of our upcoming actions.
Now a decade later things are different. It is possible to point to many changes. There are the wars, Afghanistan being doubly new as America’s longest war. But careful research has shown that even these wars were not simply responses to the 9/11 attacks. The fact is that Osama bin Laden and his criminal band produced very few direct effects. People died, monumental buildings collapsed, Americans were shocked and scared. These are very, very important facts. But the answers we seek today to the question what has changed? lie elsewhere. The citizen must look for changes across the spectrum of civic life. This is the decade of Google. Rampant pornography. Newspapers in a nosedive. Political parties imploding. The ever-more precipitous plight of the poor. A housing bubble puffed and popped. This is the decade in which the United States went from a formidable surplus to an insurmountable deficit, and the little good that deficit produced was appropriated by the rich. Which has had more impact on public life in America: 9/11 or Citizens United? We will for generations to come be finding invisible or overlooked effects of 9/11 in the corners of society and culture.
This much is clear now. It has been the proliferating consequences of how we reacted to and have continued to live the direct effects of 9/11 that have made the most difference. Shock and fear are transitory. Deep changes emerge only as shock and fear are prolonged into social practices. It is the representation of shock and fear, and the use of those representations in social interaction and communication, that disseminated a diffuse but palpable sense of emergency in the United States. This “emergency” has been pervasive now for ten years. It is renewed every time some agent or agency taps into it. In this new cultural environment, of course the social practices of reason have become more difficult. Of course in a culture bent on manufacturing images of downside risk, hedge funds have dominated markets. Of course the resistance that keeps pretensions in check has eroded and power has had its way.
Let us, however, take a more classical and long-term perspective. Public life has its cycles. The Bush administration was a disaster from every point of view—financial, social, cultural, military, administrative, judicial, moral. Yet it would be a mistake to think that this fact alone, this polyphonic catastrophe, is the most significant change that occured in the wake of 9/11. These things happen. Across the spectrum from disaster to mundane mistakes, from corruption to crime . . . these are to be expected always and especially where power is by fear unleashed.
What counts is how we go forward. What matters is the capacity of a society to correct error and excess, to find new bearings. It takes time to build those resources, those countervailing forces, and to muster them to new ends. History—not only the narrative, but the material facts of the human condition here and now—is a reserve for action. The edge of history is where people—with their experience, with their capacities, with their beliefs, with their will—come together. This reserve is where Barack Obama set his tap. He opened a powerful flow.
If you had asked me what has changed? in 2008 I might have said this: in response to the second and overwhelming assault on our civic life, the one by George W. Bush and his monocratic cohort, the one which followed in turn the first assault by Osama bin Laden and his murdering thugs, a long-grown historic capacity for democracy was coming to fruition. This fruit surpassed by far the little morsels of public fusion and false consensus we like to think carried us through those first dark hours. It seemed that change had come into its own.
But the wheel turns again. From Day One and Ground Zero, the opportunistic parasites of 9/11 suckered the American people into investing in another set of symbols. We dedicated ourselves first and wholeheartedly to the subprime language of terrorism. Only later did we work our way back toward the traditional American language of change. What we have learned since the election of Barack Obama is that these two consuming commitments cannot abide together. Like everything at the core of politics, the struggle between them is being played out in the symbolic realm. Like most effects that make language what it is, the historic contradictions between the speech-world of terrorism and the speech-world of change are occurring largely behind our backs. Whatever it takes is crushing yes we can. The weapons of monocracy—shock, fear, emergency, war, intolerance—are overpowering the instruments of democratic reaction against them. Perhaps a stronger leader, someone with more staying power, less wedded to bad compromises and superficial consensus, could have held out.
But the question of Obama—can he rise against this overwhelming adversity and find again his historic voice?—has already been answered. Fifty years of civic war—as “cold war” and “culture war” and “tea party”—have made whatever it takes too much for yes we can. In the course of the Obama administration the significance of Obama has changed. Unlike during the first seven years of the age of 9/11, the whole historical field of resistance to what George W. Bush represented has been swept away. The symbolic capital of a century has gone bust. This is, in my view, the most significant change in the last decade. It is not that change has been given new content; it is that change has been rendered meaningless. And the great opportunity that arose unexpectedly on the heels of 9/11 has been lost.
Peter Alexander Meyers is professor of American studies at the Université Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle and a recurring visitor in the departments of Politics, Philosophy, History, and Sociology at Princeton University. His book Civic War and the Corruption of the Citizen (University of Chicago Press 2008) situated the political culture of 9/11 in the long arc of American history. A new work, Abandoned to Ourselves (Yale University Press, forthcoming), is about Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the prospects for political sociology. Follow his blog at http://democraticcitizen.blogspot.com/.