The Fire Next Time

It is tragically ironic to say so, but the days and weeks following 9/11 were probably the last time the

It is tragically ironic to say so, but the days and weeks following 9/11 were probably the last time the country experienced anything like social harmony. If a major terrorist attack struck America today, the social and political landscape would be utterly transformed.

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A substantial segment of the population believes that the man who sits in the White House inhabits it illegally because he was born in a foreign land. Some of them hate him because he is black. Some despise him because they falsely yet doggedly believe that he practices the religion of “the enemy.” Large numbers of people are convinced that the present government is the moral equivalent of a hostile occupying force that wants to curb Americans’ freedoms and obliterate their rights. A book is about to be published by a respected conservative intellectual–Dinesh D’Souza–arguing that President Obama’s secret purpose is to weaken America and place it at the mercy of her enemies and rivals. Other prominent conservatives are praising Mr. D’Souza’s “insight.” When the book appears, the number of threats against the president’s life, which at one point reached record heights, will climb even higher.

The nation is sick with enmity. Remember “red states” and “blue states”? How quaint the terms seem now. The two sides had different cultural styles and made different choices at the ballot box. But so long as the conservatives were in power, the conflict between them stayed simmering, exploding now and then and in politically critical situations: Gore v. Bush, the Swift-boating of John Kerry, etc.

Now “red” and “blue” are comically inadequate to express the schism between the two. Mr. Obama’s election and the perceived triumph of liberalism–a triumph that has produced few legislative transformations–has created a novel fusion of culture war and political conflict. The war between right and left now is ongoing and unrelenting. It is an exotic political war with an everyday face. The power of Sarah Palin and especially Glenn Beck lies in the fact that they are waging politics in apolitical terms. They are condemning their adversaries in folksy, social language that has deep and lasting political ramifications. They are making political antagonism an ordinary habit of mind, like the aversion to certain types of personalities.

New terror would institutionalize the right’s lifelong sense of siege. They would turn horror into a daily routine. Meanwhile, liberals would sit helpless, waiting for Jon Stewart to do something.

This bleeding together of political and cultural boundaries gives every cultural event a symbolic meaning that possesses the power of a political referendum, even as it spooks and disables politics by relegating politics to the status of inferior cultural diversion.

There is no reason why a disagreement over the desire of some Muslims to build an Islamic center and mosque a few blocks from ground zero inevitably had to become yet another battleground between right and left. In a less tormented time, the issue would have been left to community leaders, not national political figures, in the same way as any of the countless NIMBY–there’s another quaint term–conflicts in New York and other cities never rose to referendums on the basic principles of American freedom. There is no reason why an obscure preacher’s announcement that he was going to burn copies of the Koran on 9/11–why didn’t he just burn them without the long-range announcement, by the way?–should be covered as though it were a political leader who had made the threat. But every corner of civic life has been politicized, politics has been entertainment-ized and the rise of participatory culture has made people think that screaming and yelling make a difference. At the same time, the media feels that it has to cover every participatory outburst, all the while publishing article after article questioning the wisdom of covering every participatory outburst.

The explosion. Smoke, fire, hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead. The old Hollywood nightmare comes alive, then goes berserk. A cowed president, worried about his image as a strong leader and fearful that his Muslim name will cripple his authority, sends troops into the cities. A loner takes a rifle shot at Mr. Obama, misses (you can only get so morbid), is taken into custody and at his trial quotes long passages from Mr. D’Souza’s book justifying his attempt to kill the president. Lunacy closes in on respectability. Frantic over his image and the destructive rumors of his disloyalty, the president escalates the war in Afghanistan, expands it to Pakistan and Yemen even as he makes virtuous concessions to the revision of civil liberties at home. Talk-show demagogues, who wear their private foibles on their sleeve to prove their good faith, drown out the politicians, whose credibility long ago was overwhelmed by the popular obsession with exposing the hidden foibles of public figures. Muslim Americans are disenfranchised and dispossessed. The poor are vilified as the economy starts to falter after the terrorist assault, with the black poor singled out as the attacks on Mr. Obama escalate. Fanatical splinter groups form on the edges of the lunatic fringe and blame the Jews for terrorism as the jihadists point to Israel as the reason for their slaughter. The markets crash. Rage, plunder and violence committed under the pretext of moral outrage against anyone with a dark complexion become steady work for the unemployed.

Where would the resistance rise from? All the energy, all the malevolence, all the willpower now come from the right. The working-class and middle-class “silent majority” that sat paralyzed with outrage and fear as the New Left and the antiwar movement wreaked various degrees of havoc in the ’60s and early ’70s are now the ones wreaking havoc–unlike the New Left, from authoritative perches in the halls of political and media power–while liberals and others watch paralyzed with outrage and fear. The juggernaut reality about the right is that, whether they are in power or out, they act as outcasts either way. For them, it seems as though national catastrophe was the fulfillment of an inner fear that is really a deeper wish. A second major terrorist attack would institutionalize their lifelong sense of siege. They would have the talent to turn horror into a daily routine. Meanwhile, liberals would sit helpless, waiting for Jon Stewart to do something. The liberal media, its purpose and validity blurring day by day, would be ineffectual. The right-wing media, its purpose and validity growing stronger day by day, would become something like a house of worship for its followers.

Most dangerous of all, speeding mores and accelerating technology will have already created an atmosphere where it is possible for anyone to do anything to someone else. Cultural decline used to be a basic conservative lament. No more. Now cultural decline is the engine driving the right’s political renaissance.

At this moment, politicians are stymied by what seems like the collapse of politics into the everyday struggle to be amused and to survive; economists are bewildered by the economy; foreign-policy experts are perplexed by the world; doctors and educators are confused by the effects of social changes on their professions; and from romance, to friendship, to raising children, to doing business, to behaving in the workplace, the average person knows what is wrong but has no idea what is right.



The Fire Next Time