Sunday, September 11, 2011

"That a Country as Vast and as Various as Ours May Still be Experienced as a Community"

Yesterday, I acknowledged the communitarian danger lurking about in some powerful words which Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, wrote a year after the attacks on 9/11. I also acknowledged that it was that very dangerous frisson--a thrill of reading words which made one aware of suddenly belonging, of feeling committed and conscripted and captivated--which, I think, made them powerful. Wieseltier's comments a few days ago, at "An Evening of Remembrance and Reflection", a beautiful memorial concert given at the Kennedy Center the same night we at Friends had our small commemoration, said much the same thing, though perhaps more wisely, less dangerously, though no less meaningfully (hat tip to Damon Linker):

Though we encounter it as suffering, grief is in fact an affirmation. The indifferent do not grieve, the uncommitted do not grieve, the loveless do not grieve. We mourn only the loss of what we have loved and what we have valued, and in this way mourning darkly refreshes our knowledge of the causes of our loves and the reasons for our values. Our sorrow restores us to the splendors of our connectedness to people and to principles. It is the yes of a broken heart. In our bereavement we discover how much was ruptured by death, and also how much was not ruptured. These tears lead directly to introspection.

Here is what we affirmed by our mourning on September 11, 2001, and by the introspection of its aftermath:

that we wish to be known, to ourselves and to the world, by the liberty that we offer, axiomatically, as a matter of right, to the individuals and the groups with whom we live;

that the ordinary lives of ordinary people on an ordinary day of work and play can truthfully exemplify that liberty, and fully represent what we stand for;

that we will defend ourselves, resolutely and even ferociously, because self-defense is also an ethical responsibility, and that our debates about the proper use of our power in our own defense should not be construed as an infirmity in our will;

that the multiplicity of cultures and traditions that we contain peaceably in our society is one of our highest accomplishments, because we are not afraid of difference, and because we do not confuse openness with emptiness, or unity with conformity;

that a country as vast and as various as ours may still be experienced as a community;

that none of our worldviews, with God or without God, should ever become the worldview of the state, and that no sanctity ever attaches to violence;

that the materialism and the self-absorption of the way we live has not extinguished our awareness of a larger purpose, even if sometimes they have obscured it;

that we believe in progress, at home and abroad, in social progress, in moral progress, even when it is fitful and contested and difficult;

that just as we have enemies in the world we have friends, and that our friends are the individuals and the movements and the societies that aspire, often in circumstances of great adversity, to democracy and to decency.

It has been a wounding decade. Our country is frayed, uncertain, inflamed. There is hardship and dread in the land. In significant ways we are a people in need of renovation. But what rouses the mourner from his sorrow is his sense of possibility, his confidence in the intactness of the spirit, his recognition that there is work to be done. What we loved and what we valued has survived the disaster, but it needs to be secured and bettered, and in that secure and better condition transmitted to our children. Our dream of greatness must be accompanied by an understanding of what is required for the maintenance of greatness. The obscenities of September 11, 2001 exposed the difference between builders and destroyers. We are builders. Let us agree, on this anniversary, that it is an honor to be an American and it is an honor to be free.


John B. said...

Thanks for posting this, Russell. I keep forgetting, to my regret, Wieseltier's eloquence in matters like this.

Anonymous said...

Screw him. Seriously. Most of the people who erred as egregiously as he did had the sense to use this anniversary to reflect more soberly on their errors, and even they fell pretty short of the mark. He's mostly doubled-down any time the chance has come up in the last decade. Someone who advocated as strongly and as pugnaciously as he did for what turned out to be a catastrophic mistake with humanitarian consequences that outstripped the 9/11 attacks needs to not try to speak for us all about healing or building right now. Some people need to just accept a time out and put on a dunce hat.

Timothy Burke said...

I'm going to try and work something up today or tomorrow about why I feel very differently about Wieseltier, Packer, Keller and other "liberal hawks" who pushed for the Iraq War. I think they all have a lot of gall calling for us to remember a spirit of unity, etc., considering that they greedily hijacked that sense of unity to score political points and push for a policy objective as profoundly destructive and illiberal as the 9/11 attacks were. Keller and Packer and a few others have at least tried, however churlishly, to apologize, generally without conceding that there were plenty of people who were on the right side of that argument back then. Wieseltier hasn't even done that--in the intervening decade, he's been just as (eloquently) bombastic about his advocacy for various 'hawkish' approaches as ever. Being reflective and meditative and introspective isn't Queen for a Day: it's a way of life.