Do you remember where you were when you heard that irony had died? That Hollywood was out of the action-movie business? That mall culture had sunk into the sea like Atlantis?
In the days after Sept. 11, several key elements of society were said to be suddenly out of commission. The terrorist attacks, it was said, spelled the end of irony (Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter), the end of vulgar blockbusters (New Yorker critic Anthony Lane), the end of frilly civil-liberties (congressional Republicans), the end of the end of big government (Jacob Weisberg in The New York Times), the end of bad television, postmodernism and political partisanship.
Nearly all of these predictions are rapidly proving untrue. To be fair, the best-intended of them were uttered in a state of shock. "Each of us were blithering, terror-stricken and shocked people," a television executive told The New York Times, "and we shouldn't be held accountable for much of what we said that week."
Those who declared an end to things can also plea that Americans hadn't experienced a tragedy on this scale. We had grown unaccustomed to public mourning. As election campaigns paused, theaters went dark, and malls emptied, professional trendspotters must have momentarily lost their bearings. Seeing us remove our hats in honor of the dead, they declared headwear out of fashion.
The worst-intended predictions, however, weren't predictions at all. They were arguments in the very dispute that was supposedly shamed to silence on Sept. 11. Our appreciation of the rescuers, some said, will replace our outmoded sarcasm, consumerism and celebrity worship. "I was a Gen Xer straight out of central casting--quick to see the flawed human core of every noble endeavor, emphatically including my own," wrote Andy Crouch, editor of Re:Generation Quarterly. "Well, forget it. I have hundreds of heroes now."
This is not declaring an end to the culture wars; it's declaring victory. Former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan's contribution was a column in The Wall St. Journal celebrating the return of manliness, a resurgent John Wayne-ism. After a long wolf-whistle for the NYFD, Noonan also chastises her pre-Sept. 11 self, though to find impeachable acts she has to reach all the way back to her Harvard days, where she argued trivial feminist principles with precisely the kind of skinny-armed pinheads we have no use for anymore.
What Noonan and Crouch both forget is that GenXers fell out of love with American heroes for real reasons. The GenX creation story has been told many times, but for the record: Growing up after Watergate and Vietnam, the children of the Boomers watched as history indicted the entire American pantheon--from Columbus to Jefferson, Joltin' Joe to J. Edgar Hoover, JFK to Martin Luther King--exposed as slavers, sexual deviants and cheaters, opportunists and oppressors. The notion that GenXers would do without heroes wasn't born of self-absorption, but of genuine disappointment.
Their disaffection wasn't all bad for the rest of us, either. Politicians still lie to us, but we're less likely to lie to ourselves about it when they do. We don't trust the media to get the whole story right the first time. When the cops do us dishonor, we demand they be called to account; when they exhibit outsized bravery, we lionize them. Increasingly, we see the flawed human core of every noble endeavor, as Crouch says, but we accept it. Nobody's perfect.
As Crouch rightly points out, the tragedy at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon upended the basic human conceit that we are in control over our lives. We generally go around convinced that our immediate destinies at least are in our hands. The destruction of a landmark like the World Trade Center, and the abrupt loss of life we witnessed, forcefully reminded us that we're not.
When a loud thunderclap comes, something related to our flight instinct must urge us to neutralize all other outstanding threats and reassert control. We demand that the world conform to our sense of how things ought to be. Fear, in a word, is why Jerry Falwell's reaction to the disaster was to curse homosexuals and the ACLU (even while others reported that intolerance had been left in the ditch). It makes old Reaganites proclaim that that Duke (or Dutch) is back in the saddle. Aging ironists pronounce irony dead.
Disasters like this serve as snapshots of our society. We, and those who come later, can study what we were arguing about, how we entertained ourselves and how we responded when the flashbulb went off, and learn from it. But slowly the figures in the picture will begin to move again. Color will return to affected lives. Teenaged girls will return to the Gap, and the cultural warriors will go back to tossing their rhetorical eggs at their rightful targets.