It looks as if we are going to have annual celebrations for some time to come of the disaster of Katrina and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They may become, for a time unofficial national holidays. I use the word "celebration" advisedly, although I know there will be emphasis on the human tragedies, the unfortunate failure to bring New Orleans back to what it was, the way 9/11 "changed everything" and alerted us to dangers we had overlooked before. But as much as they might say all the right things, there is an unmistakable air that comes very close to outright celebration in these commemorations. It's not quite that our superiors in the media and the political class think we deserved these human tragedies, though there's a faint whiff of that. No, while there will be emphasis on the capacity to survive devastation and come back from it determined, there is something very close to celebration in the refusal to let us forget.
Unless I am mistaken, this is a big change in the way America operates. Our official national holidays, most of them instituted before America became the "indispensable nation," celebrated things worth celebrating: the end of wars, the Declaration of Independence, acknowledgment of sacrifices in unavoidable wars, Flag Day, Law Day, birthdays of important leaders. Now we seem to want to remember the fact that we were attacked, the fact that our institutions failed to take preventive measures that might have avoided catastrophic damage. If these remembrances were accompanied or preceded by concrete steps to prevent future catastrophes it might be one thing. But the levees in New Orleans haven't been rebuilt to the point that they would hold back another storm just like Katrina, and instead of going after the perpetrators or those who led them and diagnosing the real problems associated with Islamist terrorism, we plunged into a war in Iraq that has strengthened rather than weakened the terrorists.
At a superficial level there are reasons to celebrate that few will admit openly. The neoconservatives who were itching for a reason to go to war with Iraq and certain elements of the Bush administration (still, I think) have reason to celebrate 9/11. It gave them the opportunity for the war they craved and license to go about it with few checks or balances. And for those who despise Bush, for whatever combination of reasons, Katrina is a constant reminder to the American people of his administration's failure and indifference and ineffectuality, cutting him down to size just when he was looking to be a popular wartime president. For certain groups of Americans, then, these catastyrophes are the gifts that keep on giving.
There may be another set of reason, outlined by the New Republic's John Judis in the August 27 issue. A Democrat partisan, he claims to have been baffled by working-class support for President Bush's ability to keep us feeling safe from threats like gay marriage and terrorists. He thinks he's found part of the answer in the emerging field of political psychology -- see Drew Westen's recent book, "The Political Brain," and research conducted by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, who have conducted experiemnts dealing with how we "cope with the terrifying and potentially paralyzing realization that, as human beings, we are destined to die." They have buiilt on the work of anthropologist Ernest Becker and his 1974 book "Denial of Death."
As Judis puts it, "Becker described how human beings defend themselves against this fundamental anxiety [knowledge of death] by constructing cultures that promise symbolic or literal immortality to those who live up to established standards. Among other things, we practice religions that promise immortality; produce children and works of art that we hope will outlive us; seek to submerge our own individualism in a larger, enduring community of race or nation; and look to heroic leaders not only to fend off death, but to endow us with the courage to defy it. We also react with hostility toward individuals and rival cultures that threaten to undermine the integrity of our own."
The three political psychologists conducted experiments that seem to show the only thing that brings out this primal, tribal, turn-to-the-leader-and-reject-alien-cultures response is the fear of death, not less fundamental fears. There is little question that the neocons and the Bush administration have exploited the fears aroused by 9/11, but Judis suspects they didn't know just how primal were the emotions into which they tapped. He also thinks that 9/11 is now far enough in the past that -- barring another attack -- that it doesn't have the same primal power it once did.
There's food for thought there. I think another possibility is at play. We are reaching what may well be the end of America's imperial moment, the effective end of what Henry Luce dubbed the American Century -- a time when imperial overstretch and the inherent inefficiencies of governmental structures that have become not just overbearing but too muscle-bound and clumsy to operate effectively are making it clear to Americans that our time as competent leader of the world is petering out. We no longer believe in our competence or our special mission to set an example of freedom without bullying others into following our example. So we celebrate the fact that we were attacked -- that must make us special -- but we even want to celebrate our failures, because, just perhaps, many Americans no longer expect success and competence and ability in our leaders -- and perhaps, just perhaps, in ourselves.
Whatever the reasons, there is something perverse in the determination of our elites to engage in what seems to me more like celebration than simple commemoration of recent catastrophes and failures.