Catesby Leigh’s analysis of the 9/11 complex in downtown Manhattan (“A Memorial to Forget”) explains how our impoverished cultural vocabulary for memorialization leads to a documentary mentality. We don’t know how to remember, and so we default to recording. In an essay in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik draws a similar conclusion (though without Leigh’s critical clarity). He observes that a documentary emphasis makes sense for Holocaust museums. “Their subject is a great crime whose perpetrators did all within their power to keep concealed, and simply making the story public has been a big part of the work of mourning. Every found photograph of a Jewish child is a memory recovered from oblivion.” But September 11, 2001, had the opposite character. It “was a crime deliberately committed in open air as a nightmarish publicity stunt, one already as well documented as any incident in history. We can’t relearn it; we can only relive it.”
Why, then, a museum? In part, its rationale is political. In the aftermath of 9/11, the victims’ families became a major political force, and the large museum with no clear purpose provided a flexible context for meeting their demands. It was also built because, as Leigh points out, we don’t know how to memorialize. So we make up for our impoverished aesthetic imaginations by spending large sums of money and heaping up buildings and programs and gestures. Like the giant torrents of falling water above, the vast museum below tries to dignify memory with grandiosity.
Gopnik has a different explanation. By his reckoning, the “liberal imagination” doesn’t do memorials with the panache of “royal and revolutionary societies.” Perhaps, but that depends on which liberals are doing the imagining. Those who built the Shaw Memorial in Boston had a clear vision of the noble fight against slavery. But perhaps they weren’t liberals but instead radicals and revolutionaries, as the Southerners themselves called them.
Gopnik demurs from the monumental because his imagination is more postmodern than that of Frederick Douglass or Robert Shaw. It dreams of individuals, not nations; particular memories, not collective purposes; life’s experiences, not moral principles. As he puts it, “Those who lack faith in fixed order and stable places have a harder time building monuments that must, in their nature, be monolithically stable and certain.”
He contrasts this allergy to permanence with the views of “the theocrats at First Things,” and he’s right to do so. To a certain degree, we govern the way we memorialize. Gopnik sees no “fixed order” by which to organize our memories of the deadand he and today’s liberal culture can’t articulate moral principles by which the powerful are to limit their power. There are no “stable places” where we can stand to hold them accountable. By that standard, I am happy to be called a theocrat. I do not believe that the people in charge of society have the final say. I think there’s something above elites, something they must serve, something I can hold them accountable to.
This month’s Public Square isn’t the first time I’ve written about single women and conservatism. I invented Julia after the GOP poll of women voters was leaked, writing about her on our website. Amanda Hess at Slate responded. It takes a while to get past her “how dare you speak for women” tropea very tired one indeed in 2014. Once you do, you can see she largely evaded my claim that progressive cultural politics disorients single women (as it does others). That evasion doesn’t surprise me. American progressives are like free-market ideologues when it comes to culture. The free-market proponent dismisses talk of a glass ceiling: “Hey, anybody can start a company if she wants!” I hear exactly the same thing when I express a concern that gay marriage will weaken the culture of marriage and thereby harm the Julias of the world: “I’m not standing in the way of traditional marriage. Any woman can get married to a man if she wants!” These are painfully simplistic ways to think about our responsibilities to each other.
The beheading of journalist James Foley shocked the West. It shouldn’t. The use of terror as a strategic weapon is as old as humanity. But it’s about more than intimidating enemies. In Mosul, the Islamic State set up large video screens in the center of the city to broadcast brutal executions. In Gaza, Hamas soldiers shot supposed traitors in the streets. The goal is to compel ordinary people to participate in the terror, to share in the blood. The effect is psychological. By watching, observers become complicit, sharing in a secret communion with evil. Demagogues recognize this, which is why they often create spectacles of horror and brutality. ISIS broadcasts its horrors, not for the West only, but for the Islamic world as well.
I have not watched the video. I will not watch it. I refuse barbarism’s pornography of horror.
The trustees’ enrollment committee at Mills College, a women-only institution in the Bay Area, unanimously approved a series of clarifications. Applicants “not assigned to the female sex at birth” but who identify as female are welcome, as are those “who do not fit into the gender binary” but were “assigned the female sex at birth.” These new permissions come with prohibitions. Students “assigned the female sex at birth” but who have become legally male (which in California recently has become much easier to do) may not apply, although female students who become male while enrolled may stay.
I’m confident that in a few decades people will look back with amazement. “Grandpa, do you mean to tell me that people in 2014 thought male and female are arbitrary categories that doctors assigned to people when they were born? And that people could just decide not to be male or female? That’s not just weird. It’s creepy.”
Last month, I wrote critically about William Deresiewicz’s self-contradictory views about higher education (“The Meritocratic Machine”). It’s only fair that I should say he has written a very fine essay in the New Republic summing up the achievement of John Updike (“Controlled Rapture”). Deresiewicz is spot-on about Updike’s favorite subjectsex. “Updike stood between old and new Victorianisms. The most shocking thing about the way he handles sex, from the standpoint of 2014when nothing is censored but everything censored, from one direction or anotheris that he doesn’t moralize it.” He also defends Updike against the charge of being merely a “pretty writer,” as if limpid prose should somehow count against an author. “Maybe Updike never did write that one big book, that single indelible masterpiece. Maybe his corpus is less than the sum of its parts. But what parts.”
Yes, exactly. What parts! A decade ago I picked up a copy of Rabbit, Run, the 1960 novel that established Updike as one of the major novelists of his generation. I read it with pleasure, but never finished it. That was Updike for me, whose New Yorker stories I read as a teenager. I always, always enjoyed reading himand never thought him essential. Recently, a friend gave me a copy of Bech at Bay. Again, not essential, but splendid, insightful, funny, and memorable in the way an evening with an articulate, colorful conversationalist is.
SheTaxisSheRides is a new company in New York. Here’s how the New York Times describes it: “The new livery service starting Sept. 16 in New York City, Westchester County and Long Island will offer female drivers exclusively, for female riders.” Huh? A company that won’t hire men? A company that won’t serve men? Is there not an important part of our legal code that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in employment and public accommodation?
Harley Pinson of Bakersfield, California, would like to start a ROFTERS group in that fine city. If you’d like to be a charter member, please get in touch with him: email@example.com.
while we’re at it sources: 9/11 memorial: newyorker.com, July 7, 2014. Female voters: slate.com, August 28, 2014. Beware the Ivy League: newrepublic.com, July 21, 2014. On John Updike: newrepublic.com, September 8, 2014. SheTaxisSheRides: nytimes.com, September 7, 2014.