Based on the number of brochures that governments and non-profit groups produce, I suspect that most people are under the delusion that people operate out of beliefs. Know→Believe→Do, this is the way that the brochure-makers and moral pundits understand the process of human change. Read the brochure or take the class, then your attitude will change, and then your action is almost automatic.
How does this work out in real life?
I was a student in the late-80s/early-90s, and we were bombarded with sex ed information. It was the STD scare era–early enough that an ignorant teacher called AIDS the gay disease, but late enough that most of us already knew better. Every two or three months we were gathered together for another session that began with a teacher drawing a longhorn womb on the blackboard. Knowing the female anatomy, logically, we would practice all the healthy attitudes of an STD-free life.
I never once saw the male system drawn on the board, though having nuns as teachers may have been part of the reason. It’s difficult now to know the link between anatomy and ethics that teachers then (and now?) thought (think?) was obvious. But it wasn’t obvious to me. It still isn’t. Quite clearly attitudes changed and so did behaviours, but I have my doubts about the effectiveness of the spamology and bully pulpit approaches to sex ed.
Ultimately, why did people change their sexual habits? Because they were terrified of getting AIDS or something else. And why were they terrified? Because the cultural story made these links explicit. Our mythology shifted, and so did the way we lived.
You could see this with my teen sex ed class. Once again, the teacher is droning on about anatomy and the bedroom. I am doodling absentmindedly in my scribbler, wishing our teacher used the book Where Did I Come From?, which I had been given as an 8-year-old. None of us were paying attention, and I knew that the guys, at least, were not won over to the idea of safe sex. But when a real woman told her personal story of how she got HIV and would die a horrible death like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, every student was tuned in.
This is why I listen to the stories that we are telling each other as a culture. Think of a collection of films that came out a couple of years ago. Wild, The Revenant, The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, Boyhood, Ex Machina–those films all dealt with the question of isolation and community in really sophisticated ways. Even the turn in the Marvel Universe films is asking that question. That means something, but what? Clearly Hollywood is going through a mid-life crisis as baby boomers struggle with questions of mortality and the Brat Pack generation struggles with wrinkles and real jobs. If I had to describe last year’s films in a single word, I would use “disintegration.” But that story isn’t being sustained this year. This is the year of sequels, remakes, rebrands, reboots, and echoes of the past. I’m not sure yet what it means.
Film is just one of the ways that we tell stories that contribute to our cultural myth, but filmmakers are the new mythmakers. I’m reading Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, and his essays on cultural myths in the 1950s are fascinating. He begins with wrestling–yes, professional wrestling with the outfits and everything–but his topics include Billy Graham as a shaman, Greta Garbo’s face, wine and milk, margarine, and the amount of sweat in Roman films. He makes fun of Elle magazine a lot. With Chestertonian wit, Barthes uses the symbols of culture to discern the underlying stories, thinking about how ideology quietly works in that world. I think he is going to argue that stories are (when they are good) stripped of political frameworks, but they still pass on political ideas. I don’t always understand what Barthes is talking about, but he is shockingly good at seeing the signs of the times in things like a magazine cover, a makeup ad, a newspaper clipping, or a play.
On this day, sixteen years after 9/11, I hope that those who have suffered so deeply on that day will allow me to ask some questions about what that foundational American event means. Many would think it absurd to say that an event orchestrated by so few can have meaning, but we cannot be naïve. Humans are meaning-making beings, and cultures as sophisticated as America’s will shape those meaning-moments into a mythology for itself. So I ask, what does the myth of 9/11 shape in us today?
One thing that I want to set aside, as intriguing as it is, is the “truther” movement around 9/11. Conspiracy theorists are not moved by mythologies in precisely the same ways as mass culture (though I think mass cultures can fall for a conspiracy). “Truthers” look at the cultural myths and see the unseen links, the way that we imagine pictures in the splattering of stars in the sky, or see our futures in damp leaves at the bottom of a tea cup. When I say that 9/11 is a myth, I don’t mean that it never happened–goodness, are there people that think that?–or that it was a media or government hoax. I mean that 9/11 has become a foundational story to us, and the way that story tells us something about our culture today.
One of the most shocking things to me about 9/11 is the passing of time. I have had university students born after 9/11. How is that even possible? I watched it happen little by little, as I would invite students to share their “where I was on 9/11” story, that soon became an unanswerable question. “I was in the womb. I don’t remember it, but a teacher showed me a womb on the whiteboard and it looks like a longhorn cow. I was near the left eye, I think.”
My students are too young to remember this critical moment that has shaped America ever since.
And in the world of cultural myths, 9/11 is this generation’s JFK moment. Most people in their 60s or older can remember where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy was shot, and most people born before 1995 can remember how 9/11/2001 unfolded. There are other moments. I remember, for some reason, where I was when Princess Diana’s death was declared on radio. I remember the Challenger exploding on TV, Tiannaman Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the death of Kurt Cobain. But it is 9/11 that is the true generation-shaping where-were-you-when event.
If I think of the old black-and-white reels of people hearing about JFK, I imagine shoppers clustered outside of an electronics store, or families with TV trays clustered around turn-knob TVs, all watching the same few seconds of video roll again and again. For the east coast and Europe, 9/11 was a school and work phenomenon, while the west coast woke up to the tragedy. For those that were watching live on CNN or NBC, 9/11 unfolded in a series of blows: the first hit, the second plane caught on the news, the fires, the panic, the exiles, the towers fall, the city goes white. And then the long dark vigil as news comes from the Pentagon and Pennsylvania and who knows what will be next?
I was in rural Japan on 9/11, our second week in a new country. I remember the moment I was told, and the weather, and the quiet of our rice field community. Kerry and I were hungry for news, so drove to the top of a mountain to catch the US military radio broadcast from the base on the Kantō Plain. Over the next few days all the foreigners–Australians, Brits, Canadians, Germans, all supporting our American friends–gathered for endless hours in a living room watch satellite CNN, watching and waiting.
Waiting for what?
We were waiting for the 21st century, I believe, though we didn’t know it then.
For years after the 2001 terrorist attack, I argued that 9/11 was the end of the 20th century. I think it is still a pretty good argument: the century that began in 1893 with the world fair, a hopeful century of peace was soon plunged into the second 30-years war. 1914-1945 were the bloodiest and most soul-destroying of all our world’s history of warfare, where the grand vision of technology and progress collapsed into ideology and despair. The 20th-century will forever be described as the age that invented mass technology genocide and played dangerously with the idea of cosmocide. We’re still playing with the idea that we could destroy all life as our oceans warm and as global political leaders play chicken with nuclear bombs.
9/11 was, in my mind, the perfect close to the 20th century, the last gasp of the zombie of human nature that threatened a whole century otherwise filled with incredible progress in science, technology, medical care, travel, global awareness, and religious faith.
What 9/11 teaches us still is that all of those things are tainted.
Our technology and luxury life is globally exhausting–not merely benign, but environmentally abusive and oppressive to the poorest on our planets. It used to be that medical care was for helping with things that happened to people. Now medical technology is mostly about what we do to ourselves. And the most sophisticated, innovative, and wealthy civilization in human history cannot even figure out how to provide equitable care to its citizens–or why they should even bother. The technology of phones and social media brings new social connection, but they are also deeply alienating. Our global connection brings great diversity, but also a deep weariness with war and news and disaster.
And religion. The story of the 20th century that no one tells was the great growth of Christianity in the southern hemisphere–the fastest growth in church history. That growth will be strong in this century, but it won’t look like the growth of your local neighbourhood American or French church life. It is Indian, African, Latin, and Asian. But the greatest growth in religion will be Islam, provided that the current political version of it in West Asia does not devour itself.
In any case, none of these are neutral realities in our lives, and religion is certainly not what it used to be in the cultural mythology. Even as Europe, Britain, and North America moved past public life religion, local church and synagogue life was viewed as a social good. Quaint perhaps. A little eerie at times in its revivalistic form after WWII. But part of the social good that is needed to give people meaning.
That is all in the past. The public does not think that religion is neutral, but is a powerful force for good or evil. Harold Bloom, Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Smith, and Harvey Cox each have theses about what the real American religion is. With respect to the public, however, this is changing. The face of 9/11 was religious–despite all our attempts to help people understand the difference between heart- and hearth-faith and the face of religion in the hands of politicians and revolutionaries. In the mythology, however, this event of violence on the US east coast is linked with anti-gay violence, gender inequality, and White Supremacist violence throughout the country. The word “Christian” is beginning to weave-together with images of hatred and bigotry in the subconscience of middle America.
In the end, I have the shocking thesis before me that 9/11 is the beginning of a century, not merely the ending of one. It is the supreme symbolic event, bringing all of our 20th-century lessons together except one. Flying planes into buildings brought together global connectivity, luxury travel, religion, and technological advances in a single act of mythological suicide. And that last progressive wonder of the 20th century, medicine? There are some wounds you cannot treat with research-based methods, and 9/11 has caused that kind of wound.
We have seen this once before. The French Revolution (1789-1799) was the close of a century defined by progress, where we had finally thrown off the shackles of religion and unhelpful politics to forge a new age of peace based on science, philosophy, and social cohesion. Even from a Christian perspective, the greatest revivals of Western history walked side by side with the Enlightenment in America and Britain. The 18th century was filled with hope.
But it descended into flame and hatred, a new century defined by war and slavery and, ultimately, the roots of totalitarian regimes. For those in the southern hemisphere, it was an age of terror perpetrated by empires who said they were there to help. The French Revolution was the natural result of the Enlightenment project, and the 19th century that followed created the wars and genocides that defined the 20th.
Just like the French Revolution of the 1790s ended one century and began another, so 9/11 is that hinge-point of history. What will it create for us, this new mythology? We cannot know for sure; we are still living it. Our fears around immigration, our discomfort with religion, our fear of the loss of economy hegemony, our diminishing social returns, the emergence of ISIS and refugees on a scale heretofore unknown in a time of “peace,” our obsession with safety, our disillusionment with politics, the drifting of America away from its allies and the recentering of the world’s power centres away from the West–these are all moments captured in symbollic form by that fateful attack sixteen years ago today.
Is it all doom and gloom? No, I don’t think so. I suspect it will be a revolutionary movement that begins in New York City that will ultimately, peacefully, offer new ways through the crises of the day. 9/11 has changed the landscape of lower Manhattan in more ways than one. I think the value of diversity and human love will ultimately rise up against myths of division and fear. We should celebrate that when we see, and live it when we can.
But on this day, as we wait for news of copycats and global hack attacks and stock market crashes and ISIS pushes and storm survivors, 9/11 remains the most powerful myth alive today.
Here’s to the 21st century.