Friday, September 16, 2011

I was so wrong.

Early last week, Carol Bartz sent a four-word email blast to all Yahoo employees: I’ve just been fired.  It caused quite a stir in the corporate world where both executives and companies are wont to spin firings with face saving euphemisms.  The now former CEO told it like it was — the bold and simple truth.  Only time will tell if she will follow-up with a more extended explanation of her tenure, including what she may have done wrong.  By all accounts, Dick Cheney’s new book In My Time doesn’t include admissions to any wrong thinking or wrongdoing during his time in Washington.  Telling the unvarnished truth, as Bartz did, and admitting being wrong, as Cheney didn’t, is rare in our world.  That’s sad.  We desperately need the truth, but perhaps even more so, we need to admit to what Kathryn Schulz so thoroughly explored in her excellent 2010 book Being Wrong.  We can learn and teach so much from being wrong, and we should.

The narrative and images of September 11, 2001 are forever embedded in our minds.  They require no repeating.  For those of us who lived Manhattan at the time, the memory is particularly vivid: where we were, what we saw and what impact it had on us, personally and as a community.  To get a sense of the unique experience endured by those who lived in real proximity, read Neil Tyson’s harrowing email written from the refuge of his parents’ Westchester home the day after.  And then of course there was the endless written and spoken analysis.  The opinion consensus: everything had changed for America — we would never be the same.

I dismissed what had come to be that conventional wisdom.  In blogs I even rebelled against the term 9/11 and refused to call the place Ground Zero.  To me both smacked of the tabloid-speak that has so overtaken, cheapened and impoverished our language.  Mine wasn’t a matter of denial or a sense that what happened wasn’t profoundly important.  No American, especially living in New York, could dismiss the stark reality of those days.  It was rather that I felt we were getting ahead of ourselves in predicting things would never be the same.   To me it constituted of-the-moment analysis driven by sensational 24/7 coverage.  We were prematurely making a historical judgment before we had the necessary time and perspective.  This is not to suggest that I felt we would be untouched.  That would be impossible.  The Civil War, Great Depression, and three major 20th Century conflicts (hot and cold) all left indelible marks.  Nonetheless, we had always picked ourselves up, not merely recovering but gaining even greater strength — better than before.  American ingenuity and exceptionalism I thought would win out as it always had.  I was so wrong.

We are not what we were.  To be sure we certainly can’t attribute all of our now diminished state to the 9/11 attack.  The seeds of change were sown much earlier and more broadly than a single event, no matter how wrenching, and it will likely take historians many years to unpack and sort through them.  Some of the decline can probably be attributed to the natural ebb and flow of history.  Empires and the like have always had a finite shelf life — ask the Romans or the Brits.  In our case, losing the edge can in part be attributed to a systemic rebalancing of a once dominant economy upended to a degree we never fully anticipated by post-industrialization, lightening speed technological advancement and truly competitive globalization.

But Bin Laden was a player here.  Despite one major miss, the targets his suicidal agents hit — icons of our economic and military might — were astute and in their way serve as tokens for the never-be-the-same prediction.  Ten years out our undisputed financial preeminence is severely challenged and, all our high tech weaponry notwithstanding, we are increasingly seeing the limits or our military power.  But the ironic, and ultimately saddest, thing is not what Al Qaeda did to us that September day, but we have done to ourselves since. 

There is an odd kind of euphoria that accompanies collective trauma, an emotional high that draws us together.  We certainly experienced it in the first days after, when even a president and a mayor not known for eloquence were somehow able to unify and inspire us.  That this togetherness dissipated virtually overnight should have been a tip off.  I may not have been in denial about what happened in my city ten Septembers ago, but I was blind to what would happen and with what consequences.  So this writing in September 2011 isn’t a matter of I told you so, but rather a reminder that I didn’t.  I was so wrong.

Would things have turned out differently had Al Gore rather than George W. Bush been in the White House?  I’d like to think so, but am by no means sure.  I doubt we would have gone to war with Iraq, but would we have done any less in Afghanistan?  Perhaps it would have not been so named, but a war on terrorism would likely have been declared.  It’s hard enough to parse what actually happened in the past — memory is selective — but speculating on what might have been is a waste of energy.  In fact, it can be distracting when we have to deal with reality, the product of what did occur.

Of course the leadership we had in place played an enormous role in how we reacted to 9/11.  It always does.  But in a democracy, as I have written often in these posts, we the people share fully in that responsibility.  Let’s remember that post Afghanistan and Iraq George Bush was reelected with 50.74% of the popular vote.  Moreover, no meaningful, much less sustained, protests on either the Civil Rights or Viet Nam scale have been mounted on our streets or in Washington.  That is striking given the unpopularity of our wars, but not that surprising since so few of us, as I and others have said before, have skin in that game.  And there may be another reason for our lack of activism, this one directly related to 9/11.  The first attack on mainland American soil, one that mostly took the lives of our fellow civilians, has cast a shadow on protests against military action that, despite Iraq, continue to be seen in the context of retaliation.  Protesting Viet Nam, a war rationalized by some theoretical and distant domino theory and a questionable Communist menace, is different than protesting one that avenges our personal hurt, even if opportunistically exaggerated.

Speaking of military conflicts, another thing that may never be the same after 9/11 is nature of war itself, previously fought between nations.  Again that change, in which the opponent is a rogue band of terrorists, had been in the works years earlier.  Much has been made of the warning signs missed by the Bush Administration, but in truth few of us recognized a sea change that had already taken place.  Bin Laden exposed what was potentially our, and with it most nation states’, Achilles Heel.  We, like major powers throughout history, have (mostly) been good at fighting big.  We were relatively unprepared and inexperienced at fighting small.  Shock and Awe was our way and its ineffectiveness was not only missed by political and military leaders but by a public that had happily bought into the notion of antiseptic quick wars.  Bomb the hell out of them and it’s over.  Right.

Some analysts have pointed to the Arab Spring as a repudiation of Bin Laden’s way.  That may be true relative to exploiting religious extremism and employing terrorist tactics to intentionally kill civilians, particularly non/wrong-believers.  But what Al Qaeda also demonstrated was that relatively few people could cause real and effectual havoc even in an authoritarian country.  I would suggest that what we’re seeing now, Libya excepted, is a non-violent manifestation of insurgent people power, another new normal if you will.  For sure Gandhi deserves some credit here, but Bin Laden’s contemporary example turned on its head may be more, even if ironically, to the point.  That it’s taken this particular less violent turn is heartening, but let’s remember we’re still in the early stages of a still moving target.

Other than in a metaphoric sense, it’s hard to attribute our never will be the same economy to the destroyed Trade Center.  Whatever disruptions that event caused were fleeting — a precipitous market drop with a quick recovery.  At the same time, Bin Laden certainly had a beef with the economic hegemony of what he considered the godless West.  But our economic woes have much deeper roots and are largely of our own, not his, making.  What is true is that the decade following 9/11 certainly has exposed them, perhaps like never before.  We may still mouth that this is land of opportunity, but can no longer be certain.  Things may truly never be the same.

Being diminished or experiencing decline, whatever you want to call it, is hard to take.  It brings with it an environment often described as one of uncertainty.  In fact it’s any thing but uncertain.  The wars our troops are fighting abroad may be remote, but our economic downturn is not.  The unemployed live or lived next door and they often include our near and dear.  That's certain and it makes us frantic.  That certainty about our dire condition may best explain the poisonous political atmosphere that abounds, and the increasingly vitriolic blame game.  It also accounts for monumental swings in voting that may have more to do with unrealistic wishful thinking than anything else.  Both parties seek to exploit this situation.  Republicans ask for power, holding out the promise that they have the magic bullet solution to all our problems.  I think many, if not most, of them honestly believe that to be the case.  And Democrats are no different.  Just replace Bush and presto, Obama will fix it all.  Such promises, made or imagined, are not only unrealistic they lead to huge, often unwarranted, disappointment.  Perhaps before, using 9/11 here as a token, there were fixes that could make a relatively immediate difference.  A drop or rise in interest rates could do wonders.  But today everyone is stretched and even the experts are flying somewhat blind.  I think Obama’s jobs plan (forget if you feel its big enough or perfectly focused) generally makes sense.  Conversely, the detail-poor Boehner Jobs approach seems much of the same old Republican formula that helped get us into this mess.  But who can say so for sure?  That the old rules seem obsolete and that things are not what they used to be and may never will be again is all I’m willing to say with some certainty.  

I was so wrong about the future back in 2001.  With that lesson in mind, I could be wrong again in 2011.  At least that gives me some modicum of hope.

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