Six months later

Posted: Mar 12, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--Throughout the six months since Sept. 11, Americans, who have a sociological itch and a psychoanalytic bent, have examined themselves for signs that, as was said immediately after the attacks, ``everything has changed.'' Actually, almost everything is almost always very much as it was six months earlier. But since the attacks, there have been some welcome changes, manifested in many things, from rhetoric to music to manners to reading. President Bush's rhetorical style--syntactical minimalism: Midland, Texas, meets MBA-speak--is what it was before Sept. 11, but it suits the new sobriety. Were Bush to attempt the Ciceronian flourishes of John Kennedy (``Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are ...'') it would be like Handel played on a harmonica. Bush's terseness is Ernest Hemingway seasoned by John Wesley. His promiscuous use of the word ``evil'' is partly an unself-conscious expression of his religiosity. But he also uses ``evil'' for a policy purpose similar to Ronald Reagan's in calling the Soviet Union the ``evil empire'' and ``the focus of evil in the modern world.'' Reagan intended to re-moralize foreign policy, which had been de-moralized by detente, which Reagan believed had demoralized Americans. Bush understands that the heat from burning jet fuel made the national mind akin to hot wax--malleable. Gone is the judgment that ``judgmentalism'' is intolerant, hence intolerable. Gone, too, is the intelligentsia's consensus that the only absolute is relativism--the doctrine that all values are mere ``social constructs,'' hence equally arbitrary and evanescent. Since Sept. 11, America's mind is no longer so open that everything of value falls out. Soon after Sept. 11, Wal-Mart's shelves held Little Patriots Diapers, spangled with little blue stars. Americans are not only virtuosos of marketing, they are famously patriotic. Nationalistic, too. Patriotism is love of one's country; nationalism is the assertion of national superiority. Nationalism is the rejection of cultural relativism, the basis of ``multiculturalism.'' Hence nationalism is anathema to the avante garde. It is axiomatic that everything changes except the avante garde, which in America is frozen in an adversarial pose toward the nation beyond the campus gates. But who cares? It has been 40 years since the Kennedy administration was stocked with academics chattering about a confluence of the Charles and Potomac rivers. Sept. 11 sealed the self-marginalization of the adversarial academy. The world has moved onward and, for now, upward, as Terry Teachout, the distinguished music critic, discovered in an epiphany at a Manhattan McDonald's. There a radio was playing music, and the music was neither rock nor rap. It was Diana Krall, the jazz singer, elegantly rendering ``The Look of Love.'' ``Beauty,'' Teachout wrote in early January, ``is becoming fashionable again.'' Which means it has become mentionable again. The idea of beauty was another casualty of the silly socialization--``(BEG ITAL)Everything is relative''--of the idea of relativity in physics. Beauty, like truth, was declared ``relative,'' meaning ``socially conditioned'' and a mere matter of opinion. Then, says Teachout, came Sept. 11's brutal reminder ``that some things aren't a matter of opinion.'' When Teachout wrote that, Krall's ``The Look of Love'' was eighth on's list of best-selling CDs. Two months later it is still high on the list, at 15th. It includes such standards as ``S'Wonderful,'' ``Cry Me A River" and ``I Get Along Without You Very Well.'' Are standards out of date? Certainly. They always are out of date. That, says playwright Alan Bennett, is why we call them standards. Chippendale-style furniture, crystal chandeliers and the wearing of suits on no-longer-quite-so-casual-Fridays are back in fashion. To the lingering 1960s sensibility, formality, decorousness and etiquette seemed authoritarian. Since Sept. 11 they seem respectful and reassuring. The New York Times best-seller list includes two hefty biographies of dead white males, David McCullough's ``John Adams,'' already a best seller before Sept. 11, and Edmund Morris' study of Teddy Roosevelt, ``Theodore Rex.'' Perhaps Sept. 11 strengthened the public's immunity to the theory of many academic historians (``history from the bottom up'' or ``history with politics left out'') that any biography--other than of, say, a midwife in 14th-century Barcelona--is reactionary because it suggests that some people matter more than others in the human story. These have been six difficult months for diversity-mongers who preach that America is a mere ``mosaic''--coagulated groups rather than united individuals. And difficult months for the ``everything is just a matter of opinion'' chorus. These have been good months.