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The Uses of Adversity | The Nation

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The Uses of Adversity

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Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
        --As You Like It, II. i. 12

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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On the ground in downtown Manhattan, I see the best of our collective selves. Firemen and rescue workers risking their lives to save others; anonymous individuals pitching in to help strangers. Nobody whines about their losses, the inconvenience or even the inevitable screw-ups. It's a city I never knew existed. I go for walks and come back all choked up.

But then I get home, check in with my television and computer to see the latest screeds that pass for analysis in our benighted punditocracy, and my inner cynic is rekindled. "Nothing will ever be the same in America ever again," we are instructed. Well, yes and no. For many pundits, this tragedy is just one more excuse to explain how right they were in the first place. The discourse is dominated by a center-right argument, expressed most cogently by ex-Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, advising his successors, "We've got to be somewhat irrational in our response. Blow their capital from under them." (Not to put too fine a point on things, but terrorism has no capital. Remember, that's the problem.)

Sometimes it takes the near-destruction of a village to discover just how crazy some of these erstwhile respectable conservatives can be. George W. Bush did backflips and handflips during the Republican primary season to win the endorsements of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who concur that we got "what we deserve," adding that the ACLU has "got to take a lot of blame for this." Just in case anyone misunderstood, Falwell clarified their position: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'" (Robertson and Falwell apologized, but did not really retract.)

These crazies are not exactly alone on the Republican right. Over at National Review Online, Ann Coulter published an ostensible tribute to Solicitor General Ted Olson's wife, Barbara Olson, who died in the Pentagon crash, in which she first noted that Olson "praised one of my recent columns and told me I had really found my niche. Ted, she said, had taken to reading my columns aloud to her over breakfast." Finally came the red meat: "We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." This column, quite amazingly, also appeared on the website of a right-wing outfit, Jewish World Review, until the geniuses there figured out that by Coulter's theology they were next, and dumped it. Another confused NRO/JWR writer, Iran/contra adventurer Michael Ledeen, believes Olson "was killed by a fraudulent and arrogant establishment."

In another not quite shocking development Marty Peretz explained that the crime was the fault of insufficient hatred of Arabs. "I do not understand why so many people are so surprised by the radical evil emanating from the Muslim world," Peretz writes. To be fair, I suppose those of us who witnessed the terrorism of Meir Kahane, Baruch Goldstein and Menachem Begin have only ourselves to blame if we are surprised by the radical evil emanating from the Jewish world.

Over at the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, the editors discovered in this self-consciously low-tech attack yet another argument for space-based missile defense. Why? "Hijacking a jet and flying it into a target is now yesterday's threat." Now they tell us. Even the discredited "terrorist expert" Steven Emerson, who once upon a time tried to blame the Arabs for Oklahoma City, has seen his fortunes revived as a talking head: a perfect metaphor for a medium without a memory.

The right has been without a rallying point since the end of the Soviet Union. Now they have one again. By fortunate happenstance it coincides exactly with the desire of many of them to make Israel a vassal state of a global American empire. Note that among the commentators who seek to blame Yasir Arafat in some way for the atrocities and even mention the Palestinian Authority on a possible list of targets--a group that includes Seth Lipsky, Michael Kelly, Mark Helprin and George Will--not one even bothers to argue that Arafat had anything to do with the attacks. Rather, this horrific tragedy looks to be just one more excuse to try to get the US military to do Israel's dirty work rather than pursue the more difficult but constructive business of resuming the search for a workable peace.

To achieve the ends they have always sought, these conservatives demean considered analyses of our predicament with the epithet "appeasement." Andrew Sullivan--the author of a book on friendship--has already accused his friend Robert Wright of exactly this crime in response to the latter's thoughtful musings about some of the difficulties of retaliation. As if possessed by the spirit of an A. Mitchell Palmer or J. Edgar Hoover, the famed "gaycatholictory" has taken to listing the names of those he considers to be appeasers. And if that's not enough, Sullivan also warned that "the great red zone that voted for Bush is clearly ready for war. The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead--and may well mount a fifth column." Yes, you read that right.

The grave risk in allowing these self-serving arguments to hijack the public discourse is that we will embark on a self-destructive cycle of retribution that does little more than indulge our wholly understandable desire for vengeance as it simultaneously exacerbates the problem we attempt to address. No, I don't have a better idea right now, but what's the rush? We are a great nation. We can afford to take our time.

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