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The Metamorphosis

We tell ourselves we're different -- less frivolous, less selfish -- because the world's a different place. But our obsession with the change might just signal a different sort of self-absorption.


There is a dramatic convention that Hollywood uses when a character undergoes a particularly illogical metamorphosis -- from, say, one body to another, or even one mind to another. Just before the change, the character is told that he or she won't remember the fact of the transubstantiation. There will be no before and after, just after. The change in consciousness will be total.

The post-September 11 change (oddly, we haven't been able to come up with any real names for the present morphing -- just this continuing B.C.-A.D. focus on the date) is possibly at that level of movie makeover and disruption. "A rent in the fabric of time," Hendrik Hertzberg said grandly in The New Yorker.

But unlike in a movie metamorphosis, we don't seem to lack any knowledge of what's been happening to us. In fact, we've become rather eager witnesses to the intricate psychological and historical change we're undergoing. So much so that it may be worth questioning a central tenet of the change: that we were supposed to have been shocked free of our self-centeredness, to have shaken off our solipsism, to have become aware of a larger world. Instead, it may be that the attack has drilled us down as deep as we have ever been into self-consciousness.

There seems to be hardly anyone who has not become a junior cultural historian (during the Cold War, which this new war age is being compared to, everyone became a junior G-man). We have the rise of the new masculinity in the figure of the uniformed services and especially the hunky firefighters. The new comfort culture -- big ratings for the Carol Burnett anniversary show. The new politeness. The new patriotism. The new fear. The new grief. The new Rudy. The new romance (already there are predictions of a post-9/11 baby boom). The new earnestness to replace the old irony. The new security state -- a checkpoint nation.

As important has been to identify what's ending. "On September 11, the nineties ended," Gucci designer Tom Ford helpfully explained in an issue of The New York Times Magazine that wondered, in its cover theme, if the age of affluence had ended. Indulgence of all sorts is over; 9/11 is finally, definitely the end of Bill Clinton. It is the end of politics as usual (hence, the election of Michael Bloomberg). It is the end of celebrities. The end of travel. It was, briefly, the end of Fox News (before it rose once again). It is the end of Ally McBeal (the end of edginess). It is, with the rise of the ratings for Good Morning America and the falling of the ratings at the Today show, the end of Katie Couric (despite her reported new NBC-is-desperate contract) and of perkiness in America.

There's no media "product" that hasn't come under reevaluation. Every media organization has fashioned a new message. There are new rubrics -- "America at War" at NBC, "America's New War" at CNN, "A Nation Challenged" at the Times ("Can you pass me 'A Nation Challenged'?" I say to my wife every morning over breakfast) -- and new policies (CNN chairman Walter Isaacson issued a memo instructing his correspondents to provide more context: "It seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan," he said).

Likewise, in politics, the change was an enormous opportunity if you could track it, figure it out, and influence its course. You could even come to embody the change, as Rudy certainly has and as the president is trying to do. You could claim it for yourself. You could own it -- you might even want to exaggerate it.

We were, the president said, and everybody agreed, a nation at war.

This was not only a sentiment intoned by politicians and newscasters but one that we were all saying to ourselves. It became a little mantra: We are a nation at war. We are changed because we are at war -- we are ennobled by war. We are not flaky anymore (the least we can do for the 3,000 U.S. casualties of 9/11). We are living in special, difficult times. War, and the demands of war, are the overriding facts of this new life.

As it happens, the current war is, in measurable ways, less of a war than the bombing of Kosovo or the Gulf War -- not so many bombs, fewer men at risk, less money spent (it's actually a new war paradigm: The more successful your war, the fewer men you deploy and the fewer bombs you drop).

It is just the language that is more.

The president, if he were a different type of person, or if the political exigencies had been different, could have said that our interest was to avoid all-out war and that our intention was to proceed with controlled restraint (or something like that) -- and taken the exact same course of action that he has taken under the rubric of a nation at war.

The president has compared this new war to the Cold War (which, in hindsight, might not have been a war either, but it certainly altered peacetime consciousness). But in fact, this new war in Afghanistan may be less like the Cold War and closer in its high-tech aspects, in its get-it-done-quick quality, in its relatively contained costs, to the sporadic and surgical military campaigns of the nineties. This wartime, in other words, might not be so much like anything but peacetime.

Certainly, though, it has gotten everyone's attention (when you have an anxious and unsettled audience, you want to try to get its attention as quickly as possible). On the president's part, it's an effective, possibly calculated consciousness grab (which, in a media age, is a power grab by any other name), earning him the approval of 86 percent of the nation.

On the other hand, this kind of war is not really what we mean when we declare ourselves to be a nation at war. A nation at war is a mobilized nation. It's WWII. It's home front. It's yellow ribbons. The president is taking advantage of the straddle. In some sense, we're all taking advantage of it -- we all get to feel the WWII feeling of war without having to mobilize at all.

Or we're emotionally mobilized. We're fortified and defended and pumped by a new Zeitgeist.

There is another way 9/11 could have played. I'd say there was a 40 percent chance of its going this other way, or, if a Democrat had been president, and if Bill Clinton had been president, as much as a 60 percent chance. The whole story, the entire 9/11 aftermath, could have been about blame.

September 11 must be, after all, one of the greatest failures of intelligence and policing in the annals of such failures. It's a fuck-up of astounding proportions. The Democrats would have had a reasonable case to make about the new administration being asleep at the switch (likewise, of course, the Republicans could have said "Right back at you"). Who lost the World Trade Center could have been, potentially, as large a question as who lost China.

But the story didn't go that way. The opposition (still in its Bill Clinton blow-back funk) wasn't, as I suspect the Republicans would have been, ready to oppose. And, perhaps more important, the media, facing an identity funk of its own (less popular than even lawyers), had its own reason for going into a strictly uncritical mode and embracing a changed world.

Take, for instance, the news magazines -- disaster, and the shift from the banal to the epochal, has had a thrilling, revivifying effect on them. "It will be a major decision to go back to a health cover at this point," said a Time editor, referring to the soft-news, lifestyle approach the magazine had taken in the nineties, as he told me about young staff members and their incredible enthusiasm in this changed world.

Everywhere in the news business, there has been the sense of being saved from the purgatory of soft news -- and from tabloid hell.

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