The Metamorphosis

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.

Indeed, shortly before the attacks, Time’s former editor Walter Isaacson, regarded as one of the geniuses of the soft-news revolution (“Too Much Homework!” was one of the famous Walter-era cover stories at Time), had been sent in to soft-news-ify CNN, the faded rose of the news business.

But in an instant, CNN went from anachronism to dramatic center of the world; Isaacson himself from news packager to World’s Most Important Journalist; Paula Zahn, the new morning anchor, from perky blonde (in an effort to change CNN’s dour face, Isaacson had stolen her from Fox just days before September 11) to serious person. The CNN green room became one of the ground-zero-plus places in America. From when Zahn started at 7 a.m. to when Aaron Brown, another of Isaacson’s sudden phenomena, signed off at 11 p.m., everybody who was anybody in post-September 11 America could be found having a Danish there.

There were, however, students of change, of consciousness overhaul, of Zeitgeist revolution, who were saying that the change had begun quite a bit before the 11th. The technological revolution was over; the stock market was no longer the ne plus ultra of American life; then, too, there was a new president. The stage was set for a big new thing. In fact, if September 11 had happened in, say, 1998, the change might well have been significantly different (maybe the same war, but spun differently – who would have wanted to exchange the greatest peacetime expansion in history for war?).

A subset of this argument is that there are two changes at work now – war and recession – and that they are struggling against each other for dominance.

The recession, we know now, began last March. September 11, of course, deepened it. And undoubtedly the president’s talk of a generation of war further depressed consumer confidence, the nation’s most powerful economic motivator.

Then again, if the economy was going to hell anyway, were a nation at war and a changed consciousness a plausible cover for it?

The media juggled a similar bad-news-good-news trade-off. It was the worst advertising climate in ten years, but coverage of the attack and of the war helped obscure this. At Time and Newsweek, circulation was through the roof. At CNN, the war had evened the fight against Fox. On the other hand, there was the possibility that, just as the president’s war talk was depressing consumer confidence, the media’s war talk was further depressing advertising confidence.

The news magazines, having turned themselves into aging-boomer, soft-focus magazines during the nineties, were now, in a kind of bait-and-switch, giving advertisers magazines full of terror and carnage – not a hospitable consumer environment.

War, in a revision of economic laws, was bad for the economy. Peace and self-centeredness were good. But there was the sense, on the part of the deficit-making president, and possibly on the part of wartime editors, too, that the change would be so large that it would overturn this economic rule – or dwarf it.

A change in consciousness could even make lower consumer confidence a virtue (“You know that if those people whose family members died on September 11 could have them back for Christmas, the last thing on their minds would be a sweater or a tie,” wrote Anna Quindlen in Newsweek).

In almost all respects, the change has left the Democrats out in the cold.

Between the president, the mayor of New York, the new wartime media, and the new American warriors – Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice – the change simply left no room for anyone else.

On top of that, the Democrats were obviously too depressed and confounded by recent events to rouse themselves.

Their only hope was that they would wake up one day and the change would have, well, changed back.

Given the options, this was probably a fair strategy.

The last thing to change might well be the shortness of our attention span, which means that before the change was complete, we might well forget that we were changing and revert to who we were before the change.

“Americans are going to lose interest in the war,” a Democratic operative of my acquaintance recently told me. “Most Americans don’t live in New York or Washington, and most Americans don’t read newspapers or even listen to the news. So to what extent have they really changed?”

This is the game that I find myself playing with other journalists and with political types:

Where are we on the change-o-meter – from the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand to the Depression to Pearl Harbor to Sputnik to the assassination of JFK to the opec oil embargo to the advent of the PC?

How sweeping? How profound? How ineradicable will the September 11 change be? How different will our lives become?

What if there are no more attacks?

What if there is another? (Then who gets blamed?)

I tend to favor the safe bet – not that we haven’t changed, but that this is the false change. The real change lies in wait for a while. It teases you, but it doesn’t reveal itself. Until it’s everywhere. And it never, ever, is what you thought it would be.


The Metamorphosis