In the darkness with a great bundle of grief the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people march:
“Where to? what next?”
— Carl Sandburg: The People Yes
IN THE DAYS AFTER THE TOWERS FELL, in the ash that covered the Brooklyn street where I lived at that time, in the smoke that rose for months from that spot across the river, when rising up in the skyscraper I worked in, or riding deep beneath the river in the subway, or passing the thousand small shrines of puddled candle wax below the walls with the hundreds of photographs of “The Missing,” it was not too much to say that you could feel the doors of history open all about you.
Before those days, history happened elsewhere, elsewhen, to others. History did not happen to you. In your world, until that day, you lived in the time after history. There were no more doors in front of you, all history lay behind you. It was a given.
You would have, of course, your own personal history. You would live your life, no bigger or smaller than most others. You would meet people, have children, go to the job, enjoy what material things came your way, have your celebrations, your vacations, your possessions, and your dinner parties. You would hate and you would love. You would be loved and betrayed. You would have your little soap opera and the snapshots and emails to prove it. At some point or another, you would die and be remembered by some for some time. Then it would all fade and the great ocean would just roll on. And that would be fine.
History was behind us. It was something our parents entered for a while during the war but they emerged into what was, essentially, the long peace. They’d had enough history, didn’t want any more, and did what they could to keep history from happening. In general, the history of the Cold War is the history of what didn’t happen punctuated by a few things every now and then such as Korea and Vietnam. But all in all, for over 50 years, history didn’t happen.
With the end of the Soviet Union in a whimper and not a bang brighter than the sun on earth, history was officially over. The moment even got its own book, “The End of History,” which stimulated an argument that even more than the book emphasized that history was over.
Most sensible people liked it that way. In fact, a lot of people really liked it that way. Because if history for the world was over, these people could get on making the history that really mattered to them: The History of Me.
More and more throughout the 90s “History” was “out,” and “Me” was in. “Me,” “Having My Space,” “How to Be Your Own Best Friend,” “Me, Myself, I,” were hallmarks of that self-besotted age. The History of Me was huge in the 90s and rolled right through the millennium. It even had a Customized President to preside over those years; the Most Me President ever. A perfect man for the time and one who, in the end, did not disappoint in choosing “Me” over “Country.” How could he do otherwise? It was the option his constituency of Many-Million-Mes elected him to select. I know because I was into Me then and I voted for him because, well, because he seemed to be “just like me.” It was a sad day when “Me” couldn’t run for a third term, but The Party of Me offered up “Mini-Me” and a lot of Mes turned out for him too.
Many millions of Mini-Mes were very upset when there weren’t quite enough Mes in one state to put Mini-Me in office to continue with the wonderful Me-ness of it all. I voted for “Mini-Me” in 2000, but not because he really seemed like Me, but because he was the only thing out there that said he was Me.
Unlike millions of miffed Mini-Mes, I wasn’t too upset when he didn’t get into the Oval winner’s oval after stamping his feet and holding his breath. I suppose I should have. It was what all the really intense Mini-Mes were doing. But I’d already started to become disgusted with all the Me-ness that had been going around so long and this tantrum of the Mini-Mes just made me not want to hang around them. After all, we were well beyond the End of History by this point, so what did it matter?
Then on one bright and unusually fine New York September morning in 2001 History came back with a vengeance we’d never seen before in the history of America. It came back and it stayed and stayed and stayed. The doors of history swung open again and we were all propelled through them into… what?
Nobody knows. Not the President, not his opponents, not the right, left, center, or just plain unhinged and now in low-earth orbit. We know how it began, but we don’t know how it will end. We don’t really know what’s next. Indeed, we never know.
It was better when we lived in The History of Me. We knew how Me would end — birth, fun, school, fun, job, fun, family, fun, age, fun, death and then … probably fun, who knew, who cared? The meaning of this history was not deep but was to be found in the world “fun.” Mini-Mes love fun. You could almost say it is their religion; The Church of Fun. A funny concept, fun. Fills the space between birth and death. “He was a fun guy” could be a generic epitaph for the era.
Now we find ourselves back in history as it has always been and it is not fun. Not fun at all. The history of history has little to do with fun, almost nothing at all.
Most of the Mini-Mes don’t know what to do in a history that isn’t fun. All their lives have been about shaping history towards fun and they’ve been having a good run at it. They like it so much, they are now willing to do anything to bring it back — the Kennedy Era, such elegant fun; the Clinton Years, “Hey, we partied like it was 1999.” In the run-up to the last election and now for the next, there’s been and there will be a lot of code swapped about getting the fun back in the game. “Remember the fun of the 90s? You can have it all back. Peace. Love. Understanding. Stock-market Boom. Money. Any number of genders can play. The new fun Obama will make you all feel righteous while drenched in fun!” Indeed, many of these Merry Pranksters of our politics are setting up to run “The Bride of Fun” for President in 2020, even though it is clear she is the least fun of any of them.
Unlike “The Bride of Fun,” Fun is very attractive. It is an illusion to Us now, but the Mini-Mes need Fun and want it back more than, well, life itself. The Mini-Mes talk a great game about groups, entitlement, empowerment, but their program really is, like fun, “all about Me.”
This is not to say that Me-ness doesn’t dominate that bumbling faction as well. Washington is always about Me-Magnified. In a way, it is true to say that a lot of what is going on is a fight over which set of Mes shall be master. But that is always the case.
Still there are always “differences of degree,” and it is on those differences that one must judge. Weighing the two, it seems to me clear that there is, within the core of the current party in power, at least the recognition that “fun” is no longer what we need to be about at this time. Indeed, there is an understanding there, backed with deeds and policies, however flawed in conception and execution, that our holiday from history is over and we need to get back to business if we’d like to be around in any kind of recognizable form by mid-century. There is even, if you look at it closely, a distinct lessening of “Me” and the beginnings of a “Us” on the peripheries of the Party. Not a lot, but when you look at the other, there is none. Only a yearning for the warm mud of Me-Me-Me.
History, as it will now unfold, will require little from Me but much from Us. I’d like to say that this country’s going one way or another tomorrow will be the ruin of the nation. If I could I would be able to get my Me into the Punditocracy. But that is false. One result or another will not be the ruin of the nation for there is, as one of the founding fathers once remarked, “A lot of ruin in a nation.”
Should the nation choose to move forward, to stay the course and continue the offensive, our encounter with history will move forward at much the same pace as it has these past two plus years, perhaps a bit accelerated. Should the nation choose to step back, to retreat, it will simply retard the process that grips it a bit more than otherwise might be the case. Neither result wil place us back in the History of Me no matter how many yearn for it.
History, having returned, will continue to happen, not to Me, but to Us.
We will have a fresh 21st century war whether we wish it or not. It will continue to be brought to us as it was brought for many years before we could see it in a pillar of flame by day and a pillar of smoke by night. We will be long in this wilderness, perhaps as long as forty years, and it will take a terrible toll from us, soldier and civilian alike; a toll we have not yet begun to see. Like all global wars in the past century, the war upon us will rise in violence until such time as we either capitulate or find the will to kill our enemies wholesale. This is not what we would choose, but it is what we shall have.
We could, if we wished, withdraw every soldier from every inch of soil that is not American territory and leave them here inside our borders rusting for a decade. War will still come because war is already upon us, and wars in the 21st century do not end in staged withdrawals, but in either defeat or victory. The lessons of Vietnam and the Cold War teach this to us if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Wars do not end just because you spend a few years with nobody shooting directly at you. They haven’t gone back to peace, they’re just reloading.
In this small pause, this brief hiatus in the First Terrorist War, the character of our leadership will make a difference to some degree, but it will not decide. It is who we are and who we shall become as a people that will decide. How that will be in the end, I do not know. What I do know is that history, no matter what they tell you, never comes to an end. And because of that, the one small thing that I have the power to do is to decide that I shall no longer vote for Me. I shall vote for Us.
First published March 2006