Wrestling with angels

The Terror Dream, by Susan Faludi (Atlantic Books 2008)

On a superficial level, Susan Faludi’s new book is a feminist critique of the war on terror, which argues that on top of its disastrous effects internationally, the war has entrenched sexist assumptions and rhetoric domestically in the US. More substantially, though, The Terror Dream is a case study in the relationship between culture and politics, and how any nation’s self-understanding shapes its actions. Specifically, Faludi argues that America is trapped in a a dangerous mythology it doesn’t even recognise, but must do if it is to deal realistically with the problems it faces.

For Faludi, America’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 demonstrated the nation’s failure to break out of its historically-rooted myths: ‘summoned by an hour of danger to unity of purpose, we clung to the fallacy that only a house divided against itself can stand. That self-delusion, so deeply ingrained in our history, so heavily defended by our culture, calls out for refutation’ (p295). By ‘a house divided against itself’, Faludi means that American culture immediately retreated into cultural stereotypes of vulnerable, pathetic victims, and heroic saviours, which she traces back to the nation’s early history. That these roles are heavily gendered is less important than that they are illusory and thus politically crippling. This is a thought-provoking hypothesis, though it begs questions about why America retreats from political reality as much as why that retreat takes the form it does.

Faludi’s case about the rise of sexism is more convincing that it might at first sound. She shows how in the aftermath of 9/11, a powerful narrative emerged in the American media, blaming ‘feminisation’ for weakening the nation, and suggesting it was time for women to retreat from public life, and let the men get on with saving America. While the US State Department initially sought to involve women’s groups in discussions about intervention in Afghanistan (since this was partly justified in terms of liberating women from the Taliban), the upshot was that there were soon more pictures of Afghan women in burkas on TV than there were female talking heads discussing the issues (p36).

The shift in attitudes to gender was played out most starkly in stories about 9/11 itself, however. Faludi points out that the images from the day used in newspapers and TV overwhelmingly and disproportionately showed women rather than men as the photogenic victims in need of help; characteristically, even a rescued female aid worker was described in a colour piece as ‘a real girl’ (p44). The same went for the drama on the planes: while much was made of the heroism of the men who resisted the terrorists on on Flight 93, the women were only allowed to be victims. Flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw had actually called home to say she and her colleague were boiling water to throw at the terrorists, but this story didn’t fit the script.Newsweek even speculated that it might have been the screams of attendants that lured the copilots out of their cockpits. (p57-58)

Conversely, there was a feting of macho men, and bizarrely the bellicose Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was named by People magazine as ‘one of the sexiest men alive’ (p46). Conservative writer Peggy Noonan regretted her youthful, feminist-influenced role in driving manliness out of style, by refusing help from a man who offered to lift her luggage on a plane in the 1970s. ‘I bet he never offered to help a lady again. I bet he became an intellectual or a writer, and not a good man like a fireman or a businessman who says “Let’s roll”’ (p76). These are comically extreme examples, of course, but Faludi builds up a picture of more everyday and implicit sexist attitudes flourishing in the aftermath of 9/11.

‘I knew the moment the tower collapsed that we needed to get married as soon as possible,’ said a woman quoted in one of several articles on a similar theme (p123). And despite the lack of any hard statistics to back it up, the idea of a ‘marriage surge’ became part of the narrative of post-p/11 America, with singledom seen as another feminist indulgence that had had its day. This was quickly followed by talk of a ‘baby boom’, which also failed to materialise (p130). In short, even if people’s lives did not change substantially, Faludi argues there was a pronounced revival of old-fashioned cultural stereotypes, premised on the notion that with the nation under attack, it was necessary to ditch the pretensions of feminism and take refuge in traditional values.

Beginning with the demotion of independent-minded female commentators, the elevation of “manly men” at ground zero, and the adoration of widowed pregnant homemakers – that is, a cast of characters caught up in the September 11 trauma – the myth quickly rippled out to counsel – and chastise – the nation at large. Most particularly its women. (p118)

Significantly, this implicit chastisement endured into the 2004 presidential campaign, which saw ‘deskbound officeholders … out in the woods, felling flora and blasting fauna to prove their virile bona fides’ (p148). Had the book been written a little later, Faludi could have included the bizarre spectacle of Hillary Clinton reminiscing about learning to shoot as a girl, and knocking back beer with a whisky chaser in her bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination. While some commentators complained of a sexist campaign against Clinton, however, it should be noted that Barack Obama eventually won the nomination without particularly seeming to play the tough-guy. Even in 2004, John Kerry was sarcastically dubbed ‘John the Deerslayer’ by observers who were unimpressed by his transparently-calculated macho bullshit (p151). The resonance for this kind of posturing was perhaps less deep and less enduring than Faludi suggests.

Nonetheless, there is something in the argument. Even criticisms of the Bush adminstrations have sometimes rested on some of the same assumptions. Faludi herself perhaps reinforces these in citing approvingly the attitude of the ‘Jersey Girls’, a group of prosperous New Jersey women who lost their husbands in 9/11, and went on to draw attention to what they saw as the negligence of the administration, symbolised by the famous image of President Bush continuing reading to schoolchildren after learning about the attacks. ‘What the four women saw was their commander in chief, in the midst of their nation’s gravest modern crisis, behaving like a Middletown mom’ (p109). The assumption that the adminstration should have been able to prevent the attacks somehow surely plays into a mythology of invincibility, which is undoubtedly deeply embedded in American politics.

One of the more intriguing points raised by Faludi is that many of the 9/11 widows were unhappy about their dead husbands being styled as heroes. ‘Use Thomas Jefferson as your hero, not my husband,’ said one (p103). Why is it that America prefers the heroism of a husband and father to that of a revolutionary and statesman?

Jessica Lynch recovered by US marines in Iraq in 2003

Faludi argues that the terrorist attacks of 2001 provoked the re-enactment of a seminal national trauma that predates Jefferson and the Revolution. 9/11 ‘was not, in fact, an inconceivable event; it was the characteristic and formative American ordeal, the primary injury of which we could not speak, the shard of memory stuck in our throats’ (p208). It is easy to forget now that the USA has its origins in small settlements perched precariously on the edge of a largely unknown continent, and that these early communities came under regular attack from ‘dark-skinned, non-Christian combatants under the flag of no recognised nation, complying with no accepted rules of Western engagement, who attacked white America on its “own” soil and against civilian targets’ (p208).

If this seems a far-fetched way of understanding modern America’s response to terrorism, we should remember the pivotal significance in American culture of the latter part of the same history, the conquest of the West, and the final stamping out of the Indian threat. Significantly, this is remembered less as a political or military phenomenon than the story of families setting out to make a new life in tough and threatening circumstances, which echoed those of their forebears. Its heroes are precisely the strong husbands and fathers who made the West safe for their families, and its anti-heroes the weak men (and drunk sheriffs) who failed to protect their women. This trope is apparently so deep in the American psyche that screenwriter John Milius described The Searchers (1956), John Ford’s classic (and brilliant) Western starring John Wayne as a morally-ambiguous but tough hero tracking down the Indians who kidnapped his niece, as ‘such a seminal and primal experience that I was absolutely convinced I’d dreamed it’ (p206).

The same might be said of the story of Jessica Lynch, the American soldier dramatically ‘rescued’ from an Iraqi hospital in 2003. Faludi describes the controversy that raged over the shifting presentation of the story, the quick dismissal of early (and indeed false) reports that Private Lynch had put up a heroic struggle, and the insistence that her rescue had been a dramatic and perilous mission, despite that fact that she was being cared for by civilian medical staff in an unguarded hospital. Finally, Rick Bragg, the author of a book about Lynch’s story, strongly suggested that she had been raped in captivity, despite the lack of evidence of this, and the fact that Lynch herself had no such memory. The sexual depredation of the damsel in distress was demanded by the story itself.

Faludi traces the ‘spectre of rape’ back to the story of Daniel Boone, the mythologised 18th century frontiersman who saved his young daughter and her friends from Indians – a story infused over the years with the suggestion of rape with just as little evidence (p262). The heavy gendering of so-called ‘captivity narratives’, and the concomitant sense of sexual menace and the need for heroic rescue, has been a recurring theme throughout American culture, irrespective of historical realities: at the beginning of the 19th century, stories of American men captured on the Barbary Coast were shamelessly fictionalised with the victims as women who could then be rescued by heroic men (p246). But it is the trope of innocent pioneer girls being menaced by savage Indians that endures.

Faludi notes that some historians and cultural critics see the rescue obsession as a ‘mere cover story, a pretext deployed to justify the sanguinary pleasure our pioneers took in the slaughter of the continent’s natives and the decimation of the wilderness’ (p213). Against this, Faludi suggests, ‘What if the deepest psychological legacy of our original war on terror wasn’t the pleasure we now take in dominance, but the original shame that domination seeks so desperately to conceal?’ (p213). In other words, the bravado of the war on terror is not an expression of strength but of anxiety, arising from a repressed sense of vulnerability and self-doubt. The very power and dominance of the USA makes it impossible to express these feelings in political terms, but the fear of humilation persists as a ‘terror dream’ rooted in the nation’s vulnerable past.

In considering how America might understand itself more honestly, Faludi goes back to the genesis of these anxieties in Puritan New England, and makes a qualified but unexpected and thought-provoking defence of the Puritan ethic and its possibilities. The Puritan ideal was one of spiritual resolve through suffering, and trust in God. Early stories of women being captured by Indians and surviving were celebrated as examples of steadfastness of faith rather than opportunities for heroic rescues. Men were expected to emulate these women’s spiritual example, rather than asserting themselves arrogantly in defiance of divine fate. Faludi explains that the template was the image of ‘Judaea capta’, the ancient Jewish nation suffering oppression and slavery, but trusting in God. The influential preacher Cotton Mather, ‘repeatedly envisioned his New World flock in such female terms – as the exiled “Daughter of Zion”, the “Daughter of my People”, the “bondswoman” in Babylon, the “poor Maid, sitting in a Wilderness”’ (p220).

A ‘Judaea capta’ coin, produced by the Romans to commemorate the conquest of Judaea and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD

It is hard for us to understand this mindset today, but we must remember that the Puritans had fled relentless persecution in England, barely survived the passage across the Atlantic, and suffered massive hardship and privation in the New World (periodic attacks and abductions by native tribes were just part of it). The notion that they were in any sense the masters of their own destiny, which was blasphemy in their own terms, can be understood in more secular terms as simply untenable. They survived by the skin of their teeth, and they thanked God for it.

Of course, the Puritans also fought and often slaughtered their Indian foes, and Puritan women were no shrinking violets, for all their piety. The story of Hannah Duston in particular, who was taken from her village in Massachusetts by Abenaki Indians in 1697, but managed to slaughter her captors and their children as they slept, then scalp the lot for good measure, rather complicates the standard captivity narrative (pp225-6). Faludi laments that the early Americans were not able to incorporate the strength and independence of women into their self-understanding. Instead, as settler communities grew in strength and numbers, and conflict with native tribes intensified, the Indians were seen less as agents of God sent to chasten the Puritans and more as a diabolical threat to their very existence. It was in this context that fear of witchcraft became rife, and the independence and pride of women were viewed with increasing suspicion, culminating in the notorious witch trials.

The trials have often been characterized as excesses of their time and place, as the Puritan ethic run amok. But it may be more accurate to say they mark the early premonitions of a more modern sensibility and the premature death throes of a nascent Puritan invention. … In the process, an archetype of national womanhood that was culturally central and individually strong gave way to the figure of a hysterical, marginal dependent requiring male salvation, a girl whose neediness better served the psychological needs of a people at war with terror. (p238)

As Faludi sees it, far from transcending Puritanism, and overcoming its undoubted limitations, Americans took refuge in a comforting mythology that endures today, forestalling a realistic assessment of their situation and its possibilities. America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Its citzens are the most prosperous and probably the freest in the world. It would of course be absurd to affect the pious humility of the early Puritans. And yet Faludi is right that there is something wrong with the picture, and no doubt the persistence and periodic revivial of sexist attitudes and stereotypes is part of the problem, or perhaps a symptom of it.

While America has a particular history and cultural legacy, however, the malaise at the heart of the ‘terror dream’ is perhaps more universal. The lingering sense of anxiety and vulnerability awakened by 9/11 is palpable not just in the US, but throughout the West, though it takes different forms in different places. The fact is that we are still not the masters of our own destinies, whether individually or collectively, and in many ways we feel less in control of our lives than people did a generation ago. Faludi has performed a useful service in showing that some of the backlash against ‘feminisation’ is just as emasculating as feminisation itself, since it means clinging to an adolescent sense of invincibility rather than taking responsibilty as men and women. Instead, we need to wrestle with the tension between what we can and can’t control, both individually and collectively.

‘It entails struggling, as the earliest Puritans once struggled, to perceive the message in Jacob’s story of strength and dependency, to fathom the distinction between wrestling with angels and slaying them’ (p286).

No doubt Faludi’s argument has its weaknesses, and ultimately it is more intriguing than persuasive.  But at a time when cultural assumptions, new and old, have such a strong influence on politics and public life, it would be a mistake to dismiss any argument on the basis that it seems overly cultural, or even psychological. Ultimately the question remains: not why America’s frontier mythology endures, but why Americans, or any other nation, feel the need to take refuge in any kind of mythology.

First published on Culture Wars.