Thursday, April 17, 2008

Zero Ground

Partially-relevant illustrations provided by the saucy, spirited Jenna Sokolowski.


I'm 28 years old now. E-mail didn't appear until I was in high school, and even then it wasn't much more than a novel way to keep in touch with long-distance friends. Now I send eight gmails a day to a friend who works six blocks away. No one made a penny on the Internet until 1996 or so. Google didn't appear until 1998. Blogs 2003. Wikipedia and YouTube: 2005. Facebook 2007.

Generational labels emerge with the frequency and specificity of software upgrade packs. Generation X was supposed to be the scary spawn of Baby Boomers who were themselves the insolent, self-absorbed spawn of the Greatest Generation. Now, apparently, there's a group called the Millennial Generation for people born between 1982 and 1987. That's a five-year window, kids. And since Gen-X ends at 1974, what kind of records am I supposed to listen to as someone born in 1979?


I don't especially care, I just find it strange that the Generations now issue forth in smaller increments, faster than ever, without any overlapping time to acknowledge (or allow) any procreative continuity between them. A generational label now has nothing to do with the actual generation of the species from childhood to parentage. It has everything to do with target market groups and the planned obsolescence of the old. I also think it's symptomatic of the incest and infantilism that runs through the contented cockles of Red State America. But that's a longer essay.

Think about kids who are turning 18 this year and wondering where to take their vote this fall. They were 11 or 12 on September 11, 2001. They were perhaps 3 or 4 when the Internet became a standard utility in America. They were born into the greatest technological revolution since alternating current or movable type. And they were entering adolescence as their country entered a global war.


I despise psycho-history (but not psycho-historicity), so let me be clear: I don't know what that means, I just wonder what it was like. Maybe I should go back to my alma mater, have an alumni talk-back in the theatre department, and find out. I graduated as the techno-utopian bubble burst and the towers fell. Being a know-it-all liberal arts senior saddles you with a weighty, spine-shriveling dose of misanthropy -- and the spectacle of the 2000 election did nothing to correct that posture. I've mentioned this before, but at the risk of sophistry, I have to say that there remains a handy correlation between the giddy indulgence of the 90s and the similarly insular joy of being a theatre-psych undergrad. Likewise, the soul-shock of adult life outside academia coupled cleanly with the bizarre, terrifying string of events around the Millennium.


Folk singer and storyteller Utah Phillips once spoke about having to endure dismissive chronological labels for his work. "That 60's stuff" they called him.

Decade-packages of time. It's a journalistic convenience that they use to trivialize and to dismiss important events and important ideas. The Vietnam War heated up in 1965 and ended in 1975. What's that got to do with decades? I have a very good friend in the East, a good folk singer who once said to me, 'You sing a lot about the past, always the past, you can't live in the past.' And I say to him, you know I can go outside right now, pick up a rock that's older than the oldest song you know, bring it in here and drop it on your foot. The past didn't go anywhere. Did it? No, it's right here.

I first heard Utah Phillips, backed up by Ani DiFranco, my freshman year of college. As far as I could tell from my pop-retard nosebleed concert seats, the 90s was a sad, mocking carnival for every decade that preceded it. This chunky green stew of retro-70s, retro-60s, retro-30s ... even retro-80s stuff. I thought you had to wait at least a decade before you could start doing decade-envy, but when the envy is that deep, how can you wait? I'm trying to avoid falling into the journalistic package talk when I mention all this. But I think I'm being fair because the retro-envy was loudly proclaimed at the time. As usual, the Onion captures this better than anyone.

I obviously don't get out enough -- it just felt like the whole decade, the decade of my adolescent, collegiate, formative years spent its time on a scorched earth Greatest Hits tour, counting down with drunken zeal for the transformative event Y2K/rapture/apocalypse that would wipe all this away, "clean as bone." That yearning, suspended like a lethal hiccup at the 2000 election, found purchase in the events of September 11, 2001 -- a traumatizing wound of sufficient magnitude to focus and externalize all the caffeinated mania of the 90s.


This is the Third World War. If the chattering class ever pauses again to split hairs on the taxonomy of international conflict, some reporter should at least affirm this basic fact. If for no other reason than we've already declared it. We just called it the Global War on Terrorism. Now a globe is different from a world ... but come on.

Some pundits have pointed out that the term "War on Terror" is actually a lazy elision which blinds us to the fact that "terror is a tactic, not a country or a people." Restored to its original moniker, "The War on Terrorism" puts our true antagonist back into scope. But this is only half-correct. The elision isn't clumsy, it's calculated. It's a strategic circumlocution that blinds us to more than the enemy's strategy -- it anesthetizes us from feeling and from history.

Simply put, Terror is not a tactic. It is a feeling. Halfway between dread and despair.


As a conceptual antagonist, Terror is far more elastic and adaptable than communism. It is directly opposed to civilization, identity cohesion, and the status quo. Anything that elicits anxiety, anything marginal, can be construed as an agent of Terror. Because the chosen battleground is the civilized psyche, Terror can migrate quickly from enemy to enemy, country to country.

The classic moral distinction that paints terrorists as guerillia warriors, fringe hate groups, or cowards betraying some transcendent rule for wartime congeniality, cannot be sustained without disavowing much of the American Revolution and Civil Rights movement to say nothing of the stated objectives of the CIA. Which is why it's not enough to say that "Terrorism, not Terror" is the real enemy. To judge strictly by tactics alone would implicate our own human intelligence network. The much maligned CIA is no less terroristic than the Iranian Republican Guard. Their job is to execute American foreign policy while concealing American authorship of that execution. As the saying goes, their failures make the front page but their successes are always top secret. So go easy on the CIA. They've done more good for us than we're ever permitted to know.

And so it's a New War ... just like WWII. The Freedom Tower will one day stand at 1,776 feet! Because, you see, the terrorists hated that year when we liberated ourselves from the British, so that will show them! And wasn't 9/11 just like Pearl Harbor? Except that Hawaii wasn't even a state at the time and the harbor was a military target. Pearl Harbor was like Guam today, no offense. But speaking of offense, I leave you with this last chunk of audacious historicity, perfectly enunciated by Walter "Mac" Davis:
Ground-zero. What’s in a name? The term now used to designate the rubble of what was once the World Trade Center was the term coined in Alamogordo, New Mexico to identify the epicenter where the first Atomic Bomb was detonated. It was then used to locate the same place in Hiroshima and Nagasaki so that we could measure with precision the force of the Bomb and gauge its effects. Through a grotesque and cunning reversal it now designates what was done to us. But in doing so it also reveals an unwritten history. Hiroshima, a repressed memory deep in the American psyche, returned on 9-11 as we experienced in diminished form what it must have been like to be in Hiroshima city on August 6, 1945 when in an instant an entire city disappeared abandoning the hibakusha, the walking dead, to a landscape become nightmare. For us, however, repressed memory only returns to serve the defense mechanisms of projection and denial. The term Ground-zero thus offers no entry into our past; instead, it gives us a new identity as the innocent victims of a terror we have the temerity to claim is unprecedented and that we demand the whole world acknowledge as such. In doing so we reveal our relationship to history.