Notes from the Cultural Wasteland
A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed a cop. I had proposed a story to a local paper about "how to be a good neighbor," and after talking to some property managers and the like, thought it would be interesting to get the law enforcement perspective on the issue.
I made an appointment with a nearby sheriff's department community relations officer. I had first tried to set up the interview for a week earlier, on an overcast September Tuesday morning. I had gone about my usual business, sitting on my balcony looking out at a gray sky over a gray lake while having my first cup of coffee. I'd emailed a couple of editors and begun calling to set up story interviews.
I have a tiny, battery-powered television at my desk; as I often do, I had turned it on for background noise while working, tuned to a morning news magazine. The commentator was babbling through some fluff piece, and I had pretty much tuned him out. Then something caught my attention; I looked at the screen to see the World Trade Center on fire. For a second, I thought I was watching a movie trailer for the latest action film.
My plans for the day changed pretty dramatically at that point. Needless to say, the cop was not available to schedule any interviews. Nor was anyone else for that matter. I had made plans to meet my oldest and dearest friend for lunch, and assumed, since he's an officer in the reserves, that he'd be unavailable. As it turned out, however, he was free; no one knew exactly what to do with reservists, yet.
We met for lunch and, as I'm sure everyone else in America did that day, we talked about what we'd seen on television that morning. He had watched it on the television at the office, and he mentioned that same feeling I'd had: that he was watching a movie trailer.
He and I were teenagers together at the tail end of the Vietnam era. Over the years, we have taken opposite sides on virtually every political position, beginning the day we went to the mall and he enlisted in the Navy. I watched and wondered how anyone could actually want to be in the military at that point--it seemed unimaginably absurd. However, our political differences have never affected our friendship. I have learned much from him, and while our arguments often tested my beliefs, they helped me refine and strengthen them. I believe he feels similarly.
He's a historian, of sorts, so I asked him about the historical perspective on the tragic events of the morning. As we were talking, he said something that chilled me to the bone: "You know, we both have seventeen-year-old sons." That comment hit me with such force it almost knocked me over. I felt as sick as I did that day in the mall, watching my friend enlist and wondering if I might soon be drafted, sitting in a jungle, fired upon by strangers with Asian faces.
"They can't have my son," I said to myself, but I looked across the table at my buddy in uniform, and I bit my tongue to keep from screaming it out loud.
My buddy and I have continued to talk about the current "war." At one point, he said of the terrorists, "What's significant to me is that these guys made a big mistake: they killed a Hollywood producer. Hollywood has tremendous sway in the world; movies already portray the Arab radical as a villain." Now Hollywood and the rest of the media will be more supportive of any war effort, and Americans will follow their lead.
During World War II, he pointed out, we had decisive victories, all reported and supported by the media. "The media was hostile to the war in Vietnam," he reminded me. Without media support, the war lost the American public and ultimately floundered.
The media had already begun comparing the morning's terrorist strike to Pearl Harbor. I mentioned that I hoped that, if it had to be either, that Tuesday was "another Pearl Harbor, and not another Tet Offensive."
Back to the cop: after a few days, things returned to a semblance of normalcy and I called the sheriff's department again to set up the interview. The officer turned out to be a pretty nice guy. He had clearly put a lot of thought into the topic, and he had some great ideas about how to get along with the Joneses. At one point, he waxed philosophically on the subject of neighbors and neighborhoods.
"In 1941," he began, "an event occurred that changed a lot of things." He began musing about the cultural changes that began on that date, pointing out that the war forced the shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, moved more women into the workplace, and resulted in increasing mobility, in which Americans left the farm and moved to urban areas. Before that date, he said, everyone knew the folks next door; after the war, no one knew his neighbor any longer. That, he felt, was one of the most lamentable cultural changes wrought by WWII.
Of course, the war that ended with Hiroshima not only changed the American neighborhood, but technology and even poetry. As my buddy suggested when I told him about my cop interview, WWII changed us from a nation of Steinbecks to a Kerouac culture.
Vietnam, too, changed American culture. WWII gave us "The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B"; Vietnam gave us "Give Peace a Chance.' And while WWII brought Americans together in support of the government, accepting huge sacrifices in the war effort, Vietnam created profound distrust and disunity.
The cultural impact of September 11 is already making itself felt. For example, I have heard that several movie and television screenplays are being rewritten, with less violence. It would be nice if we emerged from this event with less violence in the media.
I have tried to imagine what other cultural changes this war will bring, but that's no easier for me, I imagine, than for a farmer in 1939 to imagine what America would be like a decade hence. I have no doubt, however, that things will be very different.
With any luck, perhaps some of the cultural legacy of WWII will be reversed. As hard as it is to look for good to come from this tragedy, it would be nice if we all ended up with better neighbors.
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