Didion on 9/11: How many times can America lose its innocence?

The author critiqued American patriotism when no one wanted to hear it

Published September 16, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Angeles Review of Books JOAN DIDION was on one of the first flights from New York to California after 9/11. She had been scheduled to speak in Los Angeles and San Francisco about a new book, Political Fictions, which contained eight pieces on the American political landscape from 1988 to 2000, all of them published previously in The New York Review of Books. She was 67, and had already published four novels (including Play It As It Lays in 1970) and five nonfiction books (including Salvador in 1983 and Miami in 1987). Political Fictions had taken on a sudden new significance when I spoke with her about it one week after 9/11. In our conversation, she seemed unusually halting and hesitant.

Didion will be in Los Angeles on October 14 to accept the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award. [Information and tickets.]

JON WIENER: You flew from New York City to California today — what was that like?

JOAN DIDION: It was uneventful. The plane was about half full, and nothing happened.

JW: You live in New York City — what was your day like on Tuesday 9/11?

JD: As it was happening, we were in shock — all day. But the shock on Tuesday was not as dramatic as the shock when we woke up on Wednesday morning and realized that it was real. We went downtown on Tuesday night to a birthday party. It was very hard to get downtown, obviously. The party wasn’t festive, it was quite somber, but it felt very good to be with people. I think everybody was there for that reason.

JW: Have you been downtown in the week since then?

JD: Below Houston you have a very strong sense of — of the nearness of it. We live uptown, but Wednesday night the wind changed, and there was a smell unlike anything I have ever smelled. All night long. And then the next day it rained.

JW: The news today is that President George W. Bush has just launched —

JD: “Operation Infinite Justice.” Yes.

JW: You’ve always paid close attention to our political rhetoric. What do you make of “Operation Infinite Justice”?

JD: At first it sounded like we were immediately going to be bombing someone. Then it sounded like it was going to be something like another war on drugs, a very amorphous thing with a heightened state of rhetoric and some threat to civil liberties.

JW: You started this series of essays with the 1988 election, Clinton versus Bush senior — and you write that the story has been pretty much the same ever since: the American political process does not offer citizens a voice, or much of a choice; instead it is designed by and for “that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.” Of course that narrative was disrupted last week.

JD: It was disrupted, but if you listen to TV, everyone is trying to shoehorn it into their existing agenda. I picked up The National Review yesterday, where Ann Coulter was saying, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.” Even if we thought that was the way to go, how would we go about it? Put them in a 12-step program? Put them in Teen Challenge? We’re seeing a lot of the patriotism of Americans, but we’re in danger of seeing it drowned in a surge of jingoism. Which is kind of — frightening.

JW: You wrote in your book that, in the political developments since 1988, you saw a “nostalgia for an imagined America.” Is that continuing this week?

JD: I think so. People are talking about “America losing its innocence.” How many times can America lose its innocence? In my lifetime we’ve heard that we’ve lost our innocence half a dozen times at least.

JW: President Bush in his press conference yesterday cited the poster in the Old West that said “Wanted dead or alive.” What do you make of that as political rhetoric?

JD: Both The New York Times and The Washington Post today carried stories out of the White House about how the president’s “dead or alive” language quote “is his own.” It is, and it isn’t his own. Every morning there is a meeting with Bush, Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, and others, in which they determine what the words and emotional cues should be for that day’s communications. When Karen Hughes briefed reporters on this, she gave them an example of how the president really shaped these words himself. But it was essentially a matter of changing “Get them on the run” to “Smoke them out and get them running.” It was not a change in spirit.

JW: The New York Times quoted a Republican advisor who said this is “his natural rhetoric, which is very much regular-guy language and is very appealing.”

JD: [Laughs] Yes.

JW: I gather you don’t find it very appealing.

JD: I keep thinking his family is from Connecticut.

JW: You’ve got the wrong idea there: he’s from Midland, which is in Texas!

Today we read that “In an effort to avoid a partisan debate after the terrorist attacks last week, Senate Democrats have agreed to withdraw a budget provision that would have restricted [...] spending on missile defense.”

JD: There’s no difference between the parties, is there? We don’t have an actual argument. We have two parties that calibrate everything they do to attract a very small group called “the target voters.” As for the rest of us, I don’t think it’s too strong to say we have been disfranchised.

JW: Most pundits emphasized the unique and unprecedented qualities of the Bush v. Gore contest in Florida that ended the 2000 election — but you wrote that the events in Florida were “not only entirely predictable, but entirely familiar.” What do you mean?

JD: It was entirely predictable: at the most immediate level, the election was that close because both candidates had run the same campaign directed at the same small number of people. Florida had a certain poetry to it; it was like a haiku of what the process had become.

Interview, originally broadcast on KPFK in Los Angeles on September 19, 2001, has been edited and condensed.

Jon Wiener writes regularly for the Los Angeles Review of Books

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9/11 America Joan Didion Patriotism War