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September 13, 2009

  • Politically Agnostic
  • I

    Has it really been eight years? In so many ways the events of September 11, 2001 seem like yesterday. In other ways it has become a mythologized past.

    I managed to miss a lot of what happened on September 11, 2001. For whatever reason, my then-workplace just didn’t get the enormity of what was happening around them. While most everyone I know pretty much picked up and left work by the time it was reported the Pentagon was hit, we stayed at work. No one had a TV. We just relied on the Internet to get reports, which wasn’t easy that day. By 11am, CNN and the Globe and Mail’s website had crashed due to overwhelming demand. I had to rely on the BBC’s website, a continent away, and the e-mails I was receiving through a private mailing list I was on for new information. It was when I received an e-mail from one participant, a New Yorker, simply titled ‘Gone’ that I learned that both towers had collapsed.

    As a result, I’ve always felt a certain disconnect with the events of September 11. I was always sort of one step behind everyone and everything, at a remove from everything that was happening. Perhaps it was being stuck in an office with no live news during the most crucial events. Or perhaps everyone actually feels this way.

    What I mostly remember that night is, after the third or so hour of news had bludgeoned what was left of my senses, turning on my stereo and playing the Bruce Cockburn song “Planet of the Clowns” again and again. In its own way, the song became my commentary, my lament and my prayer on that warm evening:

    Government by outrage
    Hunger camps and shanty towns
    Dignity and love still holding

    This bluegreen ball in black space
    Filled with beauty even now
    battered and abused and lovely

    And the waves roar on the beach like a squadron of F16’s
    Ebb and flow like the better days they say this world has seen

    Eight years later, I find myself continuing to piece together what was lost for me that day.

    Don’t get me wrong, I despise the trivialization of September 11 in the media. I think they should ban showing clips of the planes hitting the towers and the towers falling on news shows because I think the more it’s seen the more normalized it becomes and the more desensitized we are—one of the most heinous acts on North American soil plays out as a giant snuff film from hell. I despise the use of what happened as a justification for everything from a war to maudlin television.

    At the same time, even for those who weren’t affected by the immediate tragedy that day, we—or at the very least I—lost or gained something as a result, even if that something was an understanding of things.


    So, then, what did I lose? Beyond the loss of a sense of personal security, I think the biggest effect it had on me was that I gave up on the notion that I was a part of the political left, or, rather, I abandoned of the political confessional creed I had always believed myself to be a part of up until then.

    Actually, it wasn’t September 11 that did that to me. Rather it was a week or so later. My disillusionment with the left began at a table in the BakeWorks on College Street and Clinton as I read Noam Chomsky’s response to the tragedy in NOW magazine during my lunch hour.

    Up until this time, I had been I suppose what one might term a casual fan of Chomsky’s. I had read some of his work, and sought out his commentary on different things. In 1994, I was one of a privileged few who got to sit in on a seminar with Chomsky and student leaders when he visited the University of Toronto.

    Chomsky’s rhetoric has always been distinguished by a sort of intellectual one-upmanship, whereby he squeezes more facts than you would think any mortal would be capable of finding at his disposal into the most banally phrased prose. It was with this gambit that Chomsky opened his little syndicated op-ed piece:

    The terrorist attacks were major atrocities. In scale they may not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and killing unknown numbers of people (no one knows, because the US blocked an inquiry at the UN and no one cares to pursue it). Not to speak of much worse cases, which easily come to mind. But that this was a horrendous crime is not in doubt. The primary victims, as usual, were working people: janitors, secretaries, firemen, etc. It is likely to prove to be a crushing blow to Palestinians and other poor and oppressed people. It is also likely to lead to harsh security controls, with many possible ramifications for undermining civil liberties and internal freedom.

    The sad truth is that Chomsky was proven right: 9/11 did lead to harsh security controls with ramifications for undermining civil liberties and internal freedom. And he was also right in what he predicted in the rest of his article, that this would be used as the thin end of a wedge that would lead to all sorts of problems in the Middle East (though Chomsky picked the Palestinian territories as his target—Chomsky always goes for the knee jerk reaction).

    For me, it wasn’t the content of Chomsky’s message; it was his tone. His first two sentences pretty much dismiss the horror and carnage of the week prior into a harsh relativism, and a harsh relativism that took a potshot at the American government no less. It might have been the confluence of reading this while the TV in BakeWorks was airing live coverage of the memorial services, but I couldn’t believe how staggeringly badly Chomsky had misjudged the mood of his nation—and indeed the Western world at the time.

    But it was more than that. I was offended that Chomsky was so out of step with where millions of ordinary citizens were in that moment. People who have watched mass destruction and death come home to them on such a scale deserve better than a finger-pointing lecture about the heinousness of their country’s foreign policy and relativizing their pain.  I was dismayed that someone so intelligent could be completely bereft of feeling and understanding the mood of people by publishing what was, in effect, his standard knee-jerk response to the American hegemony.

    And that’s where my disillusionment with the left began.

    You see, the right wing had absolutely no problem connecting to ordinary people in the midst of this tragedy. I had hoped that September 11 would be an opportunity for the left to return to its roots as a movement for the masses. To talk in the rhetoric of compassion and try to help people through grief and into some kind of resolve to strive for better values in the midst of such tragedy and despair. 

    But, in the main, they blew it. Chomsky in particular typified this trend. I’d like to say that, for me, all these things were anomalous. But for me it seemed to mark the beginning of a longstanding trend. Over the succeeding years most times when I’d hear someone from the left speak I’d wince with embarrassment. The right seemed to have no problem fostering public sentiment. The left just seemed to become more shrill, more ideological, less concerned with people and more concerned with being, for lack of a better word, right. I think the left became better at being the stereotypical heartless neo-conservatives than the conservatives.

    And yet, it’s not like I moved over to the right. Though I think they were better at capturing the public mood they became almost as reactionary and strident. The Republican Party (and the Conservative Party here in Canada) has become, to my mind, ugly in its cynical manipulation of people and lost any credibility by refusing to admonish its highly vocal lunatic fringe.

    As I result, I decided that I didn’t identify myself as anything anymore; I suppose I became a political agnostic as a result of it all.


    In the succeeding eight years, I’ve found things haven’t changed very much. If anything, the war in Iraq, two terms of Bush and eight months of Obama has made it worse.

    People and their politics have become so polarized, so angry. Perhaps it’s my sense of Canadian history but politics, to me anyway, should be about saying, “Yes, but…” or “No, but…”—a place for moderates to agree and disagree at the same time. There isn’t that type of politics anymore. Red Toryism is dead. It’s about disagreeing or agreeing with everything.

    And make no mistake, the election of Barack Obama hasn’t improved this at all. All we’ve done is substitute angry yahoos holding up placards of Bush made up as Hitler for angry yahoos holding up placards of Obama done up as Hitler. Really? Is the best we can do in political discourse anymore is to compare leaders with Hitler?

    It’s as though everything has become tainted and sour. Michael Moore was pretty insufferable for the better part of Bush and now it’s Glenn Beck’s turn. Everybody is more concerned with being right.

    There have been some signs of hope, though: I think the ascendancy of Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert in our culture has been a positive one because they encourage creative, critical thinking about politics that is always based in an ethos of valuing people. Maybe ‘truthiness’ is the next best thing to solidarity.


    I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve felt for the past eight years that, politically, I belong to a Diaspora of people who side with issues as they come, treating political matters as a multiple-choice question and often the answers are ‘all and none of the above’. I’ve become, I suppose, a centrist. But it’s more than that. I treat any party line with deep suspicion—even the party and leaders I support.

    I suppose, in many ways, I have being Canadian to thank for this. I think the Canadian political system, unashamedly built for over 150 years on gaining power to exploit patronage, has always encouraged a certain cynicism on the part of the public. I like this. Sadly, I think the trend is for the public to treat politics less pragmatically and more ideologically.

    Nonetheless I continue on my journey in the post-terrorism world we live in, as things continue to ebb and flow like the better days they say this world has seen.

    Dignity and love still holding.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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