Turning Sadness Into Sentimentality

I almost called this little essay “Turning Tragedy Into Tripe.” For I am thinking of the inevitable September 11th anniversary “memorials.” There are ways to remember life- or world-changing moments without turning them into emotional pablum. The modern world, however, has lost those ways, just as it has lost its way in general with regard to the meaning of history, the lessons of experience, and the adult imperative of rising above that manipulative sentimentality and cloying “social feeling” which, in the name of “never forgetting,” serve only to infantilize and diminish the souls of men.

If you were personally involved in the 9/11 attacks, or lost close friends or beloved family members that day, you will naturally experience some echo of the old pain as the calendar reminds you of your suffering. But for everyone else, the pretense of deep feeling — whether of the patriotic “USA, USA” sort or the self-centered “Oh, dear me” sort — is something that must be dredged up, much like the popular outpouring of feeling that one witnesses after the death of a celebrity, from Princess Diana to Robin Williams to John McCain. Everyone wishes to be a part of the “event,” and to act out a level of intimate engagement that is not grounded in any personal reality, but rather in a desire to belong, i.e., to share in a great communal feeling through the sort of self-annihilation that late progressive man mistakes for self-expression.

The Islamic terrorist attack of September 11th, 2001, was a significant historical event, although its precise significance has perhaps not yet been properly defined. (History takes time, especially in an age as lost in the fog as this one.) The moment was also shockingly vivid in a manner unfamiliar to most North Americans, due to the unusual nature of the attack, the sheer symbolic eminence of the physical targets (particularly the World Trade Center towers, of course), and the fact that perhaps no sudden violence on such a scale had ever been subject to live television coverage before. Almost all of us sat in front of screens watching something we had never imagined seeing — the very opposite of the usual television experience, in which we typically see exactly what we have been habituated to seeing.

The event was potentially valuable, as even the most horrific tragedies may be, precisely because it shattered all the numb comforts of modern progressive society. Suddenly, reality was real, not a faked collective dream; horror was deeply felt, not feigned; and historical perspective rained down like a thousand tons of cement on a populace that had been indoctrinated and inured to living entirely in the Now.

But how has the world digested that teaching moment? “Never forget” emblematic displays. “2018 Patriot Day” presidential proclamations. And of the course the permanent rehashing of those “Where I was when I heard the news” stories we tell each other, as a way of feeling closer to the event and fitting in. In other words, hearts and flowers, with a few heart-swelling trumpet blares thrown in to make it more American.

And September 12th? Business as usual. “What’s on TV tonight?” Tellingly, the next two presidents Americans elected after “that fateful day” were Barack Obama and Donald Trump — the former being more sympathetic to the cause of the Islamists than to the principles of a free republic, and the latter having spent the past several years, including the year of his presidential campaign, toying with the Alex Jones fringe dwellers in the 9/11 truth brigade, going so far as to smear the Bush family during a primary debate as (all but) the perpetrators or facilitators of the attack. (Compare this to the next two presidents elected after World War II: Truman, a WWI commander who actually ended the war he had inherited from his deceased predecessor, and Eisenhower, the most admired WWII general.)

But beyond the more vicious falsifications and collective denials that are represented by the Obama Marxist-left and the Trump populist-alt-right — which may be explained in part as a national backlash against the neo-conservatives in Washington who overplayed their “new Pearl Harbor” hand in seeking to exploit 9/11 passions in their efforts to reform the American military and polity — there was the more mainstream post-2001 slide back into malaise, but a malaise punctuated with annual feel-good memorials. And yes, they are feel-good memorials; catharsis, even forced and artificial catharsis, is a form of pleasure, and God knows modern man lives for pleasure.

An analogy comes to mind — imperfect as all historical comparisons must be, but useful nonetheless.

In 2014, the Sewol ferry, carrying hundreds of passengers, including almost three hundred Korean high school students on a school trip, sank a short distance from shore. Most of the students died because they were ordered to stay in their cabins as the ship listed, and then became trapped as water flooded in — while the captain who ordered the teenagers to stay below and drown was one of the first people to jump overboard and save himself. The jolting effect of this terrible event on the Korean people was profound. How could the captain and his crew have made such amoral decisions in the crisis? More importantly, why did so many healthy, intelligent sixteen-year-olds simply obey orders to remain in their cabins and die, rather than react sensibly and save themselves and each other?

The feelings of that moment were intense and sincere, and, like 9/11 in its way, the shock of the event’s enormity was an opportunity to ask hard questions about Korean society, the way children are raised here, and what lies at the spiritual core of an adult population that has been raised in this nation’s hierarchical, obedience-oriented moral code.

Here is how I described the real outcome of that moment of national self-reflection, in the final chapter of The Case Against Public Education:

Now, predictably, the worst has happened: The tragedy has been incorporated into the paradigm of the status quo. A year after the disaster, I attended a pops concert at which the final item on the program was a piece of pop-tearful schmaltz dedicated to the Sewol victims, accompanied on a screen behind the orchestra by a slickly sentimental barrage of stream of consciousness animation celebrating the dear memory, not so much of the dead, but of the nation’s collective sadness. The music, and even more so the animated images of crying teenagers, empty school uniforms, and heart-shaped tears, reveled in mock melancholy and ersatz wistfulness over the lost students, inviting the audience to congratulate itself for feeling so deeply, for regretting so earnestly. The music ended, the audience applauded, and then they turned on their smartphones, checked their chat messages, and carried on with their Saturday night plans. Korean life looks fine, with the Sewol story now just another part of the nation’s comforting, sentimental self-portrait.

Has September 11th, 2001 become part of America’s comforting, sentimental self-portrait? We all have a certain susceptibility to such sentimentality. On an individual level, it often manifests itself as nostalgia. On a national level, it typically takes the form of public displays of feeling, turned on by the calendar and turned off just as quickly as the late-night comedians come on at the end of the “grave, sad day of remembrance.”

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