A decade ago, critics predicted that September 11th would change how America thinks and feels. Lee Siegel argues that it's as restless as ever ... 


For D.R. 

Has the cultural atmosphere in America changed in the ten years since the attacks on September 11th 2001? The question might seem irrelevant, even impertinent, given the profound transformations that have taken place in America and the world since that terrible day. But one of the strangest episodes in the days following the attacks was a loud collective sigh of relief at the prospect of liberation from selfishness and shallow irony. It is almost embarrassing to write that now. But there it was, emanating from all corners of the American media, even as the smoke was still rising from the smouldering remains of the twin towers.

“Up until the moment the twin towers fell, America was deep in a cocoon of self-gratification and self-improvement,” reflected Maureen Dowd in the New York Times in October 2001. An op-ed in USA Today wondered, “Are aging boomers overcoming narcissism?” In the Guardian James Wood, a British critic based in America, mused optimistically that the slaughter would forever change the American novel, having discredited both “social realism” and coy, self-conscious irony. He made a wish that the attacks might open “a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative”.  

On the surface, such responses seemed only to demonstrate the isolation of the cultural elites from their own society. They recall the whoop of joy that went up from the youthful elites of England on the eve of the first world war. For them the war was, in the words of Robert Graves, “goodbye to all that”—the “that” being the dullness and mediocrity of a civilisation that had, in their jaundiced eyes, grown old and stale. One of the cultural revelations of 9/11 was that young America was in fact, in Gertrude Stein’s memorable phrase, “the oldest young country in the world.” Its civilisation had become stable enough, and unsurprising enough, to provoke some of its best and brightest to hope for good things to come from incredible violence against it.  

The elite reaction to 9/11 was an outburst of long-simmering discontent with the most frivolous aspects of American life. Though blinkered in its haste to find a silver lining in the cloud of human ashes hovering over Lower Manhattan, this call for a new sincerity crystallised decades of cultural disaffection. In 1987 Allan Bloom offered a high-minded jeremiad against narcissism and general shallowness with his book “The Closing of the American Mind”, which became a sensational bestseller. Before that, in 1979, was Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism”, which also leaped on to the bestseller list. In 1999 the New York Times Magazine published an article called “Against Irony”, which celebrated the popularity of a book called “For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today", written by a bothered 24-year-old, Jedediah Purdy.  

So it is hard to attribute any substantial cultural change to 9/11 alone. There may have been a brief shudder of general sincerity at the time, but human behaviour and cultural patterns are difficult to uproot. “Sex and the City”, the locus classicus of American narcissism and shallow irony, began its run in the antediluvian year of 1998 and only grew more popular until its final show aired in 2004. Meanwhile “The Sopranos”, a show of deadly earnestness, had a triumphant run on HBO from 1999 to 2007. Given America’s increasingly polarised politics, the purely ironic “Colbert Report” came as a relief when it debuted in 2005. 

Despite those first cultural prognoses, American culture is as indeterminate and unquantifiable now as it was ten years ago. This is hardly a bad thing. The blessing and the curse of human existence is that people can get used to just about anything. We may be as selfish and shallow as we always were, but we have not succumbed to the trauma of that day, mercifully enough. Trauma is a fairly bad catalyst for new forms of behaviour.