Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Doing Tragedy Well

Let's face it.  We Americans do not do tragedy well.  Today, of course, I am making this statement in the context of 9/11 since it is September 11th, but let's assume that my comments extend beyond that to the tragedy of your (or my choice).

There are a number of reasons for this:

1.  We only understand tragedy within our own national context.  In other words, a tragic occurrence elsewhere in the world with greater devastation, greater loss of life, greater long-term impact, is likely to have little resonance here in the States.  Tsunamis and earthquakes (unless they are in California) are simply too far away for us to keep up with after the initial event.  Nuclear meltdowns and other problems that occur in countries we deem our enemies touch us not.  And, Africa, well, Africa, to us, is Africa.

2.  We have such little collective memory.  We are a forgetful people, a quick to put things behind us people.  This can be a blessing in some cases, but not where tragedy is concerned.  A student of mine, just the other day, realized that the whole dividing line of his life so far was 9/11.  But he didn't know anything about the day to speak, some planes hit some buildings, that's about it.  And, to be fair, he is young, but how many of our fellow citizens living in the various stages of adulthood can offer much more than that assessment?  No the whys or the hows or the befores or the afters.  Those things don't really matter now.  What matters is that a speeding ticket in another state can hold up the renewal of one's driver's license.  What matters is all of the rigamarole one must go through to get on an airplane these days.  That damn 9/11!

3.  We don't tolerate the maudlin, the false, the superficial.  Oh, we tolerate those things quite well thank you very much, but not where tragedy is concerned.  Once-a-year Tweets and Facebook posts hold questionable sincerity for many of us.  Moments of silence work, but once too many words start coming out, we start shaking our heads, looking at each other knowingly and handing ourselves over to our cynicism.  A tragedy, once passed and destined to be brought up again, is seen as a political opportunity, a chance to feel good about how much we care, or a jump onto a bandwagon for a quick ride into town.

4.   We don't do tragedy well because we don't do victims well.  Or victims' families.  Or first responders, second responders, third responders.  We like for our tragedies to be clean and immediate, without years of lawsuits or congressional committee hearings about reparations or benefits.  Those make us weary, like war makes us weary after the initial sheen has worn off and we have to deal with wounds, PTSD, jobs for veterans, and the impact on our psyche that ongoing reminders can bring on us.  We don't like it when people who help to clean up start developing patterns of cancer or when families of victims start asking uncomfortable questions.  Like we love our soldiers, much more than we love our veterans.  Veterans, like victims, take too long, and really, we only have a couple of weeks to give.

5.  We can't process the counter-narrative.  We like our tragedies simple and blameless or easily explained away.  Certainly, we don't want to ponder who might have had a role in it or what might have gone systemically wrong or which lives were lost needlessly due to outdated equipment or budget cuts.  And we really, really, really don't like conspiracies.  We have worked long and hard to make "conspiracy theory" if not a bad word, then at least the province of kooks and delusional paranoids.

6.  We are controlled by our sardonic national sense of humor.  We are quite proficient at laughing at the awful, so much so that our apologies for doing so are as insincere as the other emotions we condemn, but we don't fault our false apologies because they are part of the fun.  "Too soon," we say, "Too soon," but that is coded language for "It's kinda cool that you had the balls to say that even though I probably wouldn't have because I'm not that heartless, at least until I repeat it later in the day."

Oddly, ironically, tragically, whatever you want to call it, today's mock Subway promo from The Onion was the only fresh aspect to 9/11, version 12.0.  Somehow, at least for me, in mocking our capitalism, it honored our human loss.

Contrast all of this, though, with how well we do patriotism.  Before the first Gulf War (an undertaking which, in retrospect, is no less sketchy in terms of its motivations than the second Gulf War or the current discussion about bombing Syria).  Back then, we citizens gathered on the overpasses of the interstates, waving yellow ribbons and cheering for our country and waving at the troops as they passed in convoys beneath us, headed for deployment.  Onward, Christian soldiers.  We'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.

Let's make it simple.  What we really like about tragedies (and wars) are heroes.  Give us a few heroes that we can hang our national hats on and we are good to go moving forward and content revisiting those bad things that happened in the past.  And what would be really great is if those heroes would do something worth making a movie out of because tragic movies, we love tragic movies, especially when the good guys triumph.

1 comment:

Billy said...

Excellent post, in no small part because it makes me uncomfortable and agitated in parts.

Some quick counter-thoughts:
#1: Tons of Americans are still very involved in Haiti. We seem far more sympathetic to Haiti, in my opinion, than the Katrina-ravaged delta.

#2: This is probably what people thought of me, born in 1972, not properly respecting the Nixon resignation or the JFK assassination. Which just seems unfair. Most adults who can find Egypt on a map probably are better than this, and then ones who can't find Egypt on a map -- and there are lots of them, it seems -- probably cover a wide swath of Good Citizen shortcomings.

#4: Darn well done. I got nuthin', but you're spot-on about veterans.

#3 & #6: If you haven't seen the "controversy" around what AT&T did yesterday, it's probably worth noting, since the Onion spoof was both "Too Soon" and "Inappropriate" and "all too prescient."

Social media has made public mourning a suspicious and awkward thing. I'm not as jaded about expressions of grief about The Challenger Explosion because it's not used as an excuse to jump in line with people expressing their grief 140 characters at a time. Social media is at its most awkward when it crunches mourning into sloganeering. #NeverForget