Forbidden Fruit

An impressive apparatus it is which can effortlessly rev up the emotions of an entire nation, whet the appetite for revenge, decide who the world's malefactors and victims are. "The consciousness industry," Hans Magnus Enzensberger described the media years ago -- the Gigantes of mind control, not least of whose powers is the capacity to drain an historical event of all meaning and interpretation. What more can possibly be said about last autumn's horror? The ear grows tired of homilies. The palate gets sick of the same insipid fare, and after so many morsels of bland punditry, all that's left is the temptation of forbidden fruit.

What if the itinerant fanatics see something in us that's really there? Their gravamen happens to be one even our allies can accept to some degree: the great injustice in Palestine, underwritten and condoned by our government; the cocksure unilateralism as evidenced in the rejection of a near-universal consensus on the environment; the propensity for supporting thugs, from the Shah of Iran to Ariel Sharon to the monarchs of Saudi Arabia; the double-edged sword of a radically free culture, in which the Lord of Profit can easily give birth to all forms of freakishness and self-canceling behaviors.

A mind robust enough can abhor the megalomania of a bin laden while honestly considering his grievances -- it can cope with ambiguity, it can hold two incompatible streams of thought in abeyance. The task, unfortunately, proved too weighty for the deans of American desipience. They were busy this last year invoking "the fifth column," shaming dissidents, blithely validating the imagery of an innocent power under attack without delving into many other aspects of the tragedy. Middle-aged intellectuals who might otherwise have been expected to broaden the discussion chose the easy and career-protecting path of denouncing the enemy. (The comforts of an upper-class existence have a way of dulling the nerve of outrage.)

"When the world has been so thoroughly monopolized," Jean Baudrillard wrote in Le Monde last November, "when power has been so formidably consolidated by the technocratic machine and the dogma of globalization, what means of turning the tables remains besides terrorism? In dealing all the cards to itself, the system forced the Other to change the rules of the game. And the new rules are ferocious, because the game is ferocious." How many professors and writers explored such avenues of inquiry as the one above? How many have looked with unprejudiced eye at the "terrorism of the strong," the onesidedness of trade treaties, the imposing influence of the market everywhere, the cruelty of sanctions on the people of Iraq?

Whatever our strengths, whatever our blessings, ours is not a very profound society. We hate dissent, except, of course, when it is stirred up in an enemy state. We are neither reflective nor self-critical. We are leery of any belief system which hasn't been tested in and baptized by the marketplace, and can't imagine why some other culture wouldn't want to be exactly like us. Our empire lives on, self-righteous as ever, convinced that Providence is on its side and that its wealth and might are the capstones of virtue.