JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS

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Monday, January 06, 2003
 
Didion on post-9/11

Simply summarized, Didion's thesis of Joan Didion's most recent New York Review of Books piece is that, right after 9/11/2001, there was an incredible opportunity for this country to explore its foreign policy shortcomings, but this opportunity was lost in a parade of patriotism and stifiling of open debate. The meat of Joan Didion's argument is found in the following paragraphs:

"California Monthly,... published in its November 2002 issue an interview with... Steven Weber..... It so happened that Mr. Weber was in New York on September 11, 2001, and for the week that followed. 'I spent a lot of time talking to people, watching what they were doing, and listening to what they were saying to each other,' he told the interviewer:

'The first thing you noticed was in the bookstores. On September 12, the shelves were emptied of books on Islam, on American foreign policy, on Iraq, on Afghanistan. There was a substantive discussion about what it is about the nature of the American presence in the world that created a situation in which movements like al-Qaeda can thrive and prosper. I thought that was a very promising sign.

But that discussion got short-circuited. Sometime in late October, early November 2001, the tone of that discussion switched, and it became: What's wrong with the Islamic world that it failed to produce democracy, science, education, its own enlightenment, and created societies that breed terror?'

The interviewer asked him what he thought had changed the discussion. 'I don't know,' he said, 'but I will say that it's a long-term failure of the political leadership, the intelligentsia, and the media in this country that we didn't take the discussion that was forming in late September and try to move it forward in a constructive way.'

I was struck by this, since it so coincided with my own impression. Most of us saw that discussion short-circuited, and most of us have some sense of how and why it became a discussion with nowhere to go"

Didion and Weber, however, miss an obvious possibility. Perhaps, on September 12th, people were reading books on Islam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (3 of the 4 subjects mentioned) not because they wanted to learn about American presence in the world, but because they wanted to learn about Islam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and figure out how they created the situation in which movements like al-Qaeda thrived and prospered. (Of course, Americans also were reading about our foreign policy; there is no requirement that only one avenue of thought and research be persued. This investigation was multivariate.) From this mid- and late-September reading and analysis, America's public debate developed into more detailed investigations on how societies that bred terror have been created.

Perhaps, the discussion did not short-circuit. Perhaps there was no failure of the political leadership or the intelligentsia (whoever they are) or the media. Perhaps the discussion actually did move forward in a constuctive way. In a quite logical progession, actually.

It's not that the discussion ended or was fruitless or has been a failure. It's just that the discussion did not go to where Didion wanted it to go. Instead of understanding this, or engaging in the discussion to move it to where she believes it should be, she castigates the entire conversation. Her article is worth a read, but it's too bad, really, that she doesn't have more faith in the intelligence and agency of the American people.

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