Nous Sommes Tous Américains, and The Death of Irony

Originally posted by pico on 09/08/07

Let’s look at two famous articles from the immediate aftermath of the events in the U.S. on 9/11/2001. 

The first, and the more famous of the two as being emblematic of international attitude, was the front-page editorial on France’s Le Monde: “Nous Sommes Tous Américains”, by Jean-Marie Colombani.  The article is often cited as a sign of world solidarity behind the United States in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon (the latter often left out of discussions, for whatever reason), and the failed attack on the White House.  This was the main headline on the largest-circulation newspaper in the most traditionally anti-American of our allies.

The second, and the source of an endlessly regurgitated soundbite over the following years, was an article in Vanity Fair by Graydon Carter predicting the new age of sincerity, a sentiment soon echoed in newspapers around the country.  Carter (and others) were convinced that among the ways the United States would change irrevocably was in the adoption of a new seriousness in our attitudes, and an inability to treat everyday life with the same flimsy, fluffy detachment that had been so “cool”.  In Time, Roger Rosenblatt gave the sentiment its most repeated form: after so great a tragedy, irony was dead

It’s easy enough to criticize these sentiments with the benefit of hindsight, just as it’s easy to score a quick laugh by juxtaposing the two soundbites in the title (as I did, shamelessly).  What interests me instead are two phenomena: the way the myths of those articles have overshadowed the articles themselves (and their contexts), and the strange fittingness of Colombani’s title – whether he intended it or not.

Rewriting History

In both cases, the articles have accumulated a certain popular narrative about their ‘meaning’ in the greater context: they represented a new and different (inter)national mood that has, in the meantime, faded on its own or been squandered by opportunists.

This is a nice reading, but somewhat reductive.  For example, Colombani’s editorial was not the cri de coeur for supporting America that it has become on the retelling – in fact it’s clear from its copious mentions online that very few people who cite “We’re All Americans” as evidence for international support have not actually read the article, or at least misremember its content.  One major piece of evidence is the way reports cite only the headline in Le Monde, but nothing from the editorial itself (this from The New Yorker, or this from The Guardian, is typical).

It’s true that Colombani pledges sympathy for the American people, but not without a fair share of warnings and criticisms, neither of which attract much notice in the retelling.  I wonder, for example, if those citing the article remember this nugget:

The reality is perhaps also that of an America whose own cynicism has caught up with. If Bin Laden, as the American authorities seem to think, really is the one who ordered the Sept. 11 attacks, how can we fail to recall that he was in fact trained by the CIA and that he was an element of a policy, directed against the Soviets, that the Americans considered to be wise? Might it not then have been America itself that created this demon?

Even in the face of a serious tragedy, Colombani pulls few punches.  But as mythology, Colombani’s headline has outlived his article, to the detriment of our understanding the complexity of world sentiment after the 9/11 attacks.  The United States certainly received widespread sympathy and support, but the sympathy was not universal and the support not unequivocal.  That Colombani’s headline is often used as evidence to the contrary involves some seriously reductive history, especially towards the article itself.

The same can be said of Carter’s and Rosenblatt’s claim that the age of irony had passed.  According to the narrative both in published media and blogs, a serious (and seriously naive) America had recognized the death of ironic detachment because of the shock of 9/11, but as the years passed we recognized how short-sighted these editorials were, and we can no longer read them except with a certain sense of irony.

This narrative has some good points, but like most simple narratives about complex histories, it neglects two important phenomena: the real context of the ideas and their widespread detractors even at their peak.  Was the death of irony ever taken seriously?

First, some context: the “new sincerity” wasn’t a result of 9/11, but had actually begun a few years earlier.  Its champion was the improbably named Jedediah Purdy, an author who’d already gained his fair share of supporters and detractors.  As Caleb Crain of Salon noted back in 1999, the problem with Purdy’s argument wasn’t a philosophical rejection of irony (a form of humor that does have its limits and requirements), but a historical and sociological one.

In the weeks that followed 9/11, while Carter and others adopted Purdy’s rhetoric to predict the serious future of America, David Beers of Salon wrote a scathing review of what he called the self-flagellation of head-nodding editors around the country. First taking them to task for their misuse of the word irony – or at least their use of “irony” as shorthand for “ironic detachment”, which is something else entirely, Beers considers irony the most important protection against a society steeped too long in sentimentalism and easy moral platitudes, especially in the days to follow:

Here is one dictionary definition of irony: “Incongruity between actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.” That kind of irony might note that America, for all its effort to shine a beacon of freedom throughout the world, is seen as an imperial oppressor by large swaths of the Islamic world. That kind of irony would wonder if in this new battle on behalf of freedom, we may rush to strip away civil liberties. That kind of irony would wonder whether this new kind of war, waged to make us safe from terrorist attacks, might plunge the world into a far more dangerous conflagration.

Salon was the first major publication to take on the alleged death of irony, but others soon followed.  Tim Cavanaugh of Reason ripped into what he called “the hidden agenda of anti-ironists, warning us in particular against “taking a page from the decidedly unironic book of Islamic zealotry”.  M. Christian Green at the University of Chicago scripted a well-written defense of irony (reconciling it with religion, no less), in which he tried to remind us that the new sentimentalism was not a new movement at all, but one which had gained traction because of 9/11.  Furthermore, Green notes that the sackcloths and ashes were already being set aside by the culture at large in January of 2002 (Green’s article is fantastic, and highly recommended).

Ironically (another misuse of the word), one of irony’s champions post 9/11 was none other than Jedediah Purdy himself, who was quoted in the New York Times, saying, “In peaceful and prosperous times,” irony can keep “the passions in hibernation when there is not much for them to live on, but another kind of irony can also work to keep dangerous excesses of passion and self-righteousness and extreme conviction at bay.”  Here, whether he realizes it or not, Purdy is making the distinction between ironic detachment and irony, although rumors of death of the first were greatly exaggerated. 

All-in-all, to treat Carter or Rosenblatt’s editorials as indicative of the national mood after 9/11 is to engage in some seriously selective history.  The new seriousness received a spike in the weekly ratings, but it was neither new nor without its intelligent critics.  Sure, even Jon Stewart posted a heartfelt and serious response to the attacks, but not without asserting the role of comedy and the necessity of laughter.

A final quote from the Beers article, because it’s just so damned good:

Whoever named Bush’s still murky plan of retaliation “Infinite Justice” was dangerously devoid of irony, not to mention a sense of Islamic theology.

Irony, in any form, is never dead.  It just waits in the wings for its appropriate entrance.

Rereading History

Ironies aside, the most memorable thing about the Le Monde editorial really was its striking headline.  But here’s the rub: Colombani’s choice of title was either an intentional but covert message, or a coincidence of almost cosmic proportions.  I’ll leave that for you to decide:

If “We’re all Americans” sounds familiar, you may thinking of the title of another essay, published in 1954.  And not just any random essay, but an essay by New York City’s most emblematic writer, published in The New Yorker, about life in New York City – consider that the first piece of evidence that Colombani chose the title on purpose.  The essay begins

Dr. Sockman, the Methodist pastor, says the American city is more like a sand pile than a melting pot.  “People are heaped together, but they do not hold together.”  Well, we have a letter telling us of an incident when Americans held together beautifully.

E.B. White uses just over 200 words to relate the story of a New York queue gone sour, and I can hardly summarize it more economically without citing the entire piece.  In brief, the woman in front of the line has been taking care of her business slowly and distractedly, without regard for the working people behind her on their brief lunch break.  When someone in line expresses his displeasure, the woman snidely cuts him down: “You aren’t even an American, are you?”

The man was quite shaken by this, but the others in the line weren’t, and they came to his aid instantly.  “We’re all Americans,” shouted one of them, “and we are all on the lunch hour!”

This isn’t just a call for solidarity: it’s a warning against the blindness and ignorance of nationalism.  It’s a defense of the immigrant, the foreigner, and the person who talks and looks a little differently than the rest against the snap judgments and potential tyranny that members of the majority might engage in.

Did Colombani know this?  Was his use of White’s famous title not just an intentional homage but a secret warning to Americans not to use 9/11 as an excuse to question the American-ness of others?  Did he foresee the backlash against American Muslims, and the difficulties they’d face because of their culture of origins?

It’s very possible.  Here’s Colombani again:

In the eyes of American public opinion and its leadership, Islamic fundamentalism, in all its forms, risks being designated as the new enemy. Indeed, the anti-Islamic reflex, immediately after the attack on a federal building in Oklahoma City, resulted in statements that were ridiculous, if not downright odious.

As tempting as it is to view this excerpt as proof positive that Colombani intended the reference to White, this is only a small selection from a mostly American-sympathetic article.  I’m not entirely convinced, based on the context of the suspiciously Whitean words, that Colombani specifically knew the 1954 New Yorker essay.  If the message was intentional, the subtlety is astounding.  If unintentional, the coincidence is equally astounding.  But I’ll leave that for you to decide.

I’ll leave with one parting shot.  E. B. White was an odd bird: both a New Yorker and an indefatigable optimist.  He may never have predicted that his beloved city would face a direct hit from a faceless enemy, and he maintained a strong faith in the fundamental decency of people.  Because of this, he’s able to end his essay with a well-timed hyperbole at the expense of the cranky woman in line:

That was no sand pile.  People hold together and will continue to hold together, even in the face of abrupt and unfounded charges calculated to destroy.

The hyperbole no longer seems fitting.  Perhaps the saddest result of our post-9/11 policies has been this: if Colombani intended for the optimism of E. B. White to infect his piece and carry through to his readers, the attacks themselves and the last six years have resulted in the opposite.  A threat “calculated to destroy” does exist, and the cynical foreign policy of post-post-9/11 America has instead soured Colombani’s piece, and working backwards it has infected White’s as well.

Unless, of course, we read it with a healthy sense of irony.

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