The New York Times
The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 Americaby Susan Faludi
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author of Backlashan unflinching dissection of the mind of America after 9/11
In this most original examination of America's post-9/11 culture, Susan Faludi shines a light on the country's psychological response to the attacks on that terrible day. Turning her acute observational/b>/i>
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author of Backlashan unflinching dissection of the mind of America after 9/11
In this most original examination of America's post-9/11 culture, Susan Faludi shines a light on the country's psychological response to the attacks on that terrible day. Turning her acute observational powers on the media, popular culture, and political life, Faludi unearths a barely acknowledged but bedrock societal drama shot through with baffling contradictions. Why, she asks, did our culture respond to an assault against American global dominance with a frenzied summons to restore "traditional" manhood, marriage, and maternity? Why did we react as if the hijackers had targeted not a commercial and military edifice but the family home and nursery? Why did an attack fueled by hatred of Western emancipation lead us to a regressive fixation on Doris Day womanhood and John Wayne masculinity, with trembling "security moms," swaggering presidential gunslingers, and the "rescue" of a female soldier cast as a "helpless little girl"?
The answer, Faludi finds, lies in a historical anomaly unique to the American experience: the nation that in recent memory has been least vulnerable to domestic attack was forged in traumatizing assaults by nonwhite "barbarians" on town and village. That humiliation lies concealed under a myth of cowboy bluster and feminine frailty, which is reanimated whenever threat and shame looms.
Brilliant and important, The Terror Dream shows what 9/11 revealed about usand offers the opportunity to look at ourselves anew.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Reviewed byRichard Rodriguez
Susan Faludi has written a brilliant, unsentimental, often darkly humorous account of America's nervous breakdown after 9/11. "The intrusions of September 11," she observes, "broke the dead bolt on our protective myth, the illusion that... our might makes our homeland impregnable... and women and children safe in the arms of their men."
Drawing on political rhetoric and accounts from the New York Timesand the major networks, as well as Fox and talk radio, her book makes clear just how sexually anxious Americans became in the aftermath of that terrible day. But "the tragedy had yielded no victorious heroes, so the culture wound up anointing a set of victimized men instead: the firemen who had died in the stairwells of the World Trade Center."
The woman's role, she argues, became that of victim. Husbands had lost wives, but it was on the surviving wives of September 11 that America's grief was fixed. When some widows-"the Jersey girls"-rejected the victim's role by asking pointed questions about governmental incompetence, they were quickly ostracized by the press.
After September 11, we read that Donald Rumsfeld had been a wrestler at Princeton-and that became his legend in news accounts. Even the president clearing brush in Crawford, Tex., became the stuff of legend in the National Review, which juxtaposed Bush's "refreshingly brutish" demeanor with the way "the president sizes up the situation and says, 'You're mine, sucker.' "
A late chapter on Jessica Lynch rehearses how the myth of the imprisoned woman rescued by male warriors was manufactured by the government and the media. But I wish Faludi hadappraised the more important Abu Ghraib scandal. Arguably, the photographs of Private Lynndie England standing over naked Arab men shocked many of us out of any remaining childish belief in our own heroism.
The last third of the book traces how the American male's determination to see himself as protector (and the woman as dependent) derives from colonial Puritan wars against the Indians and the cowboy conquest of the West. In the end, Faludi judges our invasion of Afghanistan to be "inept" and tthe war in Iraq "disastrous." It is essential, she says, not to confuse "the defense of a myth" with "the defense of a country." A nation given to childish fantasy ends up with a president dressed like Tom Cruise, "a chest beater in a borrowed flight suit."
Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
On 9/11, Faludi received a phone call-a reporter for an East Coast newspaper seeking her reaction. "Well, this sure pushes feminism off the map!" she commented gleefully. In Backlashand Stiffed, two books on gender stereotyping, Pulitzer Prize winner Faludi proved her readiness to take on controversial subjects. In her new package of dynamite, she musters an impressive array of evidence to argue that 9/11 killed off serious dialog on gender equity in America, fostering instead the crudest ideals of macho heroism and female acquiescence. Faludi argues with passion and wit and for that reason will again infuriate critics on the Right. Compared with Anne Coulter, who addresses many of the same subjects, Faludi is sharp, quick, and deadly, while Coulter is a blunt instrument. Both appeal to American values, but Coulter's is knee-jerk patriotism that keeps women at home; Faludi champions equality of treatment for both sexes. And where name-calling is Coulter's weapon of choice (opponents are "godless," stupid, or both), Faludi deploys facts. Neither takes any prisoners on attack, but Faludi is conscientious in not going beyond the evidence and Coulter seems not much to care. A book that deserves to be read; enthusiastically recommended for all libraries.[See Prepub Alert, LJ7/07.]
In The Terror Dream, Faludi aims to elucidate the subterranean sexual politics underlying the country's recent hysteria. On the surface, after all, it's rather odd that, in fighting an enemy obsessed with policing the boundary between men and women, America would give itself over to the same fixation. "Of all the peculiar responses our culture manifested to 9/11, perhaps none was more incongruous than the desire to rein in a liberated female population," Faludi writes. "In some murky fashion, women's independence had become implicated in our nation's failure to protect itself." Faludi's explanation for this phenomenon -- that the attacks recapitulated the primal trauma of settlers vulnerable to Indian attacks -- isn't entirely convincing, though it's to her considerable credit that it seems much less far-fetched by the end of the book than it does at the beginning. One doesn't have to buy her thesis, though, to be engrossed by her exploration of the way myths of virile, capable men and meek, needy women have functioned to reassure an anxious nation whenever it's been threatened.
For anyone who has forgotten just how shrill the national mood was just a few short years ago, The Terror Dream offers abundant reminders. The day of the attacks, Faludi got phone call from a reporter doing a story about how the tragedy would affect America's social fabric. Taking a "bizarrely gleeful tone," he announced, "Well, this sure pushes feminism off the map!" "In the ensuing days," she writes, "I would receive more calls from journalists on the 9/11 'social fabric' beat, bearing more proclamations of gender restructuring -- among them a New York Times reporter researching an article on 'the return of the manly man' and a New York Observer writer seeking comment on 'the trend' of women 'becoming more feminine after 9/11.' By which, as she made clear, she meant less feminist." Pundits predicted a baby boom but kept having to push back the due date when it failed to appear. At the same time, one commentator after another pilloried the women's movement for essentially castrating the country and leaving it open to attack. Dissenting women -- from Susan Sontag to the Dixie Chicks -- would be met with barrages of sexualized rage. (As Faludi writes, liberal Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter "charged the 'haughty' Sontag with dressing the nation in girl's clothes. It was 'ironic,' he wrote, that 'the same people urging us to not blame the victim in rape cases are now saying Uncle Sam wore a short skirt and asked for it.' ") More insidiously, as Faludi documents, women in general largely vanished from the op-ed pages and the TV talk shows. In the weeks after the attacks, the number of women on the New York Times op-ed page fell from 23 percent to 10 percent, with even more precipitous drops in other publications. For the first half of 2002, she reports, more than 75 percent of Sunday talk shows on CBS, Fox, and NBC featured no female guests at all.
Meanwhile, America's leaders (the ones whose negligence actually left the country vulnerable) were envisioned as any army of ?bermenschen. Newsweek called Bush America's "dragon slayer" and "a boyish knight in a helmet of graying hair." That magazine's Howard Fineman turned the president's compulsive exercising -- which in a woman would surely be interpreted as a sign of vanity and frivolity -- into the mark of a warrior, calling him "a fighting machine who has dropped 15 pounds and cut his time in the mile to seven minutes." Other publications hymned the studliness of Donald Rumsfeld (a "babe magnet," according to Fox) and Rudy Giuliani ("Tower of Strength," trilled a Time headline). To read these purple panegyrics is to remember that before the blustering jingoism of Stephen Colbert was farce, it was tragedy. For this country, the consequences of such madness have been severe -- the war in Iraq, the ire of the world, and the general debasement of the political atmosphere. Truths that refused to conform to the country's heroic fantasy were twisted and suppressed -- witness the sordid lies told about soldiers like Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch. Grappling with the cultural factors that made America so susceptible to what Faludi calls the "terror dream" is an important job, and one that the author, who scythed through countless anti-feminist canards in her classic book Backlash, seems uniquely suited for.
Unfortunately, her new book doesn't totally succeed. While she provides enormously interesting insights and crucial bits of recovered history, her central argument just doesn't hold up. Faludi traces the country's irrational response to 9/11 to the buried shame of the frontier, when fathers frequently failed to protect their families from Indian raids and women embarrassed men with their self-sufficiency. "The humiliating residue still circulates in our cultural bloodstream, awaiting provocation to bring it to the surface," she writes. Only when this primal wound is healed, Faludi suggests, can the country move forward.
Her explanation of the way mythmakers rewrote the history of the frontier to valorize men and diminish women is fascinating -- especially when she documents the evolution of the historical narrative that inspired The Searchers, the 1954 novel by Alan Le May that later became an iconic film starring John Wayne. (She takes her title from a passage in the book.) Both were based on the ordeal of Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by Comanche warriors as a child. In real life, she was taken in part because her bumbling family failed to protect her. She eventually adopted a Comanche name, married, and had children before being bought back to settler society, very much against her will, by James Parker, a self-promoting uncle with a criminal background. She tried desperately to run away and return to her Comanche family; unable to, she eventually starved herself to death.
Faludi shows how a series of fabulists would turn this grim tale into a story of stoic white male valor, feminine helplessness and Indian savagery (although, in making her case, she downplays the film's ambiguities). "John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers bears little resemblance to the feckless James W. Parker, on whom he is thinly modeled; while they share a shady past, Edwards outlawry is Confederate-heroic and, unlike his progenitor, Edwards is the consummate effective protector," she writes. Such revisionism, Faludi argues, is typical of America's broader encounter with its settler history. She suggests our macho archetypes -- the frontiersman and the cowboy -- are devices the culture uses to cover up the memory of male insufficiency and terror.
Going further, she draws fascinating parallels between Cynthia Ann Parker and Jessica Lynch. "Like Lynch, Cynthia Ann Parker was a young white woman who fell hostage during a bloody battle and was subsequently held in the desert by people her countrymen viewed as rapacious non-Christian murderers, until she was rescued in a gunfight trumpeted later as heroic, though it was not," she writes. "As with Lynch, her plight was misconstrued, for her 'captors' were people who meant her no harm and for whom she held no animosity. As with Lynch, her fabricated rescue would be played and replayed in breathless newspaper accounts."
That's persuasive, but it doesn't necessarily follow that memories of settler terror, buried in our national subconscious, account for the country's response to September 11th. The United States is far from the first country in the world to react to national crisis with an outbreak of extreme social conservatism. In times of deep stress, it's common for societies to become more rigid in their gender roles and determined to resurrect an imaginary heroic past. The scholar Roger Griffin has described the mobilizing vision of all fascist movements as "that of the national community rising phoenix-like after a period of encroaching decadence which all but destroyed it." (His italics.) This is not to say that the United States has gone fascist -- only that the American right was acting the way that many ascendant right-wing movements have acted before.
The cultural signifiers change -- America naturally invoked cowboys instead of Norse gods or samurais -- but the broader pattern is sadly constant. Thus Faludi's hope that reckoning with "the original trauma that produced our national myth" will lead to more progressive policies is unrealistic. Whatever it is that makes people respond to calamity by frantically asserting a brittle sexual dichotomy, it goes even deeper than our own half-forgotten history. --Michelle Goldberg
Michelle Goldberg is the author of the New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is working on a book about the global battle over reproductive rights.
"Susan Faludi is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, and it shows. Backlash...is punchy, well-written, well researched, convincing, thought-provoking and, in parts, very funny."The Guardian on Backlash
"Faludi uses her dazzling investigative powers to zap the smug detractors of feminism, the hypocrites, backsliders, and antifeminists. The result is a rich and juicy read, informed by powerful logic and moral clarity."Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed on Backlash
"Faludi's prose is as strong and smooth as well-sanded hardwood, and she's got a jeweler's eye for the telling detail." Chicago Sun Times on Stiffed
"Susan Faludi's Backlash [was] in my view the most important book on women in recent decades....Stiffed is even better than Backlash...It is a significant and serious work...every page counts ."New York Review of Books on Stiffed
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Read an Excerpt
Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, I had a nightmare. I don’t know how to explain it—I lay no claim to oracular powers. Maybe it was just a coincidental convergence. I dreamed I was sitting in an aisle seat of a commercial airliner. Next to me was another passenger, a woman. A hand jostled my headrest, and I looked up to see two young men bearing down on us. They both held pistols. One put his gun to my neck and shot. Then he shot again. I watched, as if from outside my body, as the first bullet entered at an angle and lodged in my throat. Moments later, the second bullet grazed by me and disappeared into the neck of my seatmate. I noticed that I was still alive but unable to speak. Then I woke up. A glorious dawn was filtering through the window blinds of my bedroom in Los Angeles. I described the dream to my boyfriend, in hopes of releasing its grip on my mind. I feared falling asleep and returning to that plane. As we lay there talking, the phone rang.
“Are you watching television?” a friend asked.
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“Go turn on your television.”
What I saw on the screen only deepened my sensation of being caught in some insane realm beyond reality, unable to wake up. It was a feeling that would linger.
My induction into a more willful unreality came later that day, when the phone rang again. A reporter in the Los Angeles bureau of an East Coast newspaper was pursuing a “reaction story.” I was perplexed—he had hardly reached an authority on terrorism. As it turns out, that wasn’t his concern. After a couple of vague questions about what this tragedy would “mean to our social fabric,” he answered his own question with, given the morning’s events, a bizarrely gleeful tone: “Well, this sure pushes feminism off the map!” In the ensuing days, I would receive more calls from journalists on the 9/11 “social fabric” beat, bearing more proclamations of gender restructuring—among them a New York Times reporter researching an article on “the return of the manly man” and a New York Observer writer seeking comment on “the trend” of women “becoming more feminine after 9/11.” By which, as she made clear, she meant less feminist. Women were going to regret their “independence,” she said, and devote themselves to “baking cookies” and finding husbands “to take care of them.”
The calls left me baffled. By what mental process had these journalists traveled from the inferno at ground zero to a repudiation of female independence? Why would they respond to terrorist attack by heralding feminism’s demise—especially an attack hatched by avowed antagonists of Western women’s liberation? That a cataclysmic event might eclipse other concerns would hardly seem to warrant special mention. Unremarkably, celebrity scandals, Hollywood marital crises, and the disappearance of government intern Chandra Levy all slipped from the front pages. But my gloating caller and his cohorts weren’t talking about the normal displacement of small stories by the big one. Feminist perspectives, and those of independent women more generally, didn’t just naturally fade from view after 9/11.
In the weeks that followed, I had occasion to see this phenomenon repeated in many different ways. Of all the peculiar responses our culture manifested to 9/11, perhaps none was more incongruous than the desire to rein in a liberated female population. In some murky fashion, women’s independence had become implicated in our nation’s failure to protect itself. And, conversely, the need to remedy that failure somehow required a distaff correction, a discounting of female opinions, a demeaning of the female voice, and a general shrinkage of the female profile. As it turned out, feminists weren’t the only women to be “pushed off the map”; their expulsion was just the preview for the larger erasures to follow.
Within days of the attack, a number of media venues sounded the death knell of feminism. In light of the national tragedy, the women’s movement had proved itself, as we were variously informed, “parochial,” “frivolous,” and “an unaffordable luxury” that had now “met its Waterloo.” The terrorist assault had levied “a blow to feminism,” or, as a headline on the op-ed page of the Houston Chronicle pithily put it, “No Place for Feminist Victims in Post 9-11 America.”
“The feminist movement, already at low ebb, has slid further into irrelevancy,” syndicated columnist Cathy Young asserted. “Now that the peaceful life can no longer be guaranteed,” military historian Martin van Creveld declared in Newsday, “one of the principal losers is likely to be feminism, which is based partly on the false belief that the average woman is as able to defend herself as the average man.” In a column titled “Hooray for Men,” syndicated columnist Mona Charen anticipated the end of the old reign of feminism: “Perhaps the new climate of danger—danger from evil men—will quiet the anti-male agitation we’ve endured for so long.” New York Times columnist John Tierney held out the same hope. “Since Sept. 11, the ‘culture of the warrior’ doesn’t seem quite so bad to Americans worried about the culture of terrorism,” he wrote, impugning the supposed feminist “determination to put boys in touch with their inner feelings.” “American males’ fascination with guns doesn’t seem so misplaced now that they’re attacking Al Qaeda’s fortress,” he sniffed. “No one is suggesting a Million Mom March on Tora Bora.”
These were, of course, familiar themes, the same old nostrums marching under a bright new banner. Long before the towers fell, conservative efforts to roll back women’s rights had been making inroads, and the media had been issuing periodic pronouncements on “the death of feminism.” In part, what the attack on the World Trade Center did was foreground and speed up a process already under way. “Any kind of conflict at a time of unrest in society typically accentuates the fault lines that already exist,” Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women, told the Christian Science Monitor in a story headlined “Are Women Being Relegated to Old Roles?,” one of the few articles to acknowledge what was happening.3 The seismic jolt of September 11 elevated to new legitimacy the ventings of longtime conservative antifeminists, who were accorded a far greater media presence after the attacks. It also invited closet antifeminists within the mainstream media to come out in force, as a “not now, honey, we’re at war” mentality made more palatable the airing of buried resentments toward women’s demands for equal status.
What was most striking, and passing strange, was the way feminism’s detractors framed their assault. In the fall and winter of 2001, the women’s movement wasn’t just a domestic annoyance; it was a declared domestic enemy, a fifth column in the war on terror. To the old rap sheet of feminist crimes—man hating, dogmatism, humorlessness—was added a new “wartime” indictment: feminism was treason. That charge was made most famously, and most cartoonishly, by Rev. Jerry Falwell. “I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen,’” Falwell thundered on 9/12 on the Christian Broadcast Network, addressing his j’accuse to “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle.” By altering traditional gender roles, feminists and their fellow travelers had “caused God to lift the veil of protection which has allowed no one to attack America on our soil since 1812.” Falwell’s outburst struck even his compatriots as unfortunate, or at least unsubtle. But his allegations, sanitized and stripped of their Old Testament terms, would soon be taken up by conservative pundits and in mainstream outlets; old subpoenas would be reissued, upgraded with new counts of traitorous behavior.
Post-9/11, feminism’s defense of legal abortion was accordingly deemed a Benedict Arnold act. “After September 11th the American people are valuing life more and realizing that we need policies to value the dignity and worth of every life,” Bush’s senior counselor Karen Hughes said on CNN, on the same day as a massive reproductive-rights march was in progress in the capital. In fact, American opposition to abortion was “really the fundamental difference between us and the terror network we fight,” Hughes stressed. (A curious contention, considering that our assailants were hardly prochoice, but her CNN interviewers let it stand.) Others, like Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, stated the equation less decorously. “Has God withdrawn his protective hand from the US?” he asked on his organization’s Web site—and answered that God is “displeased” with America for “killing 40 million unborn babies.” A thirty-second television commercial likening abortion to terrorism was rushed on the air some weeks after the attack by an antiabortion organization—“to take advantage of the 9-11 events to press our case for sparing the lives of babies,” as the executive director candidly put it.
The October 15, 2001, edition of the National Review could have passed for a special issue on the subject of feminist treachery. In “Their Amerika,” John O’Sullivan accused feminists of “taking the side of medieval Islamists against the common American enemy. They feel more comfortable in such superior company than alongside a hard-hat construction worker or a suburban golfer in plaid pants.” Another article, “The Conflict at Home,” blamed American feminism’s “multiculturalist” tendencies for allowing Sharia extremism to thrive in the Arab world. And a third piece claimed that women’s rights activists have so browbeaten the American military that our armed services have “simply surrendered to feminist demands” and allowed an insistence on equal opportunity to “trump combat effectiveness.”
As the denouncers made their media rounds, they homed in on two aspects of feminist sedition: women’s liberation had “feminized” our men and, in so doing, left the nation vulnerable to attack. “Well, you see, there is a very serious problem in this country,” Camille Paglia explained to CNN host Paula Zahn a few weeks after 9/11. Thanks to feminism, Paglia said, “men and women are virtually indistinguishable in the workplace.” Indeed, especially among the American upper middle class, the man has “become like a woman.” (Paglia was weirdly, albeit inadvertently, echoing the words of Taliban attorney general Maulvi Jalilullah Maulvizada, who had earlier told a journalist that when women are given freedom, “men become like women.”) This gender confusion in the workplace would bode ill for our coming conflicts with the Arab world, Paglia warned. “There is a kind of a threat to national security here,” she said. “I think that the nation is not going to be able to confront and to defeat other countries where the code of masculinity is more traditional.”
The editors and writers in the centrist media expressed such sentiments more euphemistically—as furrow-browed concern that a “soft” America might not be able to rise to the occasion, that a womanly “therapeutic culture” would cause the nation to value the feminine ritual of mourning over martial “action,” that a “Band of Brothers” ethic, as one newsmagazine put it, could not take root in a female-centered “Sex and the City culture.” “For once, let’s have no ‘grief counselors,’” Time editor Lance Morrow lectured. “For once, let’s have no fatuous rhetoric about ‘healing.’” Coddled Americans had let themselves go and needed to “toughen up.” Our World War II elders say we have “become too soft,” a story in the San Francisco Chronicle warned. Numerous press reports fixated on a report that bin Laden thought Americans were “soft and weak.” Beneath the press’s incessant fretting lurked anxious questions that all seemed to converge on a single point: would a feminized nation have the will to fight?
The conservative commentariat had an answer and wasn’t shy about stating it. The problem, according to the opinion makers from Fox News, the Weekly Standard, National Review, and the many right-wing-financed think tanks who seemed to be on endless rotation on the political talk shows after 9/11, was simple: the baleful feminist influence had turned us into a “nanny state.” In the wake of 9/11, a battle needed to be waged between the forces of besieged masculinity and the nursemaids of overweening womanhood—or, rather, the “vultures” in the “Sisterhood of Grief,” as American Spectator’s January–February 2002 issue termed them. “When we go soft,” Northwestern University psychology professor and American Enterprise scholar David Gutmann warned, “there are still plenty of ‘hard’ peoples—the Nazis and Japanese in World War II, the radical Islamists now—who will see us as decadent sybarites, and who will exploit, through war, our perceived weaknesses.” And why had our spine turned to rubber? The conservative analysis proffered an answer: the femocracy.
“Our culture has undergone a process that one observer has aptly termed ‘debellicization,’” former drug czar William Bennett advised in Why We Fight, his 2002 call to arms against the domestic forces that were weakening our “resolve.” The “debellicizers” that he identified were, over and over, women—a female army of schoolteachers, psychologists, professors, journalists, authors, and, especially, feminists who taught “that male aggression is a wild and malignant force that needs to be repressed or medicated lest it burst out, as it is always on the verge of doing, in murderous behavior.” Since the sixties and seventies, Bennett wrote, this purse-lipped army had denounced American manhood as “a sort of deranged Wild West machismo”; it had derided the Boy Scouts “as irrelevant, ‘patriarchal,’ and bigoted”; it had infected “generations of American children” with “the principle that violence is always wrong.” And with the terrorist attack on our nation, the chicken hawks had come home to roost. “Having been softened up, we might not be able to sustain collective momentum in what we were now being called upon to do,” Bennett wrote. “We have been caught with our defenses down.”
“What’s happening now is not pacifism but passivism,” National Review’s Mark Steyn maintained soon after the attack in an article titled “Fight Now, Love Later: The Awfulness of an Oprahesque Response.” “Passivism” was a pathogen that had invaded the body politic—and American women were its Typhoid Marys, American men its victims. The women who ruled our culture had induced “a terrible inertia filled with feel-good platitudes that absolve us from action,” Steyn wrote. He found particularly telling Oprah Winfrey’s call, at a post-9/11 prayer service in Yankee Stadium, to “love” one another. “Not right now, Oprah,” he instructed. If we were to prevail in the coming war, the nation first needed to unseat this regiment of “grief counselors” and silence all their “drooling about ‘healing’ and ‘closure.’” “You can’t begin ‘healing’ until the guys have stopped firing.”
As if feminizing our domestic culture weren’t bad enough, the women’s movement was also jeopardizing our readiness on the battlefield. “Bands of brothers don’t need girls,” a Rocky Mountain News columnist held, denouncing feminists for depleting the military muscle we would need for the upcoming war on terror. “To them, the military is just another symbol of the male patriarchy that ought to be feminized, anyway, along with the rest of society.” Our first lady of antifeminism, Ann Coulter, cast this argument in her usual vituperous fashion. “This is right where you want to be after Sept. 11—complaining about guns and patriarchy,” she addressed feminists in a column titled “Women We’d Like to See . . . in Burkas.” “If you didn’t already realize how absurd it is to defang men, a surprise attack on U.S. soil is a good reminder. . . . Blather about male patriarchy and phallic guns suddenly sounds as brilliantly prescient as assurances that the Fuhrer would stop at Czechoslovakia.”
A few weeks after 9/11, the Independent Women’s Forum (an all-female think tank supported by right-wing foundations) inaugurated its onslaught against martial emasculation at the National Press Club. Under the banner “IWF Women Facing War,” one female panelist after another rose to face the enemy within. “Our freedoms and way of life depend on a strong national defense,” Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and soon to be a ubiquitous media presence, told the assembled. “And yet, for far too long, a minority of feminist women have presumed to tell not just the commander-in-chief but the secretary of defense and the heads of all the armed forces what to do to advance the feminist agenda in the institution of the military.” An “ungendered” armed services with “mandatory assignments” of women to “close combat units” was “the premiere item on the feminist agenda,” Donnelly warned, and that agenda had seriously damaged the U.S. military’s “morale, discipline, recruiting, retention, and overall readiness.”
The IWF, which had been lobbying for years against efforts to bring more women into the military and the police and fire services, celebrated what it saw as vindication. The group’s spokeswomen fanned out on television and radio and in print. “It took an act of monstrous criminality to show us this,” IWF member and commentator Charlotte Allen declared. “But sometimes, perhaps most of the time, those are jobs that only a guy can do, and if we lower our standards because some women may feel bad about not living up to them, it is going to cost lives.” Kate O’Beirne, a National Review editor and regular presence on CNN’s Capital Gang, accused feminists of ruining the military. “Kumbaya confidence courses have replaced ego-bruising obstacle challenges,” she wrote a week and a half after 9/11. “Let’s hope that stepstools will be provided for female soldiers in Afghanistan.”
In late October 2001, Pentagon brass who shared such sentiments announced they would soon be reversing Clinton-era policies that had sought to expand women’s roles in battle zones. “That’s all changing,” a senior defense official told U.S. News & World Report. Frontline “units won’t involve women,” another said. After women’s rights groups protested, the effort was shelved for the time being. But the Bush administration quietly began dismembering the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a long-standing internal institution that had promoted women’s progress in the military for more than half a century: the committee’s charter was allowed to lapse, women’s rights advocates were replaced with GOP party loyalists, and the organization’s purview was restricted to family and health issues.
The few feminist—or even perceived-to-be feminist—pundits that managed to find a forum in this cacophony received a less than congenial reception. “I wanted to walk barefoot on broken glass across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to that despicable woman’s apartment, grab her by the neck, drag her down to ground zero and force her to say that to the firefighters,” New York Post columnist Rod Dreher ranted on September 20, 2001. The object of his venom was Susan Sontag and the less than five hundred words she had famously contributed to the New Yorker on the subject of 9/11. What was so “despicable”? Was it her suggestion that “a few shreds of historical awareness might help us to understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen”? Or perhaps it was her weariness over the muscle-flexing mantras: “Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.” Dreher was too busy seething to specify his objections. In any case, he was not alone in his overheated fury. The New Republic ranked Sontag with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan called her an “ally of evil” and “deranged.” Yet another New York Post columnist, John Podhoretz, said she suffered from “moral idiocy.” National Review’s Jay Nordlinger accused her of having “always hated America and the West and freedom and democratic goodness.” In an article titled “Blame America at Your Peril,” Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter charged the “haughty” Sontag with dressing the nation in girl’s clothes. It was “ironic,” he wrote, that “the same people urging us to not blame the victim in rape cases are now saying Uncle Sam wore a short skirt and asked for it.”
Sontag was no more provocative than any number of male left-leaning intellectuals and pundits whose remarks sparked criticism but nowhere near the personal and moral evisceration that she was made to endure. No one called them, as Sontag was called in the Chicago Tribune, “stupefyingly dumb.” A few nights before Sontag’s New Yorker article was published, ABC’s Politically Incorrect host, Bill Maher, raised hackles when he remarked that flying an airplane into a building was hardly “cowardly.” FedEx and Sears pulled ads and a dozen local affiliates suspended the show’s broadcast. But in the media court of opinion, Maher received a comparatively gentle dressing down—and was then forgiven and even feted after he made the electronic rounds, seeking absolution. (Rush Limbaugh actually defended Maher, saying, “In a way, he was right.”) ABC pulled the plug on Politically Incorrect the next year when the show’s contract expired. The network contended that the show just wasn’t making enough money; Maher maintained his remarks sealed his doom. He wasn’t out in the cold for long: in a matter of months he was back on the air with his own HBO show.
But the stoning of Sontag went on and on. More than a year after the offending issue of the New Yorker had departed the newsstands, former New York mayor Ed Koch was inveighing against her. “Susan Sontag will occupy the Ninth Circle of Hell,” he declared in a radio address in December 2002. “I will no longer read her works.”
Anyone who has followed the commentaries of feminist writer Katha Pollitt in the Nation knows she can stir the pot. But pot stirring hardly describes her subdued and almost mournful October 8, 2001, column, in which she related her discussion with her thirteen-year-old daughter about whether to fly an American flag from their apartment window. Pollitt pointed out the flag’s historic use as a symbol of “jingoism and vengeance and war”; her daughter said she was wrong, that the flag “means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism.” Pollitt agreed that, sadly, “The Stars and Stripes is the only available symbol right now.” She closed by lamenting the lack of “symbolic representations right now for the things the world really needs—equality and justice and humanity and solidarity and intelligence.”
These words unleashed a torrent of wrath. Pollitt noted with some amazement that she had received more hostile responses to that column “than on anything I’ve ever written.” The harangue came from across the political media spectrum, from Dissent to the Washington Post to the Washington Times. She was called a bad mother, charged with, variously, “lunacy,” “ignorance,” “idiocy,” “facile insipidities,” and designated one of the “chattering asses.” The Chicago Sun-Times excerpted a few lines of her piece under the headline “Oh, Shut Up.” “We’re at war, sweetheart,” a column in the New York Post instructed her. “Pollitt, honey, it’s time to take your brain to the dry cleaners.” Both the Weekly Standard and the New York Post published her address so readers could inundate her daughter with flags. During a radio interview on an NPR talk show, Katha Pollitt was taken aback when Andrew Sullivan accused her of supporting the Taliban and then, in an almost verbatim repeat of the Newsweek commentator’s attack on Sontag, likened her, she recalled, “to someone who refuses to help a rape victim and blames her for wearing a short skirt.”
In the midst of the fracas, Pollitt came home one day to a message on her answering machine. “You should just go back to Afghanistan, you bitch,” a male voice said. Pollitt played the tape for her daughter. “And a little later,” Pollitt recalled, “she came to me and said, ‘You know, I think you might have been right about the flag.’”
The novelist Barbara Kingsolver was similarly bewildered by the fierce response to two op-ed pieces she wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times—in which she appealed to “our capacity of mercy” and proposed that one of “a hundred ways to be a good citizen” was to learn “honest truths from wrongful deaths.” Two weeks later she reported that “I’ve already been called every name in the Rush Limbaugh handbook: traitor, sinner, naïve, liberal, peacenik, whiner. . . . Some people are praying for my immortal soul, and some have offered to buy me a one-way ticket out of the country, to anywhere.” The Los Angeles Times received a letter from a collection agency owner who called Kingsolver’s essay “nothing less than another act of terror” and “pure sedition”; he promised to subject Kingsolver to “the most massive personal and business investigation ever conducted on an individual” and to send the results to the FBI, because “this little horror of a human being” needed to be “surveilled.”
Things only got worse after the Wall Street Journal ran a piece by writer Gregg Easterbrook claiming Kingsolver had said the American flag stood for “bigotry, sexism, homophobia and shoving the Constitution through a paper shredder.” (She had actually said the exact opposite, that the flag shouldn’t stand for these things.) The story was accompanied by a cartoon of a wild-haired figure on a soapbox wearing an “I [Heart] Osama” T-shirt. The misquote was picked up in scores of publications, including Stars and Stripes. “It became the most quoted thing I ever said,” Kingsolver told me, “and I didn’t say it.” The New Republic put her on “Idiocy Watch”; the Chicago-Sun Times denounced her “vicious and unpatriotic drivel” and “hatred of America”; the National Review called her “hysterical,” “moronic,” and, more obscurely, “Miss Metternich,” and even the alternative paper, the Tucson Weekly, in the town where Kingsolver had lived for a quarter century, sneered with the headline “The Bean Trees Must’ve Fallen on Her Head.” Kingsolver’s family received threatening mail; a trustee at Kingsolver’s alma mater sought to revoke her honorary degree; invitations, both social and professional, were retracted; and readers shipped back copies of her books “with notes saying, ‘I don’t want this trash in my house,’” Kingsolver recalled. Her efforts to correct the record were spurned. After Kingsolver’s attorney wrote the Wall Street Journal to protest the mangling of her words, a dismissive letter arrived from the newspaper’s associate general counsel, Stuart D. Karle, who deemed the article “a perfectly reasonable interpretation of Ms. Kingsolver’s text.” He added strangely that Kingsolver seemed to believe the flag’s stars should now symbolize not the fifty states but “entertainers of the moment” like Julia Roberts and Britney Spears. No retraction was forthcoming.
The scenario repeated whenever a feminist-minded writer dared challenge the party line. Epithets were hurled at novelist Arundhati Roy (“repulsive,” “foaming-at-the-mouth,” “ungracious operator”)—for pointing out pertinent historical facts about America’s role in the mujaheddin’s rise and for suggesting that “it will be a pity if, instead of using this as an opportunity to try to understand why September 11 happened, Americans use it as an opportunity to usurp the whole world’s sorrow to mourn and avenge only their own.” Columnist Naomi Klein was deemed traitorous—for suggesting that an international response to terrorism might be more effective than a unilateral one. (William Bennett claimed she was “taking from us” our “right to self-defense.”) Humorist Fran Lebowitz was denounced as “disloyal” on an MSNBC talk show—for finding humor in Bush’s shoot-’em-up rhetoric. Female journalists who so much as reported on the treatment of these women were roughed up, too. While researching a story on the post-9/11 attacks on dissenters, Vanity Fair columnist Leslie Bennetts made the mistake of phoning the New York Post’s John Podhoretz. She asked him if he had any regrets about accusing Sontag of “moral idiocy.” He didn’t. After a few brief questions, she rang off. Two days later, Bennetts opened the Post to find Podhoretz had devoted his latest column to an attack on her. “I was getting this for simply raising these issues,” Bennetts marveled.
Even feminists across the border weren’t safe. “Never before—or at least not since the War Measures Act—have I watched such a calculated, hot and hateful propaganda campaign,” Toronto Star’s columnist Michele Landsberg observed. She was referring to the response, in the United States and Canada, to some remarks at an Ottawa women’s rights conference on October 1, 2001. One conference panelist, Sunera Thobani, a University of British Columbia women’s studies professor, had said that Third World women might be dubious about the U.S. government’s vow to “save” them, considering that American foreign policy in the past had spurred “prolific levels of violence all over the world.” Overnight, Thobani became the favorite media and blogosphere whipping girl, dubbed “sick,” “hateful and destructive,” “Communist-linked,” guilty of “sucking on the front teat of society,” and “shockingly similar to Osama bin Laden.” She was inundated with so much hate mail and violent pornography and so many death threats that the university assigned her security guards. Even so, when the Ottawa police received a formal hate-crimes complaint, the anonymously filed grievance was submitted not on Thobani’s behalf but against her. The accuser charged her with “publicly inciting hatred against Americans.”
Some weeks into these media drubbings, Barbara Kingsolver picked up Newsweek and came across Jonathan Alter’s article “Blame America at Your Peril,” which singled out her, Susan Sontag, and Arundhati Roy for yet another round of reprimand and ridicule. “And I understood when I read that piece that Arundhati and Susan and I were the bad girls who had been mounted on poles for public whipping,” she told me. “They whipped us with words like bitch and airhead and moron and silly.” At first, the patronizing tone made Kingsolver think that the detractors regarded her and the other women as children. “But if we were so silly and moronic, why was it so important to bring us up and attack us again and again and again? The response was not the response you would expect toward a child. It was more like we were witches.”
Copyright © 2007 by Susan Faludi. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Susan Faludi is the author of Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man and Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Nation, among other publications. She lives in San Francisco.
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The Terror Dream is a wonderful, fascinating book. My only complaint is that it makes me feel awkward thinking about my own complicity in some of the events she talks about! Like I've turned my back on my feminist roots! I highly recommend this book to everyone. . . especially those who think the media - esp. the NYT- is serving them well . . . This is the type of book that makes me wish I could write well - just so I could compose a thoughtful review that conveys my sheer admiration for this book!
S.F. has an axe to grind........and she is grinding against the heroic FDNY and police rescuers on 9/11. This is a bitter book, and very late. This effort will be looked at as a mistake.