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     Sep 8, 2011


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How the hijackers changed American culture
By Spengler

This essay is excerpted from my collection of essays, It's Not the End of the World - It's Just the End of You [1]. It appears simultaneously with my new book, How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying Too). [2].

A month after the September 11, 2001 attack, I wrote in this space:
The grand vulnerability of the Western mind is horror. The Nazis understood this and pursued a policy "des Schreckens" (to cause horror) and "Entsetzens" (terror, literally: dislodgement). Horror was not merely an instrument of war in the

 
traditional sense, but a form of Wagnerian theater, or psychological warfare on the grand scale. Hitler's tactical advantage lay in his capacity to be more horrible than his opponents could imagine. The most horrible thing of all is that he well might have succeeded if not for his own megalomaniac propensity to overreach.

America, as Osama bin Laden taunted this week, lost in Vietnam. But it was not military setbacks, but the horrific images of Vietnamese civilians burned by napalm, that lost the war. America's experience in the war is enshrined in popular culture in the film Apocalypse Now, modeled after Joseph Conrad's story, The Heart of Darkness. The Belgian trading company official, Paul Kurtz, sinks into bestiality and dies with these words: "The horror! The horror!" It was a dreadful film, but a clever reference. At the close of World War I, T S Eliot subtitled his epitaph for Western civilization, The Waste Land, with a quote from the Conrad story: "Mr Kurtz, he dead." [3]
In this essay, adapted from material first published in First Things magazine, I argue that the 9/11 terrorists succeeded in precisely this goal: to employ the theater of horror to demoralize Americans. The culture has changed in consequence of the attack, to our detriment.

The "horror" genre supplied one out of 10 feature films released in the United States in 2009, according to the International Movie Database. During Universal Studios' heyday in the 1930s, the proportion was one in 200; only a decade ago it was one in 25. Vampire teen heartthrobs meanwhile take first place on some lists of best-selling books.

By way of contrast, 716 horror features were released in 2009, compared to 39 Westerns, a ratio of almost 20 to one. During 1960-1964, Americans saw more Westerns than horror movies. The earlier date is pertinent because it includes two of the most fearful events in post-war American history, namely, the Cuban missile crisis and the assassination of president John F Kennedy.
Westerns invariably portray a well-understood form of evil and contrast it to the courage to stand up to evil. Horror films involve an evil that is incomprehensible because it is supernatural and so potent that ordinary courage offers no remedy.

Americans never were more frightened than during the Cuban missile crisis, when nuclear war might have erupted, and never more affected by an act of violence than by the murder of a president. But in the 1960s, Americans thought they understood what they most feared; today they appear to fear most what they cannot understand.

What has horrified them?

The element of incomprehension, that is, of the supernatural, distinguishes the horror genre from mere gratuitous violence. It is not the spurting blood or mangled flesh that defines horror but the presentiment that the world itself is disordered: Demons abound in the absence of a beneficent God, who is somehow absent.

There is nothing new in the monsters that infest popular culture, indeed, nothing particularly scary about them compared to the lurid products of the pagan imagination in antiquity. What is new is the unprecedented way in which they have proliferated in the American popular media.

In biblical terms, we may define horror as the presentiment that the forces of chaos have escaped their appointed bounds and that a good God no longer exercises mastery. Fear and awe of God differ radically from horror: We fear God's punishment and stand in awe of his presence, but we are horrified when we no longer believe that God will do justice. One might mention in this context Psalm 74:
O God, my king from of old,
Who brings deliverance throughout the land;
It was You who drove back the sea with Your might,
Who smashed the heads of the monsters in the water;
It was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan,
Who left him as food for the denizens of the desert.
As Jon Levenson of Harvard University observes (in Creation and the Persistence of Evil), these are unmistakable references to a Canaanite myth discovered in the excavation of Ugarith (14th century BCE). "Each of these words occurs in some form in the passage just quoted. Without the Ugaritic literature, these allusions would remain tantalizing obscurities."

In Levenson's reading, creation ex nihilo in the sense of an instantaneous change from nothing to something fails to capture the theological implication of the biblical creation story.
Two and a half millennia of Western theology have made it easy to forget that throughout the ancient Near Eastern world, including Israel, the point of creation is not the production of matter out of nothing, but rather the emergence of a stable community in a benevolent and life-sustaining order.

The defeat by YHWH of the forces that have interrupted that order is intrinsically an act of creation. The fact that order is being restored rather than instituted was not a difference of great consequence in ancient Hebrew culture. To call upon the arm of YHWH to awake as in "days of old" is to acknowledge that these adversarial forces were not annihilated in perpetuity in primordial times. Rising anew, they have escaped their appointed bounds and thus flung a challenge at their divine vanquisher.
There is a radical difference, by the same token, between Christian apocalyptic literature and the corresponding subgenre of horror films: In the former, God manifests himself in the world and his mastery over the fearful apparitions never is in doubt. But God remains inexplicably absent while hell rampages in The Omen or Rosemary's Baby.

Biblical faith has no need of theodicy (YHWH explicitly condemns the theodical arguments of Job's friends in 42:7). Jeremiah's famous accusation (Jer 12-13) against YHWH is neither a philosophical judgment of God nor a cry of horrified despair but rather an indignant demand that God rise up and destroy the wicked:
You will be in the right, O LORD, if I make claim against You,
Yet I shall present charges against you:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper? ...
Drive them out like sheep to the slaughter,
Prepare them for the day of slaying!
As Levenson comments: "The answer - and please note that there is an answer here - is nothing like those rationalizations proposed by the philosophers: 'Drive them out like sheep to the slaughter.' The answer to the question of suffering of the innocent is a renewal of activity on the part of the God of Justice. In light of the answer, it becomes clear that the question is not an intellectual exercise but rather a taunt intended to goad the Just God into action." Jeremiah recounts dreadful events, but he is outraged rather than horrified. That is the decisive difference.

The faith of the West too easily devolves into philosophical rationalization about divine justice rather than persisting as faith in the covenantal relationship with a just and loving God. We then become vulnerable to a neo-pagan foe that wielded horror as an instrument of policy.

What produces monsters is not the sleep of reason but the absence of faith. God's creation metaphorically banished the monsters from the world in the biblical creation story. If we cease to believe that God will rise up as of old and fight our fight, then we will reify the world's evil in the guise of fictional monsters. That is the secret of our morbid fascination with the horror genre. 

Continued 1 2  

 


1.
Libya: The real war starts now

2. How the US really views the Philippines

3. Crouching dragon, rising sun

4. Long-term prospects for Israel and Turkey

5. Iran's nuclear dream comes true

6. CIA drone war driven by internal needs

7. Confidence wearing thin

8. Why Gaddafi got a red card

9. A criminal missed opportunity in China

10. COSCO pays up at cost to dry-bulk trade

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Sep 6, 2011)

 
 


 

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