Watch What You Say

A White House press conference revisited.

Christopher Hitchens writes in to defend former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer against the lingering charge that he told Americans in effect to “watch what they say” in the way of unpatriotic speech after 9/11. The debate in the Fray, initially focused on differences of interpretation, flourished into a broader reflection on the tactics used to instill fear in the public.

For pubbdwriter, the thorough vetting of official White House statements, “combed over by Rove’s office, and, one would suspect, Dick Cheney’s office, among others,” can only mean that Fleischer’s words were intentionally censorious.

After a close textual reading of the transcript, pmohtr concludes:

It’s ambiguous, at best. At the press briefing, Fleischer was asked about Maher, and in reacting and responding to what he was told Maher had said, interjected that, “there was an earlier question about has the President said anything to people in his own party.” Take that phrase out of his answer and there would be no question that Fleischer would have been speaking specifically about Maher and warning others about making similar comment.

That said, the quibble over whether Fleischer’s remarks refer back grammatically to Maher or Cooksey misses the point, says RonB52, as the government has no place sanctioning the speech of its citizens except in extreme circumstances: “The only valid utterance, by the US Government, of the phrase ‘Americans need to remember to watch what they say’ is in relation to the sailing times of Navy ships and the movement of troops in wartime.”

This incident from five years ago is symptomatic of a much larger fear industry in America, of which janeslogin catalogues some recent examples:

This “fear industry” has influences far beyond anything that Hitchens writes about. In an hour here on the internet, probably here on Slate, we are told to fear global warming, obesity, new drugs, sex predators, hackers, preserved foods, unpreserved foods.Outside my apartment there are signs warning of skateboards, roller blades and bicycles.

A couple next door, both criminals on parole, warn their kids not to speak to me.

My doctor says my heart, liver and lungs are failing and my prostate is too big.

Oh, and I almost forgot, a celebrity was seen driving with her kid not strapped in to the car seat properly.

PacificBlue adds to the list:

high blood pressure (a good one to develop due to the subject)
Hilary Clinton
railroad crossings
fish hooks
muggers (don’t hear much about them anymore)
nuclear war

With a stuff upper lip, portorchardkid asks: what climate of fear?

I’m an old guy and something is going to catch up with me sooner or later. Am I afraid? Hell no. And I haven’t met anybody that really is fearful of the terrorist threat. It’s a problem, and our government is trying to solve it the best ways it can.

Debate the means if you will, but don’t insult Americans by saying they are walking around in constant fear. Bah!

More Fighting Words on the matter can be found here. AC3:15pm PDT

Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2006

A fascinating exchange has been unfolding in Culturebox over the last 24 hours, as Walter Sipser contactedSlate identifying himself as one of the subjects depicted in a controversial 9/11 photograph by Thomas Hoepker. Answering this query from David Plotz, Sipser defends himself and those in the pic against the accusations of callousness and indifference put forth in this column by the New York Times’ Frank Rich.

Ripley is appalled by the conversion of this photograph, “hardly representative of what the nation was doing on 9/11,” into a political statement. jimmyo also disapproves of using it “to generalize about the American character.” Revo9 sharply indicts Rich for taking “a single moment of time and use that for an outright character assassination on a group of people he might not even know.” Isonomist– addresses directly those pictured in the photograph: “Nobody has a right to demand you explain yourselves, much less accuse you of not caring about the plight of those of us on the other shore.”

The awkward body language tells Greatbear451 that “this isn’t some casual lunch break conversation.” baltimore- similarly observes that they “are leaning forward, with a rather earnest body position, as if eager to hear or make a point.”

Joekaf points out the futility of interpreting the subjects’ attitudes toward 9/11 from their orientation in the photograph: “Just because I, or the people in these photographs, weren’t standing at attention or paralyzed by grief and fear for every second of that day doesn’t mean we were unaffected by these events.”

Watching the destruction unfold from afar, oh4real remains unapologetic for his conduct that day:

i am sorry we didnt sit in front of the tv, sobbing uncontrollably, trembling in our safe, preternaturally quiet suburban home. we were stunned by what was happening, but our lives 800 miles away kept going on. i guess Frank Rich would call us callous, but i think we were just handling the events in our own way, not letting the terrorists win.

Zaphron speculates smartly as to why this photo repels us:

we want our photos of people in New York that day to convey shock and terror. The iconic images of slack jawed observers, dust-covered refugees fleeing the wreckage, this is what we want from images of living bodies in New York that day and the stress, disbelief, and shock of the slaughter are no where to be found in the image of these people’s bodies.

Ted_Burke also picks up on this dissonance: “in contrast to the host of dramatic framings we’ve become accustomed to seeing in relation to 9/11, there is an eerie calm here, an image of people who seem to have stolen a moment for themselves to reflect, ponder, digress among themselves while the rest of the world collapses on itself.”

Joan remembers 9/11 as a day for grouping spent drinking in a Manhattan bar: “no one really wanted to go home. No one was drunk … just a bunch of people needing company … Like those people in Brooklyn.” harper64 lashes out at the self-appointed enforcers of an “appropriate” response to the events of that day: “I see nothing wrong with taking a bike ride or taking a nap or getting together with friends to affirm life and community.” If anything, the communal impulse was irrepressible, as popzealot recalls:

Groups of families and friends gathered around the biggest TV screen available, sometimes multiple screens with different channels. They ate together, drank together, engaged in discussions, but mostly were silently preoccupied with finding which channels had the most horrific images. That preoccupation, more so than any premature desire to move on, or a callous lack of concern for victims, or even a jingoistic bandwagon, is what every American was doing.

steelbucket cautions against looking too closely for meaning:

The picture shows that something big, and possibly bad, has happened but does the picture imply that the people have really understood the significance of what they are watching or just that they know something is happening and is in fact being discussed by the group?

Initial news reports were understandably confused, as were eye witness accounts. Perhaps we, on this side of the pond, had a better idea of what was actually happening than people in the immediate area. (After all, nobody in the shadow of the towers was going to take time out to watch the news, they had better things to do).

I’ve noticed that people, and especially firemen, interviewed both close to the event and for subsequent documentaries are changing their stories over time. The facts are the same but the wording and emphasis is changing. Subtly and in very small detail, they are now beginning to remember the events of the day as part of the “9/11 terrorist attack” rather than some big disaster. Many now telling of their experiences now take it as read that it was only a matter of time before the towers would collapse or that it was a terrorist attack, yet it is quite clear that people on the day expected neither.

9/11 as a defining moment/cultural experience or whatever has only come into existance as we have had time to try to put the day’s events into some kind of understandable narrative.

As the saying goes, a picture is worth 10,000 words … or at least a few dozen Fray responses. Catch them all in Culturebox. AC10:15pm PDT

Monday, Sept. 11, 2006

“Al Qaeda’s instinct for symbol ensured this much success: a nearly global perception that our ability to navigate the world was infinitely more precarious than it had been the day before. The perception was so wide and swift that for the first time in history not space but time became shorthand. If naming a city—Lisbon or Auschwitz—was enough for earlier ages to record deepest shock and horror, the twenty-first century began by naming a date.”—FromSusain Neiman’s, Evil in Modern Thought.

I’m ready for the day it stops being called just ‘9/11’, or just ‘September 11’. It will be the day when someone asks in response to a statement about 9/11, “What year was that?” Why am I ready for that day? Because that will be the day ownership of September 11, 2001 is stripped from the newspapers, the politicians, the puritans, the scoutmasters, the middle-aged merciless spinsters, and handed, free of charge, to history.

Ender, anticipating that day’s future.

I heard that the WTC had been hit as I sat in the hallway waiting for my Poetic Diction class to begin. As people arrived and heard what was going on, we were unsure whether to stay for class; but Professor Fallon walked in and sat down to teach us as if it were just another day. Alex came into the classroom in tears and told Professor Fallon that his uncle worked at the Pentagon, and was it OK if he skipped class that day? Professor Fallon told him that would be fine, and calmly asked him if he could also pray for his brother who worked in the World Trade Center. He then opened up a book and taught us Shakespeare’s sonnets for an hour and fifteen minutes.

Later that day, classes were all cancelled and we gathered for Mass on South Quad.

Later that week, we heard that Professor Fallon’s brother had, indeed, been killed in the attack.

Shakespeare’s sonnets will forever remind me of that day and of the way my professor kept going forward, teaching, guiding us in beauty, during such a time of suffering.

catholicreader, remembering his experience that day.

After 9/11, I found myself listening to U2’s October album almost constantly. The album is one of their most angry and awkward, made while they were still young, fledgling, working-class Dublin nobodies. The songs are steeped in rage, doubt, and confusion, and yet are guided by a sense of purpose and hope at the same time. Consider these words from “Rejoice”:
it’s falling, it’s falling,
outside a building comes tumbling down
and inside a child on the ground
says he’ll do it again
and what am I to do?
what in the world am I to say?…

what am I to do?
just tell me what am I supposed to say?
I can’t change the world
but I can change the world in me
if I rejoice…
So in terms of facing a world full of fear and ugliness with something other than madness, that album helped me more than anything else. It’s consistently underappreciated in U2’s discography, and particularly in light of the relevance it has had for me, I think that’s a shame.

TeacherAbby sharing the work of art that helps him make sense of that day’s events.

I was so stunned that morning - I was on the way to the airport in the airport limo when the shut down the flights. So I returned home. Sat in shock in front of the TV for a while.

Then wandered out onto our peacefully sunny porch. And being a tactile person needed something to do with my hands. So I grabbed a handful of clay and sitting in the warm sun in shorts and bare feet, I felt compelled to create something.

What came out of my hands was a sculture of my foot, veins, bunions and all. The beauty of the human body was the only response I could think of in the face of so many bodies destroyed and mutilated.

And still, it can never be adequate to the task.

Degsme, recalling his attempts to cope on that day.   GA9:25pm PDT

Friday, Sept. 8, 2006

Slate’s newest feature, “The Survivalist” by David Shenk asks its readers to soberly contemplate seriously frightening scenarios. The Survivalist Fray has its elements of one-upmanship, such as RoyJaruk-18’s contemplation of an Antarctic cruise wreck. But the majority of posts amplify Shenk’s advice with more cheap and common-sense steps citizens can take to forestall catastrophe in the face of disaster.

If the earth starts shaking, MacAdvisor takes issue with the advice to shelter under a doorway:

Not to be mean or contrarian, but I think Mr. Shenk’s advice to get in a doorframe is most certainly wrong. The American Red Cross “has not recommended use of a doorway for earthquake protection for more than a decade. The problem is that many doorways are not built into the structural integrity of a building, and may not offer protection. Also, simply put, doorways are not suitable for more than one person at a time.”

portorchardkid offers the debatable advice to stock up on butane.

Are you worried about your own preparedness for disaster? You could try taking Clown_Nose’s simple test:

Consider the last time you experienced a power failure in your home, which we have all experienced. Did you have to stumble around looking for flashlights? Did they work if you found them? Did you have a method to prepare food? Did you have canned food to last a few days? Did you have a system for family members to contact each other? Did you do anything different when the power came back?

In a large disaster, do you have the training and supplies to help your family members if they are injured and need first aid? Are you part of an organization that will help organize the response, or are you expecting others to help you?

If that’s too complicated, you still might try Sarvis’ disaster prep quiz: the “who’s a bigger asshole” test.

Who’s the bigger asshole? The guy who spends a couple of hours and $50 bucks assembling a “go bag” plus maybe a little continuity of life planning that he’ll likely never use, or the guy who wanders aimlessly around town after a hurricane with his hungry kids in tow wandering what the hell to do with a stalled car and a visa card no one will take.

Rejecting the individualistic focus of the articles, ironocracy_now argues that disaster prep should be a collective endeavor:

Rather than posting links to the latest fashion accessories that may save your life assuming you have them with you and functional at the moment danger strikes, how about a frank discussion of the changes in mindset that will truly make us safer? How about a rundown of sustainable practices and methods of preparedness including how long items are useful for, how to accomplish secure storage, etc.?

Rising to the challenge, BenK offers a great suggestion—encouraging widespread EMT training as a basic civic duty.

Several readers raise arguments against preparing at all. Degsme thinks a little sensible paranoia spits on the notion of grace. TJA describes how too much common sense can ruin your chances of getting laid. According to NickD, survival depends more on the sensible use of ordinary resources, like a simple bicycle, than the acquisition of dedicated gear.

Ultimately, TheMaxFischerPlayers points out the best hope for educating the public—disaster prep aerobic videos (video link with sound).

Quit holding out on us. Share your own secret plan for withstanding the apocalypse in the Survivalist Fray. GA6:15pm PDT

Thursday, Sept. 7, 2006

From the Television desk, Troy Patterson’s assessment of Katie Couric’s debut as anchor of the CBS Evening Newshour attracted a fraction of the approximately 13.6 million viewers who watched her maiden broadcast on Tuesday night.

Talking as a disappointed Couric fan, Pseudo_l offers harsh words:

It was horrible. Every Networkian tirade you could think of about the death of television would be appropriate… And every one is trying to be genteel about not referring to Katie’s appearance–but she looked eerily Stepford wifey–she’s been given serious news hair and make up and botoxed to the hilt (I’d even venture for some plastic surgery over the summer). Why can’t she have her wrinkles just like the boys?

Stella77 finds Patterson’s review offensive on feminist grounds:

Had she been a man, would we really have had to read about “her first night sitting behind (and perching beside, and sitting leggily in front of) the anchor desk…”? Would there be that vague (or perhaps not so vague) pedantic tone when describing the first story of the night as “a report that was both hefty and stylish—a fair bit of context,… the steady insinuation of the glamorous correspondent’s sense of peril.”

Throughout Mr. Patterson’s story, I sensed a level of condescension that I hoped would be absent in this day and age when describing the work (however groundbreaking) of a woman.

I did not watch yesterday’s broadcast. I don’t understand what the big deal is about her hosting the evening news. What I did see today though is a sad example of the continuing uphill climb women face in the attitudes of some men.

But for Baba, if some fail to take Couric seriously, it’s because  she undermines herself by playing up her own girlishness:

it seems to me that the problem isn’t that she’s a woman, it’s that she acts like a girl. One who is used to getting her way by being cute. Daddy’s little girl, perhaps. Or a poplular highschool cheerleader.

Even when she’s being dignified, it feels like an act.

The position requires maturity, someone who feels like a woman rather than a girl putting on an act.

Couric’s style also proves bothersome to milbank, who feels viewers would be better served if “reporters…removed their personal melodrama and just stuck to reporting the story.”

Then there are those who question the significance of the first female anchor as a cultural milestone. In an age of workaholics, asksrundeep, “Who gets home from work in time to watch the 6 o’clock news? I haven’t seen the evening news in 18 years unless I was sick or home with someone sick.” And with the proliferation of other forms of news media, notessempre, “It would have been important in the pre-cable days, it hardly matters now.”

Our fixation on the messenger rather than the message brings criticism from shadowplayer:

Why do we care who delivers the news of the day? It’s not as though a single one of them had anything to do with the events they describe, or any influence over the fact that those events occured…Katie Couric did not write her stories. Some team of news writers culled the most interesting bits of flotsam from the current events pond and packaged them up with a nice bow. So what?

Then again, her supposed spin would seem to matter a great deal to the conservative Media Research Center, which documents incidences of Couric’s journalistic “liberal bias” throughout her career. Check out the dirt here. AC2:41pm PDT