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Chicagophile
  > > e-Bulletin: 02/08/02


LETTERS
What remains


I can't help feeling uneasy reading your three articles on 9/11 ("The Remains of the Day," December/01). They were thoughtful and rational in their stylized way, from the ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain's use of Aristotelian methodology to analyze a just war vs. a holy war (funny how her categories just reek of the Aristotelian bias of Chicago) to the iconologist W. J. T. Mitchell's pop references to video games and his focus on "image" to philosopher Jonathan Lear's attempt to understand 9/11 through psychoanalysis.

All balanced, lucid, yet they missed the point. Where is the feeling?

Most objectionable was Mitchell's blatant pop trivialization of 9/11, jammed with "hip" reference points we all know.

For those of us who live in New York this was no "War of Images." We saw firsthand those hellish projectiles smashing into the towers. These were our firemen, policemen, EM personnel who lost their lives. These were our friends, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, sons, and daughters who were killed. We lost Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Native Americans, atheists, agnostics, and dozens of nationalities (all of whom came here for a chance at a better life because they know this is what we do best). We saw people fall and jump from a hundred floors up, some hand in hand. When the buildings finally collapsed, raining steel girders, ash, cinder blocks, bodies, and body parts, this was no video game. On that bright, clear, disgustingly beautiful day we saw this black cloud of death hang over our city. We smelled the stench of soot, smoke, and human flesh ground up in a mash of twisted steel and cinders and watched as the smoke stalked Manhattan. For days afterwards in a bizarre salt-in-the-wound way, we found paper from the towers-purchase orders, marketing proposals, personal notes-in the streets.

And what did we do? We cried. We cried individually and we cried in groups. We lit candles and carried them around to appropriate places-in front of firehouses, police stations, hospitals. We visited these shrines daily, added candles, wrote posters and placards which we placed next to our shrines, along with pictures of those who had died. While we cried we worked. New Yorkers volunteered in such numbers they had to be turned away. Some local businesses bankrupted themselves offering free goods and services.

Grief brought us together, made us appreciate each other. We realized how much we love this city, how much we love the people in it, even the bum on the corner and the drunk urinating in the park as well as the pompous real-estate baron and our loudmouth leaders.
Yes, we love our brash and brusque manner, our hurry, our slapdash commercialism, our attitude, our sports teams, even our politicians. Maybe that's what makes other nations, and even other cities in this country, dislike us. We have seen promised relief drop from $40 billion to $20 billion to $9.5 billion to what looks like less than that as giant corporations get obscene tax breaks in the guise of "getting the economy moving."

So what. This is our city. You can't take it from us. We are here to stay. Our grief has bonded us. And you can't begin to understand what happened unless you share in our grief. Then you must go on to understand our willingness to "bootstrap" ourselves up and our desire for vengeance for those who did this. Until you do this you have understood nothing, only placed the events in some intellectual framework.

Thomas Glynn, AB'58
Brooklyn, New York


The three experts who gave their thoughts regarding the "war"-the one the U.S. is currently waging on certain unknown and unnamed individuals-expressed some intriguing ideas but were ultimately disappointing.

Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain, an ethicist for whom I have a good deal of admiration based on her past writings, contributed some interesting and useful insights toward a better understanding of St. Augustine's just war theory. Unfortunately, she felt called upon to append to that discussion a special pleading for our president and his current war policy.

As she sees it (or perhaps as she is persuaded to see it by our administration in Washington) it's a matter of comparing our own war making ("good," because based on just war principles) with that of the other side ("evil," because based on holy war principles). I fear things are not that simple. Worse, though, than her oversimplification is the professor's permitting herself to be used as an advocate for that which, by Jesus's standards, is indefensible: retaliation for wrongs done to oneself. St. Augustine notwithstanding, Jesus never permitted that-in fact, forbade it.

Jonathan Lear's piece was more insightful but also ultimately disappointing. In his case the problem is his need to identify evil where it exists in the world-or rather where Professor Lear thinks he finds it in the world. Interestingly, he identifies "evil" with "envy," a penetrating insight in and of itself. But applied the way it is-directed solely at Osama bin Laden-it falls right back into the same category as the judgment of Professor Elshtain: that of special pleading on behalf of the position of the U.S. Or, rather, the position of the Bush administration.

Ethicists and philosophers do themselves no credit by renting out their services to politicians. Fortunately for Professors Elshtain and Lear, the U.S. has the Big Guns. Thus, it is unlikely they will have to endure the savaging of their reputations that happened to Professor Heidegger after the Nazis lost their war. But it's hardly high praise for either ethicist or philosopher to celebrate his or her ability to pick the winning side.

William F. Love, MBA'72
Hinsdale, Illinois


Your eminent iconologist W. J. T. Mitchell, in his "The War of Images" piece, is way out of line. The deaths of 3,000 people, not to mention hundreds of uniformed men, is no image, no icon; it was a deliberately planned event intended to cause the most mayhem possible. He would have said the same had the Rose Bowl or the Citicorp building been hit. We can make an icon out of anything, can't we?

He points fingers too. The "use of the postal system for bioterrorism" has not yet been proven or even pointed at our enemies. I, like many, regret dropping bombs on "one of the poorest, most desolate countries in the world," but they were the ones harboring criminals who caused these acts.

"The military significance of the bombing is highly dubious." So he is not only an iconologist but also a military strategist? As of this writing (12/16), it looks like it's working quite well. The Taliban are out of power, which was one of the goals of the president.

I have also not yet seen or heard of any law suggested to make burning or desecration of the flag being proposed. I am a New Yorker, born, bred, raised, and upon my return to that city after the bombing, I was astonished to see flags (instead of the usual nonsense) on sale on street corners. We are not your ordinary Americans; we don't wear our patriotism on our sleeves. That didn't make us unpatriotic. The fact that flags are being bought and put up in every store might be a better story for your boy. Sure, the flag is an icon. It's a fine one. So is burning one, if one is so inclined to do so. But instead of attacking, perhaps Mitchell ought to wonder why even intelligent and educated people have seen fit to rally around this icon. Maybe, just maybe, it's a way to honor. Maybe, just maybe, it's a way to show solidarity. Maybe, just maybe, it's a way to express the pain we feel for those lost in these horrific acts of iconography. How 'bout the image of Republicans quashing more money for homeland security? There's an image to work with.

"Alarmist warnings about attacks on bridges" are the response of a very nervous people not accustomed to terror on their own land. This is "ineffectual image-warfare"? Unless he has more info than the FBI, he needs to tell us where this is coming from. Has he never heard the words "better safe than sorry"? Hell, being warned about possible bridge attacks is surely better than sugar rationing. I'm sorry this isn't the WW II that he seems to wish it were, so we wouldn't have to rely on an unseen enemy to rally us. But, just perhaps, his iconography is 60 years behind the times too.

Every war has its naysayers, doubters, and crackpots. Perhaps Mr. Mitchell was one of the few who did not know someone who worked in the Pentagon or the WTC; given his field of work, it doesn't seem likely he would. After all, these people worked, not diddled, for a living. They also died, for no good reason. Here's an icon for you, Mr. Mitchell: you are irrelevant; you are living in a nonexistent world.

David Yuro, X'82
Tuscaloosa, Alabama


Re iconologist W. J. T. Mitchell's "The War of Images": What a difference a month makes. Here, in our alumni journal, a University of Chicago professor wrote: "Judging by the polls, th[e president's] strategy is a popular one, but its popularity could rapidly fade as winter approaches and the futility of the whole exercise becomes apparent."

Anyone can be wrong. No one ascribes clairvoyance to university professors-at Chicago or elsewhere. But the arrogance of this statement is more than I can stomach without an antacid. The good professor is not only speaking well beyond his apparent area of expertise, iconology, but, more importantly, this professor is talking down to the American public. Why is "popularity" a pejorative in the professor's eyes? Shouldn't officers of an elected government, at least all things being equal, seek out and attempt to implement popular programs? How is it that the professor knows the exercise is futile, but this secret is somehow lost on the unwashed masses and the officials they elect?

There is a great gulf between being an intellectual and being a snob. There is a vast chasm between having well-informed opinions (even when proven wrong by unexpected circumstances) and mere anti-populism (even when proven correct-as even bigots occasionally are proven correct). Good editors know the difference.

Seth Barrett Tillman, AB'84
Washington, D.C.


 


  FEBRUARY 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 3


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Physics for breakfast
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