Myth America

In today’s New York Times is a review, by Michiko Kakutani, of The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, by the feminist author Susan Faludi. I haven’t read the book, and I am not about to comment on it.

I did, however, read an Op-Ed piece by Ms. Faludi back on September 7th, in which she articulated the principal theme of her book: that America is founded on a mythos of helpless women and protective men, and that the circumstances that originally fostered this mindset — American settlers at risk of Indian attacks as they began to tame the wilderness — were similar enough to the terror-haunted post-9/11 U.S. that this primeval worldview is ascendant once again, in political and popular culture.

I was not impressed by the piece at the time. While there was a noticeable stirring of martial and patriotic sentiment following the attacks — not a startling response, as we had just suffered the most damaging single assault on US soil since Pearl Harbor — it did not strike me that the womenfolk were exactly huddling in the barn. I knew one, Marian Fontana, who after losing her firefighter husband Dave became a galvanic figure indeed: a tireless advocate for families of the victims, and the author of an extraordinary book about perseverance in the face of tragic loss. Everywhere one looked, in fact, it seemed that women, far from hiding all aflutter behind their menfolk, were ascendant as never before in the highest circles of power and influence. We have, for the first time in history, a female Speaker of the House, and we may well elect a woman as our next president. So it seemed to me that Faludi just had a familiar political axe to grind — about the eternal victimhood of women at the hands of men — and was going to grind on regardless, without allowing herself to be unduly inconvenienced by the actual state of affairs.

At any rate, the point of this post, as it happens, was not to criticize Ms. Faludi, but rather to express my sympathy: because Ms. Kakutani, the Times’s chief reviewer of books, today gave The Terror Dream a painful scalding. The review opens:

This, sadly, is the sort of tendentious, self-important, sloppily reasoned book that gives feminism a bad name.

Ouch. Trouble ahead.

With “The Terror Dream,” Susan Faludi has taken the momentous subject of 9/11 and come to the conclusion that it led to … an assault on the freedom and independence of American women. In the wake of 9/11, she argues, the great American cultural machine churned out a myth meant to “restore the image of an America invulnerable to attack” — “the illusion of a mythic America where women needed men’s protection and men succeeded in providing it.” She contends that there was a “peculiar urge to recast a martial attack as a domestic drama, attended by the disappearance and even demonization of independent female voices” and that there was a “beatification of the ideal post-9/11 American woman” as “undemanding, uncompetitive, and most of all dependent” — a woman who “didn’t just want a man in her life” but “needed one.”

These efforts on Ms. Faludi’s part to use the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as an occasion to recycle arguments similar to those she made a decade and a half ago in her best-selling book “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women” (1991) feel forced, unpersuasive and often utterly baffling.

Ms. Kakutani is not bowled over by the weight of Ms. Faludi’s scholarship:

… Ms. Faludi displays a disturbing tendency to write off or ignore evidence that might undermine her theories, while using highly selective anecdotal evidence (of which an endless supply exists in today’s blogosphere) to buttress her arguments.

And so on. The review concludes:

Not only are many of these assertions highly debatable in themselves, but Ms. Faludi’s overarching thesis in this book rings false too. In fact, her suggestion that the 9/11 attacks catalyzed the same fears and narrative impulses as those unleashed by our frontier ancestors’ “original war on terror,” leading to a muffling of feminist voices and a veneration of “the virtues of nesting,” runs smack up against her own “Backlash,” which suggested that similar assaults on women’s independence were being unleashed in the 1980s — a time not of war or threat but a decade that witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the coming end of the cold war.

Such errors of logic are typical of this ill-conceived and poorly executed book — a book that stands as one of the more nonsensical volumes yet published about the aftermath of 9/11.

Well, as I say, I haven’t read the book. (I will confess also that I am not likely to.) But I couldn’t help feeling a pang for Ms. Faludi. It must be awfully painful to work and work on a book — for writing is a lonely business, I hear, and conducive to sundry afflictions of the psyche — and then to wait breathlessly for the big review in the Times, only to find that one has been laughed off that global stage as a tendentious hack, a posturing intellectual fraud. The bottom must rather fall out of one’s world, I imagine. One’s friends and family must hardly know what to say. It must make for a pretty awful day.

You know, I hate to see a lady getting picked on like that. I hope she has a big strong man around to tell her everything’s going to be OK.

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  1. Not without good reason, frankly.