The most memorable article in the New Yorker issue devoted to 9/11, “Ten Years Later,” is Paul Goldberger’s review of the new World Trade Center.
Goldberg dislikes the new buildings going up around Ground Zero, particularly the Freedom Tower, which he calls “not much more than a big version of a typical New York developer’s skyscraper.” But he likes the 9/11 memorial itself, designed by Michael Arad where the twin towers stood. “Arad figured out how to express the idea that what were once the largest solids in Manhattan are now a void, and he made the shape of this void into something monumental,” Goldberger writes.
It’s a sincere and eloquent review. And yet the fact that Goldberger prefers the memorial to the new commercial and residential structures around it neatly summarizes the posture the New Yorker itself has adopted toward 9/11.
The magazine is not only mournful about the past, but morose about the present and gloomy about the future. The dark cover is more optimistic than the appropriately stark “black on black” cover after 9/11–but only just, depicting the Twin Towers descending into the waters around Manhattan. The featured articles by Adam Gopnik (“Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat: Is America Going Down?“) and George Packer (“Coming Apart: After 9/11 transfixed America, the country’s problems were left to rot“) leave little room for new hope.
The “Talk of the Town” section is extended to make room for the reflections of a dozen authors–many of whom are still hung up on “Bush, Cheney, Halliburton, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, bin Laden” (Colum McCann), or blame America for the attacks. Author Lorrie Moore even attacks J.K. Rowling for creating a “gruesomely cheering” generation of “‘Harry Potter’ readers” that celebrated the killing of Osama bin Laden this past May.
The fear and loathing that drip from the pages of the New Yorker are a striking reversal of the “hope and change” with which the New York literary elite greeted the election of President Barack Obama. They are also a dramatic contrast to the reality of life in New York today, which seems almost as lively today as it did before 9/11–perhaps not quite as self-confident, but every bit as spontaneous, bizarre, steamy, stinky, and beautiful.
More than insights about 9/11, what the “Ten Years Later” issue reveals is the despair of America’s liberal intelligentsia. That despair is primarily political. Zadie Smith admits: “… I was pleased when President Obama promised [in 2008] to commit more troops to Afghanistan, not because I thought it would end that war but because I hoped it would win him the election.” She cannot bring herself to comment on Obama’s present policy.
Memory is the best comfort to an intellectual cohort that has lost the ability to control events and perceptions. Memory imposes its own unique social hierarchy. It bestows great prestige upon on those close enough or old enough to have witnessed dramatic events, greater yet upon the intellectuals and scholars who can perceive, interpret, and shape (or revise) memories of past events that none of us alive today have witnessed.
I expect that Goldberg’s right about the austere beauty of Arad’s memorial. But for the New Yorker and its core audience, the mood of mourning seems to overshadow other themes Americans identify with 9/11–the heroism, the determination to fight and rebuild. Yes, the past ten years were rough. But they weren’t wasted simply because the liberal presidency that was to have redeemed them is failing. We can build better days head.