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That Kind of Symbol

By Alexander E. Traub and Zoe A. Y. Weinberg, Crimson Staff Writers

September 11, 2001 is often described as a sunny day interrupted by the sudden crashing of airplanes into two of the country’s most iconic buildings. The jet fuel melted concrete. Bodies tumbled from windows.

The events of that day made little sense at the time—and it is still difficult to assign them meaning. Somehow, a group of bearded men in caves in Afghanistan had been able to strike a blow at the world’s most powerful nation.

For a generation that had known nothing but 1990s peace and prosperity, 9/11 has come to represent, in one way at least, a loss of innocence. It is most likely this that the term “9/11 generation” refers to.

For us, children in 2001, that day made even less sense. Most teachers didn’t honestly address what had happened. Some kids were just happy to get an unforeseen recess. But even if that day wasn’t experienced in its stark reality, 9/11 has served as the backdrop for the coming of age of young people today.

In short, that moment of crisis represents the defining event of a generation—even if young people’s memories of that day involve blithely playing on a playground, images of parents glued to television screens, and the sudden appearance of American flags on every house.

That day, America coalesced around a shared enemy. And the feeling of brotherly love led to thousands of people rushing to New York City and Washington D.C. to aid the recovery effort. It also led to violent reprisals against this country’s real and perceived enemies.

Whether it involved manufacturing “9/11—Never Forget” bumper stickers, Red Cross blood drives, or military recruitment, American culture rallied around supplying its citizens with the tools to express newly acquired patriotic fervor. Even if the feelings that motivated the purchase of that bumper sticker have dissipated, the bumper sticker remains on the back of cars around this country. It would be uncomfortable to peel one off.

So the outward appearance of sentiment—the flag pin of it—remains today, even if it has become hollow. The very real emotion that led to the proliferation of American flags has by and large faded. All such feelings do.

What we’re left with is the gravestones of a forgotten feeling—a schmaltzy Americana—that weighs down our cultural moment. By examining the timeline of our post-9/11 patriotism and seeing its proliferation in culture, we can best understand what it has meant for young people today. In cultural items as different as country pop, prime-time TV, and the 7th inning stretch, we can see the shadow of lost belief.


The fall of 2001 was a season of surprising reversals for the United States, and that October a most improbable thing happened—America started rooting for the Yankees. Overnight the country began to grasp for all that was familiar and comforting, venturing into its closet of dusty traditions and trying on baseball, which fit the national mood with the reliability of an old mitt.

Soon after, Major League Baseball mandated that “God Bless America” be sung in every game for the rest of the season, and in some cases the song replaced the hallowed classic “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Sports schmaltz, then, was replaced or overshadowed by patriotic schmaltz in a direct response to 9/11. Today, the Yankees, Braves, Mariners, and Dodgers still play the song every game, and it’s been instituted league-wide that the postseason games include the song. For baseball to regain its status as The National Pastime, it needed a symbol.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, a prominent American historian, is also one of our country’s foremost baseball fanatics. “It was sort of a requirement in the year afterwards,” says Goodwin of “God Bless America” in baseball. “People were rooting for the Yankees, incomprehensibly, even myself.” Goodwin believes that baseball’s symbolic importance had relevance directly after 9/11, comparable to the power of having an American flag for parents of soldiers.

That “God Bless America” has become a requirement, however, changes its meaning. “You shouldn’t have to prove your patriotism by that kind of symbol,” Goodwin says.

Associate Professor in the Literature Department and former New York resident Christopher Johnson sees this patriotic ritual in broad terms, as endemic in contemporary culture. Another example is criticism in 2008 that Barack Obama was not wearing a flag pin; another is Congress’ 2003 decision to coin the phrase “Freedom Fries” for fried potatoes served in the Capitol Hill dining hall; another is the recent debate over whether a mosque near Ground Zero was too symbolically distasteful. The seed was planted with 9/11, which was perceived as the ultimate attack on American symbols, rebuking freedom and The American Way.

“[It’s] a question between depth and surface. These are all superficial manifestations of what it means to have patriotism or any other deeply held belief. Are we satisfied merely with the singing of ‘God Bless America’ before the commercial in between the top of the 7th and the bottom of the 7th?” Johnson asks. Once a symbol becomes what Goodwin calls a “ritual,” it loses the substance underneath, becomes mandatory though not by virtue of its meaning. “[Mere symbolic activity] means that we found ways to short-circuit debate and sustain dialogue. It’s a way of saying, ‘This is sufficient,” Johnson says.

This decision just after 9/11 to reinvest patriotic meaning in baseball—the great American sport of the country’s great past—is the most direct and obvious retreat to nostalgia. And in baseball, it is most clear how this nostalgia has changed since its first use as a post-9/11 palliative into a national weakness. “Nostalgia has ideological uses, interesting ones, important ones,” cautions Johnson. All the worse if we’re using it against ourselves.


The language of cultural degeneration, of nostalgia for frontier America, finds its most obvious contemporary placeholder in pop country. The recent revival of country music began before 9/11, with groups like the Dixie Chicks and singers like Shania Twain who rose to fame in the early 1990s. By the turn of the century, however, rap music and more conventional pop had gained almost complete dominance over the Billboard 200 charts. From Sept. 11, 1999 to Sept. 11, 2001, Tim McGraw’s “Greatest Hits” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Fly” were the only two country albums that managed to stay in the top 10 for five total weeks. To give a sense of perspective, “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” soundtrack stayed in the top 10 for six weeks.

But 90s country had no robust connection to grassroots Americana. The Dixie Chicks began as a group of left-wing buskers, and Shania Twain is Canadian.

Since 9/11, mass-market country has undergone a radical shift. It’s useful to separate modern pop country into two categories: pop country for pop fans and country for country fans. Between these two categories, there’s been a unified series of changes: country has grown more mainstream—or more accurately, the mainstream audience has grown more country. At the same time, pop country has become lyrically committed to cultural conservatism, patriotic nostalgia, and Americana; and its sensibility as a genre has been refined, made distinct, and become singular, to the direct exclusion of other views on politics and culture.

This is less obvious in the upper echelons of country pop success, that stratosphere occupied by Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Their appeal is historic: Swift has enjoyed the longest Billboard 200 stay in a decade. Her eponymous debut album is in its 246th week on the charts at the time of writing. Swift’s debut single, “Tim McGraw,” is composed solely of acoustic guitar chords, and the music video prominently features a Chevy and cornfields (which, incidentally, also make up the cover of “Some Hearts”). Underwood’s allegiance to Americana country is more obvious than Swift’s. While most of her songs deal with the typical problems of romance (let’s just get away from this place! If you cheat on me I’ll wreck your car!), some of her most successful songs are the explicitly religious “Jesus Take the Wheel” or the superlatively American “All-American Girl.” No explanation required.

This is the most popular music in the U.S. right now, but it’s only a light version of country music for country fans. This type of country music has concerned itself deeply and directly with protecting what it sees as The American Way. Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” is typical of this myopic worldview. Its lyrics catalogue the totems of patriotism: “a cold beer on a Friday night,” fried chicken, “the stars and stripes,” and a “salute” to the military.

Some country music has explicitly taken on 9/11 and those who criticized the Iraq war. The namesake and title track of Darryl Worley’s album “Have You Forgotten?”, which made it to number four on the Billboard 200 in 2003, takes direct aim at his perceived opponents. “Some say this country’s just out looking for a fight,” Worley sings of Iraq war detractors, “Well, after 9/11 man I’d have to say that’s right.” “Don’t you tell me not to worry about Bin Laden,” he adds, “Have you forgotten?”

Worley is not contrasting two political options but two ways of seeing the world, one in which “just out looking for a fight” is nonsensical and another in which it is admirable. The key word here is “you,” the singling out and warning of the other side, the implication that to not support the war is to have “forgotten.” In this scheme, we get a clear right and wrong in flatly threatening tones.

“Us” and “them” can also be presented vaguely. “American girls and American guys, will always stand up and salute,” sings Toby Keith in “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American).” “You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A,” he cautions later, “‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.”

Keith, like Worley and the Zac Brown Band, is proscribing a singular notion of what it is to be an American: a notion in which unfailing patriotism and citizenship are equated. In Keith’s song, the “you” enemy seems most literally to be referring to enemies in the Middle East, but notably is never defined. So, it can be applied to anything: communists could see this “you” as financiers, and Zionists could see it as enemies of Israel. Understood on the song’s own terms, however, the undefined “you” refers to all departures from Keith’s concept of “the American way.” When Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines called “Courtesy” “ignorant,” Keith put up a photoshopped image of her and Saddam Hussein at a concert.

Country music is devoted to a traditional vision of America, one that is being outmoded technologically and challenged militarily and economically. Its musical kinship to this past—stark in an era of synths—and its lyrical excitement at fighting for this past insist that our traditions are safe, that we as a people will fight to protect the values our parents, grandparents, and Mayflower sailors held dear. It is a nostalgic vision for what America should be.


But country music does not have the only claim to the great American past.

The success of “Mad Men” has spawned a whole new genre in American television of mid-century revivalism. 2010’s hit series “Boardwalk Empire” and the upcoming premieres of “Playboy Club” and “Pan Am” are four high-budget television shows that impose a rose-tinted lens on the past. These shows are deeply concerned with a superficial depiction of the social politics of the 50s.

That “Playboy Club” and “Pan Am” seek to reproduce the “Mad Men” model is comically clear from their trailers. In eager nods to their Greatest Generation mood, both trailers open with a Sinatra standby—“Town Like This” for “Playboy Club” and “Around the World” for “Pan Am.”

In the first scene of the “Pan Am” trailer, a bride-to-be decides that conventional married life isn’t for her, and drives away to become a Pan Am stewardess. This takes eight seconds. Over the next 36 seconds, we go through a montage of various Pan Am stewardess activities—being whisked up and kissed, running hurriedly with multiple bags, being weighed on a scale by a spare female boss (“Are you wearing your girdle?”), gossiping about Life Magazine, gossiping about husbands, complaining about gossip about husbands. We run through a dizzying number of different leggy women. Then, a few boss male figures talk big business.

“Playboy Club” is similarly concerned with creating a playful atmosphere and highlighting petty concerns. A black playboy bunny who wants to be the company’s first black centerfold, a starstruck bunny who has begun making more money than her father, a man in a suit who wants Marlboro Reds.

“People are nostalgic for a time when the country seemed much more confident,” says New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanely, who has been on the TV beat since 2003, when she left her job as a foreign correspondent, having been the chief of the Rome and Moscow bureaus.

For Stanley, these shows mark a new kind of interest in the past that only makes sense for a post-9/11 audience. “‘M*A*S*H’ wasn’t really about Korea, it was concerned with people stuck in [Vietnam]. ‘Happy Days’ was poodle skirts and music everyone loves ... but the relationships and the adolescent angst was pretty contemporary.” Then, historical TV shows had interest in the past only insofar as they could find attractive and inoffensive ground to explore issues of its own day. The great sitcoms of yesteryear generally sought to give a certain or even total vision of their own era—“I Love Lucy,” “All in the Family,” and “The Cosby Show” are only a few examples.

The “Mad Men” brand does not seek to recast the past—it seeks to be lost completely in it. “We know prohibition and know that sexism got more or less redressed,” Stanley says of the main issues raised in “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire.” “It’s compelling now because we’re in a difficult time and we don’t feel powerful, so it’s fun to look at eras where the country seemed more on the ascent.”

These shows, then, have a double function for viewers today. First, they allow us an escape from our present into self-contained periods in the past. Neither “Mad Men” nor “Boardwalk Empire” have any concern with what their periods mean to contemporary viewers. Instead, they want to make the past beautiful—to make the suits tailored, the women elongated, the office desks shined. In these shows, we see how the rich and powerful were able to control the culture of our country’s greatest age—the ad men of the 50s, the bootleggers of the 20s. The strong male protagonists of these shows are able to control their environment completely and allow the viewer to imagine themselves as Don Draper, the man who can seduce any woman and sell any product. Both of these shows are set in a time of American greatness, and their leading men embody the American ideal of the self-made man.

Even the problems of these eras are unserious, aesthetic. Sexism, the political division of choice, is enacted before only in its most blatant form—openly harassed secretaries, unapologetically cuckolded wives—so we can see something we have conquered. The past was pretty, we understand, and its gravest challenges have become punchlines. This kind of understanding is only appealing to an audience openly cheating on the present with the past, to a culture that has traded novelty for nostalgia. So in a post-9/11 era, these leading men carry a special appeal. Namely, they are in complete control, which stands in stark contrast the contemporary world of American decline and uncertainty about the future. What happened one day 10 years ago didn’t create this attitude, but it was the decisive event that created the culture that made it possible.

Without 9/11, there would not be this impulse to turn away from today.


To understand how 9/11 has shaped today’s hollow patriotism, it is necessary to understand the immense feelings of national togetherness that followed the attacks, a feeling that quickly withered away into a meaningless sense of crisis.

For Robert Putnam, Harvard professor and author of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” this came in the form of widespread communal trust, sympathy, and connectivity. Americans felt a need to stand together in the face of a threat. “If we had a national hug index, that would have skyrocketed in the weeks following 9/11,” Putnam says.

Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, there was a rush to enlist in the army; broad national support for a tax increase to aid the war effort; and steely acceptance of gasoline and food rations. Then, the country was amenable to making material sacrifices for the sake of the war effort and the abstractions of patriotism, says Doris Kearns Goodwin, a prominent American historian. These teenagers of the late 30s, now called The Greatest Generation, grew up valuing a dollar and a neighbor like one had to during the Great Depression. Even in times of prosperity, they continued to be more civically engaged than their parents or their children. Today, they vote at higher rates than any other age demographic, walkers and nurses in tow.

There was a critical moment, then, after 9/11, when the broad thematic strokes of our generation would be decided. Briefly, community-mindedness surged as groups of people came together around a sense of shared trauma. The opportunity to permanently strengthen these communities, however, passed us by. At a time when Americans could have been called upon to make sacrifices for their country, all that was asked of them by then-President George W. Bush was to go on living their lives as they had before the attacks, maybe taking the kids down to Walt Disney World.

“I think the adults this time failed your generation,” Putnam says. “We did not behave in ways that would encourage your generation to participate in civic life ... I was extremely hopeful that your generation could turn around civic renewal.” According to Putnam, six months after the attack levels of community trust were back to their original, pre-9/11 baseline.

On the night of Sunday, May 1, college students across the country erupted into a celebration at the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by American military forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Two-hundred undergrads spontaneously gathered in Harvard Yard, waving American flags and chanting “U—S—A” after Barack Obama announced bin Laden’s death. That night marked the end of a decade-long manhunt for a generational boogeyman, an apparent evil for evil’s own sake who had brought us into adult consciousness.

For a moment, the patriotism that has lost its meaning since 9/11—in popular music, television, even in baseball—was revitalized. The group chanting that night was reminiscent of marches in the 60s, rioting in the 80s, events that have gained the status of folklore for people under 30. The energy was contagious.

But on May 2, patriotic symbols began to turn stale once more, repeating what took place in the years after 9/11.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 movie “Vivre Sa Vie,” the protagonist proclaims, “I think we’re always responsible for our actions. We’re free. I raise my hand—I’m responsible. I turn my head to the right—I’m responsible. I’m unhappy—I’m responsible. I smoke a cigarette—I’m responsible. I shut my eyes—I’m responsible. I forget that I’m responsible, but I am.“ Putnam is right that adults failed us, and omnipresent pop culture has capitalized on our need to escape the U.S. of today, heavy with mythos and light on power. It’s nighttime in America, and it feels best to think of better times. The only way out, however, really and finally out, is to take the responsibility we believed we could once have. Nostalgia not for its own sake, but as the tool to reconstruct our own times.

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911 Ten Years Later