Auden, Ahead of His Time

What is emerging right now is the real “new world order.” Twelve years ago when the Soviet Union fell, the first President Bush declared it had arrived, but it is this President Bush on whom it has come to call.

Old alliances fall, new ones rise. The 21st century takes its shape. The “old West” is damaged, strained and on the brink. This is obvious not only in the stark disagreement on our current and crucial question of world security but in the manner in which the disagreement is expressed. It is one thing for France and Germany to oppose America’s stand—that, after all these years, is not news—but quite another for representatives of those countries to treat a Colin Powell with such disdain, the kind of disdain you might use toward the emissary of an old enemy, not the representative of an old friend.

The new world reality is a division, a sharp split, between the civilized world on one side and those who comprise, or refuse to thwart, the uncivilized world. The civilized world wants peace and means to stop those who would use weapons of mass destruction to kill civilian populations and terrorize the people of world. Many in the uncivilized world love peace also, but not all, and a key question is whether the peace lovers in their alliance encourage murderous violence by refusing the stop the uncivilized war-bringers in their midst, such as Saddam Hussein.

Is it quite right in this formulation to call a France, a Germany, uncivilized? Germany is so cultured, France so refined. But they are like the Boston Brahmin figure of whom it was long ago said, “He has a mind like the new England countryside, highly cultivated and inherently sterile.” They are lost in the postmodernist ozone, they are post-church countries with great wealth and no faith. They love to talk, and not only because they enjoy the sound. Actions have consequences, but talk is just more face time.

How does this all play out at home, in America, right now? You already know. Two words, duct tape, have in ten days gone from meaningless to meaningful to cliché. We prepare for trouble as best we can, individually. It is impressive that in the middle of a terror alert only 100,000 to 200,000 New Yorkers took to the streets this weekend to march against war. Saddam probably misunderstands the international antiwar movement, thinking it is a pro-Saddam movement. But no one is pro-Saddam. And when there’s a peace march in New York, a target city in whose radius are 20 million people, and 200,000 at most show up, well, that says something.

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Last week, until Saturday, New York was nervous, and the nervousness built. Now there is a sense that nothing bad is going to happen right now because of the weekend’s antiwar demonstrations, especially Europe’s. This would be the wrong time for terrorists to strike, for if they move now world opposition to American intentions will be shaken, and America will hit back hard and unilaterally. But what I saw last week bears mention.
This is how people felt. Auden had it wrong. Now is the age of anxiety. On the streets of New York there was a low-key, held-in unease, a sense that bad things were going to happen and the only question was when. People had coping mechanisms—denial for some, preparedness for others—but they all knew they were coping, and with something big. At a lunch in midtown there was mordant merriness, at another a frank sharing of fears.

The internet was buzzing. This last Thursday from a friend who’s had the jits bad since 9/11: “We are leaving town, we’re thinking of you and praying for you.” This from a funny, sweet-natured man: “Headline of the Day: Michael Jackson Admits Plastic Surgery; France Unconvinced.” Thursday night an e-mail from a friend in Virginia: he has been told by Washington associates that the administration may go code red overnight, and people in government have been told to bring to work a week’s worth of clothing. He tells me he is praying for me and my son; I thank him, and give him phone numbers to reach people I love who are near him in case communication from New York becomes difficult. A friend forwards an e-mail from an American Christian who tells him that a visiting Israeli messianic preacher has prophesied “Ezekiel 38 is about to happen.” I went to the Bible and found that chapter 38 tells the battle against Gog, the land of Magog, from which Israel, protected by God, safely emerges.

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Last week new urban legends sprang up. One, which has raced through the headquarters of a national magazine, is that there’s a New York woman who has told her friends that her cousin, a psychiatrist in northern Virginia, has been treating “a high State Department official.” The official told her in a recent session that he is extremely worried, that the end of the recent Osama tape has not been revealed to the public. He told the psychiatrist, “What we edited out is that Osama said they’ll hit the New York subways Friday.” He said this will be followed on Saturday by a full-scale U.S. invasion of Iraq. This was such a good story I almost hated telling the person who told me of it that it is most certainly an urban legend.

It is like the tale that raced through New York in October 2001: There was a nice local woman in a deli in Brooklyn. She was in line at the counter. The guy in front of her was a young Arab male, kind of jumpy. He ordered some sandwiches and then found he was a dollar or two short, couldn’t pay for them. The woman overheard and intervened. “Here, son, here’s a few dollars, don’t worry about it.” The guy thanked her, paid and left. She paid and left too, and outside she found he was waiting for her on the sidewalk. “You’re a nice lady,” he says, “and I want to do something to thank you. So listen to me. Don’t go into Manhattan on Monday. Just don’t be there.” And he walks away. And the nice woman called all her friends and told them.

The first time I heard this story it was from a woman I didn’t know who told me firmly and with feeling that the woman was her aunt. I told a friend about it. She said no, the way she heard the story it was the father of a kid at one of the networks. I told another friend and he laughed. “That story’s been around town for weeks,” he said. “It’s a post-9/11 urban legend.”

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Throughout the week people famously prepared with water and canned goods and duct tape and plastic. There was plenty of duct tape in Brooklyn, and plenty of water. I put clothing in my safe area Thursday night, and then decided to add in some non-franks-and-beans things, like fine asparagus and crackers.

I went to the local liquor store and asked the clerk, “Are people buying liquor for their safe rooms, and if so what are they buying?” He started to laugh and said actually no one had mentioned that, but business sure was good. We talked about what alcohol might help one through a siege. We looked at brandies in pretty bottles but I chose a 10-year-old single-malt scotch. I have never had an expensive single-malt scotch, and under siege might be a good time to start.

Then I went to the Rite Aid and asked the extremely bored girl at the counter if people were getting any particular kind of pills in preparation for—um, you know, if things become difficult. She said “potassium.” I asked what that does, and she said, “I don’t know but everyone’s getting it.” I said, “Then I’ll have some too.” She said, “No, we’re out.”

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The enduring toughness of New Yorkers deserves note. Everyone is doing his job. I’m certain this is so in Washington too. But in New York there are more people just starting out, more immigrants, more people who are alone and not fully integrated into a community, more people who are highly individualistic and self-supporting, and of course our ad hoc army of first class strange-o’s. But everyone’s showing up.
The cleaning staffs in the city, for instance: a lot of them work in buildings that are understood to be targets. They take the subways in the darkness and show up. The checkout girl in the midtown food store and the guy at the counter at the souvenir store and the clerk in the bank—they all get up, listen to the latest terror alerts, and go into town.

Most of the big television networks are located in midtown. All those at the ABC studio on Times Square know they’re working each day at a target. They come, do their work, and on the set, live, when the show is on the air, they smile and chat and calmly introduce the piece on how to build a safe room. At Fox they know they’re a target too: Rupert Murdoch’s papers are up front in your face pro-invasion, and his cable network is perceived by many as essentially pro-administration. But they too show up, smile, move smoothly from live U.N. testimony to the live presidential speech to the live Homeland Security news conference to the live Capitol Hill briefing. The grown-ups on the anchor desk are something. But the desk assistants and writers and associate producers, all young and noncelebrated, could call in sick and no one would notice. And my highly nonscientific telephone survey tells me that isn’t happening.

Something that is happening is that the leaders of networks and the executive producers of shows and the managing editors of magazines are all fully aware that they set the tone for their organization. The young look to them for cues and clues. So they kiss the wife or husband goodbye and hug the kids and leave the house in the morning wondering if today is the terrible day and they won’t get home again. Then they get into work and lounge against the wall in front of their office as if this is a snoozy Tuesday in August. They glide through the halls making jokes and referring to plans for the big summer meeting in July. They’re cool as a cuke for the kids in the hall. Like all Americans there are times when I hate the media, but there are moments when their class, professionalism and courage take your breath away. And this is one.

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Tuesday morning I had breakfast in town with two friends, both media people. One spoke of his fear each day at leaving his family. The normally bustling hotel restaurant was barely half full. When a waiter first came to pour me coffee his hand trembled and he had to steady the pot. The lobby was quieter than usual. There was a lot of quiet going on. Until Saturday’s demonstrations the streets seemed less full than usual; tourists weren’t coming in. There were cops all over, extra heavy at bridges and tunnels, and the sirens that pierced the air sounded somehow lonelier, maybe because there was less street noise to blend into.

Wednesday I was in town for a lunch for Laura Bush, who had been invited to the mauve walled dining room of Good Housekeeping magazine to speak about literacy. About halfway through her speech there came from the streets a howl of sudden sirens, and no one moved or altered his expression. Mrs. Bush continued talking.

I looked at my watch: 1:37 pm. I wondered if the journalists around me were going through the same thought-stream I was. 1. Oh no, is this the trouble? 2. I’m with the first lady at a dramatic moment in history, take notes. 3. Maybe being with the president’s wife isn’t a bad place to be; her Secret Service detail knows how to handle things like this and they must carry gas masks, etc. Then a romantic sense of history kicked in: Maybe this is like being with Mary Todd Lincoln the morning of first Bull Run. In five seconds or so the sirens died down and moved on. Mrs. Bush seemed wholly unaffected.

Earlier, when I’d asked how she was doing, she said she was fine, this is obviously a difficult time for people but anxiety has a way of diminishing with time, people get used to it and then don’t feel it so sharply. I asked how the staffers in the White House were doing, and again she said fine; she was mindful that they’d been forced to flee the White House by foot on 9/11 and had had some hard days. She mentioned to the table that she thought people were watching things like Michael Jackson and Joe Millionaire “to distract ourselves.” In her remarks she said, “I know we will get through this,” and that she finds herself thinking, “This too will pass.”

She was poised and composed in the way of someone who isn’t trying, and she was humorous. When Good Housekeeping’s editor, Ellen Levine, stepped in to pick the first questioner in the ensuing Q&A, a bright woman in eyeglasses began to ask a question. Mrs. Bush asked her to identify herself and her organization. She gave her name and said she was the deputy editor of . . . Good Housekeeping. “Oh great, this must be the setup,” Mrs. Bush said, to laughter.

She was in a well-tailored dove-gray wool suit, collarless and double-breasted, with a knee-length skirt, dark-gray heels and pearl earrings. Her makeup had been applied with some art, her auburn hair was subtly highlighted, and her nails were professionally manicured, with red-orange nail polish. I mention this because sometimes grooming is a statement. Mrs. Bush said: Don’t worry too much, we’ll all be fine; if I didn’t know this I wouldn’t have been able to put on my eyeliner in such a straight line. Good grooming and a cheerful demeanor are sometimes heroic.

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But something I saw Wednesday night was the most rousing moment in the week. Did you see Dennis Miller debate the war and politics with Phil Donahue on Mr. Donahue’s cable show? Mr. Miller won, but in a way he didn’t defeat Mr. Donahue, he defeated Mr. Donahue’s smugness, his assumption that he speaks from a moral height. Mr. Miller didn’t accept Mr. Donahue’s assumption, he challenged it directly and knocked it down. And his analysis of the American Civil Liberties Union’s position on public Christmas nativity scenes—that it opposes them ferociously, but if a guy walks by, climbs the fence and tries to have sexual intercourse with one of the nativity scene’s animals it’ll rush passionately to defend his rights—was astutely observed and vividly put. And yes he should have used the words “sexual intercourse.”

Dennis Miller was just another person who did good work this week, like the media people and the first lady. And, maybe most of all, the waiter at the hotel whose hand shook, and who steadied the pot and kept pouring.