Posted by: Harold Knight | 09/14/2011

The Entitlement of September 11, 2001

On Sunday, September 11, I attended a commemoration of the events of September 11, 2001. The program centered on the cantata Dona Nobis Pacem (“grant us peace”) by Ralph Vaughn Williams. The work is a setting of texts from the traditional Christian Eucharistic liturgy, the Bible, and poetry of Walt Whitman. It is a nobly lavish work for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, a majestic prayer for peace. The program was presented by the Arts District Chorale of Dallas.

The program was titled “9/11: Remembrance and Reconciliation,” and several times during the program texts from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran were read or recited by a Rabbi, an Episcopal Priest, and an Imam.

The program was presented at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas although it was not per se a function of the church. The audience filled the large church with extra seating arranged in the aisles and the narthex.

Recently I read a short student essay that said in part,

If one looks at society, making money off of others is what makes the world go round. . . The word “grotesque” does not always have to be used in a literal sense. Most people might not think that a poor family wanting health insurance is grotesque, and it is not, but the ends don’t justify the means when it comes to the Lacks children. They expect something to be done and for their lives to change, but they are not willing to change. . . “grotesque” can be used to describe the fall of society: entitlement.

The children of Henrietta Lacks (1) represent the cause of the fall of society—“entitlement”— because making money off others is what makes the world go ‘round.

The bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and the member of Congress from the district were in attendance Sunday evening. It was an important event.

I was obviously not in a position to know the religious or ethnic makeup of the entire audience. If I were being what the Conservatives would derisively call “politically correct,” it would not be of interest to me. That said, I report that I saw none of my Muslim friends. No member of the chorus was a person of color—as was no one in the audience that I saw. “9/11: Remembrance and Reconciliation” was an important event for a certain small cross-section of the population of Dallas.

Postmodern Prague

Postmodern Prague

Throughout the program (which I thoroughly enjoyed—hearing Vaughn Williams’ music for large ensembles of singers and instruments is always a grand experience) I wondered who, exactly, was being reconciled to whom.

If one looks at society, making money off of others is what makes the world go round. . .

The dis-ease I felt at “9/11: Remembrance and Reconciliation” probably comprises my being situated in an old-style leftist mindset. Some might say I have learned over the course of the last 50 years to see the negative in nearly everything, to assume that the workings of society are by definition evil, to look for evidence of inequality and oppression in every situation. I will admit the possibility that I am one of the

. . .  many American leftists [who] pursue their spiritual life in politics rather than participate in politics, because of a spiritual life that is nurtured and sustained in a separate domain. From the New Left to the women’s movement to the movement for global justice, leftists have tended to seek spiritual liberation and personal authenticity on urban streets and in mass meetings rather than in churches and synagogues (2).

Seek personal authenticity on urban streets and in mass meetings rather than in churches and synagogues.

I’m not sure exactly whom Shields is describing. But then, I’ve lived most of my life in an intellectual, political, and spiritual bubble. Shields goes on to say the left has a

. . .  unique blend of spirituality and politics—its postmodernism. . . whereas the civil rights movement was bound together by a common transcendent center, the foundationless Left that followed was self-righteous in the sense that political evaluations were fundamentally personal rather than determined by a higher law (3).

I’m not sure my discomfort attending “9/11: Remembrance and Reconciliation” comes from a “political evaluation” that is “fundamentally personal rather than determined by a higher law.” And here I use language of which I cannot myself—the speaker—understand the full implications. However, it seems to me that the very use of the term “9/11” has become shorthand for a kind of “entitlement.”

We are entitled to pronounce “remembrance and reconciliation” alone. It is we who are reconciled. Alone. The word “reconcile” comes

from L. reconcilare “to bring together again,” from re- “again” + concilare “make friendly” (4).

To bring together “again.”

If we were not together at the beginning, how can we be brought together “again?”

When the events of September 11, 2001, transpired, we were already—as a nation, a society—in the process of domination, not being brought together. I will leave it to far better and more knowledgeable minds than mine to rehearse the history of American domination here, there, and everywhere in the world. We have been taught to think of that domination as spreading democracy and God-inspired capitalism. “If one looks at society, making money off of others is what makes the world go round. . .”

I have no intention of arguing (or even presenting) my personal views of those theories of social structure except to say that the “law of supply and demand”—“making money off of others”—is not a “law.” It is merely a way of looking at the world. Nothing in nature (or in any religion I can find) pronounces such a law. We learn it.

The Arts District

The Arts District

Living in my bubble and having little ability to think creatively or with originality, I rely on others to say what (I think) I want to say.

We were right. The events of the past decade have demonstrated that our instincts on 9/11 – guided by a radical critique of the systems and structures of power – led us to see the folly of these wars. I remember sitting in my office at the University of Texas on 9/11, listening to the commentary on television, and realizing that the events of that day were going to be used to justify large-scale violence in the service of power. I was scared, not of dying in another terrorist attack on the United States, but of what US policymakers were ready and willing to do (5).

If this is “postmodernism” (a term I do not understand and have the sense that no one else does—particularly the scholars prone to use it), then I suppose I am a postmodernist. But Robert Jensen says better than I can what I think about the “entitlement” of referring to a particular date without any reference to any other date or time: “9/11.” It is ours. To use as we please.
(1) Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died from cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in the 1950s. Before she died—without her knowledge or consent—Dr. George Gey, a researcher at JHU Hospital took a sample of tissue and, for the first time in medical history, was able to cultivate human cells outside the body. Virtually all human cells used in medical research since that time are direct descendants of her cells. Rebecca Skloot has researched the bizarre and enormously important story in her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2010).
(2) Shields, Jon A. “Spiritual Politics on the Left.” Transaction: Social Science and Modern SOCIETY 43.6 (September/October 2006): 57-62.
(3) Ibid.
(4) “reconciliation.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Harper, Douglas, ed. 2001-2010. Web. 14 Sep. 2011.
(5) Jensen, Robert. “September 11 Lessons: Combating Ignorance, Avoiding Arrogance.” Op-Ed. truthout. Friday 9 September 2011. Web. 11 Sep. 2011.


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