Norman Rockwell & 9/11: Don’t you hear sincerity in my voice when I talk?

September 10, 2010

Two months removed from the Washington Post informing America they love Rockwell because America hates self-examination and intellectual challenge or whatever, we ventured to the District last Saturday to check out the Rockwell exhibit.

You really see the appeal in the advertisements (the Daniel Boone ad above is a typewriter ad). Unconstrained by the white or negative space necessary for a magazine cover integrated with text, the ads offer fuller richer detail, more ambiance and a deeper commitment to conceit. But you still get character, with small details infused into each visual narrative. That separates out Rockewell.

Take the WWII veteran in a 1947 illustration, examining himself in the mirror, wearing a suit he’s outgrown since he left for the war — because he was still a boy when he left. There might be potential for postmodern irony in that premise, but not in the Rockwell execution. It’s kind of a heartbreaker, if you think too much about it, actually.

And people recognize themselves in that refined, Americana-infused perspective. Rockwell trades in spitfire girls, neebish intellectual boys, earnest young men, gently knowing elderly couples — people want to see themselves in that, and do. Nostalgia by itself is fake, illusory charm, sure, but nostalgia in the context of reality is an entirely different thing. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote an entire book about it, basically. Rewind on the Kodak Carousel pitch in the first season of Mad Men. What renders it powerful, rather than just effective, is the context of Don Draper’s reality.

Nostalgia in the context of reality offers moral clarity. It might not be exact science, but it’s the ethos and the pathos of the day. It’s a positive vision, and not positive in the “Let’s all go down to the Christmas tree and sing ‘Welcome Christmas’ even though we don’t have any gifts or food!” sense, positive in the active, concrete sense. It explains what it isn’t at hand in the here and now, but perhaps, what was and what could be — an external representation of our values.

In real time, we have an ethos today, the Urban Dictionary definition of tolerance, but it’s a negative vision, one of ambivalence and obligatory remarks, and I think more than any one thing, what happened September 11, 2001 cemented it in our collective approach to the world.

Libertarianism is blowing up right now, working off a cotton candy kind of Live Free or Die (…Hard), but what’s the actual vision?

Regarding the Cordoba Initiative situation, for instance, a handful of young conservatives defaulted to this type and tone of observation: “It’s an issue of religious, property, and/or speech rights. I am saddened that some think this sign of progress is catering to extremists. Read the Constitution. Eat. Pray. Love.” As many have articulated, that’s neither helpful nor a profound revolution of American thought. The question wasn’t whether Park 51 has the right to build a mosque, a museum tribute to famous Jewish sports legends, or a Laser Quest in the general vicinity of Ground Zero, it’s whether they should.

It’s a moral question about reality. And that this moral question produces the willfully naive obstinacy of “BUT THESE ARE THE RULES” reflects the weird way our tolerance culture has come of age. If you read opinion to that effect, you get the sense that people are more comfortable with the idea of the Ground Zero mosque, or indifferent to its existence, than really advocating for it. This paradigm extends to other areas — the gay marriage debate, for instance, sometimes lapses into this loveless marriage of advocating against those advocating against the thing.

What underlies all this emphasis on the Do No Harm mentality is this belief, perhaps not often articulated, that if America had been more aware of its actions, if we had followed the rules, and if we had been more aware of Islam, then in this tolerant society, something like 9/11 couldn’t have happened. I don’t think anyone’s going to argue that isn’t childish, but you can’t discount that emotional undertone. And if you don’t think that’s true of Gen Y, read this or this or this. Hundreds of these kinds of op-eds ran this week.

There’s this sense that if we could just be…loose about things, the bad would subside.

The period since 9/11 has been a march of bad, set to an 808, Katrina, Iraq, Virginia Tech, an economic collapse with decades of consequence. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, though, there was a national moment of coherence. Other distinctions fell away because, well, we were in middle school or in its general pull, but also because there was a singular purpose. There was a moment of unity, as people like to term it.

Then the singular purpose faded. We developed the Urban Dictionary definition of tolerance that forfeits defining an end goal for this mash-up of anonymous community, deference to the established rules and inaction. And so we find ourselves on this quixotic quest, triumphing in intangible slogans like “We Are [Proper Noun],” to recapture that reactive flash of unity, the moral clarity of the moment.

After all, nostalgia, in the context of reality, tells us what we don’t have.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Christine September 10, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Brava, Katherine!

Katherine Miller September 15, 2010 at 11:44 am

Thanks, Mrs. Luskin! (Sorry I operate on, like, a belated 30-day comment response system.)

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }