David Stairs

In Society of the Spectacle Guy Debord attempted to define the interrelationship between government and commodity capitalism. No finer recent example could be found than the 9/11 10th Anniversary commemorative activities that took place around the country this past month.

Making a rubbing at the 9/11 Memorial

Patriotism, at its worst, is a questionable philosophy wherein group membership is used to demonize the “other.” Incredible crimes have been the legacy of patriotic chauvinism, and America is not an exception. While people reflected Sunday morning, remembering where they were at 8:46am on 9/11/01, the nation paused for a moment of silence to respect those thousands who died. But there was more, much more than silence at play in the ceremony.

America has long considered itself above reproof and aloof from outside attack. Before the Japanese surprised us at Pearl Harbor, the American homeland hadn’t been directly attacked since 1812, and no one had inflicted such a humiliation on America since Crazy Horse defeated Custer. The shock the nation experienced that morning in September ten years ago has been succeeded by more than ten years of political meddling and regional warfare in the Muslim world, our long-running revenge for a rude awakening.

As Americans were exposed to the compound spectacle of bell ringing/name reading/flute playing/choral singing/bagpiping at the commemorative ceremony, they’ve also been collusive in the obscene extremes of symbolism that an affluent nation can afford. Nearly 30 years ago Maya Lin taught us the power of subtle symbolism with her Vietnam Memorial, but as the proliferation of memorials inscribed with victim’s names has become the 21st century equivalent of what bronze equestrian statues of war heroes were to the 19th, one has to wonder whether we need yet one more instance of the genre, let alone two or three or several.

Debord suggested that the society of spectacle became a place where “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity.” Whether the genuine activity of school children, who donated their dollars to subsidize the inflated salaries of bureaucrats overseeing the multibillion-dollar rebuild in lower Manhatten, will one day be seen as passive identification remains to be argued. That those same children have been co-opted into the patriotic hysteria surrounding 9/11’s hagiolatry can’t be doubted.

The question that seems to go unanswered in all of this is, “Have we learned anything?” Amid the extended demonstration of collective grief there does not seem to be any substantive discussion of why we were attacked in the first place. Ten years of war have only made us less likely to negotiate with our “evil” adversaries. And it is anti-American to suggest that even Al Queda has its heroes. Twenty of them died on 9/11, but it’s certain there will never be a multimillion-dollar memorial in their honor.

It is the irony of patriotism, especially of the capitalist ilk, that, as we canonize the “American heroes” of New York and Washington and Shanksville, PA. in cloyingly symbolic fashion, we are media-boiled to steadfastly overlook our own shortcomings. Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer designed some of the most stirring political spectacles of the 20th century in Nuremberg during the ’30’s. Our leaders know this, as do those with the power to control them, and have taken it to heart. It is testament to our collective myopia that we continue to avoid the lessons of history and feed at the trough of such spectacle.

Oedipus blinded himself when he learned how emotionally blind he had been. We, who are blind since birth by virtue of our social contracts don’t have to self-inflict. The media of our spectacle-besotted civilization does it for us.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project