Tuesday, April 7, 2009
'Americans Cannot Stand Criticism'; A Speech By Norman Mailer,
October 29, 2001
Norman Mailer was in top condition Saturday afternoon at the Nieuwe de le Mar theater in Amsterdam. As an extra performance after his show at the Crossing Border Festival, for a room full of invited people, he held a brilliant and completely improvised speech about 'the american ego'. Him entering the room with the use of two walking sticks must of been a shock to many people who have become used to the ultra-masculine image that he has kept up for the past fifty years. Although Mailer is almost eighty years old, his mind is still clear.
He doesn't want to downplay the human tragedy of the thousands that died when the two planes hit the Twin Towers in Manhattan, but Mailer will not cry for the disappearance of those towers.
In the aftermath of the events it turned out how much these towers were worshiped by the American people, not as examples of beautiful architecture, but as distinguished pieces of corporate powerplay. The WTC wasn't only an architectural monster because it disturbed the rhythm of Manhattan's skyline, but also as a symbol of lack of respect. It was also a monster for the people that did not work there because it said to those people: 'if you didn't make it up there, boy, you're out of it'. Therefore I am sure that if these towers would have been destroyed without any loss of life, a great number of people would have cheered. Everything that is wrong about America has led this country to the point that it built this Tower of Babel* that would have to be destroyed subsequently.
* (translator's note: I hope this is the right expression)
One shock followed another and another in the days after, and it soon turned out that the impact was so much bigger than all other events- because these disappear to the background very soon in a country that has such a short collective memory as ours. First the Americans saw something which looked like a fifty-million-dollar-movie-scene, those magnificent images of the planes that entered the building. It was as if God and the devil had decided that they could do a better (movie) shot than any of these bastards down below would be capable of. And then came the next shock: we had to realize that those who did this were brilliant (people). It turned out that the ego which we could uphold until the 10th of September was inadequate.
Mailer is without mercy in his analysis of present day America:
America is a country that is built on a tremendously optimistic and riskfy idea of human nature: if you give people enough freedom 'good' will always overcome 'bad'. Many elements of this idea lived on long after World War II, even until today. That was why we became known as a very friendly country, something the country need because it lacks roots characteristic to many other countries.
The rise of technology in the fifties and sixties is partly responsible for the eradication of those roots. Television, with its unrelenting commercial interruption added to this.
Television does not tell you anything about the meaning of events, it disturbs and twists every notion of what could be important. We leave the thinking to what I would call pundits, people that keep babbling to us from TV-screens and know for themselves that there is nothing inside except a deep mediocrity.
The material success of the country together with the lack of roots and historic insight gave rise to a soothing and [ yet?] unpleasant feeling of self-love that made it ever more difficult to talk about a few essential characteristics that were lacking.
We have completely lost our respect for language. A democracy cannot function without accuracy and intensity of language. Take a good bureaucrat like Colin Powell, how can he speak of an attack by cowards? That is an enormous misuse of language. You might call it a monstrous deed, devilish, low-down (?), but how can you say the terrorists were cowards?
Americans cannot get themselves to say that courage is needed for such an act, that those people might well be admired. Your words might be explained in the wrong way. The key issue is Americans are convinced that it were blind, lunatic fanatics that did not know what they were doing. But what if the perpetrators are right and we are wrong? We have lost the ability to rationally analyze the enormity of our enemy's position long ago.*
*(translator's note: I am sorry, but the Dutch text here hardly makes sense so I am afraid the English does not make sense either)
Like the 20th century started in 1914, the 21st century started September 11, 2001. The last century was according to Mailer the worse century in the history of Christianity but the 21st might become worse. The possibility that we in this panic, with all the security measures that are in place, will degenerate into a police state- there are many Americans who would like that idea anyway- is real, when not enough people will keep cool. Chance is that these ideas will flourish, because in the past decades the country has become numb and less alert, more stupid and most of all more spoiled than twenty years ago. All other values became second after money ( translation alt.: Money became the prime value), we became obsessed by it. We have become a country where a strong ego means a mental condition that does not like questions of which the answer takes longer than 10 seconds. That's why we finally have in George W. Bush the president that we deserve.
When somebody from the audience criticizes Mailer for his not so patriotic point of views he shakes his head slowly. The true test for a great country is that it can stand criticism. We do not behave like that because we cannot stand it. There is something more important than 'my country right or wrong' and that is the idea: let us hope we are right and use our best talents to try to show that we are. I never liked the idea that you have to be thankful because this country has given you so much. You do not have to spend the rest of your life on your knees cleaning the dust from your parents' shoes with your tongue because you have so much to thank them for.