A warped interpretation of Americas terror dream(National Post January 9, 2008)


Barbara Kay, National Post 

Published: Wednesday, January 09, 2008

In 2004, it was widely believed that George W. Bush owed his re-election victory in no small part to the post-9/11 "security moms" who considered him a more manly, protective leader than John Kerry. Homeland security hasn't been a talking point in the 2008 primaries so far. It will be interesting to see if manliness again becomes a decisive factor in the election itself.

One writer who presumably bets it will is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi. In her new book, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, she trumpets the profound cultural implications of the post-9/11 return of traditional manliness to national life. To her mind, the Sept. 11 attacks sent feminism into a fear-fueled tailspin from which it still hasn't recovered.

Post-9/11, unapologetically manly men, like the firefighters who sacrificed their lives, or who -- like Rudy Giuliani -- displayed authentic leadership on that day were back in fashion after decades of political incorrectness. Conversely, unless they were physical or emotional victims (battered Iraq war prisoner Jessica Lynch; the Jersey Girls, widows of the Flight 93 heroes), women fell off the national radar screen.

In The Terror Dream, Susan Faludi claims that 9/11 evoked a "retreat into a fantasized yesteryear." Her book mounts a persuasive case for the post-9/11 stereotypical sexual divide as a modern reprisal of what she dubs the American "terror dream."

The recurring dream, or myth, harks back to a seminal "threat to the domestic circle": To underscore the humiliation of the men defending them, Indian tribesmen would often kidnap white women or female children in their sorties against frontier outposts or wagon trains.

The terror-dream theory joins collective psychology to the historical record (with liberal usage of fascinating primary sources like "captivity narratives" written by kidnapped white women assimilated as children into Indian tribes). Faludi concludes that when under siege Americans symbolically revert to cultural gender archetypes: women to vulnerable pawns, needing rescue (like Jessica Lynch), men to either John Wayne-like heroes or shamed failures, depending on the level of security they provide their womenfolk, or their success in rescuing them (as Wayne's character did in the legendary film The Searchers).

The book has earned some warm plaudits in the liberal media ("brilliant and forceful" says the Los Angeles Times), but Faludi's compelling theory will likely end as just another psalm in the feminist hymnal. Unfortunately, her use of the "terror dream" to bludgeon the media for their post-9/11 negligence of women, virtually identified here as an international conspiracy theory "to rein in a liberated female population," is badly compromised: Faludi perceives gender realities through a distorting ideological lens no credible cultural historian should wear.

In one lengthy disquisition, for example, Faludi applies her theory to the post-9/11 scarcity of female media commentary. In the first week after 9/11, she notes, of 88 opinion pieces in The New York Times, the Washington Post and the L.A. Times, only five were penned by women. She slams the Washington Post for having enlarged its post-9/11 opinion section "and yet it still didn't occur to them to expand those voices to women."

Faludi is blaming the messenger for the meagre showing of women journalists in the wartime mediasphere. No professional mainstream editor would exclude a worthy comment piece solely on the basis of the writer's sex, especially not at a moment, like 9/11, of peak competition for insightful and original commentary on heavily-trodden ground.

The shortfall of female punditry on topics of critical national importance is not a reflection of "terror-dream" stereotyping by male editors, but of women journalists' voluntary intellectual parochialism. That there were -- and are -- disproportionately few female commentators to begin with, and of them only a tiny percentage intellectually invested in the dominant subjects of our time -- foreign affairs, war, Islam -- is a result of women's general self-selection out of those domains.

In privileging women's self-esteem over the urgent scramble to respond effectively to an existential national threat, Faludi thus banalizes 9/11 and its perilous implications for men, always the big risk takers in leading and fighting wars -- and yes, commentating on them. Traditional roles have always been honourable and constructive in wartime -- the one time national unity should trump individual ambitions and concern for personal image. So if it's McCain or Giuliani vs. Obama or Hillary this time, and the United States suffers even a minor terrorist incident at home during the campaign, the former will certainly win.

Gender stereotypes are grounded in biological reality. Even "liberated" women aren't risk-takers. Women have never (rare exceptions proving the rule) volunteered to run into burning buildings or storm the redoubts of jihadists. Or run for president for that matter. Security moms know this. Doubtless Faludi does too, but isn't manly enough to admit it.

bkay@videotron.ca