Yearning for Comfort: Dogs, Digs, and Dan

Culture Watch

Mr. Steinhorn, a professor of communication at American University, is co-author of By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and The Reality of Race (Dutton, 1999). He is a member of the board of HNN.

"If you want a friend in Washington," Harry Truman once said,"get a dog." And that's exactly what many people not only in Washington but around the country have been doing since September 11, according to news reports as well as my unscientific survey of friends, family and neighbors.

Truman was talking about the often cold and cruel world of politics, but his message can be writ large to our nation today. In these times of raw uncertainty and fear, when ordinary decisions and routines no longer seem safe and secure, Americans seem to be searching for unconditional warmth, devotion and assurance - precisely what a dog can bring.

Nor are dogs the only way Americans are seeking ties that bind. There are stories about long lost friends and lovers finding each other, about families patching up feuds, about black and white neighbors realizing there's more that unites than divides them. Colleges that set up web sites for alumni to check if classmates survived have been flooded with passionate and heartfelt responses, as if we all still lived in the campus womb of a generation ago. Churches, synagogues and mosques report increased attendance, and even non-believers are expressing a need for spiritual solace.

Network television, which over the last 20 years has seen more than half its audience disperse to countless cable and specialty channels, has once again become our electronic hearth. With Americans seeking the warmth and security of the living room couch, the familiar stand-by shows - Friends, Law & Order, Frasier, The West Wing - are racking up record ratings. Nearly 90 million Americans tuned in to at least a portion of the celebrity telethon broadcast by all the major channels last month, a telethon that raised $150 million in pledges for the victims of terror.

Americans are also returning to the big three network news broadcasts. For years the network news served as a glue for America, a place where we turned to make sense of the world, but over the last decade regular news viewing declined by half. But now we're back: network news ratings are up by 15 to 20 percent, and in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack even MTV turned its programming over to Dan Rather and CBS News.

Visit a college dorm today and you'll find young people, who almost completely abandoned newspapers and network news before September 11, gravitating back to them. They still carry around copies of Vibe, Maxim and Jane magazines - emblems of their generation - but now their backpacks also hold Time, Newsweek and the daily paper.

Ours has been a society that venerates youth over age, trends over wisdom, rebellion over authority, but after September 11 young people seem desperate for reassurance from their teachers, elders and authority figures. Even baby boomers, a generation not known for humility, are reportedly asking their parents about how they dealt with World War II.

Since the 1960s America almost compulsively sought to debunk its heroes, to find their feet of clay. We instead turned to celebrities and science fiction figures to fulfill our need for larger- than-life characters. But now our heroes of yesteryear - fire fighters and police - are back. Stores selling Halloween costumes report unprecedented demand for fire fighter and police outfits, which a year ago barely left the shelf.

Before September 11 we were becoming increasingly fragmented as a society. Marketers bored in on every demographic target group, and with media segmented by age, ethnicity, region, lifestyle, class and gender, it seemed as if the idea of America had merely become a holding company for a potpourri of disparate identities and interests.

Whether this new national yearning for comfort and unity will outlast the immediate crisis is unclear. But beyond defeating terrorism, the greatest tribute we could pay to the thousands who lost their lives September 11 is a renewed sense of community and a respect for the virtues and customs that bring us together.

As for my family and me, our new little puppy dog reminds us daily that life is best when we're on the floor together, laughing at the latest shoe he's chewed to pieces.

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