Susan Faludi: Cowboy myths shaped our response to 9-11 (interview)

Historians in the News

The terrifying and wrenching photographs from September 2001 on display at the New-York Historical Society are suspended from clips in neat rows like laundry hanging on a line. Among them is a black-and-white picture of a life-size cardboard cutout of John Wayne in his prime, with a placard hanging from his neck that reads: “This is no time for cowboys.”

“That could be the cover of my book,” Susan Faludi said. She was visiting the Historical Society’s exhibition of photographs and artifacts from the World Trade Center attacks and talking about her work “The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America,” out next week from Metropolitan Books....

Her reporting would seem to add up to a sequel to her 1992 best seller, “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. But Ms. Faludi goes a step further. She fits the post-9/11 conservatism into a 300-year-old tradition of “cultural re-engineering,” in which the humiliating failure of frontiersmen to protect their women and children from Indian raiders has been revised to portray “iron-clad valor on the part of white men and crinoline helplessness on the part of white women,” as she wrote in an essay for The New York Times earlier this month.

Yet can one reach back to America’s colonial days to explain a 21st-century phenomenon? After all, the classic narrative of the brave cowboy — samurai, knight, prince, soldier, peasant, mild-mannered reporter, starship pilot, hobbit — who rescues endangered women and children is a staple of cultures all over the world. And the shame of defeat and invasion has figured much more prominently in the histories of many other countries than in the history of the United States.

Ms. Faludi said that each culture “shapes its own myths in a specific way based on its own historical dramas.” Other countries, she said, “have an ancient tradition of customs, rituals, and a deep-rooted sense of identity.”

“It’s different for us because we’re so young as a nation,” she added. No matter that the United States has been mostly impervious to attacks on its soil: “American settlers’ vulnerability is “our founding trauma.”

The psychological approach will no doubt encounter skeptics. John Demos, a historian at Yale whose work on American history is cited in “Terror Dream,” said he considered Ms. Faludi a “very powerful thinker,” but said, “I’m dubious of the whole notion of a national psyche, which harbors deep unconscious traumas across the centuries.”

Basing his comments on Ms. Faludi’s Times essay, Mr. Demos said the way frontier stories changed over time is “part of a much larger movement to change gender stereotypes and roles.”...

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