In the midst of the anniversary of 9/11, Michael Stipe questioned the cultural weight of words and images that have arisen in the years since the attacks. In an essay penned for The Guardian, the former R.E.M. frontman referenced art by Douglas Coupland as he discussed the impact of that day and of the to-be-completed Freedom Tower, which stands near the site of the former World Trade Center.
“The Freedom Tower was meant to inspire patriotism and instead embodies the darker sides of nationalism. The 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration’s response, buoyed by the media, and our shock at having finally been direct victims of terrorism, paved the way for a whole new take on ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.'”
In his mind, the tower is tainted by the memory of words like “freedom” gaining an extraordinary amount of power in the wake of the attacks. He points to the rampant Francophobia and anger in the build-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, and subsequent renaming of words.
“Anything attached to the word ‘French’ in the US was then relabeled with the word ‘freedom’: freedom toast, freedom fries, freedom kiss, for fuck’s sake. French wine was banned, French people were spat upon, their heads in photographs replaced with heads of weasels. Forget the Statue of Liberty and where it came from.”
In addition to mantra-like slogans like “Never Forget!” and “Support Our Troops!”, Stipe talks about the imprint that images of the attacks have made in our minds. He references “The Poet,” a piece by Douglas Coupland.
“Coupland’s at first seemingly Op Art paintings are just black dots – abstract, weirdly familiar. But then you look at them on your iPhone (because you’re going to take a pic and post it … this is 2014, after all) and you have the ahhhhhhh moment when a chill runs down your spine and you realise that it’s them: the jumpers. It’s him: the boogeyman. Doug offers us the choice to either see or not see these deeply internalised images. Having that choice is what enables us to survive from day to day without going nuts.”
Stipe wonders about the effect of those words and images on our cultural consciousness, and whether the memories of that day will ever stop corralling our thoughts and actions.
Pointing to our acceptance of intrusive government programs and rising nationalism, Stipe asks, “Is that who we are now? Blind, unquestioning, warlike? Are we that violent, that childish, that silly, that shallow? Are we that afraid of others? Of ourselves? Of the possibility of genuine change? Are we that easily swayed, that capable of defending ‘American interests,’ whatever ‘American interests’ means? Are we that racist, that terrified, that protective of an idea that we don’t even question what the idea has come to represent?”
Read the full essay here.