The Dust of Memory

By Michael Burtt | October 30, 2001

They are selling bags of dust in New York. Or at least, this is what I was told this week by a friend who had just returned. Around "ground zero", people are selling small baggies of debris along with the usual tourist crap of tee shirts and coffee mugs. My friend recounted the story with a kind of "aren’t those New Yorkers crazy?" grin, adding that, in his opinion, the dust probably wasn’t even from the site where the twin towers once stood. Yet of the endless stream of unrelated items concerning September 11 that passes by me everyday, this was the most disturbing detail I’ve encountered. It wasn’t the fact that there are people making a few bucks off this enormous tragedy. The television networks have been doing that full time for more than a month and I hold them accountable to much more than merely making a buck.

What so disturbed me was the "they" implicit in his story. Who are they? The shifting, nameless "they" that have been increasing in number in recent years? The homeless people in Toronto who seem to be more numerous every time I visit the city? Or is the "they" people who have come here from outside the familiar zone governments want to create by building a giant North American perimeter (in the same way the Summit of the Americas delegates wanted a fence built in Quebec City to protect them from everyone else)?

The image of the "they" selling dust lingered with me. A few days after I had that conversation, I listened to Senator Douglas Roche address a small audience as he kickedg off a conference on peace and justice at the University of Waterloo. Roche is a respected, well-traveled man who has dedicated his life to peace and disarmament. He is also a Tory. Along with Dalton Camp he is a part of the nearly extinct "Red Tory" tradition in Canada that not too long ago added steam to political debate in this country.

"What are the causes of September 11 and what is the cure?", he was asked. He listed a number of the possible causes: Third World poverty, hate, the wealth of the West itself, religious differences. He carefully and rationally dismissed each of them as single causes. He’d visited ground zero in the weeks following the attacks but he said nothing about anyone selling bags of little gray dust.

That Saturday’s Globe & Mail was filled with strange anecdotes to attempt to explain the implications of this historic event: prime time television budgets will soon begin to be "starved" and in the future—the Friends gang cannot expect the $100,000 per show per show they’ve been getting pre-September 11; New York Yankees—once the most disliked sports team in America now being cheered for to win the World Series this year because in time of war what is good for the Yankees is good for America. With characteristic lack of context, columnist Leah McLaren thought she would dress early for Halloween this year by donning the traditional hijaband, and found herself feeling "oppressed". There was even a photo exhibit attempting to capture on film the impact of September 11. The pictures I saw were dramatic and powerful but there was nothing about the gray dust.

Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld has made it back to the bestseller list five years after its original publication. Published first as an essay in the Atlantic Monthly, Barber’s thesis has been as influential as it is simple: There are two competing forces in the world, they are both dependent on one another and in the end both are bad for democracy. Jihad represents the forces of tribalism that is ripping nations apart from within, McWorld stands for the forces of globalization that are erasing borders from without. There is something comfortingly neat about his argument that the complexities of the contemporary world can be broken down into two binary camps—or maybe it is simply that he suggests that the forces of globalization can be rationally comprehended. In other words, in Jihad vs. McWorld there is no room for stories that haunt like the selling of gray dust from the World Trade Center haunts me.

Rather than Barber’s treatise, in order to understand this new world we are inhabiting, I would suggest reading a book called Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television TooSlow by Canadian Brian Fawcett. Fawcett documents the psychotic efforts of the war-traumatized Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s to eradicate all vestiges of the Western democracy and its capitalist practices that had brought such violence down upon them. To achieve their goals, they thought to erase everyone who had been infected by the West so they could return to a different kind of ground zero. But Fawcett’s book wasn’t just about Cambodia (there are a number of very good books and films on that subject, and I’d recommend that anyone who hasn’t seen the film "The Killing Fields" should start there). As Fawcett writes: "it is story about what Cambodia means, and about why Cambodia is not an isolated historical aberration suitable for sentimental speculation and pictorial depiction. Cambodia is as near as your television set."

The fact is that much more than democracy is at stake as we attempt to live in the gulf created by the twin forces of tribalism and globalization. What is at stake is our ability to remember a past prior to the History channel and a future different from the geopolitical nightmare brought to us twenty four hours a day on CNN. Cambodia: A Book For People Who Find Television Too Slow was published in 1986 and written in about 1985, before globalization became a buzzword, while the good times seemed to have once again been rolling. Among the up-and-coming in those days were cocaine parties by night and watching the money and commodities roll in by day. It was before the the stock market crash of 1987 and it was before September 11, 2001. Cambodia contains none of the comforts of a peacenik discussion group, newspapers trailing trendsetters without context or perspective, and it doesn’t have the neatly dialectical intellectual thesis of Mr. Barber’s Jihad vs McWorld. In fact, there isn’t much that’s comforting about Cambodia at all. That’s because in Brian Fawcett’s Cambodia, taken as a metaphor for our world, there is no "they". In a global village, we are all in it together. "The ugly truths of our time", he writes "are neither dark or silent. They have been rendered opaque by full frequency light that admits neither definition nor shadows, and they are protected from the voices of the suffering and the disaffected by the accompanying wall of white noise".

Since September 11 and its bags of gray dust, no one can feel comfortable. We’re all in this one, but there’s no "together" possible.


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