The Way We Are: 9/11 and Poverty in America

Members of the Los Angeles Fire Department and guests watch a video presentation recounting the events of  9/11 | Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Members of the Los Angeles Fire Department and guests watch a video presentation recounting the events of 9/11 | Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Two of the biggest news stories of the last week were the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the fact that the poverty rate in America has risen to a dangerous high.

I consider the first thing a non-story, first because anniversaries are never really stories in the journalistic sense, just time markers. Marking 9/11 is fundamentally no different than remembering the death of a loved one every year, visiting a grave or printing a memoriam in the paper.

The second reason it's a non-story is that big media, despite the 9/11 saturation coverage last weekend, pretty much avoided doing the real story behind the remembrances--how we used 9/11 to descend into two devastatingly costly and illegitimate wars, foment Muslim antipathy around the world, stoke paranoia and government secrecy at home and generally degrade our own global standing with our own hand. The story here is hardly over, which is part of the problem of trying to remember it or neatly sum it up every five or ten years. We like definition and closed circles; the chaos and ugliness that is the 9/11 legacy so far is anything but. (For a trenchant take on all this, see Richard Rodriguez's brief but eloquent piece in last Sunday's L.A. Times opinion.)

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But the bigger problem, the root problem, is that America as a whole is deeply reluctant to see itself as anything other than the good guy, even though it's long been the country carrying the biggest stick.

This stubborn, glowing self-image is true not just in the red states and amongst heartlanders, but amongst people who actually don't approve of the wars and such. Contradictory? Of course. But the gray truth is that not everybody who is pro-American waves a flag or rants on right-wing radio. Nor are they all white.

For instance, I know plenty of black folks who decry the whole era of Bush and presidential arrogance, who see the harm it's wrought. They have great historical memory of the abuses of human and civil rights and can spot hypocrisy (i.e., sermons about our enduring "freedoms") coming a mile away. But they won't reject America outright. In some ways they have no choice; it's the people most denied the fruits of democracy and justice who believe in deliverance absolutely, who've invested the idea with the most emotional and psychological energy. So although we grumble we go on believing, as we have for hundreds of years, that this country is capable of great things and that it'll do those things eventually. Our view is that we've been at lower points than 2011--slavery, for instance--but we will overcome. America is a drug addict that just hasn't hit bottom yet.

I don't know that we can afford to wait for that bottom. Speaking of which, the poverty rate, which is now 1 out of every 6 Americans, is a very newsworthy story that is yet a non-story, too. Disproportionate poverty and deprivation has been a condition of black folks, and now Latinos, for as long as I've been alive, and long before that. It's only a story now because the great recession, aggravated in part by our post-/911 foreign misadventures, has eaten into the white prosperity and well-being that had conveniently masked the troubles of other populations for too long.

The good news may be that America will grasp the truth that we're all in this mess together, though the continuing stratification of the rich and everybody else augurs against that. And what will we be commemorating ten years from now? At the risk of sounding like a non-believer, I shudder to think.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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