The Magazine

Rebirth of a Nation

Valor and victimhood after September 11.

Mar 4, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 24 • By TOD LINDBERG
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THERE ARE no more yellow ribbons. For more than 20 years, in times of travail, the yellow ribbons have come out. The Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80 called forth a nationwide flowering of yellow ribbons. And at one time or another since then--can this really all have been wrought by Tony Orlando and Dawn singing "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree"?--the yellow ribbon has been pressed into service as a symbol of hope amid adversity, an expression of longing for the return of those who are not home. In accordance with past practice, the aftermath of the attack on the twin towers could surely have been an occasion for yellow ribbons: thousands lost and feared dead, the uncertainty of the families of the missing, the conclusion growing inevitable that even the bodies might never be recovered. And in fact, in the first day or two, one did see a few yellow ribbons, usually in a collage with a photograph of someone missing, held desperately by a loved one still in shock. But then, without comment, the yellow ribbons were gone. All the ribbons now are red, white, and blue.

The difference between a country full of yellow ribbons and a country full of red, white, and blue ribbons--and buttons, bumper stickers, lapel pins, scarves, neckties, billboards, and flags of all size and description--neatly captures the passing of one era and the birth of another, as well as the character of each. The yellow ribbon is the symbol of the victim--of the aggrieved individual, someone powerless at the hands of the powerful. The victim's opposite number is the self-satisfied individual, master of his own life and times. The United States of September 10 was a place peopled amply with both types. The private concerns of people, whether satisfied or unsatisfied, were at the forefront of daily life.

The red, white, and blue ribbons are the symbol of something different: a nation. Which is to say, Americans with a sense of themselves as a people, countrymen, united by something that is precisely not private. The red, white, and blue were a product of a sudden sense of solidarity, the felt need to express the view that an attack on one is an attack on all. It wasn't that nearly 3,000 individuals died in the twin towers. It was that they died in an attack on the United States.

American solidarity wasn't born that day; it was revealed. After a long absence, Americans returned to the public square they had left for their private gardens, and to make sure everyone knew, they draped it in red, white, and blue.

THE LAST TWO decades of the twentieth century saw the apparent triumph of classical liberalism. The old collectivist aspirations of communism and socialism, as well as the political control over society they entailed, gave way to a new respect for the individual and for the system in which individuals seem to prosper collectively, namely, democratic capitalism. These decades saw a tremendous flourishing of human freedom, and while the gains were neither universal nor uniform across the globe, they were unmistakable where they occurred.

Now, this was all to the good. But it did give rise to certain distortions of perspective, themselves the product of the focal point of all the accomplishment, the individual.

In 1992, my Hoover Institution colleague Charles J. Sykes published an incisive book called "A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character." In it, he argued that "perhaps the most extraordinary phenomenon of our time has been the eagerness with which more and more groups and individuals--members of the middle class, auto company executives and pampered academics included--have defined themselves as victims of one sort or another." He noted, "In a culture of soundbites and slogans substituted for rational argument, the claim that one is a victim has become one of the few universally recognized currencies of intellectual exchange."