In fact, in addition to surfing the net and watching TV, I had spent the week after 9/11 telecommuting, posting updates on the company web site, answering e-mail, trying to figure out which parts of the network were up and which parts were down. That Friday and that weekend, I had gone back down to lower Manhattan, navigating the maze of police and national guardsmen, not to volunteer to dig on the pile or pull bodies out of the wreckage or to give blood, but to get into the company's rented space at a huge server farm on lower Broadway to reboot Unix servers which had crashed when the power went down, and to make sure clients (who were purchasing bandwidth from the company) had access to their co located servers.
But still, I knew what was coming that Monday. We were paid bi-weekly and should have gotten our checks that Friday, September 14th. I remember thinking that "oh damn. I would have been able to pay off my credit cards that Friday if only it hadn't been for that damned Al Qaeda." But I knew that I wasn't going to get paid late that week. I wasn't going to get paid at all. Oh no, they weren't going to fire me or lay me off outright (wouldn't want to have to pay unemployment would you?), but they were going to try some shady trick into making me quit so they could replace me with another poor sucker in the country on a tourist visa for whom you didn't have to go through that inconvenient hassle of paying taxes or workers compensation fees.
Sure enough, that Monday afternoon we were all -- individually -- called into the Vice President's office.
I was given the following story.
"No mail was getting into lower Manhattan after 9/11. Thus, the company couldn't afford to pay us our full salaries since their customers weren't sending them payment. Most companies in lower Manhattan were simply laying their employees off but they, in the goodness of their hears, were allowing all of us to stay on and work for free, well, not free, but without salary until the company was able to pay us."
"So we're going to offer to pay you part of your salary," the Vice President said. "And I'd like to know how much of it you need to tide you over until we can pay you the rest."
"All of it," I said.
"We can't afford it," she responded.
"I have to pay my rent," I said.
"How much is your rent," she said.
"None of your business but I need all of my check today or I'm out on the street."
"Well we can't afford to pay you everything."
"You owe me the two weeks that would have been covered on Friday plus the week after 9/11 I spent telecommuting and coming into the city to let people into the server farm."
"We can't. No mail is getting into lower Manhattan. You know we're really being nice about it. Most companies would have simply laid people off."
"Well why don't you do that?"
"Because no mail is getting into lower Manhattan after 9/11."
"How much do you need?"
"Every penny I'm owed."
"Then I quit," I said, sucked it up, gathered my things, and went back home.
So there I was. It was September 17th, the week after the 9/11 attack, and I had just quit my job. Needless to say, looking for another one wasn't exactly going to be as easy as it had been when I had moved back to New York from Seattle in the Spring of 1997 right into the most flush economy in years and, a week later, had a temp job paying 20 dollars an hour. I was fucked. But what was I going to do, keep working for them when I knew they weren't going to pay me? Even though looking for a job was going to be hell after 9/11, it was going to be easier to do from home than it would have been from work, where I was constantly busy, harried, and on the phone with clients. I also knew that any work I did from that point on was pretty much going to be volunteer work and that if I stayed on without getting paid, I deserved pretty much what I got.
So, yes, my worst fear came true after 9/11, not getting killed by terrorists, but having to borrow money to pay my rent.
"We may be living through a once-in-a-lifetime foul-up, the sort of situation that demands activist government and an expanded welfare state, but what these authors are after is the final destruction of the party identified with activist government and the welfare state. And their grassroots popularity should not be doubted. When I tried to borrow Coulter's manifesto from the public library of Johnson County, Kansas, I was told that even though the library had prudently chosen to stock seventeen copies, the waiting list was thirty-eight names long."
Thomas Frank "Shrill and Shriller"
I have no idea what kind of "deal" the other employees were offered in their individual meetings, although I did learn that the company itself was later given a disaster relief package from the government.
I eventually did get paid the money I was owed, not because the company decided, out of the goodness of their hearts or out of some sense of right and wrong to square their debts, but because I went through the state labor board and filed a complaint and I have to admit that the New York Department of Labor is a crack outfit. I filed the complaint on October 1st and by that December, I had every penny I was owed with the exception of the few days I had telecommuted and spent escorting clients into the server farm on lower Broadway. The company contested that and there was no way for the State Labor Board to prove that I was working and not at home jacking off to porn on the web.
In his pair of essays released in the Spring of 2004, Thomas Frank, the editor of The Baffler, analyzes what happened between the time I got off that plane from Seattle in 1997 to the destruction of the World Trade Center to the ongoing occupation of Iraq. The first is a quick smackdown of Ann Coulter published in his own magazine "The Baffler" in Issue No. 16 and the second, a more detailed piece, an attempt to figure out what happened to populism in his native Kansas in this April's "Harpers."
Both are worth buying and it would be difficult to paraphrase what has already been said so succinctly.
Nevertheless, the election of George Bush and the climate of hysteria and war-fever that took the country over after 9/11 weren't radical breaks with what went on before. Indeed, the glorification of the "new economy" by ideologues like George Gilder and Henry Blodgett and the heavy handed attacks on liberals and liberalism by the likes of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity are really one and the same. Both are attempts to shift the dialog away from the economic reality of the American class system to an ahistorical glorification of the business culture.
Where the ideologues of the new economy breathlessly intoned that the stock market would eventually reach 36,000 and that we would all eventually be employed in lucrative high-tech careers servicing the web, that the business cycle is at an end, George Bush and their ideological defenders now breathlessly intone that America has unlimited resources to impose its will on the rest of the world. Indeed, where even Richard Nixon balked at sending Marines into Saudi Arabia in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo, the latest crop of Republicans now assume that we can piss off our allies in Europe, cut taxes, fight terrorism, even conquer "evil," all the while imposing "democracy" on Iraq and, eventually one would assume, Syria and Iran.
Where George Gilder and his allies argued that there would never again be another recession or a stock market collapse (Didn't the Web change everything?), Bush similar argues that there will never be a draft, that somehow those tax cuts and that deficit will simply disappear like magic, that alienating economic powers like Germany and France will have no consequences (Didn't 9/11 change everything?). While before 9/11, every old lady could invest her 401K money in pets.com and put her grand kids through Harvard with the dividends, after 9/11 the American military could simultaneously take on the USSR, the United States, and the British Empire and our fearless leaders would never have to face that moment of truth in the bunker when the choice was either get captured and executed by the Red Army or swallow that cyanide tablet.
Before 9/11, our culture heroes were programmers and young, cleanly scrubbed high-tech gurus. After 9/11, our culture heroes are fireman, cops, and soldiers. But, in both cases, class and economic realities are simply ignored.
Those same programmers, HTML and Photoshop jockeys were summarily kicked out of their (relatively) high-paying jobs when the bubble burst in March of 2000. Newly minted MBAs find themselves heavily in debt and without job prospects. More and more web development is simply outsourced to India, China, or Russia, and anybody silly enough to have studied for an MCSE back in the late 90s (like myself) knows it barely qualifies you to ask if you want fries with that.
Similarly, for all the glorification of firemen, cops, and soldiers as culture heroes, their salaries are being cut. Veterans benefits are being slashed. Jessica Lynch, the media star of the early part of the Iraq invasion was dismissed just as quickly by the right after she declared that perhaps the incidents surrounding her capture and rescue were exaggerated to be used as propaganda. More and more of the support work for the military is being outsourced to civilian contractors and, ominously, we're starting to see mercenaries and private armies. What's, just like the "new economy" was supposed to have changed all the rules, so has 9/11. Considering the human costs of the war is now considered weak or sentimental or (even worse) traitorous. Talking about young men in their early 20s with arms blown off or with crippling injuries is now akin to giving moral support to Al Qaeda (you might as well be a Spanish socialist). Bush doesn't publicly attend funerals. He uses actors in his 9/11 commercials and not real fireman (culture hero status only lasts so long). Right-wing ideologues like Richard Perle publish manifestos advocating (it seems) invading just about everybody. American military power has no limits. Our soldiers don't bleed or get killed. The new imperialism is like the new economy, with no rules, no bear markets, no defeats, no criticism allowed.
But, most importantly of all, any speculation or rational, socioeconomic approach about the reasons for terrorism are labeled sympathy for the terrorists, tacit support for Islamic fundamentalism. Muslims bombed us because Muslims are just evil. Arabs are just built that way. Unlike Germans or Anglo Saxons or Japanese or Russians or any other peaceful race of people without a history of militarism and wholesale slaughter, Arabs simply have some kind of violence code built into their DNA. Or, if it's not DNA, it's culture. Arabs hate the US, the Palestinians bomb Israeli buses, not because they're pissed about having their land or their oil stolen, but because of culture. Arabs simply educate their kids to hate Jews and westerners and they'd hate us even if they all had the same standard of living as we do in New Jersey or Seattle or Greenwich, Connecticut.
In fact, they're almost as bad as liberals.
Indeed, the problem with Tom Frank's analysis of the increasingly fascistic state of American culture is that he doesn't quite go far enough and, indeed, it shows in the way he brilliantly outlines the delusional quality of the conservative mind and the bizarre way in which most working-class Americans seem to buy into the right-wing attempt to shift the debate from the economy to fear of a "vast liberal conspiracy" but can't quite figure out why. Why indeed does that Nascar loving trucker from Kansas City spend so much time thinking about the faggy grad student in New York City and his subscription to the Nation and the Film Forum?
"The existence of profound, all corrupting liberal bias is an absolute ontological necessity if conservatism is to make any sense. The Great Backlash began with the coming together of two very different political factions: traditional business Republicans, with their faith in the free market, and working-class "Middle Americans," the Reagan Democrats who signed on to preserve family values. For the latter group the experience has been a bummer all around. All they have to show for their thirty-odd years of Republican loyalty are lower wages, more dangerous jobs, dirtier air, a new overlord class that comports itself like King Farouk ---and, of course, a shit culture whose moral free-fall continues without significant interference from the grandstanding Christers they send triumphantly back to Washington every couple of years. By all rights these people should be at the traditional Republicans' throats. After all, how can you lament the shabby state of American life while blithely giving business a free hand to do as it likes? How can you reconcile the two clashing halves of the conservative mind?.....By believing in "bias," that's how."
Thomas Frank, Shrill and Shriller
I'm not going to dispute Frank's detailed analysis of Ann Coulter and the new fascists (indeed, the little side note that there's a 36 name long waiting list for her book in the Kansas City library is a chilling little factotum that I would never have thought to pick up on) but to me he simply doesn't take into account that all important American bogeyman, race.
Think for example about how most Americans made the connection between 9/11 and Saddam without even thinking about it. Try to imagine a similar incident involving white Christians.
The IRA plants bombs all over London and slaughters hundreds of people. What would been the response had Tony Blair suggested that a coalition of British and American troops invade Poland or Italy or Spain or France (OK, maybe that last one isn't a good example)? People would have laughed at him. Where's the connection? They're all Catholic countries but show us some proof that the Poles or Italians were behind the IRA bombings in London. Yes, part of the IRA's grudge against the British is the oppression of Catholics, ethnic cleansing, the genocide of 1848, and the presence of the descendents of militant Protestant settlers in Belfast. Yes, part of it's about the fact that the English are Protestants and the Irish are Catholics. Yes religion has something to do with it but why the fuck are you attacking the Poles or the Spanish. They're all Catholics yeah, but they're different fucking countries.
Yet the Poles and Spanish have about as much to do with the IRA as the Iraqis did with 9/11.
People made the connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda because, after 9/11, the long history of American belief in an all powerful and sinister Arab "other" came to bitter fruit. The anxiety that began with the oil embargo in 1973, continued on through the Iranian hostage crisis, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, the taking of hostages all through the 1980s, the first Iraq war and the First World Trade Center bombing seemed all too real in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center. How could this have happened? How could anybody have been powerful and sinister enough to take down both those massive structures (the fact that a dumbass like Tim McVeigh acting more or less by himself was able to take down a whole federal building seems to escape most people)? How could the economy be falling apart after 10 years of prosperity? How could my American way of life be threatened?
The "other" did it, the unknown, those teaming brown and yellow masses waiting in the wing to immigrate to our country illegally, take our jobs, blow up our buildings, and rape our women did it. That's how. If you want to see where so much of the energy of the "new economy" went, take a look at just how many rubes and knuckle dragging racists seem to be able to use HTML and Photoshop. Take a look at the staggering number of fascist web sites, web forums, conspiracy theories about how those liberals are selling us out and giving our jobs to immigrants, about how the sinister liberal press conspiracy is covering up the inherently violent and evil nature of Islam. Take a look at FreeRepublic, Little Green Footballs, Stormfront, Andrew Sullivan, Opinionjournal, the newsgroups dedicated to bashing H1-Bs. There are literally hundreds of right-wing web sites that more or less share Ann Coulter's politics and literally tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of loyal readers offering up this little tidbit about liberal press bias here or that little tidbit about the sinister Arabic men next store planning to blow up the next buildings there. There are rants in the mainstream press about dark, shadow elitist Europeans ready to sell us out to Mohammedan fanatics, to stand by while our women are gang raped by hordes of Koran reading perverts, clip the US of A and its naturally warlike, aggressive spirit.
And it's not going away. Don't anticipate the working-class rising up and taking to the streets with effigies of George Bush and the Enron crooks any time soon. Don't think that a deeper recession is going to lead to an upsurge in left-wing populism similar to the 30s. Bush, or Kerry, or whoever else in office will simply divert attention from the worsening economy and employment situation to that sinister, all powerful other waiting to attack us. Yes, things are bad, they'll argue, but we're at war (permanently) after all. Just like those poor white trash in the South who got suckered for years and years through manipulation of their fears of big black penises penetratin their women, we're going to be suckered for years and years by our fears of Arabs driving big shiny airplanes into our buildings, or putting suitcase nukes on ships going into New York harbor, or sending Anthrax through the mail or however the yellow peril these days is drawn to frighten the hell out of us.
But I'm still a lot more afraid of ending up unemployed, broke and homeless than I am of getting blown up by terrorists.