From the ashes of Sept. 11
arise the manly virtues.
Friday, October 12, 2001 12:01
A few weeks ago I wrote a
column called "God Is Back," about how, within a day of
the events of Sept. 11, my city was awash in religious
imagery-prayer cards, statues of saints. It all culminated, in a
way, in the discovery of the steel-girder cross that emerged last
week from the wreckage-unbent, unbroken, unmelted, perfectly
proportioned and duly blessed by a Catholic friar on the request of
the rescue workers, who seemed to see meaning in the cross's
existence. So do I.
My son, a teenager, finds this
hilarious, as does one of my best friends. They have teased me, to
my delight, but I have told them, "Boys, this whole story is
about good and evil, about the clash of good and evil." If you
are of a certain cast of mind, it is of course meaningful that the
face of the Evil One seemed to emerge with a roar from the furnace
that was Tower One. You have seen the Associated Press photo, and
the photos that followed: the evil face roared out of the building
with an ugly howl-and then in a snap of the fingers it lost form and
force and disappeared. If you are of a certain cast of mind it is of
course meaningful that the cross, which to those of its faith is
imperishable, did not disappear. It was not crushed by the millions
of tons of concrete that crashed down upon it, did not melt in the
furnace. It rose from the rubble, still there, intact.
For the ignorant, the
superstitious and me (and maybe you), the face of the Evil One was
revealed, and died; for the ignorant, the superstitious and me (and
maybe you), the cross survived. This is how God speaks to us. He is
saying, "I am." He is saying, "I am here." He is
saying, "And the force of all the evil of all the world will
not bury me."
I believe this quite
literally. But then I am experiencing Sept. 11 not as a political
event but as a spiritual event.
And, of course, a cultural
one, which gets me to my topic.
It is not only that God is
back, but that men are back. A certain style of manliness is once
again being honored and celebrated in our country since Sept. 11.
You might say it suddenly emerged from the rubble of the past
quarter century, and emerged when a certain kind of man came forth
to get our great country out of the fix it was in.
I am speaking of masculine
men, men who push things and pull things and haul things and build
things, men who charge up the stairs in a hundred pounds of gear and
tell everyone else where to go to be safe. Men who are welders, who
do construction, men who are cops and firemen. They are all of them,
one way or another, the men who put the fire out, the men who are
digging the rubble out, and the men who will build whatever takes
And their style is back in
style. We are experiencing a new respect for their old-fashioned
masculinity, a new respect for physical courage, for strength and
for the willingness to use both for the good of others.
You didn't have to be a
fireman to be one of the manly men of Sept. 11. Those businessmen on
flight 93, which was supposed to hit Washington, the businessmen who
didn't live by their hands or their backs but who found out what was
happening to their country, said goodbye to the people they loved,
snapped the cell phone shut and said, "Let's roll." Those
were tough men, the ones who forced that plane down in Pennsylvania.
They were tough, brave guys.
Let me tell you when I first
realized what I'm saying. On Friday, Sept. 14, I went with friends
down to the staging area on the West Side Highway where all the
trucks filled with guys coming off a 12-hour shift at ground zero
would pass by. They were tough, rough men, the grunts of the
city-construction workers and electrical workers and cops and
emergency medical worker and firemen.
I joined a group that was just
standing there as the truck convoys went by. And all we did was
cheer. We all wanted to do some kind of volunteer work but there was
nothing left to do, so we stood and cheered those who were doing.
The trucks would go by and we'd cheer and wave and shout "God
bless you!" and "We love you!" We waved flags and
signs, clapped and threw kisses, and we meant it: We loved these
men. And as the workers would go by-they would wave to us from their
trucks and buses, and smile and nod-I realized that a lot of them
were men who hadn't been applauded since the day they danced to
their song with their bride at the wedding.
And suddenly I looked around
me at all of us who were cheering. And saw who we were. Investment
bankers! Orthodontists! Magazine editors! In my group, a lawyer, a
columnist and a writer. We had been the kings and queens of the
city, respected professional in a city that respects its
professional class. And this night we were nobody. We were so
useless, all we could do was applaud the somebodies, the workers
who, unlike us, had not been applauded much in their lives.
And now they were saving our
I turned to my friend and
said, "I have seen the grunts of New York become kings and
queens of the City." I was so moved and, oddly I guess,
grateful. Because they'd always been the people who ran the place,
who kept it going, they'd just never been given their due. But
now-"And the last shall be first"-we were making up for
It may seem that I am really
talking about class-the professional classes have a new appreciation
for the working class men of Lodi, N.J., or Astoria, Queens. But
what I'm attempting to talk about is actual manliness, which often
seems tied up with class issues, as they say, but isn't always by
any means the same thing.
Here's what I'm trying to say:
Once about 10 years ago there was a
story-you might have read it
in your local tabloid, or a supermarket
tabloid like the National
Enquirer-about an American man and woman who were on their honeymoon
in Australia or New Zealand. They were swimming in the ocean, the
water chest-high. From nowhere came a shark. The shark went straight
for the woman, opened its jaws. Do you know what the man did? He
punched the shark in the head. He punched it and punched it again.
He did not do brilliant commentary on the shark, he did not share
his sensitive feelings about the shark, he did not make wry
observations about the shark, he punched the shark in the head. So
the shark let go of his wife and went straight for him. And it
killed him. The wife survived to tell the story of what her husband
had done. He had tried to deck the shark. I told my friends: That's
what a wonderful man is, a man who will try to deck the shark.
I don't know what the guy did
for a living, but he had a very old-fashioned sense of what it is to
be a man, and I think that sense is coming back into style because
of who saved us on Sept. 11, and that is very good for our country.
Why? Well, manliness wins
wars. Strength and guts plus brains and spirit wins wars. But also,
you know what follows manliness? The gentleman. The return of
manliness will bring a return of gentlemanliness, for a simple
reason: masculine men are almost by definition gentlemen. Example:
If you're a woman and you go to a faculty meeting at an Ivy League
University you'll have to fight with a male intellectual for a
chair, but I assure you that if you go to a Knights of Columbus
Hall, the men inside (cops, firemen, insurance agents) will rise to
offer you a seat. Because they are manly men, and gentlemen.
It is hard to be a man. I am
certain of it; to be a man in this world is not easy. I know you are
thinking, But it's not easy to be a woman, and you are so right. But
women get to complain and make others feel bad about their plight.
Men have to suck it up. Good men suck it up and remain good-natured,
constructive and helpful; less-good men become the kind of men who
are spoofed on "The Man Show"-babe-watching, dope-smoking
nihilists. (Nihilism is not manly, it is the last refuge of
I should discuss how manliness
and its brother, gentlemanliness, went out of style. I know, because
I was there. In fact, I may have done it. I remember exactly when:
It was in the mid-'70s, and I was in my mid-20s, and a big, nice,
middle-aged man got up from his seat to help me haul a big piece of
luggage into the overhead luggage space on a plane. I was a
feminist, and knew our rules and rants. "I can do it
myself," I snapped.
It was important that he know
women are strong. It was even more important, it turns out, that I
know I was a jackass, but I didn't. I embarrassed a nice man who was
attempting to help a lady. I wasn't lady enough to let him.
I bet he never offered to help
a lady again. I bet he became an
intellectual, or a writer, and
not a good man like a fireman or a
businessman who says,
But perhaps it wasn't just me.
I was there in America, as a child, when John Wayne was a hero, and
a symbol of American manliness. He was strong, and silent. And I was
there in America when they killed John Wayne by a thousand cuts. A
lot of people killed him-not only feminists but peaceniks, leftists,
intellectuals, others. You could even say it was Woody Allen who did
it, through laughter and an endearing admission of his own
nervousness and fear. He made nervousness and fearfulness the
admired style. He made not being able to deck the shark, but doing
the funniest commentary on not decking the shark, seem . . . cool.
But when we killed John Wayne,
you know who we were left with. We were left with John Wayne's
friendly-antagonist sidekick in the old John Ford movies, Barry
Fitzgerald. The small, nervous, gossiping neighborhood commentator
Barry Fitzgerald, who wanted to talk about everything and do
This was not progress. It was
I missed John Wayne.
But now I think . . . he's
back. I think he returned on Sept. 11. I think he ran up the stairs,
threw the kid over his back like a sack of potatoes, came back down
and shoveled rubble. I think he's in Afghanistan now, saying, with
his slow swagger and simmering silence, "Yer in a whole lotta
trouble now, Osama-boy."
I think he's back in style.
And none too soon.
Welcome back, Duke.
And once again: Thank you, men
of Sept. 11.
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