Sneakily taking the hinges off the doors of perception

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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. elvwood
    March 6, 2013 @ 12:56 am

    We watched 9/11 unfolding at work, and my principle memory was of the distance we felt from it, the unreality of it all. As the second plane hit, one of my colleagues found himself thinking "those are really impressive particle effects". At that point, it was a purely televisual event, and it only gradually turned into tragedy tinged by a fear of what the Right would do with it.

    As for the rest of the article: hmm, I'll have to think about there being a rise in utopian optimism…


  2. Anglocat
    March 6, 2013 @ 1:14 am

    Great post, and yes,the West Wing was wish fulfillment and a Counter-Refirmation (love that articulation), but, er, four seasons? My DVD box sets number 7. Or do you mean four with Sorkin at the helm?


  3. AndyRobot800
    March 6, 2013 @ 3:16 am

    I'm gonna read this on the bus heading into work – looking forward to it (huge Sorkin fan).

    Read the first paragraph, though: I looove City of the Dead – one of my favorites of the range. I can see what you mean about derailing the whole thing, though – it always struck me as ironic that the very first "Official" Doctor Who story ever written by an American was published the same month as 9/11.


  4. Ross
    March 6, 2013 @ 4:31 am

    Another small point about the West Wing and 9/11: the episode of The West Wing that was made in direct response to 9/11 aired right smack in the middle of the season-break cliffhanger. And it carries a disclaimer at the beginning explaining that this episode isn't meant to fit into any particular place in the overall story arc and that you should consider it a "storytelling aberration" rather than part of the master narrative.

    I think that's an interesting and somewhat bold thing to do, interesting especially in light of the old "Whoniverse" issue. It's kind of neat that at this point in the evolution of TV storytelling, they could acknowledge that there is an ongoing narrative and a desire to view the story as fitting into a single coherent narrative universe, and at the same time, explicitly say "Yeah, but put all that aside for a minute."


  5. theonlyspiral
    March 6, 2013 @ 4:44 am

    It's hard for me to think about 9/11 in terms of historical context…I was 14 and we listened to radio updates from a walkman plugged into a "borrowed" set of high school library speakers. We had no idea what it meant, and all our teacher would do is tell us to get back to work.

    Warning: Stream of Consciousness Follows

    In a way, this lack of explanation, the lack of being given the tools to deal with this kind of event is the reason society swings so hard in the wake of tragedy. "Everything is different now," we are told "New harsher measures, new initiatives are needed to make you safe!" And yet if we taught people that the world keeps on spinning tomorrow, even after it seems the world has ended, we'd have a lot more sober thought and less knee jerk reactions.

    I can remember flying internationally without taking off my shoes or being searched. I remember thinking that it might be interesting to travel the Arab world because it just seemed so interesting. I remember actually thinking that 1984 was completely insane, that a rational democracy could never turn into a police state that spied on it's people. To my younger siblings, the world I grew up in is unfamiliar to them. It would be overly sentimental to say I mourn for the innocence of my generation…but never the less we came into our adolescence and adulthood in a world that was markedly less friendly than that of our childhood.

    I have just started the West Wing so no thoughts on that right now.


  6. Stuart Ian Burns
    March 6, 2013 @ 4:54 am

    You should read Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson. In there he asserts that the reason we understand dialogue in the likes of The West Wing is because of "flashing arrows", simplifications here and there which explain what a particular scene or section of dialogue is about without us really noticing what's happening, which is a trick that goes back as far as Shakespeare. The companion is a flashing arrow in human form.


  7. BerserkRL
    March 6, 2013 @ 6:23 am

    For some skeptical remarks on the idea that 9/11 "divides the world cleanly into a before and after," see this.

    For the grumpy folks who wanted to insist that the millennium was 2001

    You mean people who can count? 🙂

    it's actually not a big deal if the audience has no clue what people are talking about so long as it's clear what the characters themselves are doing

    I thought Treknobabble had already established that?


  8. The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
    March 6, 2013 @ 6:40 am

    I didn't know about 9/11 until they told us at the end of the school day, and nobody knew what the teacher was talking about. She held up a black and white print-out from the interner, presumably, and we and my fellow grade seven students were supposed to under stand the blurry little picture, and also to have a better knowledge of the New York skyline than the average small-town Ontario junior high student. Before 9/11, the only time I'd ever heard of the Twin Towers was an offhand reference in the Men In Black cartoon. Empire State Building, the Chrylser building? We knew about those places. We couldn't understand why anyone would attack some boring office blocks instead of those. Our discussions walking home were on the feasibility of an attack on the CN Tower, which we imagined would probably just snap in half. I have a much more vivid memory of the beginning of the Irag war and the assault on Baghdad, watching it on the news before my piano lesson started.


  9. Ross
    March 6, 2013 @ 7:13 am

    Given that the system by which we number years wasn't invented until the ninth century, and uses an epoch that's off by four years, it seems sort of petty to assert the mathematical correctness of a 2001 millennium


  10. Daibhid C
    March 6, 2013 @ 7:23 am

    I think it was Douglas Adams who said that insisting the millennium started in 2001 gave it more significance than it deserved. If it meant anything, it was the fact you could go "Wow!" as all the numbers changed, like when the milometer hits a multiple of a thousand on a long car journey, but on a much larger scale. And that happened in 2000.


  11. James V
    March 6, 2013 @ 7:25 am

    My direct experience of 9/11 is a little bit blurred, as I was 7 when the attack occurred but I have a couple of vivid memories of the day that are pretty relevant to the post at hand.

    I remember a friend of my parents picking me up from school and telling me that terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center, and I refused to believe it because, and I quote my second-grade self, "terrorists only exist in movies!" Pretty typical childish naivete, but amusing in light of discussing the events in a blog about television.

    The other thing I remember most is getting home to find my parents standing in the living room, rooted to the spot (standing) and glued to the news on the TV, and the thing I was most concerned about was that I was hungry and wanted a snack, and grew increasingly irritated as my parents refused to oblige. Again, this is typical little kid stuff, but I think one could take it as illustrative of Phil S's statement on the continuing utopianism, that life still goes on after the end of the world.

    Certainly, now, despite having grown up under the Bush administration, I consider myself a generally optimistic individual, and the attitude I've observed amongst most other people my age towards 9/11 is a tacit recognition that it was a terrible event, balanced by an overwhelming irritation with people older than us who refuse to come to terms with it and start making progress again. It sounds callous, but I think it just stems from experiencing those events from the distance of childhood.


  12. jane
    March 6, 2013 @ 8:11 am

    I was already a telecommuter, in my early thirties, and I caught a report of it on the internet first thing in the morning (telecommuting does not promote good habits.) I turned on the TV just in time for the second plane to hit. The towers fell, and all those people running, covered in ash, like ghosts emerging from smoke that plumed out like a pyroclastic flow.

    I don't think anyone got any work done that day, other than the bare minimum to keep going.

    Eventually there was the war, and the dawning realization of how we were all betrayed, and I retreated from the world. That's me, always in withdrawal, always trying to escape. I cancelled my cable service. I moved. Moved again. Got a new boyfriend, and we marveled at all the shows and movies that revolved around crashing airplanes. Paid off my debts, then hit the big fat reset button, got out of corporate life altogether.

    I have never been to New York.


  13. Alan
    March 6, 2013 @ 8:16 am

    One of my favorite moments from "The Authority" by Warren Ellis was Jenny Sparks (the "Spirit of the 20th Century") bitterly complaining as she died that she should have been entitled to an extra year but so many stupid people thought the century ended on December 31, 1999 that it actually changed how the magic (or whatever the explanation was) worked.


  14. Alan
    March 6, 2013 @ 8:24 am

    I have three personal memories of 9/11 that stick with me. One was watching the second tower fall with 20 co-workers in a conference room where I worked and having to suppress the urge to slap a co-worker who piously intoned "and there shall be wars and rumors of wars!" because it's not like that attitude wasn't the cause of at least 70% of the events that led to 9/11. The second came that night when I spent hours buying drinks for and talking international politics with two Brits stranded in Jackson, Mississippi in a faux-Irish pub that happened to be located a block from my house. The third came that late that night before bed, because it was the last time I ever prayed. Specifically, I prayed to God that George W. Bush would prove to be a better man than I thought he was. Three days later, we got the "you are either with us or against us speech," and I concluded that God, if he existed at all, was a fucker.

    Also, while it didn't happen exactly on 9/11, the incident itself marks the event that transformed the GOP from "people I disagreed with" to "people I hated."


  15. Marin Running Company
    March 6, 2013 @ 8:59 am

    I too used to believe that the Orwellian regeime could never happen, but I didn't realize how easily the little things can get chipped away over just a simple 20 or 30 years. And the people doing this play a long game. Oh yes they do. And they're playing it right now.

    I moved to to NYC in 1990, and my then new to New York also girlfriend and i learned to orient all over manhattan by using the twin towers. For a decade i truly learned to identify as a New Yorker. I moved back to California in 2000, my wife pregnant with our first child. I was pulled out of my new child induced sleep coma by a call from my mother-in-law "Get up and turn on the TV." The company I had worked for had 16 floors in World Trade 1. I had a lot of friends there. So many of my friends in the city wrote emails about the dust, the stunning amount of rubble, the people they saw jump that TV didn't show, the body parts that were on the roofs of lower Manhattan building in the week after. The didn't sensor anything, nor did they need to exaggerate.

    When Pearl Harbor happened,the nation had its fight or flight reflex up. Fortunately it had a big, bad villian to turn its wrath upon. In the shadowy world of terror, and with a group of Orwellian politicians in power, they turned the fight against ourselves, using every bit of anger we had to destroy all the things that we wanted to believe that made us unique in this society. It was ready made for hte fundamentalist platform that they had been edging closer and closer to for decades. History will perhaps show that 9/11 did not topple the American Empire, it was our response to it that pushed us over the edge.


  16. BerserkRL
    March 6, 2013 @ 9:51 am

    It doesn't matter what you date it from or whether that date's important. It's just that whatever dating system one uses should be consistent. If the 20th century is coming to an end, that means a period of 20 centuries is coming to an end, which means a period of 2000 years is coming to an end, which happens at the end, not the beginning, of the 2000th year.


  17. elvwood
    March 6, 2013 @ 10:19 am

    Personally I'm with BerserkRL, though I'll add that the existence of a year 0 would have allowed things to align 'in the modern style'. Having said that, the fact that the 20th Century lasted 99 years is interesting in that it picks up on a social shift during that time.

    I said at the time that the only rational response to the debate was to start partying on the evening of 31/12/1999 and carry on until the early hours of 1/1/2001…


  18. Ross
    March 6, 2013 @ 10:36 am

    My understanding is that the last time this came up, back in the year 999, some people celebrated 1000, some celebrated 1001, but most people only really knew the current date as "It's been about three years since they crowned the new king. Or is it four? Whatever," and just went about their usual business of scrabbling for bare existence.


  19. Josh Marsfelder
    March 6, 2013 @ 10:46 am

    Really outstanding article today, Phil. The best re-evaluation of 9/11 I've ever read.

    I remember the slide into permanent war and police states as a status quo more than I do the day itself. It came at a time in my life I'd rather move beyond regardless.

    9/11 didn't topple the American Empire, nor did the reaction to it. That was just the point it became clear to the average person how dessicated, corrupt and irreparable it was. The most prescient had been writing obituaries for the US way of life for decades, it's just their warnings hadn't seeped into the popular discourse.

    The problem with things like this is that empires don't go out in blazes of glory at convenient moments of apocalypse. That's disaster fetishism. They slowly decay and eat away at the dignity and quality of life of their subjects while those selfsame subjects don't realise how much they're being walked on until its too late. It's too late now, 2011 was too late, 2008 was too late and 9/11 was just the same.


  20. Ununnilium
    March 6, 2013 @ 11:35 am

    I would never call that callous.


  21. Ununnilium
    March 6, 2013 @ 11:38 am

    I thought we were supposed to be getting away from eschatology. Frankly, I find the above attitude – everything is completely corrupted and totally irreparable – to be particularly pointless. No, the "American Empire" may not survive, but who cares? The people who live in it are worth fighting for.


  22. Josh Marsfelder
    March 6, 2013 @ 11:43 am

    I didn't say they weren't. But the United States' attitude of Neo-Imperialism via neoliberalism and corportocracy is one that's fundamentally flawed and harmful. I don't bemoan the loss of the American Empire, I wish it would just hurry up and die already. It's not a just or sustainable way of life for anyone, certainly not those people forced to live under it.

    The best way to fight for the people who live under the oppressive American Empire is to keep demonstrating what that actually means and that other ways of life are possible.


  23. Pen Name Pending
    March 6, 2013 @ 11:54 am

    I just skimmed through the post for now, but I would like to add that Moffat has said that The West Wing is one of his favorite shows despite not exactly understanding it.


  24. Stephen
    March 6, 2013 @ 12:10 pm

    Yeah, there definitely are seven seasons. Hopefully Phil will either explain or correct the error.


  25. Stephen
    March 6, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    On the question of the impact of 9/11, its cultural impact in the UK (which is more important to the subject matter of this blog) was far less than in the US. Other than being an "everybody remembers it" moment, and a few days of everybody being unsettled, its only significant effect on the UK was the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – and their effect in destroying trust in New Labour. And also an increase in anti-Americanism stemming from the way Bush overreacted.


  26. Elizabeth Sandifer
    March 6, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

    There are only four seasons of The West Wing, and it ends on a still unresolved cliffhanger about Zoe Bartlet getting kidnapped. Any claims to the contrary are propaganda from the enemy.


  27. T. Hartwell
    March 6, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

    One of the most interesting things I ever saw related to 9/11 was a short film that was a compilation of clips the filmmaker had shot in New York pre-2001. The most interesting thing about it was that for many of the shots the towers aren't the focus or even immediately visible, but you get this feeling of its constant presence throughout the film.

    As a forum commenter put it- "When you live in New York, or you even are in New York, those buildings were just…there, and they were the biggest thing in the city so their placement is very specific in your mindset and taken for granted. When you're not paying attention to it, they still interact with your space. The idea that when you're not looking at those towers, you still exist in a vicinity where they act as a monument. The assumption that they are just THERE when you're not looking. And now they are not. And it's unique to New York in that fashion, I can't think of a perfectly iconic and taken for granted monument that exists in such an imposing and irremovable relevance to a singular and small place anywhere else in the world. It's almost like losing a hand. You've taken for granted that it's there, witnessing it everyday without observing it, and then it's gone and the cartography of your life is changed in a way that words can't define."


  28. T. Hartwell
    March 6, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    Here's the film, should anyone be interested:


  29. Ununnilium
    March 6, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

    I see whatcha mean. My apologies.


  30. Scott
    March 6, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

    Let's be entirely honest — the whole 2000 thing was, when all was said and done, basically an excuse to throw a large party. In that sense, while 2001 might be the more technically correct point, pointing this out was basically a very good way of helping you go from zero-to-insufferable-killjoy in the eyes of everyone around you.


  31. Josiah Rowe
    March 6, 2013 @ 4:52 pm

    The X-Files is almost a parody in the face of post-9/11 America.

    In one of those bizarre coincidences which foster paranoia in all of us, the pilot episode of the fairly abysmal X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunmen is about a plot to foster massive increases in military spending by flying an airplane into the World Trade Center and sending the US into a needless war. It was broadcast in March 2001. The spinoff was cancelled by June.

    In this case, I think that history repeated itself as farce first.


  32. BerserkRL
    March 6, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

    I'll add that the existence of a year 0 would have allowed things to align 'in the modern style'.

    Only if one is willing to abandon the relation between ordinal and cardinal numbers.

    pointing this out was basically a very good way of helping you go from zero-to-insufferable-killjoy in the eyes of everyone around you.

    Joy in the truth is a greater joy than joy in falsehood.


  33. Anglocat
    March 6, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

    And BTVS ended on Season 6? I like your universe, Phil.


  34. Scott
    March 6, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

    Joy in the truth is a greater joy than joy in falsehood.

    Which, seeing as most of the people I remember who kept pointing out that the real millennium was in 2001 weren't exactly tremendous amounts of fun to be around, is odd to say the least. For all the joy they must have been feeling in the truth, they didn't exactly seem to feel the need to spread that joy around with the same speed, zeal and enthusiasm that they would demonstrate in correcting anyone who dared to look forward to doing something special on December 31st 1999.

    (I hasten to add that I am sure you are a barrel of fun at parties, BerserkRL, but most of the people in my experience who felt the need to point out that 2001 was the actual millennium most definitely were not, shall we say.)


  35. BerserkRL
    March 6, 2013 @ 9:54 pm

    For all the joy they must have been feeling in the truth, they didn't exactly seem to feel the need to spread that joy around

    How else does one spread joy in the truth, if not by spreading the truth?


  36. Ununnilium
    March 6, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

    But the truth is that it's an arbitrary number anyway. <3

    (Also, I'm tickled that this is the longest comment thread. Of course it is.)


  37. SK
    March 7, 2013 @ 12:24 am

    While the war in Afghanistan was definitely a result of the World Trade Centre (and Pentagon) attacks, at least the British part in the invasion of Iraq had very little to do with those attacks: it was a natural progression of the New Labour 'ethical foreign policy' doctrine of liberal interventionism, as pursued in Kosovo (where the capacity to interfere without first getting a UN resolution was pioneered) and Sierra Leone, all before 2001, and outlined by Blair in his speech in Chicago in April 1999.

    I'm less well up on US politics, but I understand Clinton to have been quite an interventionist President too (Haiti in 1994, and of course Yugoslavia).

    The events of September 2001 did not suddenly invent the idea of intervening militarily in other states: it merely changed the choice of targets and increased the scope of what the public were prepared to put up with in the way of endangering British and American troops on foreign soil. But fundamentally, there's no 'break' where pre-2001 the U and UK were non-interventionist and afterwards they suddenly became interventionist; both had already been on a path of increasing interventionism for some years.


  38. Spacewarp
    March 7, 2013 @ 4:04 am

    I thought I'd seen the last of this discussion this century (and since I'm 51, for the rest of my life). I used to argue this one at the time, but then someone pointed out to me that the end of the Century and "The Millennium" were two different things anyway. Yes, centuries always start on 1 and end on 100, so the year 2000 was part of the 20th Century. But "The Millennium" is just an arbitrary word meaning "the next 1000 years". As Scott says, it was just an excuse to have a great big party on account of all the Zeros coming up, which is what everyone did. I'm not aware of anyone specifically celebrating the end of the Century.


  39. Spacewarp
    March 7, 2013 @ 4:21 am

    One of the differences I saw in the UK at the time was that because it was essentially happening to someone else (the US) rather than "us", there were a few arguments about whether "they" had it coming, and whether the general American attitude to the world was to blame.

    I didn't watch it on the day, but my friend in the AV department of the Uni set up a huge TV for staff to watch events, and had to eject a particularly obnoxious lecturer who was crowing about how Americans "deserved it" and "only had themselves to blame". Which is typical of politics lecturers really, seeing everything in terms of cause and event, while missing the fact that there were ordinary people dying horribly here.


  40. Spacewarp
    March 7, 2013 @ 4:25 am

    Wasn't this pointed out when Condaleezza Rice made that statement about how nobody could have foreseen such a disaster? Apart from a major plot point in a Television series that is.


  41. Stephen
    March 7, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    So because Season 5 sucked, you pretend that the awesomeness of the Santos campaign in Seasons 6 and 7 never happened? I feel sorry for you, Phil.


  42. Elizabeth Sandifer
    March 7, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

    See, whenever I tuned in for any episodes of the Santos campaign my reaction was "well, this certainly could be good if it had a competent writer."


  43. Josiah Rowe
    March 7, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

    You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.

    Seriously, I don't think anybody called Rice on that at the time. Or since, for that matter.


  44. Electric Dragon
    March 8, 2013 @ 3:17 am

    Think yourselves lucky we're not in the "Red-verse" of Fringe, in which we glimpse an advert for the West Wing season 12.


  45. Josiah Rowe
    March 8, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment.

    Seriously, I don't think anybody called Condi on that specifically at the time… or since, for that matter.


  46. Scott
    March 10, 2013 @ 5:55 pm

    How else does one spread joy in the truth, if not by spreading the truth?

    By spreading it around in a less obnoxious, smug and self-satisfied manner and in a way less calculated to make others feel stupid or to ruin their fun, perhaps? 🙂

    (Also, I'm tickled that this is the longest comment thread. Of course it is.)

    Thirteen years on, and the debate still rages…


  47. Scott
    March 15, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

    The thing for me about the Santos years of "The West Wing" is that the writers gave Santos all of Josiah Bartlet's smugly earnest self-righteousness, except that where they also (at least initially) gave Bartlet plenty of good-natured folksy charm to offset this and make him likeable and engaging, they just seemed to give Santos more smugly earnest self-righteousness.


  48. Steve H
    March 26, 2013 @ 5:20 am

    The superfast technobabble in TWW doesn't really compare to that in DW. In TWW you have a situation and a style which necessitates this rapidfire speech. In DW it covers up plot holes and has to be delivered at top speed for fear that the audience will hear it. When an explanation vital to making the plot work occurs in TWW, it's invariably slowed down and dramatised because it's been thought through properly.

    In TWW it doesn't matter if you can't make out the rapid speech, in DW it would be disastrous if you could.

    I imagine that an example of DW rapidfire might be delivering your lines about Olympic security at top speed in the hope that no-one picks up that they depend on the assumption that terrorists can only attack with a rifle from a helicopter. The siting of ant-aircraft missiles around the Olympic Park was certainly questionable but not for lazy throwaway reasons.

    As for the idea that signs telling people to watch out for suspicious behaviour make us all informants and complicit in a constant state of paranoia, you're taking a good basic point and undermining it by the very paranoid exaggeration you're warning against. Such signs have been commonplace in the UK for many years. Maybe 9/11 might not have occurred had the US not been convinced that it couldn't.

    Incidentally, the special TWW episode devoted to 9/11 (Isaac & Ishamel?) was unfortunately an example of Sorkin's writing tropes being taken too far. The necessity of having an ignorant and uninformed audience providing unlikely cues to make the smart guys appear smart is bad enough when it requires CJ to not understand the purpose of the census so that Sam can explain it to a presumably ignorant audience, but all those high school kids trotting out cliché…


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