Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

America after 9/11: Ethnic Diversity and Patriotism in John Updike's Terrorist

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

America after 9/11: Ethnic Diversity and Patriotism in John Updike's Terrorist

Article excerpt

Introduction

THE TOPIC OF AMERICAN SELF-PERCEPTION and identity has received renewed critical attention in the period following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The political discussion in their immediate aftermath was dominated by a view of the attacks as an unprovoked act of terrorism, as well as by calls for a new sense of allegiance to America and American politics on both the national and the international level. As Susan Faludi has argued, after the attacks Americans were not merely involved in military combat abroad, they were "enlisted in a symbolic war at home, a war to repair and restore a national myth."1 Faludi is primarily interested in the resurgence of traditional gendered stereotypes; nonetheless, she highlights larger investments in national mythmaking which sought to unify the American citizenry against a common enemy and to promote a patriotic version of national identity.

The form of patriotism which emerged after the attacks posited diversity and liberalism as specifically American properties, against the supposedly intolerant, backward-looking society associated with terrorists, and, by extension, with Islam and Arabs.2 This idealization of America was coupled with a resurgence of xenophobia and racism. The wave of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in the public space was followed by alarmist litanies on immigration and restrictive legislative amendments. Most notably, the Patriot Act, which enabled ethnic profiling, or the targeting by state intelligence of individuals (mostly men) of "Middle Eastern appearance" as suspects of terrorist acts, fostered the "ideological exclusion" of minority groups.3 At the same time, patriotic rhetoric on American unity has emphasized the need for allegiance to the nation-state so as to foster national concord.4

The issue of multiculturalism in post-9/11 America is dealt with in John Updike's Terrorist (2006), a novel centrally concerned with emerging conceptions of national and ethnic identity following the September 2001 attacks. The present essay addresses the complexities of American patriotism and ethno-national identity construction in the new millennium in relation to Updike's novel. Situating Terrorist in a polarized cultural climate, in which the American government views the nation as a bastion of liberalism against what it has defined as its uncivilized foes, the essay examines Updike's treatment of America's self-image in the aftermath of the attacks. I will argue that in Terrorist, Updike responds to the attempt to reinvigorate myths of America. In particular, he sets his sights on visions of American exceptionalism that enable a self-perception of American society as an ideal, and American politics as morally unassailable.

As Donald E. Pease has indicated, American exceptionalism is a form of nationhood which has supplied "a prerequisite horizon of intelligibility for the understanding of American events."5 While this conception of national identity developed from a complex set of assumptions with roots in early settler ideology, its present form relies on a conviction that tolerance of diversity and liberal individualism are cornerstones of American society. The belief in American exceptionality includes a number of other features, among them an understanding of America as a nation with a "Manifest Destiny," as the "Nation of Nations," and as an "Invincible Nation."6 It is the stress on American pluralism and tolerance understood in the framework of America as a model nation that is the focus of Updike's novel, however. As the following analysis will show, Terrorist lays bare the exclusionary and racist principles governing post-9/11 American society. By foregrounding these principles, which were obfuscated in patriotic visions of national unity and sacrifice, it offers a commentary on both multicultural America and patriotic self-perception. The novel critiques the ethical and political implications of this patriotism for ethnic minorities, with a special focus on Arab-Americans, and reveals the Orientalist undertones in discourses of terrorism and national security. …

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